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288 Mountain Sense 2010-10-01

Amy  climbing on the Loft Route

In Colorado this summer, 10 or 11 hikers/climbers have died on the fourteen thousand foot peaks (one fatality was reported but was not confirmed). Complete reports of the incidents are not yet available; but falls and rock fall were the primary causes of the fatalities. Some of the falls may be attributed to medical conditions which caused the accidents.

All of the victims were experienced climbers. I am not sure what an experienced climber is; but the fatalities were of climbers who had at least climbed other mountains. Many of the accidents were also the results of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes for example, rockfall just happens.

All of the incidents were on the more difficult climbs. Three accidents were on technical climbs. The rest of the mishaps were climbers moving without ropes and gear.

Four of the incidents were weather related; but more could possibly have had weather related causes. In August there was a horrendous rain storm that hit the Sangre de Cristos in southern Colorado resulting in at least two deaths. Another weather related factor was the prolonged summer climbing season. Usually the summer season would have ended in the first of September, but the unusually warm weather extended the season and added to the tragedies.

It has indeed been a tragic year.

Some question, why risk your life on such foolishness? Why put yourself in harms way? Each day of our lives we face risks. Daily I walk, bike, and run the urban streets of Nashville. Daily, I take and accept the risks. Every time I get in a car I take a risk. I risk that my vehicle operates properly and the other drivers are alert and vigilant and can maintain control of their vehicles. These risks are no less foolish than climbing a mountain.

The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative reports there are more than 500,000 visits to the 14ers each year. A "visit" represents one climber for one day. If you attempt 50 climbs one year, then you would account for 50 visits. The ratio of visits to fatalities is very low but even a single death is tragic and unjustifiable. But death is never really justifiable in my eyes. The risks in life are unavoidable - though we can lower the risks.

To help lower the risks involved in climbing 14ers or hiking trails in Tennessee, we have a few suggestions...

Study the maps and guides for your expected route of travel. Plan a trip that everyone in the group can accomplish. If you cannot walk 15 miles at a reasonable pace in town, why do you think you could do it in the mountains. Planning should reflect the group's training.
Planning should also take into account the length of the travel to the destination. When we climbed the 14ers last summer, the travel was as exhausting as the climbs.
If you have to ask someone (in person or online) if a climb is too hard for you to do, then you should probably not be attempting it, yet. You can always find someone to agree with your opinion but that does not make you any more or less capable to climb the route. Advise is cheap, experience is costly.
After setting goals, train for the goals. increase your speed and endurance. You might never walk as fast as your training speed on the path of your objective; but you will have the strength in reserve. I used to make sure I could run the mileage of the proposed day hike plus 50%. So, if I was going on a one mile hike, I would train to run for a mile and a half. Running is not essential for training; but being able to walk the plus 50% is necessary.
While training carry a pack of similar weight and wear the footwear that you intend to use on the trip.
Train to succeed.
Gear and Clothing
Carefully buy gear. Talk to friends (not store clerks) about what gear they use. I love the "comments" at REI, Amazon, and other online retailers. Good lightweight rain gear is essential. If it is lightweight, the rain gear will find a home in the bottom of your pack. Complete your outfit with non-cotton, fast drying clothing. Borrow clothing if possible, to find out what you like.
Your footwear is very important. If you are just hiking on trails find the weight and style shoe that you are comfortable using. If you plan on scrambling, buy footwear with "sticky" rubber on it's sole. Why would you buy anything less? You are going to climb, buy a shoe with climbing rubber.
For scrambling trips, add a helmet, a 5.5 foot piece of webbing tied in a loop (a sling runner), a thirty foot piece of rope, and a couple of carabiners.
Your gear should help you survive the extremes of your trip's seasonal environment.
Food and Water
Carry food that you will eat, is nutritious, and is digestible. Pack enough food for many small snacks throughout the day.
Bring enough water to keep you hydrated and a means for attaining more drinkable water.
Learn to walk on loose rocks without disturbing them.
Practice climbing up and down smaller rock faces. If the cliff is hard to climb, only do a single move and then downclimb. Then do two moves and reverse them, etc. Use your rope or sling runner to lasso a fixed object - be creative. You brought the rope, use it to safeguard the climb. Be safe. If the climbing is too hard, look for an easier way.
If exposure is gripping you, concentrate on the few feet in front of you and do not look down. Downclimb the rock facing the rock and use the rope if possible.
When you are hungry, thirsty, and tired you are more prone to accidents. Keep you and your group hydrated and energized.
Learn when to say "no" and when it is time to turn around.
Put in the mileage. Learn from others and from books. Practice. Being a good hiker of climber takes years of experience. There is so much to learn - navigation, hiking techniques, climbing techniques, weather, first aid, Leave No Trace, survival techniques, etc. There are no shortcuts.
Stay together as a group and help each other along. Think long and hard before splitting the group.
Make group decisions. Use the groups collective wisdom.
Progress logically through the rating grades. Be good at Class 1 before climbing a Class 2. Be good at Class 2 before climbing a Class 3, etc.
Learn from your mistakes.

Common sense is practical thinking in our everyday lives. Mountain sense is practical thinking in the mountains. It is knowing where you are and how you got there. It is knowing when conditions are favorable and when they are not. It is knowing when you are safe and when you are not. It is knowing the best path to travel. It is anticipating and avoiding danger. It is understanding Newton was right, gravity is forever present in the mountains and causes rocks and climbers to fall. Be safe, practice mountain sense.

Happy mountain sense trails


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