Monday, May 21, 2007

Tread Lightly and Carry a Big Bag of Batteries

A thought-provoking article in The Utne Reader - June 2007 (by Chris Dodge) “Tread Lightly and Carry a Big Bag of Batteries: Rethinking Technology in the Wilderness” discusses the delicate interplay between technology, safety, and the wilderness experience.

I’m quoted as saying:

“ It seems to me that many of the electronic gadgets may prove helpful occasionally, but provide only the illusion of continual security.
Electronics are not a substitute for common sense, wilderness savvy, basic knowledge about the human body, and using your brain in an unexpected situation.
Electronic devices cannot think or solve problems, and they are subject to many kinds of failure. Anything with batteries might run out. Any electronic device that is not 100 % waterproof could fail if it is soaked in a stream crossing, a flash flood, or a sudden downpour. They can be lost or dropped. Most communication devices have spotty coverage, at best, and can fail for a wide variety of reasons.”

The article also mentions that I do carry a Personal Locator Beacon these days.

The Utne Reader is a compilation of alternative perspectives concerning issues of current importance, and in my estimation, it is an excellent publication, representing some of the best of the alternative media. They are at:

Chris Dodge, the author of the article, can be found at:

Monday, May 7, 2007

Half Dome Dreamin’

It’s mid-may of 2007, and the weather is turning prime for hiking in the Sierra. With a minimal snow pack, it’s a good year to go in early.

Dreaming of the mountains, I’m reminded of my time in physical therapy. Released from the hospital after my accident in 2003, still too weak to lift either leg, let alone stand up, I was wheeled into the PT office in a wheelchair.

“What are your goals for physical therapy?” asked the staff. They asked all their patients the same question. The office was littered with people working their way through various sorts of injuries. Few were as battered as I. Most simply wanted to be able to function with a minimal amount of pain, to go to the grocery store, do their jobs, play with their kids.

“What are your goals for physical therapy?”

“I want to climb Half Dome again.” I told my therapists.

Gradually, I worked my way to a stand, then to a few faltering steps, clutching a walker. Stubbornly refusing to give up my Half Dome dream, I kept at it. My therapists invented a special pilates exercise for me called “Climbing Half Dome.” Ten months of PT later, 3 to 4 hours each day, I could finally toddle about with my pack. Now, three years since the fall, my legs are strong enough to do quite a bit of backpacking. But I still haven’t climbed Half Dome again. Maybe it’s time to give it a try.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Share your own survival story

My story, in brief:

In August of 2003, I was 140 miles into a 170 mile backpack trip through California's magnificent Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park, when the ground gave way beneath me, and I plummeted 60 feet onto solid rock. Amazingly, I survived the fall, but I had broken both legs and my hip in several places, including an open fracture of my right knee. I was utterly alone in a remote ravine, 25 miles from a trailhead, unable to walk, crawl or even stand up. Determined not to give up, I dragged myself along with my hands for four days and nights, until I was miraculously found, rescued and helicoptered to safety, just hours from death.

I know that many of you have also faced injury, or some other challenging wilderness situation. You are invited to write in here, and share your own story!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Amy Film Star: the Discovery Channel


The Discovery Channel: Amy Film Star

Last week, hiking alone in the wilderness, I saw my first mountain lion.

This week, I was headed to wildest Los Angeles to meet up with a film crew from the U.K. The prospect was no less thrilling to me. Dangerous Films would be interviewing me for a new Discovery Channel Documentary series “The Extreme Body.” My segment would be about the body’s ability to withstand pain. It would feature an actual re-enactment of my adventure (using a stunt double) visual aids such as an electronically enhanced image of a skeleton falling through the air, opinions by various scientists, and an interview with me.

Off I went, travel plans clutched in sweaty palm. My itinerary had been arranged by Dangerous Films, and I was well cared for. I was supplied with flight information, travel details, expenses for food, a luxury car from the airport, shuttle service from my hotel, tips about surrounding restaurants and sight-seeing opportunities, and a luxurious room with a balcony. I felt quite pampered.

“Hotel Angeleno, Uniquely Los Angeles,” the website had claimed. The hotel did indeed offer up a quintessential L.A. experience. There was the customary pool, fitness room, and a lovely penthouse restaurant. My 14th floor room boasted stunning views. Sprawled expansively below my balcony was the 405 freeway, all ten glorious, energetic lanes of it.

The film crew from the U.K. was anything but quintessential. Belying the stereotype of uptight Brits, they were just about as warm and friendly and relaxed as they could possibly be. I knew that they must be good at their jobs --- Dangerous Films contracted often with impressive clients such as the Discovery Channel. I knew also that there must be considerable stress involved. Their shooting schedule, from what I had heard, involved dozens of people and multiple carefully scouted locations for each of six complex episodes.

Despite a demanding work load, my director, cameraman, and producer made time to take me out to a delightful dinner that first night. All well-traveled, interesting, intelligent people with expansive world views, unique viewpoints and considerable personal charm, my only regret was that these folks lived far away in the U.K.

The next morning found my director, cameraman, and me scrambling up into the hills. It was tricky to get away from the omnipresent freeways, but we had located a regional park that would supply us with the shots of me hiking that were needed for my episode. We were accompanied by several panting assistants whose jobs included hauling a $30,000 camera and several heavy unwieldy pieces of camera equipment up the steep narrow trail to the required location.

