April 07, 2013

solo hiking: the dark side of mountaineering

disclaimer: the aim of this article is not to persuade one to go solo hiking. the author is writing about her very own experiences in handling intentional and unintentional "buddy separation" which is a known fact in mountaineering. the author is not liable for any emergencies, deaths, loss of equipment, or any unfavorable incident if this article inspired anyone to go on solo hiking. moreover, the author is only responsible for conceptualizing, writing in such a way that most would easily comprehend, and hitting the publish button only; and not for how one understands her message in this post. although the author can understand other people's opinions, she will only accept few.

me taken by my guide in my solo-hike at mt guiting guiting, 2011

since victor was missing, outdoor enthusiasts have been hurling comments here and there in cyberspace saying solo-hiking is to blame -- that if he only had companions during his ascent to a "minor" climb, he would have made it to the plain safe. everyone had important points and are true, yet some are untrue. i need to post this first before continuing my boracay escapade because i am one of the people who are in the dark side of mountaineering - solo hiking. and as part of the "dark side" i put myself responsible for educating people why i do my deed.

why i joined the "dark side"

as you may have noticed in my previous articles, i am a licensed rescue diver by tdi/sdi; thus my underwater photos. in the diving world, solo diving was a taboo due to safety reasons. our certifying organization has been scorned a lot by other certifying agencies saying they are putting their students closer to their graves. like mountaineering, majority of the scuba diving community adhere to the buddy system. whenever you go out for a dive, it is a must to have a buddy to look after you underwater in whatever situation may arise. but then again, although buddy system is being taught as part of the license, there are still instances when you are left alone in the blue; thus the need for independence and self-reliance, which tdi/sdi is marketing in their solo diver license. as time progressed, the diving community began to accept its importance. it is only last 2011 that padi opened itself to solo diving and had nigel wade certified as their first solo diver.

from 2007 to 2008, i have been my diving instructor's assistant. as part of my dive master course (also in  sdi), he let me off to in some parts of anilao deep to bury some slates for his advance students to find for underwater navigation. i did all of these alone with only a dive computer, an underwater compass, and an air gauge to aide me in my controlled dive with 100 ft as my deepest. in one of his assignments, i had an "aha!" moment: if i can do this underwater with limited air, it is more possible to accomplish tasks solo above sea level.

at that time was also the big shift in my career. from day shift, i went to night shift with a non-weekend split day off depending on my assignment which made me lose a lot of hiking buddies because we can't compromise on a perfect schedule. i did not have a choice but to travel alone on my only available time. to resolve my wanderlust, i incorporated the things i learned from scuba diving to mountaineering.

what is solo-hiking?

guiding two of my officemates in their first time at maculot, 2011

first of all, what is solo-hiking? 

is solo hiking wandering off alone in the wilderness with no one else but yourself? is solo hiking traveling alone with an assistance of a mountain guide? is solo hiking being left behind by a pack of fast-pacers? is solo hiking lagging many meters away to take a photo of the entire team posing at the mountain peak? is solo hiking deciding to be left behind to take care of yourself and a few yet the team lead and some of your team mates are still determined to reach the summit despite the bad weather? is solo hiking leading a group of inexperienced hikers such as a friend who climbs for the very first time? is solo hiking joining an open climb and being paired-up with a buddy who you haven't climbed before (and you trust a stranger to assist you in grave emergency situations)?

all of the above questions are real-life scenarios which most i have already experienced. whether intentional or unintentional, we know for a fact that there are times when we need to rely on ourselves. in situations when we are left alone, the big question is, "will i survive?" with these in mind, i define a solo hiker as independent and self-reliant. s/he is able to take care of him/erself in certain situations when s/he is left alone without the assistance of another but would still be able to assist others. if you want to become a solo hiker, you must accept the fact that you can, will, and shall be alone.

unintentional solo-flights

googled photocase of mountain rescue

as a solo hiker, one of the things you need to prepare for are inevitable circumstances, which eventually leads you to unintentional solo-flights. herein below are some of them:
  • lagging behind our "part-time*" team mates, who are fast-paced for reasons only they themselves know, who don't care about the entire team;
  • lagging behind our "part-time*" guides;
  • taking care of injured team mates because they can't push further;
  • looking for/rescuing/recovering missing team mates;
  • looking for emergency camps, and;
  • searching for water sources following setting up an e-camp.
quite familiar? yes, buddy/team separation is real. if you haven't experienced any of these yet, i commend your team mates; however, that does not remove the reality that you will experience it in the future. in general, your buddy should be within sight and voice range. beyond that, you are alone. regardless of whichever your situation is as stated above, unintentional solo hiking is dangerous. two hikers who are not prepared to be alone and suddenly were left alone have 50-50 chances of survival. if you are alone and you are not ready, pray for a miracle.

