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The Summit is Optional

Mt Lafayette, White Mountains

This past Tuesday, I heard a great talk on Winter Hiking Safety given by Mohamed Ellozy, a leader with the Boston AMC Winter Backpacking Program and former Appalachia Magazine accidents editor. I thought I'd summarize the key points he made during his talk and the accident summary he related us to drive home his points. I've been thinking about them all week.

The Key Points

  1. The summit is optional, but getting back to your car is not.
  2. If the weather forecast is bad, go someplace else that's safer or just go home.
  3. If you have made a plan, but get new information that your plan is unsafe, rethink it.
  4. Keep a copy of the map in your head. You're not going to be able to see anything in a whiteout.
  5. If you can get below treeline, you are almost guaranteed to live.
  6. Above treeline, your compass should be tied to a string around your neck, not at the bottom of your backpack.

The Accident

One winter weekend, a husband and wife couple set out to climb Mt. Lafayette (5,260 ft) on Franconia Ridge in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. They were experienced winter climbers.

The weather forecast had called for bad weather and 60 mile per hour winds at the summit. The couple had decided that they were going to climb Lafayette anyway and they drove to the trail head. As they started climbing up the mountain, they met other climbing parties who said that conditions at the top were terrible. Regardless, they continued their ascent.

When they reached the summit, they experienced whiteout conditions and became disoriented. They managed to find a sequence of cairns and followed them until they came to a trail junction with the Skookumchuck Trail. They were surprised by this because this junction is due north, not west, which is the trail they wanted to descend.

They tried to follow the Skookumchuck Trail but the snow was very deep and they started to posthole. They turned around and tried climbing back up Lafayette, but couldn't because the winds were too strong.

They had left a route plan with a friend who contacted the authorities when they were overdue. Search and rescue teams were not dispatched immediately because the weather was so poor. The wife died and the husband survived.

Accident Analysis

The couple knew that the weather forecast called for bad weather for days in advance of their climb, but still decided to continue with their plan. They also ignored reports from other climbing parties that were coming down as they were ascending.

When they became disoriented by whiteout conditions, they followed the wrong series of cairns down a trail. This mistake could have been caught much earlier if they had simply looked at their compass. Instead they headed north when they wanted to head west. Rescuers found the couple's compass at the bottom of their backpack.

The Skookumchuck Trail junction is 50 yards from treeline. If the couple had slogged their way below treeline, they would have gotten out of the wind. There they could have built a snow cave and survived until rescuers found them.

11 comments

  1. Hi Phil,

    He was very charismatic, huh?

    Here is his old website, I do not think he maintains it anymore.

    http://home.earthlink.net/~ellozy/

    Being familiar with that accident, I knew that story was going to end with the wife dying so I cringed a bit when people were chuckling at early parts of the story. Not their fault, he is being humorous and telling the story with a light tone.

    Two minor quibbles and a case of two people hearing the same thing differently…

    3. Your plan is based on a set of assumptions. If those assumptions change, then you should re-examine your plan. You might not change it but you should take the time to re-examine it.

    5. It is very difficult to die hiking below treeline, you can do it but you really have to work at it. Above treeline in the winter is a completely different world.

    That point was in the context of him stressing that the couple would have had a much higher chance of survival if they had just continued to struggle through the snow drifts for, what, 20-30 yeards more?

    Like you, the idea of having a strong mental map of the area I will be hiking in and having the compass around my neck were strong points that I took away from the talk.

    I have read people recommending having a clear plastic map case with its string around your neck too.

    One winter guide's website suggests taping a small piece of paper on to the bottom of the compass with bearing for the escape route from each junction on the ridge. Of course this is for above treeline hiking when a white out is possible.

    http://chauvinguides.com/PresiTraverse/presiescap

    Tommy

  2. That's his web site? Wow – I use that all the time. Good clarifications on the key points. I heard exactly what you did, just processed it more for the post. It is better in the raw though.

  3. I've heard it called "Summit Fever."

    I once met Ed Viesturs, who's climbed all of the world's 8,000-meter peaks. He said the reason he's alive today is because he knows when to turn back, and he's done that a number of times when he's been within sight of the summit. I think it was on K2 that he once turned back only a couple hundred feet from the top, so he'd live to climb another day. Another climbing party on the mountain that day did summit, but they also did die.

  4. Sam Haraldson and Matt Lutz posted a video about 2 weeks ago about a hike (snowshoe) they were doing along the CDT as part of the 2009 Parcour de Wild endurance race in Northwestern Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness and Helena National Forest. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOEPZyU04V0 They decided to turn back due to potential avalanche danger. I think Matt drove like 1000 miles to participate. But it sounds like it was the right call.

  5. Great suggestions – I'll add them to my list. BTW, I've also found ordering book directly from amazon UK to be cheaper than getting them through the US site.

  6. Also check out the Mountain Leader training scheme in the UK. I wish we had something this organized in the US. I like the idea of "quality mountain days".

  7. Ed Viesturs says (in his book on K2) that not turning back before reaching the summit (in 1992) was the biggest mistake he ever made. He and his climbing partners spent the night coming down from K2.

  8. Add another twist on The Summit is Optional.

    The Shelter is Optional too.

    I was hiking into a shelter this weekend and was about 3/4 mile from it when I couldn't find where the trail went. I was in a small clearing near a brook and couldn't figure out where the trail went. I went out from the clearing about 20 yards in each direction [left, straight, and right]. I was afriad of losing the trail completely so I didn't go further. I am now seriously thinking about bring plastic tape as a type of temporary marking or saving for a top shelf GPS.

    It was getting dark (~4pm) and the snow was just starting to accumulate, so I thought about the lecture and hiked back out for a 12-13 mile day. Set a new record for hiking in the dark and for hiking in the snow and for hiking in ther darking when it is snowing.

    I wish I had been brave enough to string a ridge line and make an A-frame of my emergency space blanket. The lows were only in the 20's which my sleep system could have easily handled, but never having been be-nighted or set up a tarp, I just kept hiking back to the car.

    Back at the home today, I read the AMC guide and my clearing is mentioned; the trail veered off the left. That was where I thought the trail was most likely going BUT there were about four big, nasty blowdowns right on top of each other so I just couldn't believe that was the way to go.

    I missed a great chance to have pictures of the trail and shelter with and without snow AND I missed a great chance to get lost and being in the news :)

    I used to take copies of the trail descriptions but stopped because I never needed them….another lesson learned.

  9. Circumstances vary, but I think you have to assume that you won't make the shelter before dark and be prepared for that contingency. If you had a tent, you would have probably been better off stopping where you were and camping instead of stumbling around in the dark in the snow. I hate to ask this, but did you have a compass and a map with you? It's kind of a pet peeve with me. Even if you get a GPS, you still need them, and a compass might have been able to answer this simple directional question for you.

  10. Hi,

    It is a legit question. I had a compass and 2 didfferent maps.

    I had the 24K USGS quad for the area as well as a nice map from MAP ADVENTURES.

    http://libremap.org/data/state/new_hampshire/drg/

    http://www.mapadventures.com/shop/index.php?main_

    These maps did not help in terms of determining where the trail had gone but they did allow me to take a shortcut on a logging road and a Forest Service Road that saved about 2 miles and a lot of anxiety on the way out.

    I agree with you that I sould have stopped and made the best of it.

    This experience made me realize that I should practice using my emergency shelter (paracord and emergency blanket).

  11. I've done plenty of borderline things myself. It's best when you can learn from them without any consequences.

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