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Maddy
03-26-2004, 07:38 PM
After reading and reflecting on all the posts regarding the tragedies on the ROCKPILE this winter I would like to know what you would do if you were caught in a major storm hiking in the Whites.
Let's assume that you have decent survival gear in your pack.
Very warm puffy jacket, expedion weight thermals and fleece, stove, warm sleeping bag and something like the ultra-light Bivy bag, high energy food, hand warmers, etc.
Would it be better to dig a snow cave, and use all your gear, jump up and down to stay warm, and then hunker down to wait it out, or should you press on and hope to get below tree line or to a safer place?
What would you do if you were solo?
What would you do if you were with 2-4 people with decent survival gear?
My gut tells me that if things were really bad it might be better to dig in and stay put rather than risk getting hopelessly lost or falling off the edge.
I have been following Will Steger's polar expedition and when they have bad storms they stay put.
If the decision is too stay put, would it be better to do it early in the game rather than later? IT seems that the longer you press on hoping to get out, the colder you get, and then you might not have the wherewithall to dig your cave and set up. I would love some input on this. Thanks.
Maddy

Silverback
03-26-2004, 08:04 PM
In my mind, and what most survival writings seem to advise, the best thing to do is to stay put and prepare a shelter. Energy lost in a frantic effort to get out is valuable energy that can be used to keep warm. In addition, you will be a whole lot easier to find by possible rescuers if you remain close to the itinerary that you (hopefully) left with someone.

Of course, ultimately it depends on a number of variables, including terrain, severity of the weather, one's current position (windward side or lee side for example), etc.

I just hope to avoid getting caught in such a situation, but sometimes the situation catches us, I guess.

crazymama
03-27-2004, 08:07 AM
I have never been in this life and death type of situation.

However, assuming that I had what I needed to survive, I think I would hunker down, and wait for the storm to break. It just seems like the safest way to deal with the situation. I do think that the decision to hunker down or make a run for it, has a lot to do with personality. I guess I'm just a hunker down kinda person.

eddie
03-27-2004, 08:40 AM
I don't think you should generalize what to do because each situation poses different variables which need to be dealt with individually - time of day, condition of hikers, knowledge of area and terrain, etc. However, always being prepared to bivy, having the proper supplies - food, water and navigation tools - and knowing the weather forecast are basic and essential requirements for us all. It seems that it always takes a tragedy to drive home the point to some folks.

Rob S
03-27-2004, 09:31 AM
Despite the fact that it may be safer to hunker down and wait out the worst of the storm, I think it is only human nature to try to get out. And I believe my first instinct would be to make an effort to get off the mountain, or at least below treeline. Although I've never been in a true life-threatening situation like you describe, I cannot honestly say without a doubt that I would do the "best" thing. In other words, in the safety of my warm house, it's easy to say that I would do the right thing. But being in the actual situation, .......... who knows? I might make all the wrong mistakes. I always try to be prepared for the conditions at the time, assess the weather, and tell loved ones of my plans. Hiking/backpacking can be inherently dangerous, and I know the risks. I've turned back more than once due to either wind or poor visibility, and I'm sure I'll be turned back again. To me, that's part of the fun and challenge in knowing that I will not always be successful in trying to summit. So, while I hope to never be in a life-threatening situation, if I am, I hope that the knowledge I've learned from so many folks here at VFTT combined with my own skills and instincts will help me to make the best decision at the time.

Mad Townie
03-27-2004, 10:10 AM
Of course any person's mileage may vary tremendously from one situation to the next. As a general approach, I think about whether getting below treeline is doable. In other words, it's a balancing of the perceived risks. If the risk is going off a cliff, one is faced with a different situation than if the risk is simply getting into the trees off the trail.

Bottom line: what is the likelihood of death with each choice? The next questions is likelihood of serious injury, and the analysis proceeds from there, with the last step probably being the likelihood of really irritating someone who is expecting me to be somewhere. :D

All of this avoids the first question, which relates to getting into the situation in the first place.

