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Complete Backpacking Preparedness

Discussion related to Sierra Nevada current and forecast conditions, as well as general precautions and safety information. Trail conditions, fire/smoke reports, mosquito reports, weather and snow conditions, stream crossing information, and more.
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Re: Complete Backpacking Preparedness

Postby mokelumnekid » Fri Jul 27, 2012 8:40 pm

I'm probably going to get shelled for this...but here goes. One of the primary problems with both Sierra peak bagging and backpacking in general is that (ahem) a lot of it is pretty trivially easy for people with ordinary to decent fitness. Bagging Sierra peaks and getting all caught up in lists of peaks that most plucky twelve year olds could summit (I said most, not all, but the vast majority) introduces a mental state that one is indeed a bona fide 'climber' and assumes some internal stance of authority and judgement as a result, aka the 'Tom complex'. I've always been a bit bewildered by the obsession with peak lists, given how little real objective hazards (compared with many other ranges in the world at similar elevations) there are and how little real mountaineering skill and experience is required for most Sierra summits. If you don't buy it, test your mettle in the Andes, Alaska, British Columbia or our own North Cascades.

Whether one is rolling the dice by going ultra light or a clueless group with tube tents, blue jeans and nothing but matches, it all converges on the fact that despite the high absolute elevations, The Sierra is extremely forgiving *a lot of the Summer.* So one gets away with a lot of poor preparation, whether it is in a calculated decision by going ultra light or simply by old fashioned duffass good luck. We can get lulled into thinking that s-t can't happen.

So this brings me to Mav's excellent advice. Don't forget the survival basics. And that includes packing for it too. :soapbox:



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Re: Complete Backpacking Preparedness

Postby paul » Sat Jul 28, 2012 9:41 pm

A good discussion. I very much agree with MK that the often friendly conditions in the Sierra can lull one into complacency. It's quite possible to go years without having to deal with any really foul weather if you are lucky, leaving you thinking it will always be that way.

I have a kind of a saying that I always keep in mind on my trips - "take what the mountains are giving". By that I mean I do not push it when things are not in my favor. If your plan is for a marathon dayhike that will get you back to the trailhead after dark, but it looks like a storm may be brewing, cut it short. The mountains are not giving you that long hike that day, and if you try to take it, you are asking for trouble. Another day, with a clear blue sky, go for it.
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Re: Complete Backpacking Preparedness

Postby mokelumnekid » Sun Jul 29, 2012 11:00 am

I want to follow-up on my comment- I didn't mean to disparage people who enjoy having peak lists and so on. If that brings added value to their experience and motivates one to get out there then why not? Who cares right? If stepping into that perspective allows one to better understand and process their Sierra experiences, then all the better. I guess my point was that quantity is not (always) quality and I think most folks know that.

Heck the reason I return to the Sierra from Washington State year after year is precisely because it is so forgiving and fun, especially for cross-country travel which is a real challenge in the (Washington) Cascades, Olympics, etc. But I do carry my Pacific Northwest pack, I just feel naked without a tent and so on that can stand up to about anything for however long. The whole "ten essentials" thing. :whistle:
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Re: Complete Backpacking Preparedness

Postby Jimr » Sun Jul 29, 2012 11:18 am

Somewhere, many years ago, I read the Sierra Nevada described as "The Gentle Range". It may have been one of Muir's writings, or not, but I do believe it's true. Not to imply that the potential for hazard does not exist. Not in the least, but as MK said and I'll paraphrase, relative to most other ranges, the Sierra Nevada is very gentle and forgiving travel. This ease of travel and relatively favorable weather during the summer, can lead one to complacency to which carelessness may set-in.
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Re: Complete Backpacking Preparedness

Postby giantbrookie » Sun Jul 29, 2012 1:22 pm

I certainly agree with MK regarding the comparatively mild aspect of the Sierra compared to so many of the world's great mountain ranges. Although this forgiving aspect no doubt contributes to the tragedies we read about in this mountain range and predates the era we are in (see below), I believe that there are additional problems associated with the mindset of folks on a more national basis (perhaps beyond) that contribute to human tragedies we hear about.

