Hiking Colorado’s big mountains takes awareness
On the morning of May 31, around 10, three men slowly made their way up the side of 14,060-foot-tall Mount Bierstadt, eight miles southeast of Summit County’s highest point, 14,270-foot-tall Grays Peak. With ambient temperatures in the mid-50s, the heavy westerly wind that blew across the hikers was manageable, even if it created windchills in the 30s or lower. One man was from Oklahoma, using the Memorial Day weekend to hike a few of Colorado’s fourteeners. Another was from Fort Collins, working on bagging the first fourteener of his life. And yet another was from Silverthorne, simply trying to make the best of his day off. In spite of the wind, it was a beautiful day for hiking above treeline, and the three men sat on the summit and stared out over the dramatic ridges and glacial valleys that separate Bierstadt from nearby 14,264-foot-tall Mount Evans. Scenarios like this are what many people love about Colorado – peaceful day hikes up large mountains to vistas unmatched anywhere on the planet.But hikes into Colorado’s backcountry are not always peaceful. Despite the way many people think of Memorial Day as the unofficial beginning of summer, some could argue – and with good reason – that summer never really arrives above 12,000 feet. The reality is that there is not a day out of the summer when the mountains can’t turn sour on the people attempting to hike in them. “Climbing these beautiful peaks around us is a pretty significant endeavor,” said Dan Burnett, a mission coordinator with the Summit County Rescue Group (SCRG). “If you venture into the mountains enough, you’re going to be put to the test by weather.”
This point was driven home tragically on May 30, when 16-year-old Greg Davison froze to death in Arapaho National Forest near Idaho Springs when an arctic storm blew over the Continental Divide, trapping Davison and his older brother, Bob Paré, in a disorienting whiteout. Over the last week, media outlets such as the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post have revealed that Davison and Paré went into the wild near St. Mary’s Glacier unaware of weather reports predicting the storm. They also were unprepared when winter conditions suddenly surprised them; they were hiking with little more than jeans, sweatshirts and windbreakers as protection from the elements. More to mountain weather than snowArctic snowstorms over the Memorial Day weekend are not the only hazard of diving deep into Colorado’s wild places in the summer. “Guaranteed, every day and afternoon, you’re going to have a thunderstorm, no matter how good it looks in the morning,” said Mike Schmitt, a team leader for Summit County Rescue Group (SCRG).While lightning is the primary concern in a thunderstorm, limited visibility is also a major problem when cloud systems move over the top of a peak. “You may have an easy trail up, and then encounter difficulties,” Schmitt said.
Warm weather can also make snowfields a dangerous place, causing wet snow avalanches that are just as powerful as any winter avalanche. But even on slopes that aren’t steep enough to slide, snow can soften in the afternoon. Hikers then may sink or posthole, making trips out of the mountains difficult. Be prepared”One of the most important things to take with you (on a big mountain hike) is a well-executed plan,” said Burnett, who recommends that anytime you hike above treeline, you leave a detailed itinerary and estimated return time with friends. Among the supplies hikers should carry on every hike are waterproof layers and enough clothes, food and water to survive an emergency sleepover in the woods.Most trail guides also advocate the “Ten Essentials:” extra food, extra water, map, compass, rain gear, waterproof fire starter, sunscreen, sunglasses, flashlight or headlamp and a pocket knife. Burnett was also careful to point out that people with specific medical conditions, such as diabetes, should take extra medication into the woods with them.
Schmitt, an accomplished mountaineer himself, said he takes enough supplies with him on every hike to sustain himself for 24 hours. While loading up a pack with this much food and supplies for a day hike may seem like overkill, a hiker’s life may depend on it.Something as simple as a twisted or sprained ankle can suddenly become life-threatening if a hiker is unable to walk back down a mountain.In fact, most injuries related to thunderstorms come from hikers running down steep, rocky terrain to get to safety and falling in the process, Burnett said. And never depend on a cell phone for help. Many Summit County’s trails lead to areas where cell coverage is minimal, at best. Even Arapahoe Basin, a full-service ski resort, tends to render cell phones useless. Burnett and Schmitt both have countless stories of rescue missions that could have been avoided if the people they were rescuing had taken these concepts into consideration, yet every year they keep going out on more missions.”SCRG would be out of business if hikers went in groups, took proper equipment and were down off the mountains before the afternoon,” Burnett said. Richard Chittick can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 236 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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