The High Life

Staying Safe Up High

Dan was late coming off the mountain. At seven o'clock I started to worry. An hour passed, then another. After nine years of marriage, I know Dan's hiking habits as well as I know my own. He's never late, he always calls, he doesn't take stupid risks. I started thinking about what numbers to call: The hotel he was supposed to check into, the local police. Who would answer this late at night? What would they do? What could I do?

Then the phone rang.

Dan was okay. He had been delayed by a trio of dayhikers, a man and his two daughters, who he had found sitting by the side of the trail, four miles from the nearest road. They were wearing blue jeans, no raingear. There was sleet on the mountain. They didn't have equipment with which to weather the night, and they didn't think they had the energy to go on.

Dan stopped, and a few minutes later, armed with his extra clothing and bellies full of hot soup, the group started down with Dan, an ex-Marine, leading the way. I could picture the scene in my mind: four people sharing a meager spot of light from one headlamp, picking a path down the steep, icy trail.

At only 3,491 feet, tree-covered, gently rolling Mt. Greylock may be the highest point in Massachusetts, but it's hardly a peak that comes to mind when you start thinking about the mercurial gods of mountain summits. But, as the trio of day-hikers learned, any mountain can be dangerous if the weather turns suddenly and you don't have the right gear or recognize the danger.

A study of 700 accidents in Grand Teton National Park (see Backpacker, May, 1994) found that 699 were caused by operator error. Most often, accident victims did not have the skills to handle the terrain they encountered, didn't turn back in bad weather, or didn't have the appropriate gear for the conditions.

Across the country, in the smaller mountains of New Hampshire, the same pattern applies. "Falls and hypothermia are the two major causes of fatal accidents here," says John Sanders of the Appalachian Mountain Club. "We get more problems with hypothermia in summer because people just don't understand that even if it's 70 degrees down in the valleys, it can be freezing up on the ridges. The biggest misconceptions about hypothermia is that it happens only in the winter-time."
Actually, it's good news that most accidents are preventable. With a little foresight and a healthy respect for the elements, you can keep yourself safe when you hike high.

  • For every 1,000 feet you climb up a mountain, the temperature drops 3 - 5 degrees. And then there's the wind chill. So ignore the sunny, warm temerpatures down in the valley, and pack instead for the weather at the top. Always carry one more layer than you think you'll need.
  • Recognize the hypothermia zone. Temperatures as high as 50 degrees can be dangerous if there is mist or rain and wind.
  • Raingear, an extra insulating layer, a hat, and gloves should be in a place in your pack where you can reach them immediately. Remember that the best way to deal with hypothermia is to avoid it, so put your extra layers on before you get cold.
  • Know the symptoms of altitude sickness. If you are going higher than 10,000 feet, plan your hike so that you have time to acclimate first.
  • Thunder and lightning typically roll in during the afternoons, so try to plan your hike so that you tackle the exposed ridges first thing in the morning. If you find yourself on an exposed ridge with a storm rolling in, try to get off of it — even a few feet will help.
  • Choose campsites that are sheltered from the prevailing winds by clumps of bushes or big boulders.
  • Take it easy on the mileage goals. The combination of rocky terrain, tough climbs, and higher elevations can make for slow going, plus you need to build a little flexibility into your schedule in case of bad weather.
  • Be prepared (and willing) to change your plans if the weather suddenly turns sour. Carry a good map (and a compass) so that you can bail out if necessary.
  • Lingering snowfields can pose dangerous obstacles, especially when rain in the valleys becomes ice up high. If you expect to encounter snowfields, take along an ice ax and crampons (and know how to use them). If you don't have the right gear, don't be afraid to detour — or wait until later in the day, when the ice starts to melt and you can kick in steps.
  • Remember: the high country can give you a life-time of pleasure — or it can kill. Above all, remember that the mountains are stronger than you are.


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