Hunker down or bail out?

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Wandering Daisy
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Hunker down or bail out?

Post by Wandering Daisy » Sun Sep 24, 2017 2:35 pm

It is that time of year when one can likely get into a snowstorm in the Sierra, and unlike an August storm, one never knows if it is a brief one-day affair or a start of a longer stretch of snow. A dusting of snow or three feet?

When I was at Big Brewer Lake a few days ago and awoke to snow, I had to decide to hunker down and stay dry in the tent (usually my preference) or get out while I could (what I actually did this time). What made me decide on the latter, is that I only had 2 days food left and the snow had just started (light snow but blizzardy with a wicked wind chill) and I could likely get down below snow before it accumlated much on the ground. I bailed out timbered upper Brewer Creek and then on down below snow level to Moraine Meadows where I intersected the Avalance Pass trail. The remaining exit would then be all on a good trail. I continued over Avalance Pass to be sure I was done with higher altitudes and only had to drop to Roads End the next day. Or I could have dropped to the Roaring River Ranger Station if needed.

My original route over Sphinx Pass and down Sphinx Creek, in my opinion, would not be safe with the wind, low visibility and new snow that covered talus and an old snowfield that had to be crossed. New snow on old snow ruins your ability to "read" the snow. Step on new snow with ice below and off you are down the hill! Had I four or more days food, I would have stayed put to see what the next few days' weather would do, since late September storms do not likely mean the beginning of winter.

What is your thought process or reasons to stay put or bail?

By the way I do not carry a PLB so do not have the option to push the help button if things to bad.








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Re: Hunker down or bail out?

Post by Gazelle » Sun Sep 24, 2017 6:04 pm

I too would probably bail if in same situation, depends on snow on ground already passes that need to be crossed new snow on top of old is scary! I do have the capability with in the inreach to get weather reports so that help immensely. This time of year I like day hiking for that reason, but I still may go for a 5 day backpack starting this friday trip but kind of close to the JMT for bailout options on trail.
The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before. Albert Einstein

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Re: Hunker down or bail out?

Post by Wandering Daisy » Sun Sep 24, 2017 7:20 pm

I did not know that inreach also could be used to get weather reports. Now that makes the cost of a PLB more reasonable. Although weather forecasts are not 100%, they sure are useful in making decisions.

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Re: Hunker down or bail out?

Post by The Other Tom » Mon Sep 25, 2017 5:48 am

I asses the situation as best as I can using all the available info that I have. I realize I may not have all the info I need but it is what it is. Then I make the most safe decision. Sometimes it's to bail, sometimes it's to hunker down. Either way it's a risk but I take the most safe approach, IMO.

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Re: Hunker down or bail out?

Post by mrphil » Mon Sep 25, 2017 6:32 am

That's a tough question. It's all situational. Under the circumstances, with short food and knowing what potential hazards to anticipate along your route, it sounds like your decision was the best and wisest alternative. All things considered, I think the only positive you had that would've worked in favor of hunkering down was that it was early in the season and the forecast would've shown that the snow wouldn't have stuck for long. Not much to go on, a leap of faith, extenuating circumstances precluded it. Sure, forecasts can be inaccurate or just plain wrong at times, but it does make a good case for at least having them as a tool in knowing what might or is likely to happen. Too many rescues are as a result of people getting caught out because it was a nice day when they were heading out, and that was as far as they went in thinking it through. And that rain jacket, base layer, food, extra water...seemed unnecessary and like more weight than they really wanted to carry. In hindsight, you can stack the process of making bad choices from A-B-C... to see what clearly went wrong. It seldom varies much.

Personally, there is never a time in my trip planning process when I don't actively consider as many bailout locations as I think I might need: quickly getting lower, cross country, go faster for longer where I can, stop and hold, etc...even not going at all. In fact, when leaving my itinerary with anyone, I state those clearly.

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Re: Hunker down or bail out?

