Thunderstorms and Safety, Part 3

You’re on the trail enjoying a Yellowstone guided hiking tour deep in the wild and beautiful Yellowstone backcountry. What began as a clear morning with blue skies and a few wispy cirrus clouds has morphed into early afternoon cloudiness, with big dark-bottomed cumuli bubbling upward toward the stratosphere. The wind is picking up and you can hear thunder rumbling in the distance. Here are a few things that your guide will consider.

First, remember that to some extent avoiding lightening strikes is like rolling the dice. If your number comes up, you’re toast, and there are no guarantees in the wilderness. Yet every good gambler knows how to skew the odds in his/her favor and wilderness travel in thunderstorm weather is no different. Follow a few simple rules and you are extremely unlikely to come to an abrupt electrical ending. First, recall that every 5 seconds that elapse between the lightening and when you hear the thunder represents a mile. So if 25 seconds elapse, the bolt was 5 miles away. Five miles is the threshold at which you need to head toward a safe location.

The following are not safe locations: ridges or summits, even relatively low ones; open areas, especially on ridges or summits but really, just about anywhere that your body would be the tallest object; water; atop a horse or in the mouth of a cave. Avoid these places assiduously during thunderstorms! In addition, avoid isolated trees or small groves of trees. They might act as lightening rods! The “cone of influence” is about twice the distance of the tree height, so get at least that far from the tree/lightening rod. That’s because many injuries and deaths due to lightening are from ground currents near the strike, rather than a direct hit. Again, get off the mountain and as far down into the valley as you can. Valley bottoms are best. Large stands of forest are good, too, as opposed to isolated trees or groves of trees, but don’t stand under the tallest tree in the woods. And if the lightening is very close (minimal time between flash and boom), make sure that only your feet are in contact with the ground, with boots on, crouching like a baseball catcher atop any additional insulation that might be available (pads, clothing, etc.) If you are in a group, spread out, so if there is a hit, some will escape unscathed and be able to perform any necessary first aid or securing of help.  Speaking of first aid, lightening strikes are among the only situations in the backcountry in which cardiac arrest can be reversed via CPR. So if you are in the unfortunate position of organizing triage after a lightening strike, take care of those who appear to be “dead” first. Save other injuries for after you’ve performed CPR! For this reason alone, every outdoors-person should take a CPR class and maintain their certification.

Again, though, if you follow the basic rules outlined above, you’ll probably be safe even in the most severe thunderstorms. Don’t be a goal-oriented climber who just has to reach the summit, despite incoming stormy weather. Safety is mostly a matter of making good choices. Nonetheless, in the wilderness there are no guarantees. And in the end, that is one of the great things about wilderness travel.

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Thunderstorms and Safety, Part 2

As previously discussed, thunderstorms are common in the high country. They often seem to materialize out of the clear blue, and that is exactly what they do! That’s because under the right conditions, which are frequent in the summer, a clear blue sky morning can quickly become a stormy afternoon with lots of thunder and lightening. Of course, thunder is lightening. They are one and the same. Thunder is the noise made by the lightening flash, and when you see lightening, you’ll hear thunder after a brief interval, depending upon the distance. Since sound travels at about a mile every 5 seconds, if you count to ten immediately after the flash and then hear the thunder, the lightening was two miles away. If there is almost no time lapse, the high voltage is way too close! The general rule is that at five miles or less, take cover!

Of course, the first warning sign is to get a weather forecast before you leave for your guided Yellowstone backpack trek. If the Weather Service forecasts a 20% chance of afternoon thunderstorms for town (in the valley), then you can easily double that percentage to get your odds for a storm in the high country. Weather forecasts become less accurate with time, so on an extended wilderness trek, after 4 or 5 days don’t expect the forecast you heard back in town to hold up. You’re on your own! The wilderness rules! As it should. And hopefully, you’ve left your electronic communications device at home so you can experience the big wild on its own terms! Yet with a bit of practice and some simple study of a few basic meteorological principals, you can make your own back-country weather forecast. Here are just a couple of ideas to ponder.

