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