intentional solo-flights

"If all people stopped traveling via an airplane because of a plane crash, or stopped sailing since titanic sank, or stopped taking the bus because of one random vehicular accident-- I guess we'll all be giving ourselves a hard time traveling via foot. We all should lock ourselves in safety..." - Elle Viajera in response to a post in her 'almost solo hike' album.

my training at mt manabu for a major climb, 2012

there are also some people like myself who often do controlled solo hiking as i travel alone most of the time because of my schedule. here are some examples of intentional solo hiking:
  • you are traveling alone;
  • you are part of an exploration team;
  • you are a photographer;
  • you are guiding/leading a group;
  • you agree to pair up with someone you haven't climbed before;
  • you are a teacher or a student of survival training (a common military practice);
  • you are an ascetic hermit, and;
  • you are a daredevil and your travel is a suicide mission.
all are still dangerous yet the last one is uncontrolled, reckless, and irresponsible. even a hermit is aware of the dangers of the wilderness be it real or imaginary. if you intend to go as an independent and self-reliant hiker, you, again, must accept the fact that it is dangerous. the only way you can survive is by "controlling" your trip by coming up with an elaborate and fail-safe risk management plan, being ready, and having the right equipment. these are my 3 non-negotiables.

my 3 non-negotiables in solo hiking

when i travel alone, these are the things i put into consideration. if i lack even one of the three, i don't travel alone. i indicated "my" because, as mentioned before, i have incorporated some learnings from my diving certification which i have synthesized with the things i learned from the experienced responsible ones i climbed with.

risk management: your strategy and tactics

sorry for the corporate world shizz but this also applies to any travel plans. the above is how i usually plan my solo travels be it mountaineering, diving, or urban bumming. i got the photo from google.
prior to your travel, you should write down your travel plan in advance. if you can't because of your very busy schedule, have a trusted friend or a travel agent do the planning for you (read my solo flight series 3.1: sleep commuting to station 1 boracay blog post on how my friend, lynette, saved my ass). however, in mountaineering here in the philippines, the planning should be 85% on you with 25% on denr/pamb or whoever the governing body is in your prospective location. in planning your trips, always remember to err on the side of safety so that if something unlikely happens, you or someone else can help you troubleshoot.
  • measure and control - this includes researching your itineraries and revising it by giving yourself time allowances, researching about your prospective destination, asking people who have climbed on the same mountain, getting your leaves approved, securing your permits (if it is possible to obtain one as some locations are private properties), planning and identifying your ground support such as coordinating with the police or head of the guides association, making sure your life insurance payments are up to date (if you have any), securing your transportation especially homeward-bound routes, knowing the weather conditions to know if it is safe for travel (highly important), knowing political and cultural issues which would prevent you from traveling such as tribal wars, listing your provisions such as food and hydration, and planning out your physical training prior to the climb.
  • identify, assess and analyze - this is basically all your "if" questions or the possible problems in your trip. "what if i get stranded," "what if i get lost," "what if i was delayed by a few hours in my itinerary," "how will my parents know where i am," and so on. in your planning these are the things which you need to be prepared for. 
  • plan action - in relation to the first bullet, your should also answer your "if's" by setting up contingency plans. it is not shameful to ask for help from the police and other governing local government units, other mountaineers passing by, locals, and your family and friends. after all, they are your ground support. your ground support should be well aware of where you are going, what you are doing, when are you supposed to go home, and the risks you are about to take by traveling alone or with a companion. without an established ground support, consider your safety taken out by 40%. when hiking alone, it is a must to have ground support which consists of the police, denr, a mountaineer friend, a non-mountaineer friend, your significant other (if you have one), and a relative, who have copies of your itinerary and should contact you to ask where you are and respond if you need help. moreover, your friends and your relatives are the ones you put in your "in case of emergency". in most cases, i always indicate my line manager at work as one of my ice because she would be the one to contact our human resources team if sss and philhealth support is needed. in some companies, if the leave is approved, there will be medical support if something bad happens to you. ask your local hr for more information.
  • assess & analyze - know what's going on at your prospective travel location. if there is a tribal war, don't go. if there is a raging storm, don't go. if all ferries are overloaded, don't go. simple. quitting your travel plans isn't shameful. 
  • monitor & implement - this is when you get to travel and follow your itinerary. know when to stick to plan a, switch to plan b, or c, or if you weren't able to project something that happened, improvise to come up with a solution.
preparation: am i ready?