Note the humidity. A dewy morning means there might be plenty of moisture for storm formation. If the air feels humid, then it is, and in the relatively dry Rocky Mountain climate, in the summer that usually means possible thunderstorms. Note the nighttime temperature. A cold night usually means clear dry air, but a warm night means moisture and the potential for rain or snow including thunderstorms, depending upon the situation and the season. Cumulus clouds forming shortly after breakfast? That’s a warning sign. Watch their development. If they are soon “bubbling upward”, plan for thunderstorms because those puffy cumulus will quickly grow into big dark cumulonimbus (thunderheads) clouds. In fact, buy a cloud chart and learn the basic cloud groups. Cirrus clouds with “mares tails” can mean upcoming thunderstorms or possibly a major storm front system. Morning alto-cumuli or different cloud types visible at the same time can also foretell possible storms. Forecasting weather when you’re out in the wilds does take practice, but in terrain that often produces violent thunderstorms, it’s an important skill that could possibly save your life. In the final installment of this 3-part series, we’ll look at what you should do to maximize your safety, once you are actually in a thunderstorm in mountain wilderness.


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Thunderstorms and Safety, Part 1

Thunderstorms are a part of the wilderness experience in most high mountain regions during the warmer months of the year. This is certainly true in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), which includes Yellowstone National Park and  surrounding mountain ranges such as the Absarokas, Beartooths, Wind Rivers, Tetons, Gallatins and Gros Ventres.

A couple of geographic/meteorological factors are responsible for most thunderstorms in this unique highland region. First, the GYE is a very expansive highland of alpine mountains and high plateaus, rising well above the much lower grasslands, croplands and sagebrush steppes of the surrounding terrain. The expansive upland forces moist air to rise and condense into clouds, regardless of the direction from which the moist air arrives. Moist Pacific fronts and air masses and moist subtropical air flow can each produce sudden, sometimes violent thunderstorms when the moist unstable air is forced upward by the terrain. There’s an old saying that “mountains make their own weather”, and although highlands do so in many ways, orographic lifting (air masses forced to rise over high topography) in conjunction with convective daytime heating is probably the most typical example of thunderstorm formation in the mountains. It also facilitates cloud formation and precipitation during other seasons in addition to summer thunderstorms, so in general, the high country climate is cooler and wetter than that of the surrounding lowlands.

In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, there’s another important factor in thunderstorm formation. Most summers, a true monsoon develops over Mexico and the American Southwest, bringing moist tropical air from the Gulf of California, the Gulf of Mexico and the subtropical Pacific into the region. Typically, this moist flow brings daily scattered but intense thunderstorms during July, August and early September to Arizona, New Mexico and the mountains of Colorado. But occasionally, the monsoon continues north into western Wyoming and southern Montana. It often drifts far enough to the east to miss most of Idaho and far western Montana, resulting in drier summer for the Bitterroot Range and neighboring areas. When the monsoon does drift to the north and east, the orographic effect of the Greater Yellowstone highland facilitates cloud formation, and boom! Before you know it the temperature has dropped 20 degrees and you are cowering in the trees, trying to stay warm, dry and non-electrical! Yes, those picturesque puffy white morning cumulus clouds in the deep blue sky sure look innocuous. But they can grow into massive thunderheads before you can say “head for cover!” In the next installment, we’ll discuss some signs of thunderous danger and then we’ll look at some of the best ways to avoid getting zapped by lightening while backpacking in Yellowstone and adjacent mountain ranges. Stay tuned!

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Avoiding Hypothermia in Yellowstone, Part 2: Stay Dry!

The Big Wild Adventures Clothing/Personal Gear List instructs our clients to utilize a time-proven layering system for warmth and safety in mountain environments, or, for that matter, in any area where cold wet conditions are possible. Begin with wool or synthetic long-johns (top and bottoms) that wick moisture away from your body. The next layer is a loose-fitting wool shirt or fleece pullover, followed by a warm insulated jacket and then a good quality breathable 2-piece rainsuit. Don’t forget the ski hat, gloves, and wool socks, either. Buy outdoor clothing that’s loose fitting, especially outer layers that will go over the inner layers. Tight cloths might be fashionable in town, but in the wilds tight layers compress and therefore don’t insulate well, while looser layers don’t compress and also form air pockets for extra warmth.