In the pre-Secor days (say 70's, 80's and before) the notorious SPS peak list was out there (I still have a late 60's typewritten copy that folks in the Loma Prieta Sierra Club peak bagging group all had), but the level of preparation for the average peak bagger or hiker was vastly different from today. With the very minimal route descriptions of the day, even someone who aimed for only class 1 and 2 summits needed to be thoroughly accomplished at reading a topo map to analyze the terrain and also needed to be able to visually size up a slope or face to figure out a feasible route. Included in this analysis was the backup strategy: when to abort when one got in over their head, and also the need to have some training in technical climbing (and carry a rope as backup) even if the intended degree of difficulty was class 2.

In the 60's and 70's pretty much everyone I knew going to the Sierra knew how to read a topo map. This included the "occasional" Sierran hikers who weren't the regulars up there. I vividly recall one of my high school buddies from the heavy-lidded, bloodshot-eyed, burn-holes-in-the-down jacket, crowd, breaking out the Mt Abbot 15' quad during one lunch at school, and tracing his planned off trail route all over Bear Basin and vicinity. This was not someone who went to the mountains a lot, but when he did, he knew what he was doing.

Although we all knew the Sierra to have some of the most forgiving weather of any mountain range, we always planned for the possibility of unexpected rainy weather: this included taking at least minimum rain protection for sleeping (the infernal plastic "tube tent" was the minimalist approach in those days if one did not worry about mosquitoes, waterproof clothing (in those days this would be a poncho, usually--before the days of waterproof-breathable materials. This also included taking the foul weather gear on dayhikes, for we all knew that that day could dawn crystal clear but that thunderstorms could move in really fast. Of course this meant that our daypacks, as well as our full backpacks would include stuff we might not use on the trip, but it was important to have these items for safety and everyone I know carried these items (and my habits have not changed in this regard over the years).

Today I believe a number of people get into trouble because of (1) paint-by-numbers approach to routes (be they trail or off trail backpacking) or peak bagging/climbing and (2) this obsession with trying to be ultralight. For (1) people have become frightfully dependent on simply "follow 'ze recipe" to the extent that if they misunderstand the recipe or if there are errors (or vagueness) in the recipe, they get into difficulty over their heads. The route description, be it hiking or climbing, should be a starting point, not the do all and end all. Study of maps and direct observation of terrain are a key part of a successful trip and safety. Guidebook authors never intended their route descriptions to be a substitute for a hiker's brain, but the sad truth is that the more detailed the description, the more folks that will hit the trail, slope, or face, without adequate analysis.

I do not have the statistics on this, but I'd venture to guess that the largest number of folks who get lost are those following trails, rather than those off trail. The reasoning is that (a) there are far fewer folks off trail, even including peak baggers, and (b) that larger population following the trail includes a very large number of folks who don't know how to read a map. We've all seen those little drainage diversions off of a switchback. Erosion can make those look like a trail. Add a few mistaken steps by hikers and they look even more like a trail (with the footprints on them). Take your average hiker who can't read a topo. They wander off one on one of these false trails and before they know if they do not know where they are and how to get back to the trail. Now imagine someone peak bagging without adequate preparation. They follow a detailed blow-by-blow description for a class 2 route but they really blow it. Suddenly on they're on class 4+. Now, how are they going to assess the face and find the safest way out of the mess if they are not accustomed to looking at a slope and cliff face and reading the route? It is here that I be willing to guess that we have similar problems in mountain ranges that have a higher degree of difficulty. The only difference is the entry level climber/hiker in a more difficult mountain range will have a higher degree of skill going in, but the dependence on paint-by-numbers will still get folks into situations where they are beyond their abilities.

