Kelly’s anxiety has taken on a lot of different shapes during her life. Most recently, it’s triggered if she’s not within close distance to a hospital or somewhere she could get medical attention if she needed it. This is very inconvenient, given her love of the backcountry and adventure sports. Kelly doesn’t have any sort of medical condition, and she grew up in an outdoorsy family with plenty of experience getting way out there, so it doesn’t make much sense to her. But it’s exactly that randomness that makes it terrifying. The further she ventures into the backcountry, the worse it gets. Best case, she gets a tightened feeling in her throat and stomach, and her brain gets foggy. Worst case, it takes the form of a full-blown panic attack: hyperventilation, pounding heart, and the feeling that death is the only possible outcome. The fear of having a panic attack in the wilderness has stopped her from going on solo mountain-bike rides, backpacking trips, and even hikes by herself.
So, when Kelly’s good friend invited her on a six night, 60-mile backpacking trip in Glacier National Park this past August, the first thought that came to her wasn’t of the turquoise glacial lakes, waterfalls, or potential bear sightings. It was the thought of hyperventilating, crouched down in the middle of a trail, miles away from cell service and professional help. But work was wearing her down, and the last time she had been backpacking was the summer before. Her craving for adventure overpowered her fear of panicking on the trail, and she told her friend she was in.
Kelly did what she could to prepare ahead of time. She researched the trails on the itinerary that was given to their group, she went on a couple low-key overnight backpacking trips, and she bought a backpacking-specific medical kit. But as the start date approached, she could feel herself getting more and more nervous. She felt that there was nothing she could really do to stop herself from being anxious once she was in the backcountry. Kelly was afraid of what she loves the most.
About a week before she would fly to Bozeman, Montana, she was having a drink with her coworkers, and they started asking about the trip. She told them about the itinerary, and they told the inevitable stories about grizzlies up in Glacier. Eventually, she made an offhand comment about how she was a little nervous they would lose the trail somehow. One of her coworkers asked, “Well, one of you will have a sat phone, right?” She answered that she was sure one of them would, but in truth, she had no idea. She hadn’t yet talked to her friends about it, and she realized it was probable that they didn’t have one either. All she knew about sat phones was that only her friends’ parents could afford them and took them while backcountry skiing, so she didn’t even really consider it a viable option. Before the conversation moved on, the same coworker mentioned, “You should get a Bivy Stick.”
Kelly hadn’t heard of the Bivy Stick before, so her friends filled her in. The “stick” is a super lightweight device that would enable her to send pre-written messages and her GPS coordinates to up to five people, contact Global Rescue in case of emergency, and even send and receive messages from her contacts for one credit per message in the app (the Basic Plan is $17.99 for 20 credits). But the best part was, the device didn’t lock you into a long subscription or even charge activation fees to work, making it something Kelly could afford. She immediately got one and started researching all its capabilities. She downloaded the app and bought a 9-day Global Rescue membership. As she played around in the app, something shifted mentally for Kelly. If she really needed help, having the app felt like the equivalent of having cell-phone service without the pestering of work emails or texts. Almost immediately, Kelly’s outlook on the trip changed. Instead of imagining herself spiraling in the middle of a forest, she pictured the beauty of the towering peaks and landscapes. She remembered why she loved the wilderness in the first place, and why she agreed to go on the trip. Before she knew it, the start date was just around the corner.
Once they arrived in Bozeman, the plan was that the group of five would drive up to Glacier on Thursday, car-camp at the west side of the park, leave one car there, and then drive to the eastern side to start hiking the next morning. Everything began according to plan, and Kelly and her friends drove up to Glacier from Bozeman on Thursday. But earlier that morning, the group was told that their itinerary changed at the last-minute because of the Hay Fire just north of Glacier. Rangers were rerouting backpackers as the fire made progress closer towards the park. Their 60-mile trip was cut down to about 45 miles, and they would only be sleeping 4 nights in the backcountry. The first day was almost 13 miles with a grueling 4,000 feet of elevation gain, followed by a mostly downhill 8-mile day, an easy 4-mile day, a long 14-mile day, and finally, a mostly flat 7-mile hike out. The cut in the mileage slightly eased Kelly’s mind, but the thought of the wildfire and smoke did not.
As they approached the park, the smoke thickened. Kelly’s anxiety started talking. What if the smoke is so bad that it makes breathing difficult, so you start hyperventilating and won’t be able to get control of your breath? What if the fire makes insane progress towards the park while we’re out there, and the rangers don’t get to us in time until the flames are right in front of us? What if the smoke is so thick that makes it impossible for helicopters to evacuate hikers?
