Seems like every year about this time we hear of someone wandering out into the woods and never coming back. Many people aren’t experienced in handling sudden winter storms and decide to take their chances while hiking in the fall. And very suddenly and unexpectedly, they get snowbound.
Unfortunately in most of these cases, the people made a couple of mistakes that could have saved their life. Fall and spring are the two times of the year when we see most of these cases appearing. If you’re not experienced in the mountains, you miss subtle changes in temperature, wind and cloud cover. What starts out as a bluebird day can turn into a blizzard within minutes. Are you prepared?
Hiking light is awesome. You can cover more ground, you stay cooler and feel less bulky. I get that. One time I opted to leave my survival pack in the truck when I did a 23 mile loop on my mountain bike up in Tahoe. I was on the Search and Rescue team too so I should have known better. But it was a beautiful July day (yes, I said July) and I wanted to make good time. In the end, I was lucky to get out alive.
At about the half way point, down in a canyon, I saw some ominous clouds approaching. I had a nice six mile uphill climb to the summit before I could descend the other side. “Man, thunder showers! It’s gonna be a wet ride,” I mumbled to myself. Well, I was right about being wet but I was wrong about the rain. I found myself in a two hour whiteout blizzard. I had shorts and a tee shirt on, that’s all.
If I didn’t know the trail like the back of my hand, I would have surely gotten lost. I pushed on because I knew where I was going. I had no choice. Making a fire would have been extremely hard without matches, even for a survival expert.
When I got to the summit there was 10 inches of snow there. I had six miles to go to get to my truck. I couldn’t ride so I had to push my bike. At least it was downhill. I made it, extremely hypothermic and mildly frostbitten. When I got home, I had a call to the same area I was in to rescue two mountain bikers. They were lucky enough to be close to a survival hut and hunkered down there. It was a long day.
The next day I learned that a man died of exposure in the same storm. He too was unprepared and inexperienced in winter survival. Years of growing up in the mountains proved that these scenarios are not uncommon. It’s always the same message. Don’t go out unprepared, especially in the fall or springtime. Storms can come in out of nowhere.
Temperatures can go from the mid 60’s to the low 30’s very quickly. Blizzards can erase tracks and make trails look different. People almost always become disoriented. They also forget the first rule of winter survival which is to stay put, find a way to get out of the elements and wait it out. Panic almost always takes over and they decide to move. Inevitably they almost always make a complete circle and end up back where they started. I have followed these types of tracks for years, often finding a lifeless body at the end of them.
The bottom line is awareness. Along with that comes preparation and common sense. Be aware that weather conditions can and often do change. Most the time you simply end up wet and uncomfortable but it never fails that we hear of several folks every year succumbing to the elements. Think about that next time you leave your survival pack in the car.
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