Note the sky. Pay attention to your guide’s warning that cold wet conditions are on the way. Remove your cotton T-shirt and get your additional layers and rain gear on before the storm! Cotton is great in hot weather, but it will sap your body heat if you are cold and wet, so put it in your pack until conditions change. It is also important to regulate your layers regardless of the weather, in order to minimize sweating. So wear appropriate layers, but don’t overdress. Being soaked with sweat is no way to enjoy a sudden storm! Wet is wet regardless of the source, and in cold weather wet is bad! Of course, getting out of the open and into the trees or maybe into some protected topography is also important, and our guides will always look for sheltered areas during storms. But sometimes there simply is no nearby shelter, and in such situations common sense and quality mountain clothing will do the job of keeping you warm and safe. With today’s modern outdoor fabrics, there is no excuse for getting hypothermia. But your clothing is only as good as your ability to use the layering system properly and to get the proper layers on before all meteorological hell breaks loose!

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Avoiding Hypothermia In Yellowstone, Part 1: The Basics

Hypothermia is the lowering of the core body temperature below 98 degrees F (98.6 is considered “normal”). Feeling cold is the obvious first symptom, followed by shivering and then by a loss of coordination and eventually reductions in the victim’s “level of responsiveness”. When the shivering stops (unless it stops because the person has warmed up), that means the patient has declined into severe hypothermia and the situation is potentially life-threatening! There are various medical reasons why one’s body temperature might drop, but for our purposes as a wilderness backpacking guide/outfitting service, weather conditions and our response to them are primary. On our Yellowstone guided hiking tours, hypothermia is a serious concern because Yellowstone is known for sudden weather changes, including cold wet storms with rapid temperature drops.

Because we lead very few trips in true winter conditions, hypothermia situations such as that which Jack London depicted in “To Build A  Fire” are not really relevant. It will not be 40 below zero on a Big Wild trip, and it is unlikely that any of our treks would be exposed to really extreme temperatures. Nonetheless, overnight lows occasionally fall into the single digits on a September Yellowstone backpacking trip, and even in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, an April morning in the teens is not unusual. Both of these examples typically occur at altitude, in clear dry weather with little wind on days that rapidly warm once the sun is up. Yet despite Jack London and despite Yellowstone’s cool climate, severe cold is not usually a big worry, so long as you stay dry. That’s because subfreezing temperatures are obvious and folks tend to bundle up. Yes, I’ve seen clients emerge from their tents in shorts and t-shirts on 30-degree mornings, but they usually self-correct rather quickly. So clear, cold, dry weather is not hypothermia weather. But wet weather is. Particularly when the temperatures are in the 30’s to 50’s! That’s when most backpackers get into trouble. Add wind to the equation, especially in exposed open country, and a blowing rainstorm at 45-degrees F. is a recipe for hypothermia. The next installment will summarize some simple ways to avoid it.

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Guided Backpacking At Altitude, Part 2

In the previous installment, I discussed some of the basic principles of Acute Mountain Sickness, or AMS for short (the medical field loves acronyms). I also mentioned that most of our clients on our Wyoming, Montana and Yellowstone backpacking trips come from near sea level, which means they need to acclimate. Fortunately, there are a number of relatively simple things folks can do to help assure a relatively painless transition into the realm of thin mountain air.

First, adjust your travel schedule! Plan to arrive in Wyoming or Montana the day before the day of the evening pre-trip safety/orientation meeting. So if the first day of the trip is the 4th, plan to arrive on the 2nd, if you can. We often meet our groups in Jackson, Wyoming (elevation 6,200 feet) or Bozeman, Montana (elevation 4,600 feet), so by arriving early you can begin to put a dent in that initial 48 hour period when your body rapidly acclimates. Of course, on the trail you’ll still be higher than in town, but arriving an extra day early will help!

Out in the wilds, your best defense against AMS is to drink lots of water. Hydrate! Good hydration speeds the physiological adaptation to thin air. Carry as much water as you can — in your belly, not on your back. In addition, it is a good idea to “hike high and sleep low” at least for the first 2 or 3 days, though that is not always possible, depending upon the route and the trip plan. Sometimes camp is at the high point of the day, so again, your best defense is to drink lots of water. If you have a headache, a normal dose of ibuprofen will usually do the trick. Medical tests have also proven the value of “Pursed Lips Breathing” (PLB) to improve oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange at altitude. You simply purse your lips and breathe in, then you quickly “blow out the candle at arm’s length”. And repeat. Of course the simple common sense act of slowing down your hiking pace early in the trip, is an obvious no-brainer.

