18 Hours Without a Safety Net

BY RILEY HALPERN

Shows like Survivor and Naked and Afraid are intriguing.

They’re designed to test how humans survive in the wilderness, isolated, pushed to the brink of their mental and physical capabilities.

And yet, these shows have safety nets. And safety nets for their safety nets.

To be fair, this system is necessary in order to prevent lawsuits. And, technically, the presence of a safety net is grounded in reality—we’re rarely truly alone to the point that there’s no one around to help us, medical personnel or otherwise.

But the thing about safety nets is we come to rely on them.

So what happens when we find ourselves in an unprecedented situation where there is no safety net to catch us if we fall?

Nearly a month ago, I found myself in one of these unprecedented situations, hiking in West Virginia on Denison’s Outdoor Orientation program—affectionately referred to as “DOO.”

There’s something important to note about West Virginia—more specifically, the Monongahela National Forest: Concerning cell service, it’s the biggest dead spot in the eastern two-thirds of the United States, excluding the part of Maine that’s practically in Canada.

Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue. Denison students and faculty have hiked this area before, and the point of the trip is to help incoming students bond without the distraction of technology. Moreover, there are safety nets in place—walkie-talkies, runners from base camp, check-in points. But when a series of unfortunate events line up so perfectly, not even the most well-planned trip can account for what happens.

One particular series of unfortunate events led to my DOO group hiking for eighteen hours. The series started that first day when we forgot our walkie-talkie in the van. Everything began to spiral that night when it rained for twelve hours straight. Rivers rose, trails were concealed.

What was meant to be a “day hike” became a day-long hike.

Sometime around the fifteenth hour, we lost the trail. Unlike the other times this happened, we didn’t find it within ten minutes. While our two group leaders were searching tirelessly for the trail, the seven of us were sitting on the ground in the middle of the night, huddled together, boots soaking wet, bodies aching, optimism slipping.

I remember thinking repeatedly, “We don’t have a safety net. This is not like Survivor. No one knows where we are.”

But the thing about these thoughts is you don’t voice them aloud. Because after helping each other across rivers, singing for five hours to keep the bears away, reaching out to catch someone every time you thought they might fall, shouting “thorns” and “rock” so nobody trips over the same thing you tripped over—because after fifteen miserable hours, these eight people are the most important thing and you cannot bear to make them any more miserable.

These people become your safety net which you protect at all costs.

The story of the eighteen hour hike never fails to widen eyes and unhinge jaws. But it’s not the number that’s significant. It’s not the rain. It’s not the exhaustion or the pain or the looming threat of bears. What’s significant is the optimism, encouragement and compassion that endured until the last second of the eighteen hours.

So, what happens when there’s no safety net to catch us if we fall? The thing is, there are more variations of safety nets than just medical personnel and cell phones. So when you think you’re falling, think again.

I’ve found that eighteen-year-olds make pretty good safety nets, too.

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