Desperate Steps: Life Death, and Choices made in the Mountains of the Northeast- my book review

images-2   Desperate Steps is the late 2015 book release from the Appalachian Mountain Club. The subtitle is “Life, Death, and Choices made in the Mountains of the Northeast”.  I just finished my second close reading.

The book is a sobering account of twenty hiker, swimmer, canoeist, and camper tragedies.  The earliest dates to 1963, when the first of 22 known fatalities was recorded in Baxter State Park.

When I was a young man, and an active member of the University of Massachusetts Outing Club during 1967-1971, I faithfully read accounts and critiques about the latest mountaineering and caving tragedies in the pages of Appalachia, a twice-yearly magazine published by the AMC.  The magazine continues a regular feature – “Accidents: Analysis of Incidents in the White Mountains”.  In the Accidents section, experts dissect the actual sequence of events that led to rescues, and frequent death.  I read those stories in order to learn from the mistakes of others in the hope that I would not become an updated statistic.
This book follows that same successful format. The first part of each story includes photos and annotated maps of the actual events. Each account concludes with an Aftermath, where the author, Peter W. Kick, deconstructs, analyzes, and examines the details.  Most of the individuals that survived their ordeals were willing to be interviewed for the book.
Being from Maine, I paid particular attention the four reports of deaths in Baxter State Park.

The publication of this book was timely for me.  In the depths of winter, sitting by the wood stove, I like to read adventure stories that outdoor folks post online.  In fact, it is often difficult to read between the lines and see who is smart, and who is just spouting dumb.

For example, this past winter, I was on a quest to put together the perfectly outfitted day pack. I wanted be ready for most any accident or emergency, even the possibility of having to spend the night outdoors. This book’s Appendix features an updated list of the Ten Essentials, the proven, must-have items for safe back country travel. My own day pack’s final contents were guided by this list.  However, not everyone who ventures into the outdoor world of mysteries and pitfalls believes in carrying a well-stocked day pack.
There is a subset of wilderness adventurers who have taken the concept of going fast and light to extremes. Andrew Skurka came out with the term “stupid light” to describe the practice of sacrificing crucial survival items and comfort levels to shave some weight. Skurka has been named “Adventurer of the Year” by both Outside and National Geographic Adventure, as well as “Person of the Year” by Backpacker.   Here’s Skurka’s original article:  Stupid Light.

I was stunned to read some of the reader comments that I encountered in my research about a proper winter day pack. Here’s one of the most misguided statements, ” I know a lot of people who go out to travel in the wilderness.  Not one of them has even had any serious problem.  You don’t need all that stuff if you know what your are doing out there.”
History permeates the book. The earliest fatalities occurred before many of modern supports were in place, before there were any organized search and rescue (SAR) organizations, when hurricane forecasting was just starting, and when communications were much more limited than today.

One story from 2003 was about the first private person in the USA to buy and activate a personal locator beacon (PLB).  Despite his good intentions, the protagonist ended up requiring not one, but two helicopter rescues out of Adirondack Park in November, while deer hunting out of a canoe. He ended up spending $10,000 after his arrest and imprisonment for two counts of falsely reporting an incident.

The book is grouped into 4 chapters: Unprepared, Know the Route, Taking Risks, and Unexpected.    The final chapter is about Inchworm’s mysterious death 3,000 feet off the AT near Sugarloaf Mountain.  An editor’s note from Oct. 15, 2015 brings the reader to date on locating her skeletal remains, found in a tent within 100 yards of where cadaver scent-trained dogs searched previously.

What’s the take from this book?

Fatigue reigns high. Baxter’s records indicate that most exhaustion cases occur while descending, with the majority of fatalities resulting from medical emergencies. The age group most requiring Search and Rescue is 60 and above.

The book was required reading for this Maine Guide, and should be studied by any person who puts a pack on their back or in their canoe and ventures out into the wilds of the Northeastern USA.

9 thoughts on “Desperate Steps: Life Death, and Choices made in the Mountains of the Northeast- my book review

      1. It’s called A Past Worth Telling and you can read reviews on Amazon. Easier too is to go to my blog and read the sections About the Author and About the Book. Enjoy the visit. I published in Feb. 2014 and have blogged since the summer of 2016. I just retired from teaching German last fall and after 48 years, it was time to step aside. I will have to plan a Maine trip but only in summer. We just came back from the Lake here with winds and wind chills of 26 and air temp 0f 36. I like the Norwegian saying: there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. You will discover I am Mass.-born and we moved to Colorado when I was 10. Palmer, Sturbridge and Western Mass. Small world. Happy writing and hiking to you. Oh, the blog:


  1. jorysquibb

    thanks for this tip, tom….i’ll get desperate steps from the library… comes exactly at the time when we skaters and iceboaters are debating how to deal with our ‘lone wolf’ friends, myself included, who occasionally go out alone on the ice….jory


    1. Thanks, Jory. The book is highly interesting, but does not enter the world of traveling on ice at high speed on slivers of polished steel. We mostly have to be reminded not to do dumb stuff. Interviewing what would be the third client on our 100 mile hike this summer on Wed night. Keep moving!


  2. Slow Gin Lizz

    I loved this book. I bought it the second it came out (pre-ordered from the AMC) and read it in about two days. I will definitely re-read it. It’s up there among my favorite accident-report books.

    Yeah, I’m weird, I like to read accident reports for fun. No, not for fun, for learning, as you pointed out. It’s a lot easier to learn from other people’s mistakes than from your own and that’s what I like to do, though I learn from my own mistakes too when I make them.

    Anyway, I also highly recommend this book.


      1. Slow Gin Lizz

        Me too. Live in MA, hike in NH a lot and in ME and VT whenever I have extra time and can drive further. Love your blog.


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