a googled image

experience is the greatest preparation. a major pre-requisite in solo-hiking, diving, or traveling is experience. and when i say experience, it means you've learned a lot from the many people you have joined, you've read a lot of articles about your prospective travel locations, and you've joined a lot of trips. and most importantly, when you're alone, you know and you are aware of what you're doing! most of the solo hikes i had were ones i have done previously with a team. i will and shall never travel solo a place i haven't visited before. but then again, sometimes with great experience, we are still not ready to be alone. in my preparation, i ensure that i am ready physically, psychologically, and intuitively.
  • am i physically ready?
    • when hiking solo, you should be physically ready. if your body can't withstand your load or an 8-hour hike, you are not yet prepared. remember, a solo hiker is self-reliant and this means, you also have to be self-contained. you don't rely too much on your porter, guide, or buddy (unless your buddy is a significant other but then again, they may also be "part-time* buddies") to carry your load because they may dash ahead leaving you with no provisions. to prepare yourself, you can go to the gym or jog. another physical preparation, which is optional but highly recommended, is learning at least self-defense either empty hand or with a weapon. some mountaineers i know are into kali, kendo, or karate, and know what thing to pick in the environment (in the absence of a bolo) if they are in danger.  admittedly, half of my confidence in solo hiking is that i know self-defense. but then again, i try my best to avoid situations wherein i will have to hurt people and animals just to be safe.
  • am i psychologically ready?
    • solo hiking is highly favorable for people who are in retreat seeking for peace and solitude. but! solo hiking is not for the depressed and broken-hearted. period. if you are emotionally and psychologically disturbed, you might do things to hurt other people and yourself.
  • am i intuitively ready?
    • there is no such term is "intuitively ready" but what i can tell you about it is that i listen to the gut-master a.k.a. my gut feeling. if your plan is ready, your body is ready, and you are psychologically ready, but the gut-master shouts a big "no!", you are not ready. there have been a lot of instances when i failed to listen to the gut-master and my trip turned out the worst kind of way like getting lost a lot of times especially at mt makilig.  
equipment: tools for survival

photo from my article, what's in my bag: casual day hike. these are incomplete since it's been a while since i posted it. i now bring a small tarp in my day hikes.

as for equipment and provisions, here are the things i bring waterproofed:
  • food and hydration - when you plan your food, the formula is "x number of days plus 1 day plus emergency food." a day consists of breakfast, lunch, dinner, and trail food. your emergency food should be quick cook or no cook meals and should cover all meals for an entire day. a good example of emergency food are mre, which are being used by the military., 
  • tent or hammock and/or tarp - a good tent for solo-hiking is a 1-2 person tent.  if you're going on a dayhike, bring a hammock and/or tarp.
  • a small portable stove and a butane - enough said 
  • swiss knife or bolo - not to cut your limb but to look for alternative sources of hydration and food in case your ran out of supply, herbs for first aid, and to set up an e-camp. they are also good tools for self-defense.
  • first aid kit - to cure yourself from injuries. best if you could learn the types of plants to look for in the wilderness as not all the things in your basic first aid kit can cure you. your first aid kit should contain anti-histamine, paracetamol, ibuprofen/mefenamic, iodine, oral rehydration salts, gauze pads, sanitary napkins, a pair of scissors, sodium bicarbonate, emergency money (preferably the same amount of your homeward-bound transportation and food budget), mosquito repellant. in my first aid kit, i also have 5 2-chun acupuncture needles, which are the generic needles used for basic acupuncture. of course don't bring any if you don't know how to use them.
  • tools for communication - mobile phone, 2-way radio (if your team uses one), flashlight, headlamp, signal flare (if you have one), mirror, and flints.
  • sarong - as willie laureano puts it, "the swiss knife of southeast asia" as you can use it for first aid, clothing, sleeping bag, and weapon.
  • large plastic bags - to waterproof yourself and as an alternative to waterproof jackets
  • 1 set of clothes - an undie, a shirt, and pants
  • hiking sandals - as back up to your trekking shoes
  • a small compass - to help you back track
  • a wine flask with wine - to warm the body if you are hiking in high altitude and to ward off snakes (according to chinese medicine) when you set-up your e-camp.
the additional day of food and hydration, emergency food, tent, swiss knife/bolo, first aid kit, communication tools, are the things which are always in my bag and not in the bag of my porter and/or buddy. please be advised that these are my stuff. every hiker has his/er self-reliant equipment and i may change my list as i learn new things from other people i travel with. 

should you go solo?

my first successful major solo hike at mt guiting guiting. denr did not allow me to wander off on my own despite my 2-month negotiation with andy and malvin but i am happy that they sent a guide who is also a trusted friend, sir remy robiso.

to answer the question frankly, if you can find reliable buddies who can travel with you whenever and wherever you want, go for the buddy system as there are less risks than solo hiking. however, you should always be prepared for the worst and be able to survive and, if possible, help others survive as well. to reiterate, i choose to travel solo because of my work as a night-shifter and my schedule is hard to compromise with those who work on day. also, my significant other is in qatar and is not able to accompany me. moreover, solo hiking was never my ego. i don't solo hike for more likes on facebook or to be the most "hardcore" person ever. to tell you the truth, solo hiking is something spiritual for me that if next world war comes, i know specific places where to hide and and live the rest of my life in solitude. victor's case is an unfortunate event, which everyone should learn from and i admittedly declare that i am a hard-headed introverted loner in search for solitude; yet, i will never be sorry for it.

travel is my passion. i love it but i control it. 

