A night of survival on Mt. Massive.

1:56 p.m. on July 10, 2013 (EDT)
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This past weekend I had a harrowing experience on Mt. Massive and Im not quite sure how I feel about it. I would like your opinions if you have the time.

For the past 40 days I was on the road touring the southern rockies. As some of you know I have been doing this suff most of my life and have been "around the block". I have studied wilderness medicine in the past and my outdoor leadership style is noted by an emphasis on preventative behavior over reactive and stress safety as the primary objective.

The Rockies have a very stable weather pattern this time of year. In the morning the sun heats up the dry desert air and as it rises it hits the mountains, condenses and makes the afternoon rain storms. By night fall the suns energy has been removed from the system and the clouds disperse. This was the case for every night of my trip. Every night I watched the milky way come out and the summer triangle progress across the sky so I got in the habit of just sleeping out in my bag without a tent. Bivvied.

I was on Mt. Massive at 11,600' bivied out for a summit attempt in the early morning hours. In the alpine I had my tarp, 0degree down bag, and my closed cell foam z lite sol mattress. The afternoon progressed like above. The storms stopped and the stars came out and I fell asleep in the alpine. At 1am, however, I awoke to a flash of light. From over the ridge on Mt Oklahoma to the west a storm was coming in, but at night. The rain out in the rockies is rather light. It never hits too hard, so I figured I could just wrap up in my tarp and keep the bag dry. The lightning picked up and I realized that being exposed in the alpine was not a good idea. I remembered that where I had dinner that evening was in the tree line and well protected. It was the only clear location i knew of. The wind and rain start and I realize that my headlamp is dead ( I rarely used it on the trip considering sunrise lit the sky by 530am and you could still see at 10pm), so in the dark as I am rushing to get all my gear together. (Being bivied out a good bit of it was out of the pack and just strewn around. basically I had a huge bundle of gear in my arms) I start to make it to the tree line guided by flashes of lightning. It starts to pour, harder than any of the storms I had experienced out there yet.I should have put my rain jacket on but I had already used it to help protect my down sleeping bag in conjunction with the tarp. The rain hit, probably, at a rate of over 1in/hr and for a few moments it was hailing, pea size. Trying to keep my down bag wrapped up in my tarp and with out light to guide my way Im slipping and falling on rocks going on the steep down hill grade.  By the time I fumble into the tree line and find my dinner site, I am soaked, and the temps are dropping and wind is picking up. I realize that somewhere on the hike down I lost my rain jacket in the dark. IM shivering and I can't think of what to do next. Being unable to think actually makes me think about something ingrained in my memory from my "training", that im entering into hypothermia. (loss of mental faculties is a symptom of Hypothermia)

My down bag is soaked, my clothes are soaked (synthetics and wool base layers) and I can't see. I always carry in my cargo pocket of my hiking pants an emergency blanket. I pull it out and wrap myself. This was an overnight bid so the only extra "dry" clothes I had was a set of wool leggings and a pair of socks. The down jacket I had fell into the grass out of my stuff sack and got soaked also. I then realize that I am underneath my bear bag so I try to untie the knot on the tree but I have no dexterity due to my progressing hypothermia and I cant see it the knot. I cut through the para chord with a rock dropping my food sack. In there I carry solid fuel cubes for my solid fuel stove. They work excellent as fires starters and I use them to make me a small fire in the rain (not that easy even with waterproof fires starters) I start to heat up cups of water and snack on food. Before I got the fire started I had quit shivering and was having trouble with mobility. This is stage 2 hypothermia and the point where it gets very very serious. By stage 3 your are unconscious and your body temp has dropped to only 90-92.

I stay huddled like I am and notice that the thermal liner in my sleeping bag is completely dry so I put that over me and wait until I can see the slightest bit of light in the sky. When I can make out the ground I start pacing in circles until the sun rises over the ridge at 8am. I dry out my sleeping bag in 2 hours and try to nap (no humidity at 11,600'). When I get up I am in full blown flu symptoms. Nasal drip, sore throat, sinus headache, nausea and later I would get double ear infections and body soreness.

I don't know how I feel about it. Was I stupid for not bringing my tent and trying to do a "fast and light bivy"? even though I was aware of the stable weather patterns? I would later find out that the storm was a low pressure system moving though, hence its unique qualities. Being that I was out in the wilderness for the past 35 days I had no idea this was coming and there was no indication in the clouds that day (that I saw). I am mad at myself for not immediately realizing it was a serious situation and shrugging it off for a few min. I wasted precious time there and if I had immediately went into "safety mode" instead of being "it will be fine go back to sleep" I would have never got soaked and probably kept my bag dry by making it to the tree line before the big down pour. BUT conversely I feel I did a great job at saving my life. Had I not taken the proper treatment steps, that I have gone over and over in practice, I very well could have been dead.

thoughts? am I a dumb a** or did the mountains just throw me a curve ball? I can't help but feel I should have been more prepared. Maybe it was complacence. I had got so used to the predictable weather pastern it never hit me that "the mountains still have inclement weather".