I had not really expected a prolonged hike, and at some point during our morning shoot, I realized that here I was, in the wilderness, with no whistle, no water bottle, no first aid kit, and no survival equipment of any sort. “Could you walk a little closer to the edge?” asked my director. The sun was rising rapidly, and we needed to get the right angle. I reassured myself with the thought that if anything went wrong, we could at least document the entire event on film.

Back from our hike, I tidied myself up for the interview portion. I’d done enough TV by now to understand the need for appropriate hair, and I’d had a trim just a few days before. “For Tee Vee Floofy Ees goood.” I had been instructed by my hair stylist, a charming Vietnamese woman who has a way with hair. She repeated her instructions until she was certain that I understood. For TV, fluffy is good. Dutifully, I fluffed my hair into what I hoped was a TV-friendly shape.

My driver picked me up in front of my hotel to take me to the film studio for my interview. “I’m really an actor” he confided. Of course he was. He hired himself out as a driver for film crews in between acting engagements. It would be able to see him in an upcoming Hallmark movie.

I was escorted to the filming room, a smallish dark room strung all around with an impressive array of lighting and sound equipment, and littered with the remains of the crew’s breakfast. It looked like a combination between a movie set and a bachelor crash-pad.

"How’s my hair?" I inquired. I looked around at the crew, all intent on their various jobs. Not a one of them had hair longer than an inch, and they seemed entirely unconcerned about mine.

I was efficiently wired for sound, positioned carefully, and lit appropriately for the interview. There was a slight pause. “Could you smooth your hair down? Some hairs are sticking up and catching the light." Suggested our camerman. I guessed I’d gone too fluffy. An assistant patted down the errant hairs with the help of a cup of water, rescued from the remains of the breakfast buffet.

I lost myself in the interview, forgetting all about the need for fluffy hair, enjoying chatting with my director, who had by then become my friend. After all, we’d been hiking together, just that very morning.

Then it was over, as swiftly as it had begun. There were hugs all around, and my driver whisked me back to my hotel, then off to the airport. I was sorry to leave my new British friends. I was sorry to say goodbye to my driver who was really an actor. I even missed my view of the 405. I was a pampered international film star no more, just Amy once again.

© Amy Racina 2007

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Mountain Lion Sighting

Mountain Lion Sighting!

In April of 2007, I was taking a Spring backpack through California's Henry Coe State Park. I had hiked from the Park Headquarters through Poverty Flat to Los Cruzeros. I went next to Kelly Lake via Lost Spring, then headed back via Coit Road, Mahoney Meadows Road, down the China Hole Trail, along the Mile Trail, and up the Madrone Soda Springs trail. My last night out, I planned to camp at Madrone Soda Springs.

After a challenging 10 mile day, my knee was hurting, and I was glad to stop. I selected my campsite, an open flat area surrounded by trees and heavy underbrush. I lounged in my campsite, wearing camp booties on my grateful feet, snacking, and reading my paperback. Twice I heard the sound of voices passing by on the trail below. Somewhat later, I heard a thrashing in the bushes, and the sound of large sticks breaking, as though someone was setting up camp nearby. Enjoying my solitude, I ignored the noises for a while. Finally I decided I should introduce myself to my neighbors.

I stood up, and as I peered through the branches, there he was, just 30 feet away. As I took in his classic profile, muscular haunches, firm jowls, long tail and tawny coat, it dawned on me that my guest was a genuine mountain lion, the sort of creature that one sees in the pages of National Geographic, but rarely in real life. He stood a little under three feet high at the shoulder, and weighed maybe 125 pounds. I had always wanted to see one of these noble animals in its wild habitat, but I was astonished and awed to see one so close. He turned his head in my direction, looking as suprised to see me as I was to see him.

I froze in my tracks, and remembered instructions for mountain lion encounters. Don’t take a cougar by surprise (too late for that.) Don’t run (you’ll look like prey.) Stand up (I was.) And look big. I raised my arms over my head. “I’m big!” I told my new friend, just in case he didn’t get the idea.

He looked at me somewhat distainfully. turned slowly away, and sauntered off in a diagonal direction, in no hurry to leave, and apparently unimpressed by any threat I might present. I fancied that we both knew who would win if it came down to paw to paw combat. I listened to him crackling off through the brush up the hillside from my camp.

I reviewed the situation. My mountain lion had made no threatening approach, and did not appear to be stalking me, or even particularly interested. Mountain lions usually eat deer, and there were plenty of plump fawns frolicking about the hills of Henry Coe.

On the other hand, It was only about an hour before dusk, an active time for cougars. They rarely attack humans, but it does occasionally happen. Had I startled him by my unexpected appearance? Did he feel threatened by my presence? He didn’t seem to have much fear of people. Was this normal? Where was he now? It would be easy for a stalking lion to hide out in the dense bushes anywhere around my camp.

In any case, I knew I wouldn’t sleep well for wondering, and I’d be pretty small and helpless when I tucked myself into my sleeping bag for the night. I packed up my gear (still trying to look big and threatening.) Fueled by adrenaline from my encounter, and enchanted by my first viewing of a real mountain lion, I powered up the hill, moving slowly and glancing often over my shoulder. The excitement carried me the last 5 miles to the trailhead campground.

When I chatted with the ranger the next day, he was delighted by my report. Mountain lions are shy, and rarely seen, he told me. But they do play an essential role in the ecological balance of this protected place. Cougars have occasionally been spotted in the area where I had planned to camp, and it was not uncommon for lions in the park to have grown accustomed to human presence. He told me that there has never been a cougar attack on a human at Henry Coe State Park. I felt honored to have finally seen my very own mountain lion.

© Amy Racina 2007