*part-time buddies - are unreliable and insensitive bastards people who don't care about their buddies and would leave them alone.


  1. Totally agree here. Risk assessment is paramount in going "solo". The burden rests on the individual and the individuals mature approach on the situation. To levy the blame on solo hiking without fully understanding the dynamics of both the hiker and the deed shows a disconnect in integrating the multiple variants in mountaineering.

    1. thanks for the comment! solo hiking is even practiced in military for survival. prior to their climbs, they had months of rigorous training, planning, and extensive research of the area. risk assessment also applies to mountaineers who travel in groups. sadly, with the hype of mountaineering, only a few groups know the meaning of "organize" and would have their trips end up in mess because, after all, everyone should relax and have fun. tsk.

  2. oh its so nice idol, but i tried only to test my self with only nothing but survive within 5 days, then WHO DARES WIN, trying to test some climbers who can attest their adaptibility in the WILD, i accept it the PRICE is RIGHT.

    1. sometimes you really need to do intentional solo climbs to train yourself for the unexpected. you wouldn't know when you'll be trapped in a forest for a week or so.

  3. Those who argue against solo climbing do not understand that accidents happen every time be it with a group or going solo.

    IOW, shit happens.

    And it's precisely because shit happens that mountaineers should prepare for anything and everything.

    I've done a few solo climbs, nothing major really as doing major solo climbs is a drain on my little budget. Which is the reason why I don't do more solo climbs - because I don't have that much money to share in a trek's cost.

    But, in those few solo climbs I've done, it was always nice. My pace, no stupid companion to bother you or look after, just you and nature together. Sometimes, group climbs piss me off, especially when the group is a bunch of strangers whose idea of fun can be risk to the entire group.

    Now I want to go up a mountain solo again. If only I could find funds to do so.... hehehe

    1. agree. shit happens even when you're at home. people die at home. also, if it's your time, it's your time. we've always wanted death as serene and peaceful when the possibility of how one could die is endless. *dances to the song "dumb ways to die" in the background*

      and yes, i am all for the "my pace, my time, and no stupid companion" even in normal vacays. and i also agree that there are times that even buddies are people's cause of death. perfect example is the situation at g2 wherein 2 mountaineers tied themselves to each other while crossing the ridge "hoping" when someone falls, he would easily be pulled up to safety.

  4. As a climber and a certified SCUBA diver myself, I understand the author's perspective. I have not really gone solo hiking. The only solo I did was rappelling down a waterfall. But I have nothing against going solo, whether it is diving or hiking/camping. It's an individual choice. But before trying to do it, one must be experienced and well-trained enough to have the reasonable confidence of one's ability to survive out there. In the U.S. many go out alone. Some had undesirable results, like that of Aron Ralston. But most end up uneventfully.

    1. hi jerry. thanks for the post. i read aron's book and somehow got to know the reason why he was doing it. although he had all the technical knowledge, his mind is clouded. he want to prove many things to many people which led to his being careless and reckless. after his accident, he then realized what he has been doing wrong -- he neglected the people around him. if you don't value your life, you don't value the people around you.

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  6. also, an observation i noticed in diving is that everyone has this mindset that the "buddy" should take care of you in the buddy-buddy system. i digress. i remember i was thought the abcdefg in diving wherein buddy only comes in 4th, d - dive buddy check, if s/he has all the important stuff which are a - air, b - buoyancy (bcd + weights), c - computer. there has always been a great emphasis on "check yourself first". you can't assist a buddy if you can't even assist yourself.

    i just hope that in bmc's here in the country, self-checks should be more emphasized as pre-requisite to safety than "the more the safer" mindset. 2 people who are self-aware are better buddies that 5 or more people who just depend on each other to check they are safe.

  7. thumbs up!
    here's my top - must bring
    -first aid kit/med kit/
    -food and water
    -emergency blanket

    i would like to hike mt. Guiting-guiting (traverse dayhike), supposedly last february but i'm out of budget.

    I have 2 major climb: Mt. Mantaliganjan on Ausgust 22-25 2013, D2K on Oct 11-12 2013... if you want to join, please send me a message at ken[at]fullpacked.com

    1. oh! i love manta! i haven't been there. let me see if i could fit in some vl's.