Friday, January 20, 2012
When Weather Impacts Hiking
Right now, I am snowed in. Not just snowed in but stuck inside from falling branches, downed power lines and 18 inches of snow with half an inch of freezing rain on top of it. With no power, the mind races to entertain itself. Typically when this happens, I can get out, with my road being the worst road. I would drive to a trail and lose myself in nature for hours. This is not the case this week. Right now, nobody is really going anywhere.
I bring all this up to let you know about the nature of nature. We can try and predict what will happen with the weather, but at the end of the day, we are just guessing. All the snow we have right now was supposed to be gone by now, so many people, reading the forecast, took off for the mountains thinking it would be one day of great powder and then a few days of slow melt. Because of this, 4 people are stranded on Mt. Rainier; many more have been stranded in their cars on mountain passes, or like me, just stuck inside, miles from any hikes. I am lucky. Despite no power, running water and just a fireplace to provide heat, there are people stuck outside in the elements, with our high hitting 31 Fahrenheit. This is why I always check numerous forecasts, and if it looks even slightly like it may be bad, I typically pass on climbing and hiking. I am always prepared with a tent, days’ worth of food and water, a great sleeping bag and extra clothes. However, if put to the test, would I really know how to survive for many days out in the woods? More importantly, would you be prepared?
As restless as I am to get out, take pictures, hike and blog, I read stories about people surviving for days in the elements and cuddle up with my blanket. To survive in the elements, be it a desert, rainforest or on a mountain takes a sound mind, skill and of course, a decent amount of luck. I have had my run ins with being stranded and forced to sleep on a mountain, and I take the blame for that. I thought I could handle the weather shifts and conditions because I had seen TV shows, movies and read books on survival. People ignoring weather and testing limits happens far to frequently. Just this last week, a man on Mt. Rainier was stranded for a few days. He built a snow shelter and burnt some money in his pocket to stay warm and survive. Yes, this is an incredible story, but I have to question why he was snowshoeing at 6000ft with a storm moving toward him in the first place.
To me, all of our technology (the weather proof clothes, cars, GPS devices and whatnot) have made us fear nature less than we should. Looking at Aron Ralston, the hiker/climber/canyoneering guide who had to cut of his arm, we see that one misstep could be the end of you. In great weather, he biked, hiked and eventually got pinned down by a huge boulder in a canyon, with no help on the way. Just one small step…
One step changed his life, his family’s lives and how people view hikers. He didn’t mean to become a sensation, publishing a book and having a movie made from him, but since he survived, it is an incredible tale of survival. Sadly, hundreds of stories don’t end as well, with storms rolling in, avalanches crashing down and people dying every year from accidents. In Aron Ralston’s case, he may have been able to save his arm if he had told people where he was going. In many cases, it takes human error and a small level of stupidity mixed with a misconception of their dominance of nature that leads to their follies.
Some risk is needed to climb, don’t get me wrong. Any time you leave your house, get in your car and drive 60 miles an hour, you are more at risk to get injured. However, when accidents happen on the freeway, there are enough people around to help. On a trail or on a mountain or in a canyon, you may be the only person for miles. This is why, despite our “understand” and ability to “predict” the weather, you still need common sense and need to leave a note of where you are going. Also, make sure you follow the note and don’t deviate from the plan.
You may be reading this, wondering where I am headed or what point I am trying to prove. I am just saying that we still underestimate nature, and that when we feel we can control or understand her, we will be proven wrong. The Buddhists believe certain trails and mountains can’t be climbed without consequences. While I don’t buy into spirits being angry about you climbing on their peak, you need to be aware that life is dangerous, unexpected and full of consequences. One wrong step in any weather on any trail could lead to disaster, so take your time, be safe and enjoy life.
Until I can charge my laptop...
Douglas Scott of Exotic Hikes