14000feet
03-27-2004, 11:57 AM
In the winter, and, if I had the gear (tent, winter bag, enough food), I'd play it safe and make camp before hypothermia clouded my thinking and the severe cold rendered my hands useless. But of course, that's what I say now on a beautiful spring day in the comfort of my own home.
Billy

Willie
03-27-2004, 03:45 PM
Billy makes a good point. A person that becomes hypothermic may exhibit irritable, irrational, and/or confused behavior. So, if things start going badly in the field and you become hypothermic, who knows what you may "decide" to do.:confused:

Chantal
03-27-2004, 06:33 PM
I would MOVE, MOVE, MOVE !!!!!!!!!

Periwinkle
03-27-2004, 08:53 PM
First of all, it would extremely unlikely that I would get caught out in a major snowstorm. I don't plan big hikes with that kind of weather predicted. If I were caught in a freak whiteout squall, I believe my instinct would be to hunker down, going on the assumption that conditions would improve shortly.

jfb
03-29-2004, 06:01 AM
If caught above treeline in that hypothetical situation, I would probably hike down to below treeline as quickly as possible and try to hike out. If unable to get out by mid-afternoon, I'd set up some type of camp before dark and wait out the night.

John H Swanson
03-29-2004, 06:45 AM
Last winter, on my birthday, I decided to cancel the planned difficult hike because of an impending strom. Instead, we decided to do Algonquin. Climbing up there was lots of big flakes and limited visability. Above tree line we were going cairn to cairn. It was facemask and goggles conditions with horizonally driven snow. At the summit, we sat a few feet apart and the summit photo was a blur of white. On the summit, it was a sea of white. Finding the actual summit was surprisingly difficult.The wind was pushing us around and we were very shortly left with no natural sense of direction.

We left the summit compass in hand and religously following the bearing. The cairns could not be detected until they were just a few feet in front of us. I was grateful that there was a sense of horizon in the distance.

It is difficult to say what I would have done because I do not know how bad the conditions were. If it was possible to safely walk (wind less than 60mph), then I would probably continue to navigate my way downhill. Of course, there is an enormous amount of work required to do this. Then map need to be prefolded to 4" by 4 in or smaller so it doesn'y blow away. Compass and altimeter need to used well.

Of course, I do not count on being able to get down and carry the necessary emergency gear. I think I only use about 20% of my 32lb daypack.

Pete_Hickey
03-29-2004, 07:23 AM
Originally posted by John H Swanson
.... we were very shortly left with no natural sense of direction.

We left the summit compass in hand and religously following the bearing. ....

Then map need to be prefolded to 4" by 4 in or smaller so it doesn'y blow away.

While many probably do this, some may not.

BEFORE (IE while at home) write down critical bearings to key locations. EG summit to col,
col to bump, bump into woods.... It is MUCH easier to simply read the bearings from a card (or even better, a 'label' stuck to the back of the compass) than it is to try futzing with a map.

Peter Miller
03-29-2004, 08:30 AM
"Don't Die on the Mountain," Dan H. Allen, Diapensia Press

Bob
03-29-2004, 09:41 AM
answers may vary depending on conditions/injuries-

1- get below treeline
2- get below treeline
3- get below treeline

anybody that would try to 'hunker down' and wait out a storm above treeline in the Whites is dreaming. If it's too windy to walk then crawl. You may get lucky, and obviously there are exceptions, such as if there is any type of shelter already there that could be used (huts/water towers/rocks/snow drifts), but most of the terrain above treeline in the Whites is rock hard and impossible to dig a snow cave. Most tents would be shredded by the winds on 90% of the nights there.
Plus who can tell how long a storm will last?

Stan
03-29-2004, 10:02 AM
I agree with Bob, get below treeline. You are more likely to make a suitable shelter there, driving snow or sleet would be somewhat broken up by the trees, and you're more likely to find fuel for a fire, which would be one of my priorities.

The on-site decision to be made is which direction to descend. The leeward side would take you out of the wind but that side would most likely have deeper snow near the summit or ridge and, in certain vulnerable locations, higher avalanche risk. The windward route might be preferable, depending upon conditions, if it got you to shelter or a road.

These are things to occupy your mind plan your route and escape plans and as you tread towards your goal. If conditions begin to make escape a reality, I'd suggest turning around sooner than later.