This leads to another thought on this problem of preparedness which has to do with having a realistic assessment of ones abilities and limitations. I would be interested to see the accident/fatality rate as a function of the number of people going into the wilderness. What I have written above would suggest that the rate would have increased compared to the 70's, but I am not so sure that statistics would confirm this (I'd be interested to see them, however). The reason is that in any era or any setting there will be people that exceed their abilities. Even in the paint-by-numbers climate of today, do we necessarily have proportionally more people who get in over their heads? I wonder. In the "old days" without the paint-by-numbers approach wilderness hikers were on the average more adventurous, so perhaps the average hiker then tried more difficult things in which case the accident rate may have been just as high. I'd be interested to see.

Returning to the gentle nature of the Sierra as a cause of ill preparedness, this has caused problems for Sierran hikers well before the "follow ze recipe" era. This is most apparent in the number of deaths through the years from hypothermia, not uncommonly during summer rainstorms.

A final note I'd like to add that merges the preparation and the judgment theme comes from an experience I had teaching a field geology class this spring in the CA Coast Ranges. I had repeatedly stressed the need for everyone in the class to have good waterproof gear and to always carry it in their daypacks, for we get rain during the class more or less every year. One day we trudged into the teeth of a pretty good rain and windstorm. The most experienced outdoorsperson among all of the students, and the one who on paper had the best gear, experienced failure of her waterproof, breathable gear. This led to early hypothermia symptoms and I quickly aborted the hike and led the group back to our vehicles while keeping an eye on the chilled student. Ironically the second-most compromised member of the group was me--my gear also failed, one year after spending two very enjoyable days (for me) mapping in a really fierce rainstorm. In any case, after we bailed out, we took a quick trip to the Fremont REI, purchased some new gear, and were sufficiently recovered to all get back out into the field for a few hours of afternoon mapping.

The point here is that even the best prepared can be compromised by equipment failures or some unforeseen circumstance, such as a sudden change in weather. It is at that point when one has to quickly change plans rather than sticking to a game plan. How many times have we heard of someone who continues a trip or climb, when others turn back, and this decision to press forward leads to disaster? I recall a sad incident back in the 70's when there was a young trip leader for the Loma Prieta Peak Climbing Chapter who quickly gained an unsavory reputation for poor judgment. This did not last long. There was a trip to Shasta and the rather common afternoon storm (seemingly limited to the mountain itself while all around the mountain can be clear)--these storms commonly lead to white out conditions up high and they have resulted in many unfortunate deaths. In any case the group argued with their leader saying that it was foolhardy to continue to the summit in those conditions. Apparently nothing they said could sway their leader. Eventually the leader refused to turn around and the rest of the group refused to climb into likely fatal conditions. The leader's body was recovered a day or two later.

I myself have been fortunate to survive two accidents in the High Sierra that could have easily been fatal. Both cases were a result of extremely poor judgment on my part, so I understand when somebody blows it because of serious case of brain lock. Occasionally I may make a comment on some incident as being a result of poor judgment but it certainly is not meant to imply that I have been better than that over the years, for I have made my share of mistakes.
Since my fishing (etc.) website is still down, you can be distracted by geology stuff at: http://www.fresnostate.edu/csm/ees/facu ... ayshi.html
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Re: Complete Backpacking Preparedness

Postby Jimr » Sun Jul 29, 2012 2:24 pm

A couple of other thoughts. To add to the "paint-by-numbers" idea, trail descriptions in guide books, especially Sierra North and South, presented a very flowery description of trails rather than a no nonsense approach to trail description. Second, the internet. I think it's value runs both ways and it takes much critical thinking to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Many years ago, I had a discussion with one of my diving instructors over the idea of injury rates based on the growing popularity and waning standards of training. It became a gear oriented sport with sales dominating. Dive courses became more relaxed in the physical aspects of the sport so as not to over stress potential customers (gear sales). The fact was that although training methods had produced more out of shape divers, the injury rate actually decreased. My instructors take on it was that although more divers were not physically fit enough to deal with their environment, more and more of these divers were satisfied dropping down the anchor line, diving under the boat, then returning. They were less adventurous, fortunate for them, I must say. Perhaps there's an element of this in backpacking. Since there is no formal training that must be taken and certification secured, there may still be less of a perceived need for the type of knowledge that many of us feel is crucial in this environment, but there may also be an increase in those who are happy merely doing day in, camp, day out style backpacking that may skew the data when compared to the past and against the notion of a 1 to 1 relationship between the increase in popularity with little skills and the expected increase in incident rate.

