Spring and Fall my Favorites

Spring and fall are my favorite times of year. Temperatures are more enjoyable, I love the changes in the weather we get to watch. The Spring Alpine Ice is great, and after you climb up you get to glissade down. I figure it is just like at work, there are three things that make it possible to maintain a low risk environment; 1. Equipment 2. Skill (training) and 3. Good Judgement.

As I mention this I will use a phrase I put in an avalanche article I wrote for Emergency Magazine, the journal of emergency medicine. “It seems there are two extremes, 1. a person who figures these things rarely if ever happen or only happen to others. 2. a person who figures there is rockfall and avalanches waiting around every corner to snuff them out. Both approaches are born of ignorance.

Knowledge gained from books is good. Training can help fill in the gaps. Experience teaches us the exceptions to the rules. For example, the middle of valleys is where streams flow, they can melt the snow from the bottom up. Add a cliff and there is a “potential” hazard. How we interact with it will determine whether or not it becomes an incident.

Below is an drawing I made quite a few years ago after an incident. I used it as part of a safety brochure I made available to hikers and climbers at my my store, and during training and such to promote safety.

The drawing is a little rough, but it does convey the idea of how the snow melts on the bottom side too.

While on the job safety and skills are key. That applies to the Out of Doors too. Unfortunately, in the above moat several people lost their lives. As a National Park Ranger, and Captain and Operations Leader for the Sheriff’s Mountain Rescue Team I saw a number of unfortunate events—this is one of them.

The Forest Service actually closed the mountain for a short time, due to these deaths. No one wants to see people hurt. This was an effort to prevent more accidents. Pentolite boosters were used to make the moat opening wider, so climbers glissading down would be able to see it better and to eliminate the thin sections of snow around the moat.

A solo climber fell in this moat. The next day a couple of brothers went looking for him. One of them fell in the this moat too. Unbeknownst to the SAR (Search and Rescue) team there were two people who had fallen in the moat. They thought they were rescuing the brother who had fallen in, but when the helicopter took the body down to the bottom for positive ID, it was the wrong body!

Climbing mountains can be low risk events, depending on how we approach it.

Moats develop between the warm ground, the running water, and the melting snow. The ground melt creates gaps. Water falls like this can extend that, or create unseen snow bridges over it. In both cases, they can be totally hidden or partially exposed. If travelling or glassading watch your step, when in doubt probe with your ice axe shaft.

These hazards can be hard to see. Notice the bottom center left of this picture, there is a slightly exposed 20 to 30 foot deep moat With training and experience you can learn to how to avoid these. Photo by dsh

“Stay Alert” Spring safety has to do with understanding the snow and how to minimize the risks while traveling on it. Also, trails are sometimes muddy as can be. This moisture can also saturate the snow, cuts slides loose, and erode rocks and boulders loose (rockfall).

Example of late spring avalanche debris. Notice the people in the upper middle right of the frame, the parking place, and the tooth picks. . . that resemble trees. Late in the year the potential is low of another slide coming down but rockfall is a possibility. It is still experiencing freeze thaw cycles, and water erosion higher on the mountain and the chute is a funnel. Photo by dsh
Notice the light tan area on the cliff face. It has been exposed to water filling the cracks as the sun melts the snow, and at night the water freezes, expanding, like water freezing in your water pipes, it is powerful. Over many years it erodes and splits the flake loose.
Notice how it flowed to the valley. High center of frame you can see the origination point.
This roadway has already been cleared, but it closed the highway for a couple of days, and no one was hurt and there was no property damage.

Below is a rockfall system we installed for the Park Service above the trail to Timpanogos Cave National Monument. It

This is a retractable (so winter avalanches do not destroy it) rockfall drape. I was hired to do the climbing and install it on the cliff face.. It is in the main chute above the trail leading to a popular destination. Natural Rockfall had killed one person, and took out another person’s eye, while hiking the trail. With over a 100,000 visitor’s hiking the trail each year, this was a good idea The managing agency is doing a good job at hitting that balance between too much and too little. – way to go! . Photo by dsh

Cleaning out the seasons worth of natural rock fall. These are the rocks that the drape prevented form falling onto the trail. If you spend a lot of time in the mountains you see this natural rockfall happening, Look around you. Are there lots of tree, that are in good shape? Chances are you are in a good place to take a break. photo by dsh

Each year is different, sometimes a lot different. This year (2018-19) is unique in that we are once again are experiencing heavy snow fall. That means we are likely to see some fairly big wet snow avalanches. Avalanches follow streams (valleys, gullies, and chutes) down the mountain and can travel many thousands of feet, sometimes miles. Many of these runout paths already have signage in place.

Learning about how the natural environment works is part of the enjoyment. When we stop for a break, arrange to avoid chutes and gullies. By studying the natural processes you will eventually begin to get an intuitive sense. Which is the first step in hazard forecasting. From there I use my understanding of the natural processes and various engineering principles to quantify (the potential) my feelings, and to determine the risk factor. Here’s and example.

The fall is great too!

Fall Colors often are spectacular. One of my faithful hiking companions. Wildlife is more active in the fall. Do not step on Rattlesnakes, they don’t always rattle. When stepping over logs or traveling through the bushes, watch where you step, or sit. When in doubt a staff or ski pole can be useful to probe and rustle the bushes before walking through to get snakes to “Exit Stage Left,” or cause the to rattle.

Fall has less moisture, and can get on the dry dust side at times, but there are elderberries, Thimble Berries, Raspberries, Currents, Huckleberries, and . . . make up for any down side.

Fall has another big plus, the fall colors saturate the landscape. If you are new to the out of doors, reading books will help, watching videos can too, but nothing replaces actual hands on learning from a skill outdoors person. Formal training is most effective, add that to experience, and you have the pure gold of knowledge.

Remember, “Climbing down is 3 times harder…”