Mark
03-29-2004, 10:46 AM
I like Bob's 3 rules. Above all else, you have to get below tree line. From there, I would decide if it was safer to continue travel or safer to hole up. I think if I can safely navigate, I would try to keep moving. While I am always prepared to do it, having to spend an unplanned night out in the winter is not at the top of my list. I think conditions would have to be really bad for me to abandon trying to hike out. Even if I decide to stay put, I would be second guessing myself wondering if I am better off in my sleeping bag and bivy but not moving. I guess you can do sit ups or something to try to keep warm.

Something else that I would consider is what my family and friends would be going through during the night. Even if I was able to get a cell call through to them to let them know I was hunkering down, I know it would be a long night of worry for them.

However, let's say that I do try to find shelter. I've never had to do it, so let me throw out a question for those that have. Is it even possible to start a fire to stay warm? I'm assuming the weather has caused you to seek shelter. Can you get a fire going in strong winds and/or heavy snow? Is there enough dead wood available near tree line or in a deep snow pack to start and maintain a fire? How do you keep it from doing the "China Syndrome" thing and melting into the snow pack?

For that matter, how easy is it to get a stove going in severe winter conditions? Unless you have extra water, youíll need to melt snow. Dehydration is a contributing cause of hypothermia.

With all of the above concerns and the lessons learned from this winter's fatalities, I am trying really to avoid getting stuck in a situation where I have to decide what I would do. But I still want to know what I would need to bring and do to survive the night.

Dugan
03-29-2004, 12:43 PM
I have been twice caught in severe weather, neither time above tree line.
Once, I hunkered down. It was the second day of a multi day hike, so I had adequate food and gear. The first night I was in a shelter with 2 other hikers. It had started to snow on the first night, there were several inches by morning. I ate breakfast while I decided whether to go or stay. The 2 others went, I decided to wait it out. I didn't want to chance the conditions because I wear glasses. These can sometimes make it difficult to see in thick, driven snow because it can stick to the lenses. By the next morning, there was about 3 feet of snow with drifts over 5 feet. I began breaking trail back to the trailhead. I got about half a mile before returning to the shelter. I made it to the trailhead the next day, took about 12 hours to make 4-5 miles. This was a freak spring snowstorm, so although I had some cold weather gear I didn't have snowshoes. I later heard that the other two hikers were able to another shelter halfway to their destination, then they waited it out too.
The second time was a week long winter hike in southern Vermont. Temps had been predicted -10 to 20, but had been running -20 to 5. I ditched back out to the trailhead on the fourth day, but that was more of a comfort decision than a crisis.

No matter the season, I make sure to bring enough gear that I can bivy if I have to. I might not have enough to be comfortable, but enough that I'll hopefully live.

But you never know what you'll run into out there.

dave.m
03-29-2004, 02:29 PM
Originally posted by Maddy
After reading and reflecting on all the posts regarding the tragedies on the ROCKPILE this winter I would like to know what you would do if you were caught in a major storm hiking in the Whites.

I think it really depends on where you are hiking and what the season is. What I would do on a winter day hike above treeline would be very different than what I might do during a torrential rain on a multiday mountain backpack. Both of these would be different from what I would do if xc skiing in the Pemi.

In terms of being above treeline, my general thought would be to get out of Dodge. I think Marc Chauvin has great advice on this implied by his use of "Escape Routes". See: http://www.chauvinguides.com/PresiTraverse/presiemergguide.htm
and click on the link for "Escape Routes".

Wild
03-29-2004, 05:49 PM
I don't know what the survival experts would say, but I know myself well enough to say that if I were on a winter dayhike, I would not hunker down above treeline. I would try to get back to the car first. If getting out were impossible, I would at least try to get as far below treeline as possible.

If I had a full pack with a sleeping bag and mountaineering tent, I might try to stick it out up high, but I would probably still try to drop some elevation.

Bob Kittredge
03-30-2004, 07:34 AM
I would definitely lean toward heading for treeline and getting out of the wind ASAP. But on Franconia Ridge in a whiteout, I'd hesitate to just start heading downhill in the right general direction; there are some pretty steep dropoffs when you get off the actual trail.

Apparently the Coxes made it to the summit of Lafayette and mistakenly headed down the Garfield Ridge trail when descending (didn't consult a compass? couldn't read the compass?). Didn't reallize their mistake until they hit the sign for the Skookumchuck. I wonder why they didn't head down that.

At any rate, the whole tragedy has impressed on me the need to be very conservative about heading uphill in crappy (and perhaps worsening) conditions. I'm also planning to stop at EMS on the way home tonight to buy a $25 emergency bivy; the old space blanket seems laughably inadequate now.

