An Ohio man needed rescue on Mount Washington, and he may get billed for it. But should he?

Mount Washington, N.H. (Wikipedia/Danielc192 photo)

If there is one seemingly unsolvable quandary in the outdoors, it’s whether people who are rescued should be billed by their rescuers.

There are a lot of threads to this narrative. First, search and rescue costs can be expensive – even with volunteers doing most of the work, it costs money to reach remote locations and sometimes fly helicopters to find and extricate distressed hikers and climbers. Many of these rescues happen in rural counties that are strapped for cash as it is. In some cases, they’ll get help from military units (flight time for helicopter rescues goes down as training for the crews involved), but a lot of times you’re also involving county personnel like sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and EMTs who get paid to be out there. Someone must foot the bill at some point.

Federal workers get wrapped up in it, too. As do their resources. They often work alongside state and county rescuers, mostly because the bulk of these rescues are taking place on public lands, and most of those are federally owned.

Some search and rescue efforts that stretch into days, involving air and ground crews, can run up a serious tab.

Another subplot: Those in need of rescue are often at fault for their own predicament. That sounds harsh, but usually it’s true. Dehydrated hikers in the Grand Canyon often underestimate the heat and don’t bring enough water. Alpine hikers and climbers misjudge the terrain, the weather and sometimes their own capabilities in environments that are inherently challenging. Gear junkies sometimes place too much trust in electronic devices that fail when signals are lost, or batteries go dead. Those with emergency locator beacons are, at times, bolder than they’d normally be, either taking greater chances or, in some cases, activating their locators when they are simply tired of the effort.

Given the greater numbers of people who are heading into the backcountry, the costs of rescues are piling up.

This has pushed some states to enact policies that would make rescued parties liable for the costs of their salvation. New Hampshire is one of those states, and a recent story by The Associated Press highlighted one such instance where an overwhelmed hiker might end up getting billed for the trouble.

The hiker, 80-year-old James Clark, was ascending Mount Washington with two of his grandsons when he told them to go on to the summit without him. The younger men did so, then took a different route down, the AP reported. Clark didn’t meet them back at the trailhead, and that’s when search and rescue was called.

“Clark was found Friday immobile in the fetal position with signs of hypothermia hours after telling his two grandsons to go on without him. Clark was treated at a hospital for non-life-threatening injuries and released Saturday,” the AP reported.

Mount Washington and the surrounding peaks can be tricky. Already, two other people died in the area within a week of Clark’s rescue. The mountain is known for having some of the worst weather on the planet. Rescuers said Clark wasn’t dressed for the potential weather extremes seen on the peak, which can be summery and warm at the base and full-on winter conditions on the summit, often with little warning.

That alleged lack of preparation is what might end up being the reason Clark gets socked with the tab.

I’ve got mixed feeling about this. Part of me thinks people should be held accountable for the bad decisions they make. Plenty of information exists, available at your fingertips, that can guide your preparations for the outdoors. Choosing not to be informed is just that: a choice. And in most areas of life, bad choices have consequences. Maybe some of those consequences should hit folks in the wallet. Perhaps a financial incentive would make people more self-reliant, more prepared, and safer.

But my thinking gets turned around when human nature comes into play. It goes something like this:

A hiker gets lost. Or injured. Or something else happens that makes that person think, “I’m in some trouble here.” But before activating that beacon or pulling out the phone for a 911 call, the hiker pauses.

This is gonna cost me. A lot. Maybe I can tough it out.

And then the hiker gets deeper in trouble, maybe irrecoverably.

That’s the fear I’ve heard expressed on forums by people who are part of the search and rescue community. They worry that folks will choose saving money over their own lives when they get in trouble, and that leads to more search and recovery missions instead of search and rescue. Crews will still take risks in recovery missions; they differ in that the ending of a recovery mission is always a mournful one.

As I’ve thought about this, the prospect of saving lives outweighs the irritation I feel about people being dumb. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want people pushing the button on their SPOT device because their feet are tired. I want people to be responsible. But I don’t want people dying in the bush because they were afraid of a five-figure bill coming in the mail.

Will New Hampshire authorities charge Mr. Clark for his rescue? It sounds like they might. But should they? I’d hate to think they’ll be pulling more bodies off Mount Washington because financial considerations won out when a call for help should have been made.

Bob Doucette

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There is no such thing as an ‘easy’ 14er

About 13,000 feet on Quandary Peak’s east ridge. While this is considered one of the easier Colorado 14ers, it still presents plenty of challenges that are not easy.

Something I see posted in outdoor forums and social media sites is a question about the Colorado 14ers, or more specifically, about which peaks are the “easy” 14ers.

A lot of times, the people asking this question are just like I was many years ago when I wanted to follow in my big brother’s footsteps by seeking summits on Colorado’s highest peaks. There was no sense trying to bag the tough ones too early, at least not for someone with no experience in the high country. That was my thinking, anyway.

I’ve got a few under my belt now. Not a ton, but past the noob stage. Here’s the conclusion that I’ve come to: For most people, there is no such thing as an easy 14er.

