S.afety O.n S.ummits
By: Rick Hartman
#45 Safe Hiking
“There are no limits, there are only plateaus and you must not stay there. You must go beyond them!”
Bruce Lee, Actor and Martial Artist (1940-1973)
Presented here is a brief review of concepts to be mindful of whenever trekking in the wilds. These are gleaned from previous S.afety O.n S.ummits’ columns.
Cell and satellite phones, along with personal locator beacons, have technological limits in the backcountry. At the least, ensure the devices are fully charged before you leave. Always tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return. Provide the names, addresses and phone numbers of all those going along and the description of the vehicle(s). Once underway, stick to that original itinerary or if you change the plan, advise whomever knows of your itinerary. It should be clearly understood that at the agreed upon overdue time, the proper authority should be notified.
Solitude is great, but such solo experiences can be a foundation for disaster when the dominos begin to fall. The most common recommended hiking number is four persons. Thus if an injury should occur, one member can stay with that person, while two go for help. An injured hiker should never be left alone.
Several points should be considered in planning your trip, use guide books, topographical maps and information gleaned from others. Anticipate when trekking, the general pace will likely be two miles-per-hour with an additional hour required for each 1,000 feet of elevation gain. Monitor your route on the map and always maintain an idea of the best way to return to civilization.
Check the weather report before setting out. Even better, have an idea of an extended forecast. But always bring foul weather gear along just in case, as mountain storms can be sudden and violent. Carry sufficient water, more so if hiking on ridges, and especially if temperatures are going to be high. The most serious dangers we face in the backcountry are extreme heat, cold, high winds, and precipitation. In high places, July snowstorms are a reality, as are summer thunderstorms. Be prepared for both. A safe operating policy in summer is to start for the summit just before dawn and strive to be back down by early afternoon, all in an effort to avoid thunderstorms. If the summit is not attained by noon, seriously consider turning back, especially when thunderstorm activity is either seen developing or in the forecast. You do not want to be caught on either a peak or an exposed ridge in a lightning storm. If it happens, stay away from lone trees and high rocks, as they can attract a lightning bolt. Know that “Space Blankets” are suspected as doing the same. Under such conditions, the safest place to be is inside your vehicle or a structure. Remain out of shallow caves or depressions, as the electrical current traveling on the surface may still jump to your body. To better insulate yourself from the ground, place your backpack and/or foam pad under you and squat down. Only your two feet should make contact. Admittedly, this position is extremely difficult to maintain for extended periods of time. Remain away from your metal and carbon-fiber gear, but do not abandon it.
Beware of loose rock or evidence of a rock fall zones. It would be wise to bunch-up the team in such areas rather than being spread apart, with some below and some above. One rock set loose could result in a tragedy for someone below. If a rock is sent rolling downhill, “rock etiquette” requires one to loudly yell: “ROCK!” Never (never!) roll rocks down a mountainside for entertainment (trundling), as others could be below!
Always be properly equipped. Do not be dependent upon others when afield. Recall: “ATGAT”; All The Gear, All The Time. Every year, in all seasons, people needlessly die from “exposure” (hypothermia). Having proper clothing is critical when foul weather becomes our unintended backcountry experience. Wear a wicking shirt and underwear as your primary layer. Basic items in our packs should be: a pile sweater, gloves, warm head gear, top and bottom rain gear, and the ability to make fire. A simple first aid kit should also be a constant companion. The kit can focus on: feet issues, headaches and lacerations/thorns. There is always the possibility that one of us could discover a hiker in peril. Could you ignore or abandon them? Knowledge is strength, so commit to attending a first aid training class! Also, consider that water sources in the field are polluted in one way or another. When in the field always have the ability to purify water in case of an emergency. The product “Aquamira” fills this critical need by its light weight and minimal size. The “Ten Essentials” (S.O.S. #5 and #39) absolutely can make the difference in a survival situation.
Acclimatization is our friend. Mountain sickness is not. Taking time for our bodies to adjust to higher altitudes avoids the mountain miseries of a general feeling of malaise, headaches, shortness of breath and vomiting that can result from rapid ascents above 9,000 feet. A few clues to help avoid such negative high altitude experiences would include: be in good physical shape, have plenty of rest and sleep, drink sufficient water while trekking, and avoid both alcohol and smoking.
Mountaineering is a serious subject often addressed in movies, books, and audience presentations. So far it has never been covered in S.O.S. With the exception of Rainier, Hood, Gannett, and Denali, our summer hiking in high-places, can be generally considered a walk-up hobby. But winter creates a vastly different operating environment, especially above timberline. Thus, in winter a “routine” day-hike should never be considered. Rather, all winter climbs should be planned like an expedition. Weather can degrade rapidly, temperatures can plummet into the minuses, exposure to wind becomes a critical issue, and movement will be slowed by weight and terrain conditions. As such, team members’ standard equipment items should include (along with the knowledge how to use them): snowshoes or skis (with climbing skins), crampons, ice axe, climbing rope, harnesses, snow shovels, and snow-goggles. The potential for an avalanche demands an additional skill-set, combining knowledge, alertness and avalanche beacons attached securely onto every member of the team. All mountaineering gear should be selected with the consideration that it could literally become your survival gear. When considering a winter climb, each individual must carry a sleeping bag and foam pad. In addition, spread throughout the team: a small gas stove with a cook pot, fire making ability and a first aid kit. Climbers should use layers of warm clothing. It is critical to have the ability to increase or decrease warm layers to adapt as need be to the changing environmental conditions.
The choice to become a team must carry through the entire climb, from start to finish. To be successful as a team, each member must know the limitations and strengths of one-another. Do not plan anything beyond the abilities of the weakest member. The team’s pace should match that of the slowest person. Do not separate! It is critical to remain together; individuals cannot be allowed to fall behind or to push far ahead, especially in the dark. Agree to one person up front setting a fair pace and one person to always to be “the caboose”, from whom no one falls behind. Disregarding this simple basic tenet has been repeatedly recognized as the first error (“the falling dominos!”) that frequently results in a tragic backcountry fatality. All-too-often when in the backcountry, “separating” is the first step in the lead-up to a tragedy. Using hand-held FM radios will allow for greater flexibility in this area. Here too, never allow pride or ego to effect the necessary decision to turn back. Remain adaptable to the changing field conditions. Here the application of good judgment will allow another day’s return to the summit.
Finally, whistles are a recognized basic communication device. Over extended time, one can continue blowing a whistle longer than repeated yells. Often wind and terrain will affect verbal communication. Lately many backpacks are being sold with a whistle as standard equipment. Here are three accepted standard signals that we should know:
Distress: 3-evenly spaced signals, given in 30 seconds, repeated as required.
Acknowledgement: 2-signals, given in quick succession.
Return to Camp: 4-evenly spaced signals given within 30 seconds, repeated as required.
This columnist wishes to once more express gratitude for Bill Jacobs’ edit work!
Continue to remain safe in your travels!