Frosty
03-30-2004, 08:49 AM
Originally posted by Bob Kittredge
Apparently the Coxes made it to the summit of Lafayette and mistakenly headed down the Garfield Ridge trail when descending (didn't consult a compass? couldn't read the compass?). Didn't reallize their mistake until they hit the sign for the Skookumchuck. I wonder why they didn't head down that.


I read that also, and it answered a big question in my mind. I saw the helicopter making sweeps on Monday between Lafaytte and Lincoln, but if they (the Coxes) were all the way to the Skookumchuck Trail junction, maybe that's why they weren't seen. The other question in my mind was the repeated mention of the weather not improving on Monday. When I went up to Lonesome Lake on Monday, the weather was very clear, if a little cold. I could see the Franconia ridgeline clearly.

Sadly, as far as taking the wrong trail, I can easily picture myself doing jsut that. "Hey, we got to get moving before the weather gets even worse." and I start downhill believing I'm on the right trail. I've missed turns in the trail in non-white-out conditions. A lesson for me to take away is to slow down at trail junctions and even if I'm familiar, take a sec. Especially when it is important to be on the right trail.

I hope I can remember this when my brain is addled by hypothermia.


Originally posted by Bob Kittredge
At any rate, the whole tragedy has impressed on me the need to be very conservative about heading uphill in crappy (and perhaps worsening) conditions. I'm also planning to stop at EMS on the way home tonight to buy a $25 emergency bivy; the old space blanket seems laughably inadequate now.

I'm of two minds about this. I tossed my old 3 oz space blanket after giving it a test and ripping it to shreds in my living room with my boots. I bought a heavier one, foil on one side, orange on the other. It is a tarp, though, not a bivy. It passed my living room test. I also carry a lightweight green 8x10 tarp with two 40-ft lengths of cord. Total weight is under a pound and a half.

My plan is still to get off the ridge and down to the trees in an emergency. What bothers me is the inability to make sound decisions common to hypothermia. We can wonder all we want why the COxes and Ken Holmes did what they did, but the fact is cold saps your reasoning ability. What concerns me most is that I'll make some bad decisions in an emergency because I won't be thinking properly.

I guess that perhaps bailing out earlier rather than later may be the best choice for me.

Frosty

KenC
03-30-2004, 09:28 AM
My first experience in bad weather above treeline was in the late 70's. Mt Adams, Durand Ridge. All these years later i have NEVER lost the respect i have for mountain weather!!!

I'm very conservative when making that decision to head above treeline! There are so many variables to the decision. The first question the little guy in my head asks is "Are conditions and visibility worstening?" If yes, it's a no brainer, cause i know it will only get worse with elevation! If i were caught in worstening conditions my priority would be to get below treeline! If the retreat would pose a greater danger than "digging in" i'd look for the best spot i could and hole up, but only as a last resort.

Even in good weather(especially on unknown trails) i'm constantly watching the terrain, taking mental notes on directions and distances, and keeping an escape route in mind. I always have my compass at hand and map folded inside a plastic cover now with a teather.

JohnL
03-30-2004, 12:06 PM
I've been in a couple situations on the Franconia Ridge where it turned into a whiteout pretty quickly; from blue skies to no visibility within ten minutes. My immediate reaction was to get the heck out of there and down into the woods. My reasoning is that I'm at my strongest right now so this is the time to put some distance between the ridge and me. The woods will provide a level of safety, security, and shelter not afforded above treeline. Unless I have plenty of overnight gear and food, I'm much less inclined to hunker down when exposed to the weather. Your strength can fade pretty quickly unless you have a full complement of shelter, warmth and food, especially if you are getting battered by the elements. I've got a better chance of escape and survival in the woods than above the woods.

I keep a very close eye on the weather when above treeline, particularly if I am solo. Even if I read the weather incorrectly, I'm certainly not ashamed to head down, even if the weather subsequently turns for the better. I just chalk it up to a learning experience.

I like Pete Hickey's idea of knowing some compass coordinates as escape routes. I've used this idea for a couple bushwhacks but I'll also use it for this type of situation. I don't have a GPS and I like to keep things as simple as possible, particularly if my thinking processes are going to be diminished.