-mg

5:08 p.m. on July 10, 2013 (EDT)
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Great story!!  You can chalk that one up to "stuff happens."  I think its a good story for the next time you are sitting around the camp fire with friends.  My suggestion: plan for the worst and hope for the best.  Weather is one thing that even the best of them can not predict with any certainty.  Sounds like you had enough gear to handle the situation, you just didn't have a quick action plan for the bad weather.  Live and learn right......  Glad you made it out of there.  

5:35 p.m. on July 10, 2013 (EDT)
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Familiarity can certainly cause us to let our guard down at times. But, no matter how experienced and knowledgeable we may be there may come a time when nature presents us with a situation we cannot easily get out of. Don't take it personal.

There are two things from your narrative which stand out to me, though; one is the lack of any protection for your down sleeping bag and, most important perhaps, is the state of your gear, “Being bivied out a good bit of it was out of the pack and just strewn around.”

Even in the depth of winter I often camp without a tent, but I usually take a bivy sac to protect my down bag from wind, snow and every day wear and tear. I have also learned to keep a well-organized camp so I can find things in the dark if necessary. Everything is put into my pack for the night and I don't leave anything lying around. In an emergency situation like you experienced, all I would need to do is stuff my bag into my pack (without removing it from the bivy bag) and continue hiking.

These simple practices were not easy to learn; it took several situations like the one you describe before it finally sunk in.

Most importantly, I hope this event does not prevent you from enjoying the outdoors in the future.

10:43 p.m. on July 10, 2013 (EDT)
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North 1 you got it right on with my two big problems: Shelter and Escape plan. (outside of the fact that I didnt check my head lamp prior to this outing). I wanted to buy a true bivy sack prior to my trip but I figured my MSR Hubba 1p tent would be good. I just got used to the clear nights and figured there was a low risk of incident here. After weeks of fair weather I quit bringing it. Ive humped 65 pd packs before, I only had < 15pds in the pack. Why didn't I bring a stable shelter? another 2 1/2 pds. That was just foolish on my part and, literally, not worth the weight I saved.  Im ordering a bivy as soon as I get back to work and it will always come with me into the alpine from now on.

In the past I have practiced "hail drills" on my tents. Being able to pack everything up in under 5 min to avoid major damage to the tent. I had never really practiced doing it for bivying and didnt even consider an escape plan. That was my other problem. not having a clear way out. Probably should work on that and really think about how efficient some of the methods in my system are.

The experience shook me up a bit and I clearly made some mistakes that have humbled me in how experienced I actually perceive myself as being. But it has not turned me away from outdoor pursuits. I came home and started looking for someone to do a winter summit out there in CO this December or January! We goin snowshoein'. If anything I have a greater respect for the mountains.

-mg

11:02 p.m. on July 10, 2013 (EDT)
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Well thank goodness you had the luck to find the food bag and the skill to light that fire in the rain. Good job.

I can't offer anything like the wisdom and experience of North1 here, but might I suggest -- garbage bags. :) Really, you can do so much with them that the less gear you carry, the more valuable they become. You could have thrown everything into one or two bags, fast, and kept your insulation dry as you carried it. Then turned the bags into raingear or a bivy sack. (In other circumstances, they can be water carriers or hipwaders or tarps or vapour barriers or...)

Nobody can carry everything for every possible situation, the best we can do is carry what we need to improvise. Don't forget the duct tape! :)

(Here's an afterthought and a question. On trips of that length, in mountains where maybe forecasting is not so easy, might it be worth carrying a small barometer? That low pressure system might not have snuck up on you the way it did.)

11:51 p.m. on July 10, 2013 (EDT)
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I could have never lit the fire had I not had 1:solid fuel cubes or 2: a dry lighter in my medical pack and also in my food stuff sack for redundancy.

Its funny you mention the barometer. I had my suunto Core but didnt have storm alarm on because it had been driving me crazy the whole trip due to the afternoon thunderstorms. I also had a second barometer on my Kestrel weather tracker and I did notice the pressure was low for my altitude. Actually my "higher" indicated altitude on the Kestrel was what qued me into the fact that the pressure was low when I went to sleep. I just wrote it off as lingering from the days storms.

But that is a great suggestion for emergency and survival with the garbage bags. I wrote them off for all uses once I could afford stuffsacks haha. Im never leaving without a few and like I carry my mylar blanket in my cargo pocket I can carry a single garbage bag also.

-mg

6:14 a.m. on July 11, 2013 (EDT)
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Maybe I missed something here. You had a tarp but wernt using it? It sounds like you were laying on top of it as a ground sheet I guess? You also say you had a bivy and a msr hubba 1p, think those are the same thing but you used both names so was a little unclear. Is you bivy not waterproof?