Just some thoughts.
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Re: Complete Backpacking Preparedness

Postby AlmostThere » Sun Jul 29, 2012 6:34 pm

I just returned from eight days out (nine if you count the last mild miles to the trailhead this morning to meet our ride) in the Sierra. It was a Preventive Search and Rescue hike for me - I wore an official SAR T shirt identifying me as a proud volunteer of our county search team. I stopped and talked to a LOT of folks. Part of our planned route (the main plan plus variations accounting for weather changes went to the SAR commander directly ;) ) took us up the JMT. On our night in Evolution Valley we got massive rain, hail, and thunder that sounded like the rocks were coming down and the sky was falling, and surely the wrath of the Almighty would be soon upon us!

My companions and I holed up in McClure Meadow, and just prior to the downpour that lasted an hour and a half, I went out and tossed flies to the eager goldens in Evolution Creek. I wore my rain jacket in preparation. Sure enough it started to rain. I ran across the meadow and in the time that took, the skies opened, the peaks were shrouded, and we had no chance to dive into tents - down it came. We all had dry clothing in our tents so we huddled under a pine and watched the weather go, and go, cycles of hail and rain, and the temperature dropping.

My four month old jacket sopped up rain like a #$%@ sponge, wet through, soaked my red SAR shirt, and of course my pants and underwear were all wet as well. So much for waterproof!

When it let up we all crawled in and changed, and I turned the trash bag pack liner into a rain shirt toot sweet. Worked like a charm for the next day and a half. The plan had been to go into Evolution Basin and to Davis Lakes, or the Ionian (briefly) - but I looked at my companions and said, really? And they said, NO. Because we had all talked about safety before we left, and talked to the ranger in the cabin at McClure who initially argued with us about our plan, but upon finding out we had all done cross country class 2 before softened his position and suggested that a morning crossing at Davis Lakes to Goddard Canyon would be possible since we had the experience. He said he's seen too many people push on and become SAR subjects.

His forecast info said two more days of the same, and when morning came and the rain and hail continued, we nodded to each other and headed back down from the valley to the north fork of the San Joaquin. Arriving at the junction of the Goddard Canyon trail, we took advantage of a break in the weather and spent half a day drying out things. And while fishing there beside the trail (goldens for dinner!) I talked to one JMT hiker after another about the forecast, reminding them of lightning at high elevation.

Did I mention they were all wearing shorts?? Shorts and tank tops are the favorite of the JMT hiker. Very interesting to sit at the MTR resupply hut watching the hikers come through. I can count the prepared and sensible hikers on one hand. A single group heeded the info and camped at the junction near us. A single hiker had rain jacket, rain pants, boots instead of tennis shoes, a moderate sized pack instead of an expedition like outfit bigger than the person carrying it.

Of course, the weather front broke early. My companions and I had a lovely day climbing into Goddard Canyon on our modified itinerary, just as happy as we would have been - the Evolution Basin can wait, and we'll be planning a modified North Lake - South Lake loop to include Darwin Bench. We had a great time. We debated re-ascending and going onward, but the lost time would have meant some long miles cross country, and we wanted to enjoy ourselves, not death march.