JohnL

John H Swanson
03-30-2004, 01:07 PM
Originally posted by Frosty

I hope I can remember this when my brain is addled by hypothermia.

What bothers me is the inability to make sound decisions common to hypothermia. We can wonder all we want why the COxes and Ken Holmes did what they did, but the fact is cold saps your reasoning ability. What concerns me most is that I'll make some bad decisions in an emergency because I won't be thinking properly.

I guess that perhaps bailing out earlier rather than later may be the best choice for me.

Frosty

Interesting point. If you're becoming hypothermic, then your cognitive thought capability will deteriorate. If you have problems adding and subtracting then the common navigational step of adjusting for declination can easily be screwed up sending you 28 to 32 degrees off bearing. I've seen it happen a few times too many. Unfortunately or fortunately, a number of times, it was me ... until I mapped out a thought process for applying the declination correction that does not require math.

There are many ways to explain declination correction and everyone seems to like their method. I know someone will say "Why don't youuse a compass with declination built in, or a GPS" Anyway, I like my explaination only because it is easier if you have a good sense of space but not math.

In summary, I rotate the compass bezzle "towards the center of Canada" to go from map to field. This method works on the east
coast and west coast. On a 2 degree increment compass, I get accustumed to turning it about 7 lines for the NEUS. Give or take 2 degrees is usually more than enough precision. Of course you go the other way (away from the center of Canada), going from field bearing to map.

Probably not easy to understand if you are not sure of declination. It's easy to remember if you think that there's two worlds, the map one and the field one. All bearing on the map are true bearings. All bearings in the field are "magnetic" Changing worlds - going from map to field and field to map - requires converting the bearings. In the map world, north is true north is usually the top of the map. In the field world, north is magnetic north and it's located near the center (relatively) of northern Canada. You rotate bezzle to do the conversion. Direction of rotation is determined by the converion required. Map to field means true north to magnetic and this is from the top towards the center of canada. (to the left in NEUS) When you convert from field to map, you turn the bezzel in the corresponding direction. From field (ie center Canada) to the top of the map. (to the right for NEUS) Sound fuzzy, but it uses no math and it works when you're hypothermic.

How do you tell when you're hypothemic? When the thermometer on your watch reads 45F or colder (for me, when it's over one layer of polypro and under my hard shell.) That's another story.

JHS

Mark
03-30-2004, 01:41 PM
JHS,

Wow, I must be hypothermic now because I'm stumbling through your explanation and mumbling phrases of confusion. Seriously, Iím sure your method works, but Iíd rather not have to think about it in the field. A compass with adjustable declination is not very expensive and can be set to compensate for declination in the warmth of your home before you leave.

I have a GPS which I could use to follow critical waypoints which I always preload. I can also use track back to return the same way I came. If my GPS isnít working, I always have map and compass. I like the idea someone proposed of a small index card with critical locations and compass bearings for use in an emergency. Taking a map out and trying to navigate is not always easy in severe conditions.

Even without a map, a compass will give you a basic orientation in a white out. I usually study the trail maps enough to have a good general idea of correct compass bearing to get me headed in the right direction. E.g., along the Franconia ridge, heading west is generally better than heading east. I know this sounds silly, but one group in recent history bugged out the wrong way and ended up in the Pemi wilderness.

Stan
03-30-2004, 02:15 PM
One way to remember whether to add or subtract magnetic declination, called "variation" on nautical maps, is this:

"west is best, east is least"

That is, add west declination and subtract east declination.

My problem is, for the past 39 years I've been scratching my head trying to remember whether you add or subtract that declination from the compass bearing or the true bearing. Figure it out for yourself and maybe you'll remember the rule ... better than I.

The way I remember it in the field in the northeast is to consider that the geographic north pole is to the right of the magnetic north pole so I subtract the declination from my compass reading to get my true heading. Conversely, add it to your true heading to determine your compass heading.

Can dead men vote twice?

maineguy
03-30-2004, 03:19 PM
quote:

"The way I remember it in the field in the northeast is to consider that the geographic north pole is to the right of the magnetic north pole so I subtract the declination from my compass reading to get my true heading. Conversely, add it to your true heading to determine your compass heading."

Or better yet, spring for the extra $10 and get a compass in which you can dial in the declination for the area you will be hiking in.