I’ll explain why in a minute. First, a disclaimer. As of this writing, I have 32 summits of 13,000 feet or more under my belt. Twenty-two of them are 14ers, and throw in a couple of repeats, that’s 24 successful ascents of peaks of 14,000 feet or more. I’ve done some more advanced routes, but plenty of harder ones still await. The hardest peak I’ve done was Mount Eolus, ranked by 14ers.com as the 12th hardest of the 58 Colorado 14ers. So my range of experience is somewhat limited.

That said, I’ve seen a range of difficulty that backs up my claim. My reasoning…

Mount Bierstadt (right) and the Sawtooth Ridge.

Even if you’re in shape, elevation is the great equalizer. You say you’re a runner? A cyclist? A crossfitter? Well, I’ve got news for you. A well-marked and maintained trail on the gentler slopes of “beginner” peaks will still take you past 12,000 feet above sea level, and that’s when it gets tough. I’ve found myself counting steps and taking a breather on walk-up peaks, confirming that even on the shorter, less-steep and easier routes, it’s still damn hard work, even for the fit. Blame that thin air.

Huron Peak.

Elevation has other fun surprises, too. You’re going to burn a lot of energy going up that hill, but don’t be surprised if your appetite is nil. You’ll need to force down calories, but your digestive system may want none of it. Thin air will make you breathe harder, and with each exhale, you’ll lose small bits of moisture. You’ll sweat. When added to the dryness of the climate, dehydration settles in fast. The effects of these maladies, plus the general susceptibility some people have to high elevations, can bring on altitude sickness. Elevation doesn’t know you’re on a beginner hike. It’ll throw these obstacles at you regardless.

Me, with the Hilltop Mine and Mount Sherman’s summit in the background. (Jordan Doucette photo)

Beginner peaks have been known to kill. Weather and terrain can be brutally fickle on the 14ers, regardless of season. A gentle summer slope can be a killer in winter or spring if the snowpack is unsettled and avalanche-prone. Lightning strikes are deadly. And being exposed to the elements when the cold comes through and catches you unaware is an easy way to get hypothermia. Seemingly healthy people have keeled over from heart attacks on straightforward walk-up mountains like Quandary Peak.

Slogging up Mount Yale, about 12,500 feet.

Remoteness of most of the 14ers provides added challenges. Even the most accessible mountains are, in some ways, remote depending on where you are on the peak. If something goes wrong (injury, illness, getting lost) near the summit, it could be hours or even days before rescuers can reach you. That makes planning an added challenge, and places pressure on you that don’t exist on lower elevation hikes.

Me on Mount Shavano’s summit, my second ever 14er.

One last thing: Don’t let these admonitions lead you to believe that ordinary folks can’t find their way to high summit views. Plenty of Average Janes and Joes not only top out on the easier 14ers, but actually climb them all. And that’s the great allure, that hiking and climbing mountains can transform otherwise ordinary lives into ones that are more adventurous. But it’s wise to respect the peaks – regardless of their perceived difficulty – and remember that a 14er ascent is no walk in the park.

Some helpful links…

14er fitness

14er gear

Picking your first 14er

Doing your first 14er ascent

Bob Doucette

What went right, what went wrong: Five lessons learned on the trail

All revved up and ready to go.

Experience can teach you a lot about hiking, and as the years go by, understanding yourself, your skills and your limitations goes a long way to being a safer hiker. Mistakes often turn into lasting lessons that make future outings much more enjoyable. And while that newbie phase can be fun and exciting, it can also put you in a world of hurt.

It’s one thing to use those lessons to help yourself. But what about the people you’re with? I hike solo from time to time, but many times I’m with other people, with varying levels of experience, ability and ambition. Mix a bunch of these folks into one outing, and you can have a comprehensive, positive experience, or you can have a hot mess.

Those years on the trail have given me a mix of both. I’ll summarize a few scenarios and go over what went right, and what went wrong.

BACKPACKING TRIP

View hiking up Wheeler Peak, NM.

Books, movies and tales told face-to-face can make outdoor adventures appealing to a wide group of people, and my own stories of hiking New Mexico’s highest mountain, Wheeler Peak, drew some interest. I took my wife, Bec, her sister, and two friends and we hauled our gear to the trailhead of the Middle Fork Trail. It is a 16-mile round-trip hike.

Our plan: Hike five miles to Lost Lake, camp there, summit the next morning and then head back down for steaks and high-fives in nearby Red River.

In terms of, well, everything, this group was all over the map. My friends had done plenty of backpacking in the western U.S. and in China, but were a little light on their fitness. The same could be said for Bec, who was also new to backpacking. Her sister, Liz, was also a relative noob in backpacking, but was in marathon-ready shape. People’s gear was anything from high-end to inadvisable.

In terms of our objective, all of us summited the peak and made it back to Red River safely. Success! Right? Well, sort of. My friends had their moments of altitude sickness. Liz did great. Bec’s boots lacked proper support and her socks gave her blisters early on in the hike. By the time it was over, her feet were wrecked and the back side of her foot was shredded. What should have been a tired but happy scene at the trailhead was really some dazed folks and no shortage of tears.

What went right: We got most of the gear right, and the scope of the trip was (barely) within the level of everyone’s abilities. We reached our objectives, and got back safe.

