Red Flags In The Mountains.

8:18 a.m. on May 14, 2010 (EDT)
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When touring, summiting or generally travelling in the backcountry it's crucial to be constantly aware of the changing environment and how it will effect progress. I have a system of Red Flags or little prompts I use to tell me if conditions are not right when I may be otherwise preoccupied.

I am wondering whether other people use this type of system or something similar when deciding to press on or turn back, maintain or change route or just pack up and head home.

1:15 p.m. on May 14, 2010 (EDT)
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No matter what you call it (Red Flags, little prompts, ...), awareness of your surroundings, your condition, the weather, and so on is a fundamental part of not only traveling in the backcountry, but just being alive. Unfortunately, far too many are like the little bird sitting on a branch, "fat, dumb, and happy", unaware of that hawk circling nearby. Remember that major disasters are rarely the result of a single catastrophic event. They almost always are the result of a chain of small mistakes. Being aware lets you catch the small mistakes and break the chain before the disaster happens.

7:45 p.m. on May 14, 2010 (EDT)
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The Red Flags vary with the venue. Threat of a late summer rain will send the wise fleeing from Utah’s slot canyons, while it would be considered just another fine day in the Olympic National Forest.

One could consider it a red flag to their whole approach, however, if you are turning back because you are not equipped for the oncoming weather, versus lacking the desire to endure it. Turning back due to a failure to anticipate the conditions, or failing to equip for anticipated conditions is natures way of saying you are getting off easy. Below the two tales contrast the differences.

I had a friend who always pushed his luck, regarding rain gear. We normally sleep out under the stars, using a tent only when it rains or snows. December 2008 we did a dry camp in Joshua Tree National Park. It was agreed he was going to bring his tent, knowing there was a 40% chance for rain. I found out at camp he left it home “by accident.” It started raining around 1am. I made us walk back to the car, rather than risk a protracted shower in the upper thirties, me with only my rain gear and him with none what-so-ever. He could find an overhang to sit it out, as could I, but I had no intention of sitting around all night in freezing cold rain. We had adequate equipment, since the worse case scenario was an easy 90 minute walk back to the car, but left anyway because I lacked the desire to endure that weather, given our on hand accommodations. This was a voluntary evacuation.

Last October I arranged a trip to Bishop Lakes area of the Sierras with two of my friends, and two acquaintances of my friends. I warned everyone the weather forecast was 30% rain (most likely snow at that elevation), and that temperatures could get to the low single digits. I find out as we are setting camp the newbies are “ultralight” wannabies, and excused their light preparation, disregarding my weather forecast as “unlikely and pessimistic.” The first night the temperature got down to the mid 20s. We awoke the next morning to graupel snow sprinkling the ground, dropping temperatures, and lenticular clouds above and obscuring the summits. Over breakfast I asked them if they still thought my forecast was exaggerated, and how they slept. They were not warm the first night, but pride kept them from expressing their desire to abort the trip. A few minutes later I decided to be the wet blanket, emphatically stating we were staring down the maw of the first big storm of the season, that only someone properly equipped with warm gear would be comfortable, and that the walk out two days later could be in two feet of snow, none of which these guys were prepared for. They eventually relented. The thing that made me call the trip and insist we go home however, was the dog one of the newbies brought up. He was obviously uncomfortable in the morning conditions, and things were only getting worse. It is one thing to subject yourself to bad preparations, but the master of this little eight pound dog brought nothing to accommodate his dog’s needs other than food and a dish. Later, when lunching down in Bishop one of my friends discretely voiced his gratitude, echoing every concern about the welfare of newbies and the dog. We aborted this trip because members’ lack of preparation created a precursor that could have caused events to cascade from these guys being uncomfortable to suffering exposure. These guys were lucky the weather gave them the opportunity to exit the mountains. This was a forced evacuation.

If you find Red Flags are prompting you into forced evacuations, then you are probably ill prepared, and are playing with your health if not life, not to mention those who are summoned to rescue your butts.