She knew all these scenarios were extremely unlikely. But again, her anxiety was never rational, and it was there all the same. So, Kelly went to the Bivy Stick app. She typed in a pre-written message that could be sent to anyone who’s number she put in. With the press of a button on the side of the device, the message would be sent to everyone in the list, along with GPS coordinates of her location. When they stopped for gas, Kelly took the Bivy Stick with her outside, and tested it while she still had service. Sure enough, her dad responded that he received the message, along with her location.
Kelly’s anxiety was immediately alleviated. Because she’d be able to communicate with her family and the people she trusted most, she knew they could calm her down if she did start feeling anxious on the trail. If there actually was an emergency, her direct line to Global Search and Rescue would give the group the immediate help they needed. Even though Kelly still felt a little nervous, that tight feeling in her throat loosened, and she could breathe easy again.
The group arrived at their first car-camping site at Bowman Lake. Kelly and her friends waded in the water and looked up at the peaks ahead of them. They would be on top of those peaks in just a few days. For the first time in days, Kelly couldn’t wait to get there. The next morning, she was too excited to eat much food, so she swallowed down some oatmeal and took a few sips of water. They drove to Packer’s Roost and set out on their adventure.
The group started out with high spirits and crossed gushing streams and rivers at the very beginning of the hike. But as they started gaining elevation, the sun beat down stronger. It was getting hotter by the minute. No one was that concerned at first because there were about five stream crossings left on the map on the way to their site, so they figured they’d be able to cool off at multiple points on the trail. They took it slow.
The climb was getting steeper, and the sun hotter. The group was looking forward to an upcoming stream crossing and planned on eating their lunch there. Everyone’s bottles were starting to run low, so they figured they’d pump some water there, too. But when they arrived, there wasn’t a drop in sight. The stream was completely dried up. Strange, they thought. The last stream they had crossed was about three miles back and 1,000 feet downhill. Going backwards was pretty much out of the question. They agreed to hike a little further to the next stream.
Again, they encountered a dry streambed, and started sensing a pattern. They knew it was August and probably the lowest water levels of the year. But this was Glacier, and they wrongly assumed the glacial runoff would be flowing year-round. When they came across their third dry creek, the group started getting a little nervous.
Running out of water was definitely one of the scenarios that Kelly had dreamed up in the weeks before. She felt the familiar tightening of her chest at the sight of the third dry creek, but that was it. Kelly knew in the back of her head that if they didn’t come across another stream for the rest of the day and didn’t have the energy to hike back out, the absolute worst-case scenario was she could contact Global Rescue for help, or at least get her family to call a park ranger to ask about the rest of the conditions. She kept one foot in front of the other.
Sure enough, the rest of the streams on the way to their first campsite were completely dry. With a few miles left, everyone had a couple ounces of water remaining in what they brought in with them. Everyone was exhausted, hot, and grumpy. Kelly was in the lead with her friend, Alison. They had about a mile to go to their first site, but they needed to rest. Two others were anxious to get there, so they took the lead and went ahead to find the campsite. As she watched them continue up the rocky trail, Kelly started thinking that it was getting more likely she might need to use the Bivy Stick.
When her and Alison mustered the energy to keep going up, they heard a yell. They looked up, and their friend appeared around a corner. “Is there water?”
They laughed out of pure relief. Kelly already felt reenergized. They finished the last few yards to the site, heaved their packs next to a few trees, and jogged over to the stream trickling next to the camp. It wasn’t exactly flowing, but it was there, nonetheless. As they sat pumping the running water through their filter, laughing about the day, Kelly felt giddy. If she could backpack in 80-degree weather with little water and 4,000 feet of elevation gain, she could finish the trip. Kelly trusted her body, her friends, and her gear to get them home safely.
There was plenty of water the rest of the trip—it turned out the eastern side of the park had been considerably more dried up than the western side. But as they made their way further north, the smoke got thicker and thicker. Their second site at a small lake was framed by mountains you could barely see through the haze. To put her mind at ease, Kelly sent the pre-written message to her family every time they arrived at their next site. She knew they’d be tracking her location, and that was all she needed to feel safe.
The Bivy Stick gave Kelly the confidence she needed to trust herself, to the point where she didn’t feel like she even needed to be calmed down. Even though she never had to use it in an emergency situation, it completely changed her outlook during the trip. Instead of worrying about insane and improbable outcomes, Kelly could take Glacier for everything it was. She could laugh whole-heartedly with her friends and jump into glacial lakes and feel the rush of a waterfall in her hands—all without the crushing weight of fear. The Bivy Stick alleviated what she was the most afraid of. For the first time in a long time in the backcountry, Kelly felt brave.
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