What went wrong: Plenty. Only two of us were really in shape for this effort, and it’s asking a lot of new hikers to embark on a higher-altitude backpacking trip in the Rockies. Footwear was obviously an issue. I’d say we got away with a lot of mistakes, and this easily could have bred more serious situations.

Being the leader of this group, a lot of that is on me. I could have easily picked a different objective more within the group’s collective abilities, and a pre-trip gear check would have saved my poor spouse a lot of grief. As for the others, they are responsible for their own conditioning, and to a degree, everyone is accountable to do the proper research on gear. We all learned from this one.

WEATHER ON THE MOUNTAIN

Marching up toward the Keyhole on Longs Peak, CO.

As you grow in your outdoor experience, bigger and tougher goals become more appealing. Easier walk-ups give way to scrambles, which often lead to exposed, airy climbs. Before you know it, the newbie hiker of years past is boasting summits of big Latin American volcanoes, or Rainier, or maybe Grand Teton while eyeing Denali.

That’s not me, but the progression is similar. I went with some friends to tackle Longs Peak, Colorado, a couple of years ago, hoping to knock off a tougher peak.

Longs Peak is a lengthy route. Alpine starts often have you hitting the trail at 2 a.m., with thoughts of beating the weather around this notoriously unpredictable mountain. It has a big stretch near the top where you don’t want to be when the weather goes south.

We set off at 2:15 a.m., and made OK time to the Boulder Field, a bumpy section just before the standard route’s famous Keyhole. The Keyhole is where hiking gives way to scrambling, climbing and exposure en route to the summit.

But we’d heard from others that a previous day’s storms had dumped some wet, sloppy snow over the upper portions of the mountains. Clouds were swirling around the summit. Winds were up. A couple of us (me, for one) were dragging a bit. When we got to the Keyhole, we took a peek around the corner and saw, with dismay, that the reports we heard were true. The route conditions looked bad, especially since some of us weren’t as salty as the rest.

The de facto leader of the group, a fella named Dillon, saw it right away. And he’s the one who called it. We munched our summit food at the rock shelter by the Keyhole, packed up and headed down the mountain, stopped well short of our objective.

What went right: We listened to the voice of experience. Dillon has it in bucketloads. Even though we were equipped for the task, those of us on the lower level of experience might not have been ready for the route conditions. And the weather’s unpredictability made it an obvious no-go. Any protests were weak and short-lived. We knew the truth.

What went wrong: Nothing for anyone else. I’d criticize my level of fitness for that one. I know better now. Aside from that, I have memories of a big, burly mountain, Chasm Lake, and sunrise over one of the nation’s iconic national parks.

PACING A NEWCOMER

Hiking down Mount LeConte.

A couple of years ago, my sister-in-law Jen wanted to go with me to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to hike Mount LeConte. While not the Rockies, the bigger mountains of eastern Tennessee can have long routes with plenty of elevation gain. LeConte was no different, with the route we chose being the Alum Cave Bluff Trail: 11 miles with nearly 3,000 feet of gain to its summit.

Jen’s a gamer, but she’s also new to this. We took off on the lower part of the trail, and I set my usual pace.

Not long after you hit Arch Rock, the route steepens. We live around 800 feet above sea level, and by this time we were getting into the upper 4,000-foot level. It was right about there that I figured it was wise to slow things down.

Once we got to Alum Cave Bluff, we took a break. I wasn’t sure how much further Jen wanted to go, but after catching her breath, we decided to keep going. With a more measured pace and breaks every 20 to 30 minutes, we topped out on one of Tennessee’s highest peaks. It turned into a spectacular day that lit a fire under her for more adventures.

What went right: Recognizing that our early pace was too fast, and breaking the hike down into more manageable chunks. This is what I have to do in the Rockies, and it would make sense to do that here where the elevation was significantly higher than at home. It was also important to “read” my hiking partner: She’s got a lot of heart and a true competitor’s spirit, so her capacity to endure some physical hardship was going to be greater than others. That, combined with the right pace, got us to the top and back safely.

What went wrong: Really, it went about as well as I could have imagined. Had I insisted on keeping a faster pace, our trip likely would have ended sooner, and might have led to some hard feelings. I can’t emphasize how important it is to observe your partners. Glad we nipped that in the bud early.

NOT FEELING RIGHT

Late light at Hobbs State Park, AR.

I’m going to rat on Bec again with this one.

We were out in Arkansas recently, having a very chill few days in the hills and woods near Bentonville. We wanted to spend one day hiking some trails, and I found some good ones at Hobbs State Park.

But Bec was suffering from allergies, which led to some allergy medicine being taken the night before our planned hike. It did great in helping her sleep. But it left her in a fog the next day.

My plan was to get out there and hike as long as she saw fit, then turn around and head back. In more recent months, she’s gone on day hikes with me that went anywhere from two to five miles, with our most recent outing in New Mexico. She handled five miles at 8,600+ feet just fine, so I had no real worries.

I wanted her to lead for a few reasons. First, I figured it would be more fun for her if she had something to look at other than my backside. Second, it would allow us (force us) to go at her pace. And third, she wouldn’t be pressured to keep going if I was plowing away in the lead.