For those who know that they have a severe susceptibility to AMS, there is always the pharmacist. After all, this is America and people expect a drug for every malady! And in the case of AMS, there is at least one. It is called Diamox, and it is a prescription drug that can be taken prophylactically in order to speed up the acclimation process. And it works. Possible side effects include increased urination, so of course, this means that you’ll have to drink up even more to avoid dehydration, but again, the stuff works. There may also be other such products available about which I am unaware. But if you know from past experience that you have trouble at altitude, please consult your physician.

See you in the high country!

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Guided Backpacking At Altitude, Part 1

Most of our Yellowstone backpacking treks are at altitudes of 6,000 to 9,000 feet, where the air is thin. Some of our Montana backpacking and Wyoming backpacking trips are at even higher elevations, beginning at trailheads of 8,000 to 9,000 feet with some hiking routes even topping out around or above the 11,000 foot level! Which means that because most of our clients live at or near sea level, we typically expect them to experience some shortness of breath for the first couple of days. Sometimes there are additional symptoms. There are ways for folks to minimize the effects of backpacking at high altitudes, but first, let’s look at a bit of background information.

The bad news is that it takes the human body a couple of months to fully acclimate to thin air. The good news is that you acclimate rapidly for the first 48 hours — about 50% of full acclimation — and then at a slower rate for the next few weeks. The body acclimates in a number of ways, but the big one is quite simple: your blood develops more red corpuscles for better efficiency at transporting oxygen. In other words, your blood thickens. And again, it does a lot of thickening during the first 48 hours at altitude.

People vary greatly in their ability to acclimate to high elevations; some develop physical problems while others do not. It is also interesting to note that individual responses to altitude are independent of one’s physical conditioning. Some folks are just genetically more susceptible than others to altitude-related problems. These problems/symptoms used to be called “Altitude Sickness” but nowadays the correct term is “Acute Mountain Sickness” or just AMS. The typical signs and symptoms of AMS include shortness of breath during exertion, dizziness and/or headache, nausea, loss of appetite and insomnia. In severe situations, AMS can progress to High altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) or High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), which mean fluid collects in the brain and lungs respectively. Both of these afflictions are life-threatening, and the only cure is to rapidly descend to lower elevations! In 38 years of guiding, we’ve never dealt with either one of these dire problems, as they are both quite rare and essentially unheard of below 8,000 feet (and usually occur at much higher elevations than that).

So for our guided backpacking treks in the western United States, we are primarily concerned with making sure that our clients are safe and relatively comfortable, especially during that critical first couple of days on the trail. The next installment will discuss some proven ways to ensure safety and comfort while backpacking in Yellowstone or anywhere else at altitude.

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Water Consumption In Yellowstone National Park

In today’s America, water is almost out of fashion. Go into any convenience store and you find a mind boggling array of excuses to drink anything but water. Soft drinks, booze and beer, coffee, fruit juices, high caffeine energy drinks, Gatorade and more have all replaced the healthiest liquid of all, good old water. Water has no calories, is free from the tap (and in some areas from the creek), and is more quickly absorbed into the system than anything that the drink industry produces. And our bodies are 70% water, not Coca Cola!

Which is important to remember for backpacking in Yellowstone or, for that matter, backpacking anywhere. Water is the best way to hydrate! Cold water is most quickly absorbed by your body. Leave the powdered flavoring mix at home. Minimize coffee consumption, especially in hot weather. And drink heartily when you stop for a break at a water source. Most folks, either on the trail or at home, don’t drink enough water. A good rule of thumb is for an average-sized man to drink a gallon/day while backpacking, and for an average-sized woman to down at least 3 quarts. More for both in hot weather. A bit less for the kids. But remember this: your sense of thirst does not adequately indicate your water needs. You need more. So drink. Carry it in your belly, not on your back. And keep an eye on the color of your urine. It should be light yellow to clear. If it is dark, then you are dehydrated. Dehydration will rob you of energy and you’ll feel bad. In severe cases it is life-threatening. And there’s just one good cure: drink up! A well-hydrated hiker will simply out-perform she/he who is on the dry side. And the cold high elevation waters of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are some of the purest on Earth!


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Yellowstone Thermal Features: Backcountry Safety

Most Yellowstone backpackers, particularly novices, focus their fears mainly upon bears, though driving to the trailhead is the biggest hazard of backpacking in Yellowstone. Yet one of the most underrated dangers is the park’s thermal areas. Yellowstone National Park has the greatest concentration of hot springs, geysers, boiling mud pots and other related manifestations of the crustal hot spot that fuels this underground cauldron. In the developed parts of the park, safety is simple: stay on the designated routes and boardwalks. Or risk either a citation or breaking through the mineral crust to your par-boiled demise!