Post by Wandering Daisy » Mon Sep 25, 2017 6:58 am

Sitting here in our comfortable homes, it is easier to say that we objectively evaluate the situation and do what is safest. Realistically, when confronted by the reality, it is easy to panic and become a bit irrational and misjudge the risks involved in either decision. For me, this is particularly true when solo, whereas, if I am in a group we can bounce ideas off each other and come up with a better solution.

In my worst experience of weather gone bad, I was with a fellow who was a "bail-out" proponent and I was a "hunker down" proponent. We discussed, argued, wrangled about the decision. In this case it was mid-August when snowstorms in the Wind Rivers usually were brief and melted quickly. The bail-out was a very difficult route, miserable but possible in rain but impossible if snow covered. The rain had yet to turn to snow. He twisted my arm, and we bailed, managing to just stay ahead of the lowering snow level. Thankfully there was a tight timbered clump half way down the 2000 foot drop over diffcult steep refrigerator sized talus. It took 2 days to drop to the trail. He also kept up a barage of optimism and a cheery face that kept me positive too. As it turned out, this was an odd-ball storm that dumped a foot of snow that lasted more than a week! I never would have bailed on my own, however, I never would have done that route solo either.

Hunkering down mainly takes patience and the hope that if walking out at the end of the storm is not possible, you will get rescued. Hunkering down is better in short storms where things get better in a day or so. Walking out exposes you to more immediate risks, but gets you out of the long-term dangers. There are intermediate solutions too. Like hunkering down during the worst, moving to a lower location during a break in the storm. Obvioulsy if your current location is not suitable for hunkering down, you have to move to one that is.

Staistically, I wonder if survival rates are significantly better if one hunkers down or bails. I have read that in general, staying put is safer.

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Re: Hunker down or bail out?

Post by mrphil » Mon Sep 25, 2017 7:41 am

Oh yeah, armchair quarterbacking is easy. Hindsight is bliss, and all that.

I guess there are at least two schools of thought on it; so, hunker down and hope, or bailout and hope. One one hand, you have conditions stabilizing and saving your bacon. On the other, you have that getting the hell out of there was the thing to do. But on the third hand, the solution goes nuclear: the bailout alternatives become a disaster and even more dangerous. That doesn't necessarily answer the question of which is the better strategy at all, but what else is there that isn't only second guessing a situation that seems so obvious when we weren't there to gauge it ourselves?

In all that, you have the general advice for those that are lost: stay put. The creek is raging, don't cross it, etc. Don't make a bad situation worse than it already is. Sound advice, all things considered. We can't consult the crystal ball and have all our answers laid out for us: did you know that today was going to be the day you got your ticket punched, or the one where you whistled past the graveyard and lived to tell about it?

But then you also have situations like the SEKI lightning strike mentioned in another thread that took out the father and his two little kids. They're very lucky to even be alive. But, one strike, three victims. They hunkered down, doing what seemed right at the time, but their problems stacked up because of it. They were taking the best shelter they could find from the rain under a big tree, but with the lightning, that big tree became a big target. The perceived solution to one set of problems became their undoing in another. Secondly, while they obviously deferred to their father to keep them safe, and little kids need parental comfort when it's all going wrong, the idea of safety in numbers turned on them, so they all got hit at once.

And then you have the family in Oregon years ago whose car got stuck on the snow covered road. The father heard that you should follow water courses to civilization, so he threw away his best chances for rescue and took off down a draw to the creek, where he promptly got lost and froze to death. He made a bad decision, seemingly because he just felt compelled to do something, anything. The wife and kids did essentially nothing: stayed with the car, on the road, both of them assets, and they lived.

I don't know, go figure. How much is luck, and how much is applied skill? The people that survive are the ones that recognize their panic and disorientation, have their moment with it, then take all things into consideration and go for whatever seems best in clear and rational terms. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, you did your best, and then it's just a matter of fate taking over.

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Re: Hunker down or bail out?

Post by Hobbes » Mon Sep 25, 2017 8:44 am

Kristine showed me how to use the weather forecast feature on the DeLorme a few years ago. If anyone is still deciding on whether to get a (new) PLB, they should definitely consider the two-way capabilities (send/request receive/confirm) of the DL.

