Consider this an Op-Ed piece, these ramblings do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Mass AT Committee, AMC, ATC or any of our Agency partners.
We had a hiker fall to his death on a side trail (which our Club maintains) to the AT this summer and there have been other fatalities elsewhere on the Trail this year that can be attributed to it’s physical challenges. It brought to my mind that what we do is not without risk. Our local story (in brief) occurred when a two brothers decided to hike down from Race Brook Falls campsite to “go check out the falls”. They followed the blue-blazed trail down towards the road, and at some point (most likely where the trail turns left, away from the stream) went off-trail, past a line of large boulders and a double blaze placed to direct hikers to the left, and found themselves 50 yards later at the top of the waterfall. From here, we as trail volunteers do not know what specifically happened next--we only know that one of the hikers fell down to the bottom of the upper waterfall. Other hikers and local rescue personnel came to the scene, but were not able to save the man’s life.
So, this presents us a moment to think about some things: As volunteer stewards we engage in many different aspects of trail management. As well as physical maintenance of the trail, we write and edit the text in ATC’s guidebook, edit official maps, create and install trail signage, build bridges and construct shelters and privies at overnight sites. What we can’t do of course, is get inside the head of trail visitors--we can only supply as much external information as we can--while keeping the hiking experience as “wild” as it can be. As our AT Management Plan puts it:
“[Trail facilities]..should be constructed when appropriate to protect the resource or provide a minimum level of public safety. Design and construction of these facilities should reflect an awareness of, and harmony with, the Trail’s primitive qualities."
Just what is our personal risk in “providing a minimum level of public safety?” A.T. volunteers are protected from Tort by the Volunteers in Parks program run by the NPS. Club volunteers are considered “government employees”, and as such can’t be sued by hikers for injury, inconvenience, lost time, etc, as long as they are working within their job descriptions (part of which is reflected in the Management Plan quoted above).
While we are protected--it does not remove our responsibility to do things the right way--follow design standards and maintain the physical condition of the trail as required by ATC. We do all those things (and do them well), and still a hiker dies of his injuries. Should/Could we do more? Would railings or fences built to keep hikers on the trail or away from cliffs be in harmony with the Trail experience? Should we build ATV-accessible “rescue routes” from nearby roads to the A.T., put mile markers on the blazes, and clear helicopter access openings in areas where there are higher numbers of hiker injuries and/or rescues? We get these requests from local responders often when there is an incident on the Trail, but so far have not been required to provide them as they are not part of the standard we are required to follow.
A hiker takes on a level of personal risk by choosing to hike the Trail--but I think, sadly, they are not always aware of that assumption. Ultimately, they are responsible for their own actions. There are going to be slippery rocks, muddy trail, unsigned road crossings or trail intersections, unprotected cliffs, even a scarcity of blazes. When a hiker steps out of the parking lot and onto the AT she immediately enters a world where the “golden hour” that EMT’s value so much (the time between injury and the hospital) does not exist. For some of us, that is part of the appeal of the Trail--the breaking of bonds between the protective shell of the “real” world and the freedom of the trail world. I believe we should continue to avoid pressure to make the A.T. a “walk in the park”, to diminish the sense of remoteness and distance from the built world. But, are we really ready for the consequences? I think we did everything right regarding the physical condition and management actions on the Race Brook Falls Trail, but I am thankful that it was not my son laying at the bottom of Race Brook Falls.