However, in the wilds, away from the roads and tourists, you are on your own to exhibit common sense. There are no boardwalks and no park rangers regularly patrolling to keep the humans in line. And there have been a surprising number of fatalities, including some in which bathers simply misjudged the water temperature and plunged in to their death. Not a pleasant way to go, I’m sure. And worthy of a “Darwin Award”. Keep in mind that it is illegal to bathe in hot springs that aren’t at least partially diluted by another water source. And the best way to stay safe is to simply limit your bathing to known hot pools that receive regular use and carefully test the water temperature anyway, because many thermal features have big temperature fluctuations.

When exploring thermal areas while hiking on a Yellowstone backpack trip, be extra observant. Geysers expel dangerously hot water, so keep your distance. In order to avoid an inadvertent fatal dunking, simply stay on the trails and do not wonder onto the crust! I cannot over-emphasize the danger of thermal crusts. Just stay off of them, period, no exceptions! So now you are prepared to enjoy this marvel of nature. Go for it; the backcountry thermals await. But explore these Yellowstone wonders with safety in mind, so that park rangers never have to retrieve any more human remains from the boiling waters of the world’s first national park.

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How to Avoid Drowning in the Yellowstone Wilderness

Wait a minute. You’re going backpacking, not canoeing with the Boy Scouts. And it’s not a whitewater rafting trip, either. So why worry about drowning? Well, for good reason!

Although water is an important landscape feature on nearly all of our trips, guided Yellowstone backpack trips are particularly well-endowed with rivers, streams and lakes. Sometimes, we must cross rivers, and occasionally the crossings are challenging. Nearly always, even in summer, the waters are cold. And one slip in a fast-moving creek or river can get you submerged! Or swept downstream. In fact, while most folks, particularly on their first Yellowstone backpack trip, are understandably concerned about bears, statistics show that falling and drowning are much more likely to help alleviate the human overpopulation problem.

When it’s time for a stream crossing, the most important advice we can give you is to follow the guide’s instructions. No two crossings are alike, and it is beyond the scope of this brief essay to cover all of the nuances and techniques for fording rivers and streams in the wilderness. Again, and we can’t emphasize this enough: follow the guide’s instructions! When the group approaches a stream, don’t begin to look for a place to cross on a rock or a log in order to keep your feet dry. Let the guide analyze the situation; that is, let him do his job. If there is a safe place to cross with dry feet, he’ll find it. But remember, wet feet are preferable to a broken leg! The guide may appear to be doing nothing, simply standing at water’s edge, when in fact he is considering many different factors and options. Please don’t interfere, because our guides are good at this, and their primary consideration is safety!

Even when you’re not actually fording a frigid rocky stream, drowning is still possible. I love the book Death in Yellowstone. It describes a number of instances in which people simply fell into rivers from the shoreline and were swept away. So if our group is camped next to a river (or a lake), be careful! Don’t fall in. Be particularly cautious when filling your water bottle. And if your children are along, be especially vigilant and never allow them to even approach a river shoreline without holding the hand of a parent.

OK, it’s a hot summer afternoon. You just hiked 8 miles and are sweaty, covered with trail dust. And Shoshone Lake sure looks inviting! I completely understand. Consider, though, that even in mid to late summer the water temperature of this and other high altitude lakes remains very cold. So plan for your swim or dunk to be brief, because you could begin to get hypothermic before you realize what’s happening! Always go to the water with another person. The “buddy system” is mandatory. Never go swimming alone! Never go out into deep water that’s over your head; wear your crocks/water shoes and have warm dry cloths to put on as soon as you are out.

One more thing. Mountain lakes often include big rocks along the shore. These are rocks, not diving boards. Do not jump off them. Even if the water looks deep, there might be hidden rocks in the water that will radically hasten your demise if you jump or dive.

Again, we do not mean to belittle hazards such as bears or lightning. But water is more dangerous. Yes, our bodies are 70% water. We must have it regularly to sustain life. Water is beautiful. Wilderness water is delicious. It produces fish, otters and bald eagles. But unless you are exceedingly careful around water in the wilderness, the stuff of life can quickly become the facilitator of death.



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