A Few Thoughts on Backcountry Safety
by Alois Smrz
While reading Dave German’s (Inyo Rescue Member) articles (Epic or Not to Epic and Anchors-It Could Be Your Life), I was remembering some of the close calls my climbing friends and I had in the mountains over the years. It occurred to me to write down the few things I learned from "the old school" climbers I eagerly listened to when I was just starting out. So here are few of the basics.
ALWAYS BE MASTER OF TIME:
Backcountry time is not a clock time. It is measured by your ability to cope, by hazards, visibility, terrain, and the weather. If you must be somewhere else, either because you are cold or you must be back in the office at 9:00 AM, you lost control of the time. Bad decisions are likely to come from this. When in alpine terrain, start as early as possible (2-3am wake up call). Early starts avoid the bottoms of avalanche gullies and low angle snow slopes that just might slide when the first morning sun hits them. Rockfall is also most prevalent at first sunlight. You should be high up on the face by the time the sun softens the slopes and warms the rocks. Aim for reaching the summit no later than 1pm to avoid the ever-present afternoon thundershowers and lightning strikes. Speed in the mountains is safety. Always camp as close to your objective as possible. Know your route and how to get down. Do everything possible to avoid having to bivouac, even if you have the gear for it. But if you get caught in technical terrain and it’s getting dark, find a good spot and wait for dawn. Learn how to climb fourth and easy fifth class rock unroped. Know how to self belay yourself with your ice axe on frozen snow and ice. Learn how to ascend lower angled ice slopes without the use of rope.
DON’T TRUST TO LUCK:
Always wear helmet in any climbing situation. Without exception, set up anchors like the leader will take a factor 2 fall on them. Practice setting fast but bombproof anchors at your local crag while speed climbing easy routes. If you have to run it out, always think what the consequences of a fall would be on you, as well as on your belayer. If you don’t like the next move, double up your protection. Learn to reverse any upward moves you make. Lucky escapes are admissions that we were not acting safely.
RESCUE IS NOT AN OPTION:
Never - not even for a second - think that rescue is an option. Rescue is totally opposite to safety. Once we need rescue, we already screwed up big time and passed the threshold of disaster. Expecting to be rescued is totally irresponsible. Nobody owes us rescue. Let’s use our own backcountry sense and skills to make the kind of decisions that will make rescue unnecessary.
KNOW YOUR BACKCOUNTRY SKILLS:
Do you know what the weather will be tomorrow? Do you know where the route goes? Can you find your way in unfamiliar terrain, with just a map and a compass? Do you know your gear and it’s limitations? Do you know where your physical and mental threshold is? All of the above can only be practiced by doing. So learn route awareness, keeping an eye on the weather, staying fit, fed, dry, and warm (or cool), and soon you will be able to travel much farther in safety.
BRING THE RIGHT GEAR:
Tennis shoes are not very useful on Palisades Glacier. A down parka is useless in Cascades downpour. A 60 pounds pack is way too heavy for ANY three-day trip almost anywhere. So bring the kind of gear which is right for the situation. If you don’t know, ask someone, who does.
BE IN CONTROL:
In the end it all comes down to how you understand yourself and reality, how you imagine the possibilities, accept responsibilities and weigh risks. Backcountry safe thinking is in many ways totally opposite of what we do as consumers in the age of "NOW".