Hiking and climbing in the mountains are one of my favorite things to do, especially when I get to do it with my family, or good friends. This was the case a few years ago. I was asked to accompany my son and his scout group on a 50 plus mile (hike/climb) of Mt. Whitney.
Mt. Whitney is rather cool by itself because it is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States and the Sierra Nevada mountain range, with an elevation of 14,505 feet (4,421 m). Above is a picture of the formidable east face. If you are a climber, you can recognize a number of great lines up this east facing granite wall.
A kind of cool thing about this trip is the location of the mountain. It presented an opportunity to share some earth science with our group.
For example: if you plan the trip accordingly, you can seal an empty plastic water bottle while you are on the summit, then arrange to stop by the Badwater Basin, in Death Valley National Park, on your way home.
It just happens to be minus 282 ft (-86 m) below sea level. It is the lowest place in North America. Here’s how the earth science experiment works. It will help bring home the idea of why, when you are near the summit of Whitney, you are panting and breathing so hard, and why you end up taking more rest stops as you near the summit.
As the barometric pressure goes down, the concentration of oxygen is not the same as lower on the mountain.” Pressure actually helps push the oxygen into your lungs, arteries, heart, and on into our cells; and increases the concentration too.
A little trick we do to help us while we are at altitude is purse, “or press-together our lips” to increase the back pressure as we exhale. The back pressure helps force more oxygen to our cells. Here’s the experiment you can do to help communicate this principle; and show why it is so difficult to breathe while at high altitude.
While you are on the summit of the mountain, pull out a semi-flexible plastic water bottle (drink the rest of the water, if there is still any left in the bottle.) Open it up completely, and then screw the lid on as tightly as reasonable and put tape across the lid, to help remind you not to open it while you are on your return trip. When you stop in Death Valley, take a moment to look at the bottle you sealed while on the summit of Mt. Whitney.
Another interesting thing we get to deal with while mountain climbing is changing temperature. While in Death Valley you likely will notice how hot it is. Part of the reason for that is so hot is due to the Valley’s “low” elevation. Something which you may want to put in the back of your mind has to do with temperature. “For every thousand feet we travel up we lose about 3° to 5° F. degrees in temperature.”
For example, if you were standing at the lowest point in Death Valley; and the temperature is 100° F. and you were instantly teleported to the summit of Mt. Whitney; you might find that the temperature on the summit (not counting the wind chill) would be a comfortable 32° F or freezing!
I guess that is what I love about Mountaineering and the natural environment in general. There is so much to learn, and that knowledge is like a powerful motorcycle that allows you to do or go to many places you would not be able to go, without the knowledge.
Another tidbit of knowledge has to do with lightning. You may notice that some areas on the west side of the Sierras, have a lot of trees that have been struck by lightning. As the air from the west coast, is pushed up and over the Sierras, it can cause rain and extreme air movement. This can create lightning.
This lightning can cause forest fires, burn up trees, and kill. While we were there we had to hole-up a couple of times, to avoid the dangers of these storms. Afternoon thunderstorms are common in the mountains like the High Sierras of California, the Wind River Mountains, the High Unitas of Utah, and others.
Consequently, you might get wet, but more importantly, you might have to do something to avoid being lit-up. Unfortunately, while we were there another party suffered a near miss to human life, but it killed their horses. In the above picture my son, Jeromy is standing next to two of them. Horses seem to attract lightning for some reason, and during lightning storms, riders often move away from them. Maybe it is the metal horseshoes, or that they are big?
When dealing with lightning you want to avoid becoming a conductor, that conducts electricity from one point to another. A really scary situation which I have experienced a few times, is our hair starts to float in the air, and metal objects start to buzz!!! If you get caught in that situation, do not do what I saw one guy do. He ran around sticking his metal pole in the air, to listen to it buzz! I am guessing that he was close to being a human lightning rod?
Stay away from lone trees, also set your tent up away from dead snags that may be blown over and hit your tent. The idea with lightning is to prevent making a circuit. If you are caught in the open, you could run for a safer place, but you may want to stay away from things like ski poles, ice axes, rifles, etc. I guess the buzzing sound they make is the lightning trying to make a circuit and discharge. Crouching down while standing with feet together is good. If you have a ground pad, you could crouch on it, as it insulates you from the ground. Here some more tips:
1. Advanced warnings of lightning, options include:
1.1 “If you can see it, flee it; If you can hear it, clear it.”
1.2 “The 30/30 Rule says seek shelter if the sound of thunder comes in less than 30 seconds after the lightning strike, and stay in a sheltered area for 30 minutes after you have heard the last rumble.
1.3 “If you notice your hair or your partners hair ( on your head or arms) starting to raise-up or float . . . and /or if you notice metal objects; ice axes, gun barrels, etc. start to buzz, and if it is dark you may notice a slightly bluish light around metal objects too. ” Head for a low-risk location. head for a lower risk location.
2. Move to a low-risk location “There is no such thing as a safe place, only locations with more or less risk. — D.S.Hansen One aspect of “situationally awareness” noticing things around you for tell-tale signs, like the trees around you may be burned, broken, or damaged by lightning? If so, this may a high-risk location.
The idea is to minimize your risks. Here’s a saying which has served me well: “Maximum Efficiency and Simplicity, with a Minimum of Effort and Equipment, while maintaining a Low-Risk Environment.” — D.S.Hansen
Low Risk Location may include:
2.1 A large permanent building (the rock shelter on Whitney is “NOT” a good choice, even though it has lightning rods on it. Inside of a metal car or truck is one of the best choices, a cabin, “deep” within a cave, in a low valley or depression.
2.2 High-risk places included near metal (I have even heard underwire bras and fly zippers can be a hazard?) or water; under trees; on ridges, summits, in wide open areas. Entrances to caves (ground currents follow the surface, and if you are in the entrance of a cave, you may complete the circuit.) Avoid big open areas, like a golf course, they are high-risk areas, especially because of all the metal (golf clubs and spikes on their shoes) and lone trees.
2.3 When in doubt, assume the lightning position, If the lightning storm is passing over and you’re unable to get shelter, assume the “lightning position.” If you have a ground pad, get on it crouch down low onto the balls of your feet, with your feet close together. If you were to have your legs far apart, it could create a circuit for ground currents (which are often part of lightning strikes. “Learn about “step leaders, and other lightning things.”
Try to minimize the size of your body. Don’t let any other part of your body come into contact with the ground: avoid touching anything at all. Close your eyes, tuck your head, and cover your ears with your hands. Spread your group out, 50 – 100 feet apart while the storm passes over. That way if there is a strike, there may be someone to help rescue others.
3. Afterwards, if someone is hurt.
3.1 It’s usually safe after no thunder and no lightning has been observed for thirty minutes. Be conservative here.
3.2 If anyone in your group is hurt, act quickly. Once a person has been struck, they are safe to touch: there is no electric residue. If the person is not breathing, start CPR immediately. Check for burns, especially in an entry or exit areas (head, shoulders, hands arms, legs, and feet) possibly where the person might have been wearing metal. Keep the person warm, and seek help immediately.
4. Resume activities.
4.1 Learn more about lightning by going online, reading and listen to skilled adventurers.