The JMT hikers were probably working their wet way over Muir Pass at 9 pm that night, according to some of them... "I HAVE TO REACH WHITNEY ON TIME." And, when we mentioned our destinations - Goddard Canyon, Bench Valley, Hell for Sure Lake, the north fork of the Kings - the dedicated JMT hikers gave us blank looks. I wondered if any of them were enjoying anything. They were so doggedly pushing into the evening, wearing so little. There was a pair of PCT hikers going north who seemed just as doggedly determined, but not in such a rabid fashion; at least they seemed to be alert and able to converse meaningfully for a while at the crossing of Evolution Creek.

Oh, I didn't mention the guy who was cowboy camping the whole JMT. He had an old tent fly to throw over the sleeping bag if it rained.

Peak madness isn't just for peaks.

The Ultralight "isn't safe" assumption bothers me. I don't consider myself ultralight, however, my pack weight for 8.5 days out was 35 lbs. I neither sacrificed comfort nor safety - my stuff was dry, including my down quilt and insulating layers, and I slept on 3.5" of air each night, more soundly than I do at home in bed. But, compared to the old couple who spent two days ascending Hell for Sure pass with truly massive external frames that surely weighed 60 lbs apiece (they were out for 14 days), I sure was ultralight! and how to put a price on my knees being less sore? Nope, I'm sure it's safer not to kill yourself with "durable" gear, circa 1970.

And, none of the tennis-shoe-and-shorts JMT hikers were ultralight. Lots of 70-80 liter packs on shirtless guys and tiny gals. Yet I'd bet you that most of them were inches from hypothermia and/or a variety of other situations that might have led to disaster at the turn of a hair.

To quote the SAR commander, paraphrasing "Deep Survival," an expert is sometimes someone who has made the same mistakes repeatedly without ever reaping the consequences. The Sierra is a great place to backpack and hike without consequences - until the day that it isn't.
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Re: Complete Backpacking Preparedness

Postby mokelumnekid » Sun Jul 29, 2012 8:42 pm

Wow, great posts! I understand how stuff happens, sometimes FAST! I recall once coming over (east-to-west) Lamarck Col and the skies got black and we hit Darwin Canyon just as all hell broke loose. In the time it took me to set up our tent on the first piece of flat ground, only a few minutes, we were dripping but not completely soaked (I had already put on my rain pants and best shell). The 4 season tent was enough to hold off the three hours of rain, and we finally moved to a better place. Point being I kinda expect that stuff and so keep everything at the ready to get shelter up as quickly as possible.

I guess living in the Pacific Northwest where crap weather is the norm, I buy new waterproof stuff every couple of years. And it ain't cheap! But then again when the skies open and it simply POURS almost nothing will work. That's why I carry a tent with as bomber a systems as possible, a bivvy bag for inside the tent as another line of defense (if needed) and a handful of garbage bags for the rest.

Foe me another way to parse the hazards is by elevation. If 10,000 ft or less I don't go so heavy. If just banging around at 8,000-9,000 ft, the chill and exposure factor is often much less than 11,000-12,000 ft. So I'll pack accordingly.
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Re: Complete Backpacking Preparedness

Postby rlown » Mon Jul 30, 2012 4:05 pm

AlmostThere wrote: Sure enough it started to rain. I ran across the meadow and in the time that took, the skies opened, the peaks were shrouded, and we had no chance to dive into tents - down it came. We all had dry clothing in our tents so we huddled under a pine and watched the weather go, and go, cycles of hail and rain, and the temperature dropping.

My four month old jacket sopped up rain like a #$%@ sponge, wet through, soaked my red SAR shirt, and of course my pants and underwear were all wet as well. So much for waterproof!