So where I see an error is failing to bring adequate shelter, one of the essential items.

This is one area where a smartphone or small weather radio is great to have. Allows you to stay up today's on the forecast. Even if ou only heck it every few days it will let you know about approaching fronts etc. I have a nightly ritual of listening to the weather radio on my garmin while cooking dinner.

I sleep without a tarp over my hammock frequently, but I always have my tarp with me just in case.

11:37 a.m. on July 11, 2013 (EDT)
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I had my tarp and innitally it was only a ground sheet for my set up. It was a larger tarp (bigger than the 6x8 standards maybe 10x12) and it was being used to keep the sleeping bag as dry as possible. I had chosen to leave my tent (msr hubba) in my jeep because of the continued stable weather pattern. I just threw my sleeping bag on the folded tarp. When the rain started i kinda "burritoed" the sleeping bag up. Once i made it to the treeline the Pines and the emergency blanket held most of the moisture off of me. The sleeping bag stayed as covered as possible throughout the storm. I tried to get in the sleeping bag for a short period of time but it was fairly soaked and made for some serious discomfort If it did still offer any insulation to me it seemed negligible at the time, or didnt register. Considering how I lost a good bit of my dexterity I doubt I could have tied my parachord properly to even set up the tarp as a shelter. I actually had a weather radio in the car and had given up on it early in the trip after never being able to get a good signal in the valleys on any of the 7 bands. Guess thats what I get for using my old sony walkman WR from the 90's.

-mg

1:13 p.m. on July 11, 2013 (EDT)
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Mumblefords got humbled. Never turn your back on the ocean and never turn your back on the mountains. You were lulled into a false sense of security.  The Rocky Mtns can turn on you in any month. I have never been a fan of sleeping above treeline. You had a tarp but did not use it well.  Maybe you panicked because it was the middle of the night and you only brought one light source.

I bet you will not make these mistakes again.

 

8:03 p.m. on July 11, 2013 (EDT)
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Besides the obvious of having batteries in your headlamp and keeping a tidier and easier to move camp, it looks like you did about as well as can be expected when one goes at a mountain alpine style. 

Is there gear you could have carried that would have made things comfy? Sure but the idea that fast and light gives you less exposure to the elements and is therefore safe is a very valid one too.

I'm glad you're ok and it sounds like you did great in the face of an epic.  I applaud you.  

12:45 a.m. on July 12, 2013 (EDT)
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you remembered your training. that saved your life. never the same mistakes twice!

6:08 a.m. on July 12, 2013 (EDT)
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FromSagetoSnow said:

Besides the obvious of having batteries in your headlamp and keeping a tidier and easier to move camp, it looks like you did about as well as can be expected when one goes at a mountain alpine style. 

Is there gear you could have carried that would have made things comfy? Sure but the idea that fast and light gives you less exposure to the elements and is therefore safe is a very valid one too.

I'm glad you're ok and it sounds like you did great in the face of an epic.  I applaud you.  

 No offense meant, but how exactly is that a safe and valid reason? I can see leaving behind the tent in favor of a tarp...but you still have to use it.

Just because you are going fast and light/ultralight doesn't mean you leave the essentials out, or fail to properly use them. If the op had just set up the tarp as a tarp instead of using it as a ground sheet all would have been well.

I have a large tarp as well, also about 10x11. Its not very difficult to set up on the ground. and has kept me dry in many a storms.

 

8:13 a.m. on July 12, 2013 (EDT)
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I camp overnight above treeline fairly often, and while I prefer to bring a tent, I would never go without a shelter of some kind. A bivy sack is a lightweight option, or even one of those Sol therrmal sacs (9 oz) for emergencies. You are fortunate you were smart enough to recognize the symptoms of hypothermia before you were too far gone. 

As has been mentioned before here, it seems to be the people who see themselves as most experienced who get into trouble most often. Not to fault the abilities you showed by surviving the night, but why does the word 'hubris' keep coming to mind?

6:46 p.m. on July 12, 2013 (EDT)
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Rambler said:

No offense meant, but how exactly is that a safe and valid reason?

Rambler I think you ask a good question.  The idea that traveling light and fast is safe is based on the premise that the less time you spend on the mountain, the less of a chance there is for something to go wrong.  This is especially true with weather; the longer you are on the mountain, the more likely you are to encounter a storm. 

The opposite mindset is something along the lines of, "pack light, freeze at night" where someone brings something for every possible situation but spends more time exposed. 

As far as setting the tarp as a shelter, I don't know why he chose that method. 

7:30 p.m. on July 12, 2013 (EDT)
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Well he didn't set the tarp up as a shelter, that is the problem.