But dang, that medicine. It left her groggy and her head was swimming. She was kicking rocks the whole way, just short of tripping on, well, everything. It was a gorgeous day with good temperatures, and the forest in this park is a fantastic mix of hardwoods and pines. No matter. The medicine’s after-effects were making this outing a big case of “nope.” A mile in, we turned around, headed back to the car and hunted down some dinner.

What went right: Making her lead was the right decision. I wanted this to be fun for both of us, and crashing down the trail as fast as I can wasn’t going to do anything for me. I was just happy to be out there, regardless of how far we went. Having her set the pace and lead the way gave us the best chance of both of us enjoying it. When that became impossible, it made sense to pack it in when she was ready.

What went wrong: Really, nothing. We missed out on the overlooks further up the trail, but had we pushed through and done the whole four-mile loop, would it have been any fun at all? Nope.

SICK AS A DOG AT 14,000 FEET

I wish I could say I was feeling great about this summit in this pic. I wasn’t.

Now I’m going to tattle on myself. Back in 2008, a group of us decided to take a shot at Mount Yale in Colorado, a 14,000-foot peak near Buena Vista.

I’d been battling respiratory issues in the weeks leading up to the trip. A hacking cough pestered me to no end. But I figured I could give it a go.

We backpacked in a mile, set up camp and set out for Yale’s summit the next morning.

Early on, things seemed fine. I started slowing down more around 12,000 feet. Nothing unusual there. But at 13,000 feet, I started feeling side cramps. Normally, cramps like that occur when you’re running or sprinting, not when you’re hiking. Leg cramps? Sure. A side-stitch? No. But that’s what I was feeling. With no real idea what was going on, I pushed on.

The cramps got worse, and by the time I topped out, I was gassed. Here’s where things got weird.

Those side cramps, which came with the expected heart/lung stress of going uphill at altitude, didn’t go away. Anytime I got moving, the cramps would take hold. When I stopped, I was getting strangely cold. Soon, symptoms of altitude sickness were taking hold. I was moving slowly down the mountain, and weather was moving in. Treeline seemed incredibly far off. My declining physical state, and the conditions moving in, got me worried.

I knew if I got to treeline, I’d be OK. But I also knew I needed to eat something. I did, though I almost barfed it up. Having been on the mountain much longer than I thought, I was running low on water.

Eventually I got to treeline. I ran into a group of hikers, swallowed my pride, and asked if they had anything they could spare to drink.

When I got back to camp, my condition only worsened. Back at home, a hospital visit revealed a severe case of pneumonia, pleurisy and fluid around my heart. Recovery from this mess took a couple of months.

What went right: Well, I did summit! In all seriousness, though, not much. It was good that I recognized my predicament, kept heading downhill and, when available, asked for help. I ate when I needed to. I put myself in a position to get home safely, see a doctor and get treatment.

What went wrong: Almost everything else. This trip is a laundry list of avoidable errors. For starters, I should never have gone. The hacking cough was a good sign that whatever was ailing me wasn’t done. Those weird side cramps should have been a big enough red flag to turn me around. The two liters of water wasn’t enough. Pneumonia is a serious condition anywhere, and downright dangerous at altitude (that’s what prompted the altitude sickness). Fluid around my heart and my right lung could have been lethal. Mount Yale is a beautiful mountain, but it’s not worth my life. It was good that I humbled myself and asked for help when I saw those other hikers. But that humility would have been better served by staying home.

I could go on, but that’s a good sampling of scenarios I’ve faced, along with the good and bad about the decisions that were made. Experience is a great teacher, and hopefully it’s made me a better – and safer – hiker.

Bob Doucette

With five deaths in six weeks on Capitol Peak, mountain safety takes on greater urgency

Capitol Peak, Colo. (Wikipedia commons photo)

Anytime someone dies in the mountains, it gets attention. Landslides, avalanches, falls, or otherwise, the terror of finding your end on a high peak garners headlines.

People speculate how it happened. They express grief and sympathy for the fallen climber’s family and friends. A few may even throw barbs toward the victim, though that is, thankfully, rare.

This is repeated every year, especially in the summer when hordes of hikers and climbers take advantage of longer days and more favorable weather to get their summit fix.

But this summer feels a bit different, in that the volume of deaths seems to be on the rise. And more than that, the number of fatalities on one particular mountain, Colorado’s Capitol Peak.

I’ve never climbed it, but I know some people who have. There is bountiful information about the peak and its challenges available online and in books. From these sources, I can tell you a few things about the mountain: It’s exposed, with large drop-offs and a number of “no-fall zones.” Like the rest of the Elk Range where it resides, it’s notoriously loose, with rotten rock in all the wrong places. It doesn’t take much for toaster-sized rocks – or boulders far larger – to tear loose from the mountainside and careen down its steep slopes, and God help you if you’re in the fall line. One friend of mine survived a rockfall incident, but deals with traumatic brain injury symptoms years later after having two loose rocks smash into her head during a climb in 2013. Thank God for climbing helmets, or she’d be dead.

More recent news has solidified the mountain’s reputation. Over the past six weeks, Capitol Peak has claimed five lives.

That’s an extraordinary number, given the fact that the mountain hasn’t had more deaths than that over the previous several years combined. And for more perspective, it’s just two fewer than Mount Everest recorded during its spring climbing season this year. I don’t want to equate the two mountains, but the numbers are what they are.