How could you not have time to dive into a set-up tent? And which rain jacket shouldn't we buy?
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Re: Complete Backpacking Preparedness

Postby maverick » Mon Jul 30, 2012 5:18 pm

Another aspect that has not been mentioned is the introduction of electronic
navigational gear, like a GPS, that has taken the place of a solid understanding of
topo maps and compass usage.
The Spot is another such device that when in the wrong hands may give the otherwise
inexperienced hiker a false sense of security and boldness.
Sure these devices have there place when used mindfully and in conjunction with
a solid foundation in navigation.
Am willing to bet that the +400 folks who checked out the "Lighting Safety Facts" thread
that the majority did not read the attached threads, because either they said "I know
what to do" or "It ain't doing to happen too me". Sure the likely hood is very small that
one will get hit, but those of you who have ever got caught in a precarious situation with
lightening bolts hitting the ground all around will never forget it, and have read up
on the safety precautions afterwards. Unfortunately we live in a society that learns
after the fact, many times we have to experience or witness tragedy before we are
scared into learning how to avoid such dangers, and because of many peoples short
attention span, and after some time the old habits will resurface again or people forget
unless one stays diligent on reminding, and re-educating one self on a yearly bases.
Do you remember this incident from 7 years ago: http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/S ... 619625.php
Of coarse this goes for all the other, more dangerous activities, that people die
from like climbing, river crossings, hypothermia, and numerous others.

MK, you are right, we are spoiled by the relative mild weather patterns here in the
Sierra which gives a false sense of security.
For example in the Rockies one should keep an eye on the sky at all times because
thunderheads can come up on one very quickly, and catch you in a less than safe
predicament like back in 2008: http://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/16 ... etail.html

And yes, I am a lightning chaser, and understand the dangers involved, make an attempt
to lower my risks when possible, unfortunately everyone is at danger when a lightning
storm hits, there is no real 100% safe place to go when in the backcountry.
My point in this thread was to get people to understand that you can raise the odds
of survival with at least a basic understanding of these skills, and these skills need to
be practiced, so one can instantly recall what to do instead of guessing or thinking
about what to do.
I have witness folks pulling out small first aid books in an attempting to stop bleeding
from a major gash, if you try that when your solo your blood loss from the time
spent reading on what to do will have you go into shock.
HST= Wilderness Adventurer who knows no bounds, except for their own imagination.

Have a safer backcountry experience by using the HST ReConn Form 2.0, named after Larry Conn, a HST member: http://reconn.org
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Re: Complete Backpacking Preparedness

Postby rlown » Mon Jul 30, 2012 5:54 pm

maverick wrote: Sure the likely hood is very small that
one will get hit, but those of you who have ever got caught in a precarious situation with
lightening bolts hitting the ground all around will never forget it, and have read up
on the safety precautions afterwards. Unfortunately we live in a society that learns
after the fact, many times we have to experience or witness tragedy before we are
scared into learning how to avoid such dangers, and because of many peoples short
attention span, and after some time the old habits will resurface again or people forget
unless one stays diligent on reminding, and re-educating one self on a yearly bases.
Do you remember this incident from 7 years ago: http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/S ... 619625.php
Of coarse this goes for all the other, more dangerous activities, that people die
from like climbing, river crossings, hypothermia, and numerous others.


You don't forget a lightning bolt. esp, if you're on the water either in Minnesota or here in the delta hitting within 1/8 mile from you. When you're in an aluminum boat or a 24' boat with and aluminum bridge. Those happened in the water; to me. They were spectacular. Still.. you don't touch what you don't have to and minimize your risk. That's all you have.. No different then at altitude.

You live or you don't and you minimize your chances as best as humanly possible.

When in lightning strikes, the last thing you should think about is your GPS, but you should turn all electronics off in case they desire to get fried.
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Re: Complete Backpacking Preparedness

Postby AlmostThere » Mon Jul 30, 2012 7:39 pm

rlown wrote:
How could you not have time to dive into a set-up tent? And which rain jacket shouldn't we buy?


I didn't want to take a gallon of water in with me. Nor did I want to miss the fantastic cloud show when it finally broke...

I'm doing a review on the HiTec jacket over on backpackgeartest.org, if you want to read the final report it should be up in a couple days. I could give you a list of jackets not to buy - waterproof AND breathable is never breathable enough, frankly. And waterproof is sweaty and wet just the same.
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