I understand the fast and light idea, but you still need to cover the 10 essentials and actually use them as intended. Ignorance of changing weather patterns is no excuse either.

There are plenty of ultralight hikers out there that can go on trips above treeline and be completely safe and have all the essentials with them plus some and barely get into the 15-25lbs range. So going light and fast can be just fine and doesn't necessarily mean one is sprinting around the mountain in an effort to get in and out as fast as possible.

11:04 a.m. on July 13, 2013 (EDT)
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Maybe we can sum up your experience this way- some trips have a much smaller margin for error than others.  Going light and fast in the Rockies above treeline is riskier than say the Sierras or the SE Appalachians.

9:42 a.m. on July 14, 2013 (EDT)
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TheRambler said:

Well he didn't set the tarp up as a shelter, that is the problem.

If it's late and you're cold and tired, and you know you're in a dangerous situation, it's sometimes easier to react to events and less easy to think clearly about the options available to you. 

Easier to hike on in the dark with a dying battery in your headlamp than to try to remember where you put the spares. Easier to slog on in the rain hoping to reach safety soon, rather than stopping to set up the emergency shelter from your pack. And easier to try to stay warm by hiking, even when you're soaked to the skin, rather than stopping to figure out some way to stay a bit warmer.

We all make decisions in an emergency - some bad, some good - but it's not until later that we can truly assess how good they were.

Could the decisions have been better? Maybe, but they worked out in the end. Bottom line: Mumblefords did okay. Proof: He survived. 

10:24 a.m. on July 14, 2013 (EDT)
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I agree Peter. We can't forget that prevention is the key. Set up that shelter ahead of time and the crisis is averted all together. I think that should be the true lesson learned here, well that and staying aware of the weather.

12:33 p.m. on July 14, 2013 (EDT)
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So last weekend I spent 2 nights carrying extra clothes I felt I didn't need. I even entered in my journal, "Leave the extra layers home when temps are forecasted above 65F." Then the last night on the trail defied the weather forecast and got colder than the previous nights (It was forecasted to be the warmest night.). I was wearing it all to stay warm.

My point is I'm either in the back country prepared, or I'm not.

I remember a emergency preparedness guy once telling me most skiiers are killed in avalanches in areas they are accustomed to skiing in. He said familiarity creates stupidity... skiiers are lulled into complacency, ignoring warning signs they would immediately recognize in new territory. In the same way, most mountain climbing deaths are on the descent, after the mountain is "conquered" and they're thinking of home.

It sounds like trusting the established weather pattern created that compliancy. One mistake was compounded by others. I'm sure most of us have done it at one time or another. Don't beat yourself up over it. Learn from it.

And THANK YOU for being willing to share this with us. We all can take a moment to learn from this!

12:39 p.m. on July 14, 2013 (EDT)
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A tarp is a poor choice to begin with in an exposed location above treeline.

12:42 p.m. on July 14, 2013 (EDT)
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Goose 00 said:

In the same way, most mountain climbing deaths are on the descent, after the mountain is "conquered" and they're thinking of home.

 Reaching summit is only half way there and there most certainly are those that find themselves in a bad situation due to the fact that they tend to over-look this.  

12:44 p.m. on July 14, 2013 (EDT)
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Your desription of the weather in the Rockies is based on a small sample size.  High mountain weather actually tends to be highly variable and severe.  The summer pattern tends towards vertical instability and afternoon thunderstorms with lots of wind and localized lighning. The shoulder seasons are very unpreidctable. In hunting camps in Oct at elevation we have experienced below zero temperatures and intense snow storms lastiing for several days..

I believe this was your first and biggest mistake.  Please respect mountain weather, especially in big mountians like the Rockies with a continental climate far from the moderating affects of the ocean.

 

5:54 p.m. on July 14, 2013 (EDT)
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Rick-Pittsburgh said:

Reaching summit is only half way there and there most certainly are those that find themselves in a bad situation due to the fact that they tend to over-look this.  

 Yeah, the guys in the Near Normal Grotto (my caving club) have a saying, "Our destination is the car. Everything in the cave is just a waypoint."

1:08 p.m. on July 15, 2013 (EDT)
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Hubris is the word that comes to mind when explaining what went wrong. I learned my lessons and have been grilled for some of my actions but I figured over all my experience could serve as an example of the dangers. The dangers in both our our perception of ourselves and our respect for the environment we approach as a playground. 

I have already solved my bivy situation this week by purchasing an actual bivy. I will also never again hike without a stable shelter or fail to set one up. 

-mg

4:52 p.m. on July 15, 2013 (EDT)
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Mumblefords,

We can stop giving you a hard time.  Thanks for letting others learn by your example.  There are two groups of outdoors people that get in the most trouble: newbies and experienced people like you that let their guard down.  Experienced types sometimes go further and longer in more difficult country which can put them at risk. We are all glad that you got out okay.

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