So what do we know of the 2017 fatalities? The first two seem to be cases of falls associated with loose rock. But the last three indicate something else.

The third and fourth deaths on Capitol Peak, Carly Brightwell and Ryan Marcil, were a couple who had climbed the mountain, then fell on a steep section below the summit but before the solid yet very exposed knife-edge ridge.

The fifth death, Zackaria White, was a climber who fell in the same area.

What separates these two incidents is the experience of the climbers. The couple in question had some time in the mountains under their belts. White did not. In fact, Capitol Peak was his first 14er (a mountain that meets or exceeds 14,000 feet above sea level).

The knife-edge ridge on Capitol Peak. (Wikipedia commons photo)

What they have in common is it appears all three people tried to find another route down the mountain to avoid traversing the knife edge, according to local search-and-rescue team reports. They cliffed out, got to a point where they could not ascend or descend, and fell to their deaths.

Those similarities would, at least, point toward some obvious lessons: Stay on the route, especially on challenging mountains like Capitol. But this is no cure-all, as evidenced by the other fatalities on Capitol, as well as two more deaths on the nearby Maroon Bells, a pair of striking but dangerous mountains in the same range.* The “Deadly Bells,” as they are known, are like the rest of the Elk Range: steep, exposed and littered with loose rock that can break off under you at any moment. Deaths on the Bells, as well as a number of mountains in this range and many others throughout Colorado (10 fatalities so far this year), come with a wide variety of causes.

In fact, if you were to make a list of causes of death (and preventative measures to minimize risks for each situation), it would be so broad as to nullify any attempt at standard, one-size-fits-all practices to curtail mountain tragedies. To wit: bring the 10 essentials; eat and hydrate; get an early start; watch the weather; study the route; bring an emergency locator beacon; be in top shape; don’t wear cotton; bring the proper footwear; don’t try a mountain beyond your abilities; hike with a partner; and so on. Even if you did all these things – and most people do – there is a chance that you could still die on a mountain by pure blind chance. That, too, has happened often enough, claiming newbies and veteran climbers alike.

It should be noted that the ratio of people who have safely summited Capitol Peak, and any number of other Colorado mountains, to those who have died on them is starkly in favor of survival. For every death, thousands have successfully climbed and come home intact.

But rescue and recovery missions are expensive, taxing and at times risky endeavors. Given that, and the growing number of people who try their luck in the high country (to the tune of hundreds of thousands every year) mean that the myriad of ways people can get into trouble will only ensnare more, which will mean more rescues, more risk on the part of the rescuers, and to those who can’t be saved, more deaths.

An exasperated Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo told the Aspen Times his office would more aggressively educate people on the risks of climbing mountains, especially the ones in his jurisdiction. Mountain Rescue Aspen is drawing up plans to do just that.

But here is where we are: We exist in a time where outdoor adventure is more popular than ever. Social media, especially channels like Instagram and Facebook, drive people to do more, push harder and otherwise ply their skills for the sake of not just enjoying the high country, but to pursue “likes,” audience growth, and potential sponsorships from gear companies, retailers and others who seek out social media influencers to market their brands. They may not be the only drivers, but they are potent. And they will only grow more powerful as populations in Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle and Portland, among others, swell.

To be frank, I don’t know if there’s an answer here. I can’t say if this summer in Colorado is an anomaly or the beginning of a trend. But it does bring me back to a couple truths.

First, the ultimate responsibility has and always will lie with the individual. No one forces anyone to climb mountains. For those who do, the burden of preparedness and safety is squarely on their shoulders. Given the massive volume of information out there on mountain safety, there is no excuse for being uneducated on the topic or on the peaks people climb.

Second, it’s important for people to have each other’s backs. Teach those with less experience than you. Be the one to give guidance on the trail to your partners, and take charge when needed. Know when it’s time to call it a day and turn around. Those lower on the pecking order need to pay attention to those with more experience. And those with the experience need to get a good read on their partners and understand their limitations, or any other problems that may arise. Teams should not split up unless absolutely necessary, and believe me, that’s rare.

We know people will have problems in the high country. We know people will die. And we’ll analyze these incidents, looking for answers. But don’t expect a cure-all solution. As lame as this might sound, we must do the best we can at taking care of ourselves, doing the things we love in the places we cherish, knowing that these marvels of nature can snuff us out at any time, with total indifference, even if we do everything right. It’s the nature of mountains, and one none of us should ever forget.

Bob Doucette

*An earlier version of this post said there were four deaths in the Maroon Bells this year. There have been two.

When, not if, lightning strikes: Watch those skies, folks

Storms forming near Mount Sherman, as seen from near the trailhead. When this photo was taken, at least a dozen people were still heading up the mountain, some just above this spot.

Hiking down the slopes of Mount Sherman, I was taken aback by the striking beauty of storm clouds beginning to form, contrasting with bright blue skies and the muted tones of the mountain itself.

An old mine building atop the ridge looked particularly photo-worthy, so tiny and fragile compared to the enormous scale of the mountain and the blossoming cumulus clouds in the distance. I stopped, framed the image and snapped one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken in the high country.

By this time, my nephew Jordan and I were almost down to the trailhead where his car – and the promise of a sizable lunch – awaited. It was late morning, and a good time to be almost down.