As for bailing out vs hunkering down, a big part of that decision is obviously dependent on where you happen to be. WY weather is a lot different than CA ie more extreme, and the west side of the Sierra significantly more remote than the east.

If you are anywhere along crest like the JMT - or even parts of the SHR - you can always easily hike out in a day to an eastside TH. (Assuming of course you're not injured, but that's an entirely different topic.) And it's not just distance, but also elevation and weather direction. Since we're talking about winter storms, dropping elevation quickly to the desert also moves you into the rain/snow shadow.

Other than falling down a cliff or sliding on steep snow, the east side is in many ways a lot safer alternative. I really believe a key part of being able to go UL is enabled by staying close to the crest. The further you get into the west, you have fewer trailheads that are more remote and take longer to get to. In that case, you do need to think about back-up options.

On the east, you can literally go out in day hiking clothes, get caught in a storm, and still safely retreat as long was you have the physical ability to keep walking.

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Re: Hunker down or bail out?

Post by Wandering Daisy » Mon Sep 25, 2017 10:30 am

Not sure I totally agree. Remember we lost a forum member who was trying to get out via Taboose Pass. A friend of mine also nearly did not make it out over Taboose Pass. That trail can be hard to find in a foot or snow in a white-out blizzard.

Although the west side is more remote, there are more forested areas that you can drop to, where you can hunker down and even build a fire. Additionally there are several backcountry ranger stations.

The Sierra has just as severe weather as winter approaches, as Wyoming. It just comes about a month or two later. Either mountain range, when you go in near the onset of winter, things can get serious.

I think the best bet shoulder season is to do shorter trips that are within the better forecast time frame. Obviously I did not follow my own advise! :D

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Re: Hunker down or bail out?

Post by SSSdave » Mon Sep 25, 2017 1:06 pm

The more one knows, the more one is experienced, the less the subject is a black and white freeze or flee response, and instead intelligent strategies can be assessed. My own opinion for years is the majority of summer hikers and backpackers that are not winter sport enthusiasts have little understanding of how dangerous snow storms are in strong winds. And there are numbers of inexperienced unknowledgeable visitors venturing out during dangerous periods making unwise gambles.

I've been a winter snow skiing enthusiast for decades including storm skiing because that is when fresh powder is loosest and most enjoyable. But to be out in such weather can be very unpleasant especially when on some chair lift while winds are howling with temperatures below 20F. One wonders how one might not survive if a lift stopped moving due to a failure. And then one looks way down at the ground below and thinks about the chances of surviving by jumping. Being out in such weather, is extremely sobering. One can readily imagine freezing to death in a short amount of time at wind exposed locations even while wearing usual ski clothing. It can simply be brutal. At ridge lines the white out visibility conditions in wind can be horrific even with snow goggles, much less without. When one removes gloves to say look at a map, it is surprising how quickly one's bare hands becoming numbingly cold.

With snow if one can reliably get below the snow line, the notion of bailing gains considerable value versus hunkering down. One ought to ask a list of questions before deciding to do so. How dangerous is one's current location and gear conditions? Is one's destination trailhead on the other side of a high elevation pass that would be dangerous during a storm? Can one get to lower elevations below the snow line? What were the most recent weather forecasts? Does leaving a present position require traveling through areas with high winds, deep snow, or difficult trees, vegetation, and brush? The latter can be a nightmare because snow will cover up surfaces leaving holes below. Is an escape route on a trail or cross country? Are there likely to be other groups on the trail and at the destination? Is one already in a dry tent with dry gear or is one already wet and not tented etc etc? How much food does one have to last being stuck somewhere? How much fuel does one still have for cooking food and warming up water? What kind of clothing does one have to stay warm and dry? What kind of head wear? What kind of footwear? Can one find dry wood to make a fire? Does one have multiple fire starters?

I haven't exhausted questions but rather just tossed a few out so people understand all this is not at all simple. There are whole books and training courses to address these things.

David

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