When it comes to choosing colors, I have always stuck with the neutrals. In fact, as a college freshman, one of the strangers I called a roommate decorated her room entirely in PINK. I thought it was repulsive. She and her family assumed that we would never get along because of how different our tastes were. That year, and for many years after, I covered my walls in tapestries and everything I owned was a shade of either green, brown or black. Despite people’s predictions, my roommate and I became inseparable.
When I started hiking with my boyfriend Kyle a little less than a year ago, I couldn’t understand all the bright colors he was wearing. At the time, I was pretty concerned with “looking the part,” and to me that meant neutral colors–”I want to blend in with my surroundings,” I thought. Kyle wasn’t someone who I would expect to be running around the world in bright orange and green, but when I asked him about his color choices, he just said “you know, it’s my ‘be seen green.’”
People go missing in the mountains all the time. I never really took interest until a story came out in December of 2016. According to several news sources, a college-aged couple planned a day hike in the Adirondacks of New York. Their plan was to hike to the top of Algonquin, but by the end of the day, they hadn’t returned. The news articles don’t reveal what their expertise level was, but between the two of them they only had one pair of snowshoes (a big no-no considering snowshoes are required by law when there is more than 8 inches of snow). Luckily, after two days of being out in a blizzard, they were rescued by a helicopter less than 300 feet from the summit of Algonquin.
That story is scary! They were trapped in a blizzard without food, water, or shelter for two days! The only thing that really keeps you warm when you’re winter hiking is the fact that you keep moving. If you’re not actively hiking, you’re doing chores at camp and when you’re finished your chores, it’s not long before you crawl into your sleeping bag to get away from the cold. The lost couple tried unsuccessfully to get a fire going and they put her feet inside his day pack for insulation. I honestly can’t imagine spending an hour in that situation, much less two days.
Hundreds of people summit Algonquin every week. I’ve heard stories of people having to share the summit with 50 other people. It IS the second tallest peak in the Adirondacks, but I thought, “there can’t be anything THAT daunting about it.”
Kyle and I started our first attempt on Algonquin from the Adirondack LOJ (pronounced lodge) in December of 2016. Below tree line, the hiking was relatively calm which made us hopeful. We knew that a storm was rolling in but thought that our window of opportunity would be just before noon.
We had hiked about 3.5 miles and climbed almost 3000 ft. in elevation when we started encountering people coming down from the summit. They warned us that it was getting difficult to see at the top, but we wanted to see for ourselves. We hiked above the tree line and were greeted by a complete white out. When there aren’t any trees (aka trail markers) hikers follow the cairns, rock pyramids placed every 20-30 feet, all the way to the top. Less than 150 feet past tree line the cairns disappeared and so did our footsteps in the snow.
For us, there was no choice to be made. We tried our best to make it to the summit, but once we didn’t know where to go, we turned around. I imagined how terrifying it would be get to the top, turn around to descend, and have no earthly idea which way you came from. You could very easily try to descend in the wrong direct and fall hundreds of feet.
Months later, Kyle and I returned to the Adirondacks for the end of snow season. First things first, revenge on Algonquin.
As we traveled to the trail-head, the thermometer in Kyle’s car read -14 degrees. I said, “uhhhh…it’s pretty cold.” I was really hoping Kyle would say, “hmm, yea, maybe we shouldn’t go,” but there were dozens of other people in the parking lot readying themselves for a hike. There was nothing to say because I knew we were going, and we went.
This time, when we crossed the tree line we were greeted with clear blue skies, but the wind was whipping around in every direction. Three men in serious mountaineering gear were headed down from the summit and they warned us to cover our skin–one of them had gotten a touch of frostbite on his face. I covered up my bruised ego with a face mask and an extra jacket–I hated that my inexperience had been hanging out all over the place.
Four months after our first attempt, we made it to the top of Algonquin. As Kyle paused to take a video, I leaned into the wind and enjoyed a care-free moment with the view. Living in PA, we often hike up mini-mountains so that we can take in the…farmlands. For the first time in over a year, I was spending quality time with the rolling mountains. I was home.
Kyle finished taking his video and approached me looking a little frantic–I wasn’t sure what the problem was. Suddenly we had decided that instead of continuing our hike and camping out for the night, we were heading back down to the car. I thought, “huh? okay, well…whatever.” I took 15 slow steps with my crampons chipping away pieces of ice below my feet and it hit me all at once. Time was moving at a slower pace and I realized that I couldn’t grip my hiking poles. The feeling in my hands was retreating up into my palms. All the sudden I realized how cold it actually was. We needed to get down immediately. I whimpered to myself and then called out to Kyle. He couldn’t hear me. I remember stopping and staring at him up ahead of me as he got further away. I didn’t call out to him again. There was nothing he could do to help me.
We found out later that the temperature on top of Algonquin was -45 degrees with windchill. Kyle and I both had a long moment of panic as we lost all feeling in our various body parts. It took 30 minutes of racing down the mountain, but eventually all of our fingers and toes rejoined us on our hike.
Looking back, I know that the situation was not as serious as I made it out to be in the moment. Fear is brought on by inexperience. I have only ever lived through the worst possible situation that I have lived through. When something happens that is worse, I panic. I think, “maybe THIS is the time when the feeling in my hands will not return.”
I’m not sure exactly when it happened but at some point I completely bought into the “be seen green” philosophy. A couple of things contribute to us wearing all the brightest colors:
- When we shop for hiking gear, we shop online and we shop for deals. It turns out that other people also like to “look the part,” because the “normal” colors (black, dark green, grey) are never on sale. Sale clothing is only available to people who can be flexible about the color of their purchase.
- Wearing all sorts of different and crazy bright colors on the trail makes us and everyone else really happy. We are a fully loaded explosion of color. People comment on our clothes all the time (whether they think we can hear them or not). The general consensus is that we look ridiculous but that they love it.
- We often hike in areas where hunting is permitted. The actual LAST way that I would want to die is because I’ve been mistaken for a deer. Therefore, “be seen green.”
- There is always a chance that we will get lost. Wearing bright colors increases your chance of being found and I always want to be found.
There are obviously things you can do in order to keep yourself from getting lost in the mountains. There are survival strategies to know and practice in order to stay safe in all situations–it’s important to know all the things. That being said, you only get experience by going out there, and despite my initial judgments of the couple on Algonquin, it could happen to anyone. There are three important things that I know: 1. I am not going to stop hiking and I am not going to be a fair weather hiker. 2. I can’t control what the conditions will be like on the top of the mountain. And 3. I CAN control the colors I wear. If I ever get lost, hopefully “be seen green” (or blue or red or orange or pink or purple) will save my life.