But we both noticed something troubling. Plenty of people were still on the way up.

Jordan spotted some people higher on the ridge, with at least an hour of hiking ahead of them – and a growing collection of puffy, gray-bottomed clouds all around. Down the trail, maybe 15 minutes from the trailhead, even more people – a young woman with her dog, a middle-aged couple, and four bros power-hiking every 20 steps, then stopping to rest – were going up. Over their shoulders, a particularly angry-looking storm was getting ready to explode over White Ridge.

Further conversations I had with folks that week noted some interesting comments from people walking into forming storms.

“Oh, I’ll keep an eye on the weather,” was a common one.

“I’m from Kansas. We get storms. I’m not afraid of getting wet,” was another.

“I’ve been doing these for awhile. I know what I’m getting into.” Uh-huh.

I’m not one of those who stops people with dire warnings about how cotton kills or how they shouldn’t try a summit so late. I’m guilty of many high country hiking sins, and frankly, a stern warning from a stranger rarely goes over well. People don’t like being told they’re wrong. But I don’t mind giving people advice if they ask.

But here in cyberspace, it’s different because people search the internet for tips and information on how to safely navigate the potential hazards in the mountains. Hence this post.

Back in 2015, there was a day when more than a hundred people were on the slopes of Mount Bierstadt. Around 11:30 a.m., storms had formed while people were going up and down the mountain. A lightning strike slammed into a group of hikers, injuring 15 people and killing one hiker’s dog.

It should be noted that lightning strike fatalities are rare. So far this year, 12 people in the U.S. have died by lightning strike, including one horseback rider in Colorado who was struck in an open field, according to the National Weather Service.

But when it comes to hiking in alpine areas, success is partly build upon minimizing risk. Marching into a summer storm is counter to that. Summer storms can not only hurl lightning on unprotected hikers, but can also create dangerous conditions on relatively benign routes, and make tougher routes deadly. On a summer day late in August of 2004, another hiker – dressed in summer attire and running shoes – died from hypothermia after getting caught in a storm high on Longs Peak.

Weather changes the nature of mountains. Experienced hikers and expert mountaineers can push weather boundaries more than most, but as peak-bagging becomes more popular, there is a rush of people with scant experience in the high country itching to try their luck in the mountains. Bragging rights to friends or triple-digit (quadruple?) likes on Instagram sometimes trump good judgment. And frankly, not knowing what you don’t know is just as dangerous as anything else. Ignorance is not bliss.

Going back in some of my older posts, I pulled out a list of ways people can mitigate the risks that summer weather poses. It’s worth looking at again.

Start early. Dawn or predawn is best. Even if you’re in shape, it’s going to take you a lot longer to hike at altitude than it would at lower elevations. Give yourself enough time to summit early so you don’t have to play “beat the clock” with the afternoon storms.

Check weather reports. Afternoon storms are almost a given, but be sure to check forecasts the night before and the morning of your hike or climb. Real-time data will give you a better look at what might be in store.

Watch the skies. Looks for signs that storms might begin forming. Isolated clouds or high, wispy formations are usually pretty harmless. But small, puffy clouds often multiply, coalesce and grow. A gray bottom is a good sign that the clouds are forming a storm. When they do, that’s a good time to reassess your plans.

Don’t be afraid to turn around. Summit fever kills. You might decide to take a chance, but there is a place where you reach a “point of no return” when it comes to getting below treeline before storms hit. Time spent getting to safety can be measured in hours if you’re in trouble on or close to a summit — a long time to be stuck in bad weather in such a vulnerable place. Remember that the mountain isn’t going anywhere, and you’ll likely be able to try it again another day. That won’t be the case if you get killed rolling the dice with the weather.

Respect all the mountains. Even the “easy” ones can be treacherous under the wrong conditions. Bierstadt is considered one of the easier 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado, but there are scores of people who were on that mountain during that 2015 lightning strike who can tell you how dangerous it can be when you’re there at the wrong time. So whether you’re doing a short walk-up hike or a really demanding climb, treat each ascent with care.

Bad weather and poor route conditions caused by storms have turned me back a few times. It’s a bummer when you work so hard for a summit, only to be turned around short of your goal. But it’s better to do that than to become the subject for a story about tragedy in the mountains.

Bob Doucette

‘The Walking Dead’ and survival: What the show can teach us about making it in the wild

Could you survive this?

Could you survive this?

I’m a sucker for a good story. One of the stories I follow on TV is “The Walking Dead” series on AMC.

Now don’t worry, there’s not going to be any spoilers here. But I’ve thought long and hard about why this show appeals to me, and to millions of others.

The story lines, the acting, the action — sure, all of that plays a part. But I think the foundation is built on a question: What would I do in that type of world?

If you’re not familiar with the show, it goes something like this: A mysterious disease swamps the world, and there’s no cure. Only a few survive it, and the infected become mindless zombies looking for the flesh of the living on which to feed. Those who survive must contend with a world that went from civilized and technologically advanced to the dark ages in a matter of months. Governments, money, modern conveniences — they’re all gone, leaving behind a brutish, savage and dark world.

So I ask myself, “Could I hack it?”

