Monday, April 28, 2008

Mountain weather

Weather conditions are very changeable in the mountains. This isn't unusual, most of the places I've lived have the saying "if you don't like the current weather, wait 10 minutes". Of course I've lived most of my life in valleys near mountains and lakes or the ocean. In the Puget Sound region, the weather is unpredictable and changeable but the temperature rarely changes that rapidly in the lowlands. Locals therefore are often hard to convince that mountain weather is that much different.

One real danger of mountain weather conditions is the change in temperature that may accompany changes in weather. In the drier mountain areas, a 60 degree F variation during a 24 hour period isn't unusual if the weather is clear. I've met several people from both cold and warmer climates that have been caught unaware and unprepared for such temperature changes. Even more dangerous is a 30 degree drop in temperature combined with wind and precipitation, a set of conditions I've seen several times occur within 2 hours time. Of course I've seen weather go the other way also, from wet and cold to warm and sunny and I've shed layers and wished I didn't dress so warmly. And then it might change back to the cold and wet again.

I remember one hike in Yellowstone NP that started off raining, then the sun came out and died me out. Then the rain started, then sun, then rain, then sun. Three cycles of wet and dry in one 5 hour hike. At least the temperature didn't fall greatly that day. Another hike the temperature was moderate until I got up on the ridge line in the wind. There the perceived temperature was a lot lower. I met a couple on the ridge who were not prepared for the temperature and who were lost. I was glad I was able to direct back to the trail and off the ridge line. As I came down, I noticed the temperature was rapidly dropping even lower. This way in June and it snowed several inches in YNP that night and the next day. Most of the Park was closed, you could only drive to Mammoth and if you were in the Park but someplace else, you could not leave.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Falling rocks

For some reason lately I've been thinking about hiking and rocks coming down hillsides and over cliffs. Maybe it is because of the recent Outside Magazine article ( Dropped, in January 2008) of a NOLS climber killed by a rock pushed by another hiker. Maybe it is because I'm planning upcoming vacations to Utah canyon country and Yellowstone and both are areas where hikers have been killed or injured by rocks started by other people.

I've not been hit by any rocks although I've seen a lot started downhill, sometimes accidentally and sometimes purposefully, by others. I had one closer than I would like encounter on a local trail which switchbacked up a mountain. Some horsemen who had recently passed me started a head-sized rock coming down which was quite frightening as I tried to guess which way it would bounce, and what other rocks it would start, and stay out of the way. I've also accidentally started individual rocks or small slides a few times. When I do, I yell down to warn others but it can be hard to dodge multiple rocks especially on an irregular hillside.

All too often, I see people throwing or pushing (trundling) rocks deliberately off of cliffs without any attempt to ensure no one is below. It is fairly common at Yellowstone NP in the Canyon area and people have been killed by rocks deliberately tossed. I sometimes tell rock trundlers there are people below and sometimes I'm ignored. Trundling can be fun, I've done it myself but lately I'm more and more aware that it is hard to know whether people are below or not. I think that trundling is another activity responsible backcountry users should avoid.


Sunday, April 06, 2008

Books on outdoor perils

I like reading books detailing backcountry dangers including descriptions or lists of serious outcome. I started years ago when reading The Night of the Grizzlies and have continued reading books about bear and other animal attacks. Recently I read Off the Wall, Death in Yosemite and I've read the other "Death in National Park" books. Some of the reading caters to morbid curiosity and is sensationalist, other books attempt to discern what went wrong and help others avoid similar situations, and others are simply narrative. I tend to prefer the latter category, simply telling a good story and without attempts to place blame. On the other hand, books such as Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance is a good start toward being safer in bear country. While I don't think you can learn backcountry safety solely from a book, it is a starting point.

I enjoy these books especially off season while I'm too comfortable to get out in the wet NW mountains. They offer good safety information and entertainment and also inspiration, both to get out and do something and ideas on where I might want to explore and what to do or look for. I think about what I might do in similar circumstances and imagine being places I've never been and are unlikely to ever see such as the books about climbing or trekking in Asia. Some books are fascinating because of insights (or speculation) into the psychology of the individuals who did or did not survive. Some books were written when different social constructs were current and reading them reminds me that some current attitudes were not accepted even 40 years ago. I'm thinking of
The Night of the Grizzlies in particular, the "girl ranger" in Glacier NP who was in charge at Granite Park chalet because all the male rangers where fighting fires. At that time women were not allowed to fight fires. Other books show other historical attitudes such as much less concern about individual safety. I'm not referring to reckless behavior, just a greater acceptance of life's hazards.

Some of my favorites are Death in Yellowstone, Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, Into the Wild, and South: the Endurance Expedition. If reader have any suggestions along this line, I would love to read them.