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