Loose in the La Platas

Hazards and Safety
By Derek Ryter
  |  Gorp.com

Depending on the time of year, hazards to backcountry travelers in the La Platas can range from lightning, flooding, or dehydration to hypothermia or stray bullets from hunters. For the most part, this area has a mild climate, with very wet springs from February to May, then drier weather till mid-July, when the monsoonal moisture typically initiates daily afternoon showers. After August, fall may turn into what is known as Indian summer, characterized by dry, warm weather that can last till late October. Snow can fall above 10,000 feet (3,050 meters) virtually any time and has been known to surprise hikers or hunters, and hypothermia can become a very real danger.

Lightning accompanies summer afternoon thundershowers and can be avoided by keeping to low ground off ridges or peaks when you see a dark cloud group headed your way. These clouds can pop up very quickly, forming from the mountains themselves on warm, moist air moving up from the southwest. Thunderstorms will typically form in the afternoons, so it is best to plan trips into the high country to begin in the early morning and end around noon, unless you feel like waiting out a rainstorm or on a trail somewhere and then riding back to camp through mud.

Flooding is also associated with the rain showers but is limited to the bottoms of canyons and draws. Thus, it is advisable to watch the skies and look around to get an idea of where you might be able to get to if the creek you are riding along were to suddenly rise five feet. Flooding is, however, not common, and a simple awareness of its possibility is enough to eliminate this hazard altogether.

Southwestern Colorado, as with many high-altitude areas, is notorious for causing dehydration during outdoor activities. This is primarily because of the combination of high elevation, dry air, warm temperatures, and sunny days. All of these factors increase the rate of water loss from your body, and for most all of the rides described in this book, at least two water bottles should be carried; on longer rides it may be a good idea to take along a water filter to facilitate using extra water from the numerous creeks and lakes. The amount of water you need will increase with your level of exertion, the elevation, and the temperature, so plan for it by using topographic maps and your other cycling experiences.

Hypothermia can also be a problem, but it is usually encountered when bikers are not properly prepared. Above 10,000 feet (3,050 meters), it can snow at nearly any time of year, and when a storm hits, your temperature can drop very quickly; travel can become slow and exhausting. Equipment needed to combat hypothermia is not only raingear and emergency items like matches, but also the proper bike tools so that you can keep riding. This can in many cases get you down to a lower elevation where the storm is less intense and the air is much warmer. Recommended bike tools and supplies are listed below, though many if not all are probably already on your bike.

First-aid kit
Spare tube
Tire tool
Patch kit
Chain tool
Allen wrenches
6-inch adjustable wrench
10- and 14-millimeter open-ended wrenches
Extra power bar

The most common injuries incurred while mountain biking (assuming the rider is wearing an approved helmet) are cuts, bruises, and broken bones. Although broken bones are least likely for responsible cyclists, one should be familiar with appropriate first-aid measures and methods of transporting an injured companion. Much more common are cuts and scrapes, so your first-aid kit should include bandages, antibiotic ointment, and large gauze pads.

Other Trail Traffic
The La Plata Mountains area is used heavily for cattle ranching and recreation, so other than a hiker, one of the things one might encounter on the trails is a horse or a Hereford bull or cow. It is, of course, a rule of the trail for bikers to yield to hikers or horseback riders, but there is no question one should give ample room to the Herefords, particularly because they sometimes have a shorter temper than hikers or horses. And there are times when a cow will feel her calf is in danger, so if you notice a bawling calf off to your right and a big mother cow off to your left, simply remain calm and try to ride to a spot that is not between the two.

Some trails are especially popular for horseback riding, and there are stretches of trail that are steep, with limited visibility. Because of this, extra care should be given to speed on descents and through winding trails to avoid meeting a horse while traveling at an uncontrollable rate. As stated previously, trails with heavy horse traffic are in worse condition than are trails that do not see the horses, with more ruts, exposed roots, and rocks, and thus more unrideable or technical sections, so extra care should be taken on them.

It should also be noted that four-wheel drives and ATVs also use some of these roads, and it is best to use caution and ride defensively, since a truck won't have the agility to avoid obstacles as well as a bike does and may not always be under full control.

© Article copyright Pruett Publishing.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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