My take on it will be different than it is for a lot of people, mostly because I look at it from the point of view of someone who spends a decent amount of time outdoors. I’ve tried to learn how to operate in areas beyond the reach of roads, technology and comfort. I might be up on this subject more than most, but consider myself very much the student still. But letting this question percolate brings to mind some basic survival concepts that you, too, would face if thrust into a zombie apocalypse, or something dreadfully similar to it. So here goes…

Worse than zombies.

Worse than zombies.

The big things will scare you, but it’s the little things that will kill you. Fear of a zombie horde will motivate you to be safe, but chances are, your end wouldn’t come by way of a bite from the undead. It would be something much smaller. A blister pops, and without proper medicine, infection sets in. Untreated, sepsis will occur, and that will take you down. Small illnesses like colds or the flu can become crises of lethal proportions absent the comforts and cures of the developed world. Clean water will be harder to find, and given our lack of immunity to waterborne diseases, a gastrointestinal malady will take you out in a matter of days.

The fix: Learn wilderness first aid, and how to filter and sanitize water. These aren’t cure-alls, but the fewer incidental infections in the wild you have, the better your chances of survival. Bummer if you get the flu, though.

Ed Wardle went into the Yukon backcountry and couldn't stop thinking about food.

Ed Wardle went into the Yukon backcountry and couldn’t stop thinking about food.

The thought of food will consume your thoughts and activities as much as anything else. Sure, you’ll scavenge and hoard the non-perishables for awhile, but eventually those supplies will run out. At that point, you’ll have to resort to growing our own food (hard to do with Negan on the prowl, or zombies closing in) or revert to hunting/gathering.

Most of us don’t know how to farm. And farming/gardening can be very seasonal, depending on where you live, meaning that those lean winter months can be tough sledding. So chances are, most of us will have to go paleo for real and become hunter/gatherers.

I watched a show a few years ago called “Alone in the Wild,” where the star of the show planned to spend 90 days in the Yukon wilderness. As the show progressed, I couldn’t help but notice how most of his thoughts dwelled on food. Where to get it. How much he needed. How hungry he was. All the time. How sapped he felt. All the time. He could catch a trout or two, but consume only 400 calories while burning through 2,000 to 3,000 a day. After awhile, he was reduced to mimicking the wildlife around him, possessed by the thought of the next meal, and controlled by the lack of it. That’s your life in “The Walking Dead” world if you survive the initial calamity.

The fix: Learn how to hunt (firearm and archery), trap and fish, and bone up on your edible plants (here are some examples). Couldn’t hurt to pick up some food preservation skills, either, to get you through those lean months.

Negan's one bad dude. In chaotic survival situations, sometimes ordinary folks break bad.

Negan’s one bad dude. In chaotic survival situations, sometimes ordinary folks break bad.

Wildlife can be dangerous, but people more so. People are social animals, but as we know, more of us die at the hands of other people than we do wildlife. And in the middle of an undead dystopia, the worst of us are going to manifest themselves into characters like The Governor, Negan, The Wolves, and those dreadfully hungry residents of Terminus. In the real world, famine, disaster, civil war and other disruptive events that can crash a society have shown that we truly don’t understand how deep people’s bad intentions can become when survival is on the line.

The fix: There is safety in numbers, but trusting others in dark times is risky business. Carefully pick out a small group you can trust, and one that can bolt for safety at a moment’s notice. No point getting caught by warlord’s minions while trapped in a stationary place with lots of defenseless people. And speaking of defense, it’s always a good idea to learn how to defend yourself. Pick up some martial arts. If you’re going to defend yourself with a firearm, learn how to use is and practice regularly. If you’re going to live in the wild, be prepared to fight like there are no rules.

Home is where you can make it. Make it right.

Home is where you can make it. Make it right.

Most of us are helpless without gadgets, gasoline and the power grid. It will hurt if you lose those modern conveniences, but where this really hits you is when you need to find adequate shelter and warmth. And it’s a killer when it comes to getting from Point A to Point B. Think about it: Your house or apartment becomes a really tough place to stay when the power is out. Dead of winter? Freezing cold. Mid-summer? Unliveably hot. And where would you be if you didn’t have the ability to drive a car, hop a bus or take a train?

You could get by for awhile, but as time passes, gasoline will run out, cars will break down and shelter built on the contingency of the power grid working will eventually cease to be viable.

The fix: Home is where you are, and that’s something to remember if you are regularly on the move. Without modern transportation, you’re going to need to condition your body to hike long distances, with all your possessions on your back (don’t forget those 10 essentials). Take up backpacking and make hiking a habit. That, and learning to ride a horse might also be a good idea. As for shelter, sure, you can make do with existing  structures. But you’ll also want to learn how to make your own shelter: Lean-to shelters in warmer months, and in snowy areas, you should know how to make a quinzee. And at the top of this, learn how to start a fire (here are some ideas on how to do it without a match or lighter). Fires are crucial for warmth, cooking, and sterilizing water and medical tools. If you have these skills down, you’re several steps of everyone else wandering around in the apocalypse.

Bob Doucette

Caution, summer hikers: It’s still snowy in the mountains

The northeastern San Juan Mountains of Colorado in June 2014.

The northeastern San Juan Mountains of Colorado in June 2014.

