Safe Winter Hiking Advice
Reaching the summit of a mountain is always satisfying but reaching the summit of a mountain in winter sparks an adrenaline rush that’s almost impossible to describe. Unfortunately, the pursuit of this rush has made for a busy winter season for Search & Rescue in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. North Conway’s Mountain Rescue Service, which many EMS Schools guides are a part of, has been called out 7 times already.
As an outdoor risk educator and member of this volunteer rescue group, I try to pluck bits of wisdom that can only be gained from hindsight. Based on what I’ve seen this season, here are some safe winter hiking suggestions to consider before you take on your next winter mountaineering challenge.
1) Check the Higher Summits Forecast.
“Valley” weather and above tree-line weather are vastly different. Those climbing Mount Washington have the advantage of very detailed and accurate weather forecasts that are published around 5:30am every day!
2) Read the Avalanche Bulletin.
Even if you plan to go up & down via the popular Lion’s Head Winter Route you should know what the avalanche bulletin is saying about neighboring Tuckerman & Huntington Ravine. In addition, the rangers will also call out other current hazards, such as difficult trail conditions, extreme wind-chills, and bad visibility due to blowing snow. If you have plans of spending time in avalanche terrain take a quality avalanche course. These courses cover much more than assessing snow conditions. You’ll also learn how small groups can make safe winter hiking decisions as a well functioning team in the mountains.
3) Learn how to navigate in a white out.
While map & compass are on every list of “essentials” many groups do not carry them, and instead rely on following other parties above tree-line. Trails above treeline often become buried in many feet of snow. These snowfields can bury cairns, the stacked piles of rocks summer hikers use in low visibility. “Boot pack” or foot prints from others quickly fill in within minutes during blowing snow conditions. The winter traveler must know what bearing to walk on a compass for each leg of above tree-line travel. GPS can help, but it should only supplement map & compass skills as batteries die quickly in the cold and LCD displays stop working in extreme cold. Figuring out a White Out Navigation Plan for segments of above tree-line travel is invaluable for staying on course and safe winter hiking!
4) Consider carrying a Personal Locator Beacon.
These devices are great insurance policies in the worst case scenario, but only after you’ve exhausted every option for self rescue. Many travelers who may have been capable of of getting themselves out of dicey situations have opted instead to “push the button” and “dig in” which can put rescue teams at an unnecessary risk. After all, in most situations it is federal, state, and volunteer groups risking their own safety to come get you.
Also, once you “push the button,” you should not be lulled into a false sense of security that rescue is imminent. While help may be on the way, it is extremely important to realize in adverse conditions it may be many hours, sometimes days, away. For that reason alone self rescue is usually the best option, or better yet…
5) Learn how to back off.
“Summit Fever” is alive and well on Mount Washington. Folks travel from far & wide to experience the beauty and thrill of climbing Mt. Washington, and often their time & money commitment overshadow good decision making. Every year, and sometimes every weekend, I see people push themselves beyond reason to make the summit. It’s important to recognize when fatigue and stress are getting the better of your confidence and determination.
All world class mountaineers have plenty of experience backing off climbs to avoid rescue scenarios altogether. Unfortunately many aspiring climbers feel “backing off” equals failing, when in fact the only way to “fail” is to die or put others at great risk as they attempt to pull you out of the bad situation you got yourself into. Backing off when conditions are bad is safe winter hiking wisdom, not personal failure. Your goal in any outdoor activity should always be to come home able to do it again.
Have fun and be safe out there.