Seriously, I don't want to have to remember "east is least", etc, much less what that means when I am on the verge of panic trying to navigate my way down a mountain in some storm.

Peakbagr
03-30-2004, 03:42 PM
John,

I'm a big advocate of taking your bearing at home, ahead of time.
Calculate the important map features or catching-points, and then tape them(and reverse bearing) to the reverse of your compass. No maps to mess with in the wind, no change of dialing in the incorrect declination, no hurried mistakes. Col, to "bump", "bump" to ridge, ridge to summit, etc.

PB

Stan
03-30-2004, 07:42 PM
I agree maineguy, the middle of a distress situation is not the time to be trying to collect your thoughts on which way to adjust your compass. My navigation training was pretty intense and much of it took place long before many of today's electronic tools were available but regardless of technology, I've always felt that a fundamental understanding of certain navigational concepts, mnemonics notwithstanding, could bail you out when batteries fail, adjustments get screwed up and all hell is breaking loose.

The way I try to prepare for such an occasion is to occasionally, while on the trail, rehearse the various things that could go wrong and how I would hope to react. Not always the most pleasant way to occupy your mind on a nice day but, it does help occupy your mind. That, combined with a fundamental understanding of certain basics, whether it be survival, compass or starting a fire, could possibly provide the margin of self assurance to avoid panic and to actually provide the skills to survive.

As for fire, every military survival manual, not to mention the scouts, cover this. It could have saved Brenda Cox and perhaps a wet smokey fire could have led to their earlier rescue. My experience has been that even green balsam fir will burn ... try it ... but let's none of us be known as the one who burned down the Pemi Wilderness!

MichaelJ
03-30-2004, 08:16 PM
I'd like to throw in one comment about using compass bearings to get off the top. I've been on several summits where although the trail goes off in a known bearing, the first few steps off the summit ledges are in a different direction - possibly significantly enough different to put you in the wrong place.

The compass is going to help a majority of the time, but a bearing alone is not necessarily the Grail of emergency situations.

And just to play devil's advocate, remember the aberrant summits with iron in the rock that throw the compass wildly off...
:D

Mark
03-30-2004, 08:38 PM
MichaelJ,

Good point. Whenever I summit, I always try to stop and make note of the trail I took to reach the summit. If I have to bail out quickly, it's nice to know exactly how you got there. When I climbed Lafayette, the summit was socked in. Even with the trail signs, it was easy to get turned around and take the wrong trail off. AS with the Coxes, one might not realize oneís mistake for quite some distance.

Maddy
03-31-2004, 09:10 AM
A big thank you to all who are posting in reply to my question "what would you do?"
Several nights ago I was unable to sleep after reading the recent Globe version of what happened to Ken Holmes. I lay awake thinking about the Holmes/Cox tragedies most of the night.
Many of us have had some epic adventures and near misses on the rockpile or elsewhere.
I think we are so lucky to be able to ponder all this in the comfort of our homes learning from each other. Perhaps some of us will live a little longer because of these discussions.
I will never again solo above treeline in any season. I've been up there with knowledgeable friends and experienced very bad weather x2 in early September. We had to abandon our climb once and had to use our pre-planned escape route once. We always carry some decent winter gear on our summer hikes.
I will never again take for granted that people I barely know have the experience to be safe in the mountains (above or below treeline). Been there, done that, will never do it again. The cost is way too high.
I learned my personal "hypothermia" lesson with Outward Bound last year in MN. I was lucky that my leaders were very aware and new exactly how to respond. They taught us well and I was able to continue on the expedition.
To this day I am in awe of how insidious and how fast it incapacitates you, renders you totally helpless, and most definitely clouds your judgment. I knew I was becoming a nut case and could not stop it.
I can tell you folks that hypothermia was the last thing I feared would happen to me out there because after all I had been in the mountains for years in the winter. I was confident that I knew exactly how to keep warm and it would "never happen to me". My biggest fear was that I might not be able to keep up with the group but NOT that I would turn into a popsicle my first night out.
Maybe it's not the smartest thing but I will still solo with my big dog.
I just cannot grow old in my rocking chair. I will however take all that I learned from all of you, the AMC winter courses, and OB and I hope to be as safe as I can be in those beautiful but sobering peaks.
Maddy :D