Last week, a post about a serious accident in the mountains of Colorado prompted a good online discussion about high country safety.

In the post, the woman who wrote it talked about how she and another hiker had gone up Humboldt Peak, and on the descent, attempted a glissade (sliding down a slope on your butt) down a long snow slope. The conditions were icy, and her partner ended up losing control and getting injured. In her attempt to reach him, she also slid and banged herself up but escaped serious injury. The pair was able to contact local search-and-rescue and both were led safely down the mountain.

The accident was somewhat similar to another one on the same mountain several years earlier. In that incident, the climbers involved were more experienced than the pair I first mentioned. In this case, the climber attempting the glissade lost control and was gravely injured. His partner was able to put him in a sleeping bag to keep him warm while she descended for help. He was airlifted off the mountain, but later succumbed to his injuries.

My initial thinking was that this mountain, a Class 2 walk-up, has a spooky nature to it. But a commenter online had a different take. He said that people who have a lot of experience in summer and fall mountaineering aren’t necessarily going to be as proficient when thick snow is present. A second commenter reaffirmed that message. Her take, in short: Snow changes everything.

What got me to writing this is that many weekend day-trippers and out-of-state vacationers are heading to the mountains this month. Even though the calendar makes us think “summer,” the fact is many mountains still have a great deal of snow on them. If you’re determined to climb a mountain in June, you should know that most of these mountains are different now than they will be in a month or two, and potentially more dangerous, depending on the peak.

My experience on snow is limited. I don’t live in Colorado, so I’m a visitor just like so many others. But in my few experiences, here are a couple things I’ve seen:

My friend David helps a stranded climber put on some microspikes so she can safely descend a snow slope on Mount Sneffels.

My friend David helps a stranded climber put on some microspikes so she can safely descend a snow slope on Mount Sneffels.

In June 2013, while climbing Mount Sneffels, I saw people who lacked the traction gear needed for the couloir that is the mountain’s signature feature on its upper route. The Lavender Couloir holds snow well into the summer, and when temperatures rise, it can break under your feet and send you skidding down the mountain. One woman I saw, who was “guided” up that portion of the mountain, froze when confronted with the challenges of steeper snow and inadequate gear. Her partner was nowhere to be found, but my group was able to help her down to a safer part of the mountain. Clearly, this was not the mountain experience she thought it would be.

Slick patches like these on Wetterhorn Peak can pose risks to climbers.

Slick patches like these on Wetterhorn Peak can pose risks to climbers.

In June 2014, while climbing Wetterhorn Peak, wet, slushy snow made our descent dicey. Three of us had our footing on the snow give out. Two of us arrested quickly without incident. A third climber slid about a hundred feet and hit some rocks. His injuries were minor, but it was a scary scene nonetheless. Wetterhorn’s standard route is very solid in dry summer conditions. But like I said before, snow changes everything. A slide on the wrong part of that mountain could send you off a 700-foot cliff.

Experienced mountaineers already have the knowledge to operate on snow slopes. But most people heading into what’s considered prime hiking season are not experienced mountaineers. Even those with a couple dozen or more summits under their belts aren’t in the “experienced” category if they haven’t had the time and training to handle snow.

So this post is directed more toward the summer hikers and not those who hike and climb in all four seasons. In light of this, some thoughts:

Check conditions on the route you’re planning. There are often online resources with up-to-date route conditions. Find those and read up. Be aware that late spring and early summer conditions often include the presence of significant snow on the route, and this will affect the difficulty and risk of a climb. Postholing will make your ascent slower and burn more energy. Snow and ice will make conditions slippery. Avalanches (“wet slides” in warmer conditions) are still a concern. A quick check of route conditions can alert you to the presence of these risks.

If you’re determined to climb mountains where snow is present, train for the conditions. Many mountain states have organizations that teach you everything you need to know about reading and traveling through snow conditions. Printed and online resources are out there. Find some friends and practice snow skills on low-risk areas. Be honest about your skills, fitness and risk tolerances.

Own and use the gear needed for snow travel. Sole spikes, crampons, ice axes, gaiters and a climbing helmet should be in your inventory if you’re going to climb snow slopes. Know how to use an ice axe.

If you are reticent to spend the time and money to equip and train for snow travel, consider different destinations or a later time of year to go into the mountains. If you’re hitting the peaks in late spring and early summer, consider lower elevation hikes and climbs. Mid- to late July through early September are much more snow-free if you’re determined to tag higher summits. Plan accordingly.

Lean on friends with high country experience. These folks are more likely to have real-time information on how routes look, they’ll know what equipment to buy and how to use it, and can be steadying influences during a climb. I had a guy like that last summer on an attempt of Longs Peak, and with sketchy conditions that had most of us questioning the wisdom of going forward, his keen eye had a more definitive answer. His word to turn around ended any ambiguity as to what we would do next and all of us got to go home with our health intact.

Near the Mount Shavano summit in June 2009.

Near the Mount Shavano summit in June 2009.

June is a funny month  in the Rockies. We all want to get into the mountains and enjoy a little adventure. But at higher elevations, the transition from winter to summer in June is ongoing. If you’re like me and your experience on snow is limited, these are some things to keep in mind.

Bob Doucette