9:49 p.m. on May 15, 2010 (EDT)
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Good for you, we see corpses being flown out on lanyards under a 212 here EVERY year, just in the mountains around Vancouver, BC and in summer, as well. We CANNOT SEEM to get it into people's skulls that "Beautiful British Columbia" is ALSO DANGEROUS and much of it is still very remote, trackless wilderness that can and will kill you like a squashed beetle if you are even a little careless or over-confident.

I often see tourists in backpacking shops here, buying huge cans of "bearspray", but, they then go hiking with NO spare warm clothing, rain gear or shelter......and they die.

Again, damm good decisions and excellent post!

1:23 p.m. on May 16, 2010 (EDT)
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I like to call it "Situational Awareness"....Well at least in the industry I work in that is what we call it (even called it that in the Navy). Anyways, no matter where you are or what you are doing you should always be aware of your surroundings. Whether in a city where you have to keep an eye out for cars, or in the woods when you have to watch out for slip/fall hazards, it is a good practice to engage. Just take the time to think about where you are and what you are takes less than a minute to do so most of the time...and it could save your life (which could be lost in a matter of seconds!)! I work in a pretty dangerous industry (and I was in the Navy too) and the practice has kept me safe.


1:31 p.m. on May 17, 2010 (EDT)
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Mother's Day weekend I made a day trip up to Huckleberry Knob in the Unicoi Mountains of NC. At 5,600ft it is easily accessible by a 1.5mi hike from the Cherohala Skyway. The ease with which you can reach the stunning balds , and the proximity to the skyway are deceptively comforting. The weather, However, has a tendency to bring out a vindictive side of the mountain rather quickly.

Though I was just heading up there for the day, I had some of my normal pack gear since I planned on cooking dinner. I decided to bring my sleeping bag and a modicum of contingency items as well, more than covering all of the ten essentials.

Though it was May, and the temp was 85+ in the valley, that evening a front rolled in. The temperature dropped to well below freezing and the mountain was envelped in freezing cloud cover.

Some of my family (M&D, siblings, & 2 of their teeneage friends) arrived at dusk with the plan of spending two nights up there, but none of them were properly equipped. They were not familiar with the place, did not have rain gear, or proper warm clothes, or a stove, and they had not planned on hanging their food in a tree. I decided to stay the night to help them set up tents, rebuild a functional fire ring, and collect wood. Had I not done so it would have been miserable for my mom, and could have been a dangerous situation, especially if one of my younger siblings had gotten turned around in the mist. By the time I helped them set up tents everything was covered in a thick layer of hoar frost and two people were nearing hypothermia.

The next morning they remarked that it was astounding that I had not planned on spending the night yet had come prepared better than they and equipped for inclement weather. They are a smarter bunch than most, and have been car camping many, many times. But the difference of a couple thousand feet and a couple miles into the woods changed the equation in a way they weren't prepared to handle properly.

They probably would have been alright, though miserable. But had either the 9 or 12 year lost their way looking for the tents in the mist it could have ended tragically.

5:22 p.m. on May 18, 2010 (EDT)
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The majority of my time is spent negotiating the vast spectrum of snow conditions, so the Red Flags are as follows:

1. New Snow - Heavy snow in the last 24 hrs.

2. Snow Stability/ Shooting Cracks - Settlement issues, pit tests, bino obs.

3. Rapid Heating/ Temperature Change - Increases or decreases in temp.

4. High Winds/ Wind Loading - Wind direction, wind speed, blown snow.

5. Natural Avalanches - Note aspects of any natural avalanches.

I also like to keep in mind the words of John Muir, "Mountains speak, wise men listen". Correct assessment of the conditions will aid in positive decision making. A number of these flags together may not stop me or the group from continuing for the day, but more so make us aware of the heightened potential risks.

Secondary exposure is another element that we discuss, in that as a result of taking a particular line or route, what the hazards therein may be. Personal condition is another point that I sometimes take for granted but rightly should incorporate also. Thanks.

April 20, 2018
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