A safety checklist for hiking and climbing in the high country

Recent news from the Rockies has made me take a second look at a primer to hiking and climbing in the high country I wrote awhile back.

Over the past few weeks, three people have died on three peaks in Colorado – one on Windom Peak, another on the Sawtooth Ridge between Mount Bierstadt and Mount Evans, and within the past few days, a New York City firefighter on North Maroon Peak.

There was also a recent death on Middle Teton in Wyoming.

I’m not going to dissect what happened in those incidents, mostly because I don’t know what led to the fatal outcomes there. But there are a few things worth discussing that everyone can do before venturing out into the high country.

It’s not the big things that get people in trouble. It’s the little things, which often pile up over time. I’ve committed my own mistakes, which normally caused me discomfort but one time nearly cost me dearly.

Anyway, some thoughts:

Feed yourself. Make sure you bring enough food to fuel you through the day, and then maybe some more just in case you’re out longer than you planned. Altitude will suppress your hunger, but you have to fight that and eat anyway. Those calories become very important on the downhill side of a climb, which is often the riskiest part. You can easily burn 4,000 or more calories hiking or climbing a 14,000-foot peak.

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Water is the elixir of life, and your body needs more of it up high. High elevations make your heart and lungs work harder and tax your muscles more. You will breathe harder, and with every exhale, water leaves your body. Add that to the sweat you’ll produce doing 5 to10 hours of work and the dryness of the air and you can see how it adds up. You will become dehydrated fast if you’re not careful, and dehydration can get you in trouble quickly. Bring at least 3 liters of water with you on a single-day ascent. If you need more, know where water sources might be, such as streams, and bring a filter so you can replenish your supplies. I can’t overemphasize this enough – stay hydrated, sipping water often as you go. Dehydration will weaken your body, dull your mind and can eventually kill you if it gets too severe.

Respect the high altitude sun. Higher elevation means less atmospheric filtering of the sun’s rays. It may be cooler, but the sun’s rays are far more potent up high. Use sunscreen and lip balm, wear sunglasses to protect your eyes and bring a hat, be it a ballcap or something more wide-brimmed. This is especially important of you spend much time traveling over snow, as snow reflects sunlight. It’s like being baked on all sides.

Watch for clouds like this. A clear sign that storms are imminent.

Watch the skies. No matter the season, weather can change fast in alpine areas. In the summer, afternoon thunderstorms are nearly daily occurrences, but they can also strike earlier in the day. If white, puffy clouds with gray bottoms start filling the sky, it doesn’t matter if the sun is still out or if it’s not raining. Storms are almost on you and can start throwing out lightning, rain and hail within minutes. Above treeline, you will be in danger of lightning strikes. Rain will make stable handholds and footholds slippery, exposing you to falls. Temperatures can plummet. In the spring or fall, fine weather can turn to life-threatening winter conditions quickly. In short, if it looks like storms are starting to gather, back off. No summit is worth your life on the count of a storm.

Gear up. What’s in your pack besides food and water? Be sure to have a first-aid kit, a knife or multi-tool, a compass or GPS, a map, a headlamp, some matches or a lighter and a warm pair of gloves and a hat. Be sure to have a water-resistant jacket and some extra layers of clothing, preferably synthetic of wool fibers and not cotton (cotton stays wet for a long time, which can cause blisters on your feet and sap body heat, creating a hypothermia risk). Think what you might need to do if you were forced to stay out overnight. In cooler seasons, shelter becomes a greater need as well, so your pack may need to be bigger to accompany something like a small tent and a sleeping bag. And while it’s optional (especially where there isn’t reception), that cell phone can be a handy little lifeline. You never know. For more, check this link.

Don’t be secretive. Whether you’re going with a big group or alone, always tell someone at home where you’re going, how long you’ll be gone and when you expect to return. If you got lost or injured and therefore stuck in the wilderness, people need to know where they can start looking for you.

Don’t freak out. If by chance something goes awry or you get lost, keep your cool. Don’t panic, and don’t get frozen into indecision. If you’ve prepared yourself for an emergency and people know where you planned to go, you’ve already done half the work needed to stay alive. Stay put if you can – you’ll be easier to find that way. But also be ready to self-rescue. Think about your situation, take an inventory of what you have, and KEEP MAKING DECISIONS. Inaction will hurt your chances of getting through a crisis; taking ownership of the predicament will help you gain control over it, both physically and mentally. Your goal is to create time, which will allow you to self-rescue or allow others to find you.

Keep in mind, thousands upon thousands of people venture out into the woods and onto the peaks without incident every day. In the rare cases of a fatality, blind chance sometimes plays a role. So go out there, enjoy the outdoors and be safe. Plan ahead.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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