Was this stupid? (Weather related)

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Was this stupid? (Weather related)

by theuglybear » Thu Aug 02, 2012 2:06 pm

This happened a couple weeks ago, and I still can't decide if it was dangerously foolish or not.

Me and a friend were climbing Mount Adams (NH), and we had a terrible forecast for the afternoon but hoped to beat it with an early start. Unsettling (but not necessarily alarming) clouds are moving towards us early. Near the top of King's Ravine it starts sprinkling and we hear a very distant rumble of thunder. We keep going, deciding that even if it gets bad we don't want to descend that route. Ten or so minutes later, right before we top out of the ravine, we see one still distant but slightly closer flash of lightning. Initially I call it, but we decide to sit and see what happens. We wait a while (~10 minutes) in the now steady rain and observe no more electrical activity, nor do we the entire rest of the climb. Seeing that the storm doesn't seem to be increasing, and knowing that there is a relatively quick descent to protection should it do so, we decide to go on.

This moment is the first decision I'm unsure of. It seems, to at least some degree, reckless, but to what extent? Was this a potentially lethal bad decision, or is it understandable in the scope of the inherent risks one faces mountaineering?

The rest of the climb went as follows: we continue up with the storm steadily increasing and eventually turn around a couple hundred feet from the summit due to hail, heavy rain, and high winds. We descend back to the top of the ravine, at which point the storm has calmed considerably (back to a sprinkle). I decide to race back up alone while my partner begins descending the Airline. Storm again increases (but not quite to the point which it had before), the last few hundred feet of vertical is totally socked in, and I get to spend the most harshly beautiful and sublime three minutes of my life on the summit. Descent was uneventful except for the strongest winds I've had the pleasure to experience.

What of the second decision to ascend? There are additional risks going alone, but at the same time we had now experienced the storm cycle a bit and had gone ~45 minutes without any lightning.

If this had been a Rocky Mountain peak I would have descended as soon as I realized I could not beat the storm clouds back down, regardless of lightning or not. Additionally, if the route had been more committed I would not have attempted it in questionable conditions. I think I viewed this as a "normal" (meaning not a violent one specifically caused by the uplift mechanism granted by a mountain range) storm which I happened to be on a mountain during, and the absence of electrical activity made me think that the decisions to ascend were within the realm of acceptable risks. `

What do you think?

Also, I'm sorry for the wall of text, but I was trying to include as many of the relevant details as possible so as to gain the most insightful feedback.


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Re: Was this stupid? (Weather related)

by BigMitch » Thu Aug 02, 2012 3:24 pm

I am a very cautious guy, who has climbed/hiked at least 50+ peaks of Class 1-4 alone without incident.

However, when I make a decision to turn back, I never second guess myself.

Sometimes the weather clears and other times the weather worsens. That simply goes with the territory.

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Re: Was this stupid? (Weather related)

by nartreb » Thu Aug 02, 2012 6:44 pm

Heading up the King Ravine route with a poor forecast was not great judgement. I've learned from experience (i.e. from making bad judgements) that a big storm that's supposed to hit the valleys in the late afternoon will often get underway on the peaks some hours early, and that's one route that I try to avoid in the rain.

The decision to continue above the ravine is a tough one - it's very hard to estimate lightning risk until it's too late. You might have considered waiting at one of the huts (not losing much altitude) to see if the storm would last, instead of hanging around above treeline.

The decision to re-ascend I have no problem with. You already knew the route, were comfortable with the conditions, and the lightning risk was diminishing. Being briefly solo doesn't really affect that calculation, as long as you understood and communicated with your partner what you would each do if the conditions suddenly got much worse.

To emphasise to other readers: this is NOT a Rocky Mountains peak. Lightning strikes do occur but not with the regularity seen in the Rockies. The distance from the lip of the ravine to the summit is about half a mile, the terrain outside the ravine is rough (alpine felsenmeer) but not technical, and there are real cairns every thirty feet or so. *1 Photos of a neighboring route in iffy weather can be seen here: http://www.davidalbeck.com/photos/2010/king/index.html

*1 Edit: I just happened to read in _Not without Peril_ that most of those cairns were built by the CCC and the standard was: four feet tall, fifty feet apart. (Many cairns are now rather larger, and there may be some new cairns too.)
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Re: Was this stupid? (Weather related)

by npsimons » Thu Aug 02, 2012 7:04 pm

If you have to ask that question, you probably already know the answer. Two things caught my attention: you continued in bad weather, and you separated from your group. You got lucky this time, but far too often I hear stories of people who do the same thing you did and didn't make it home.

Just remember, the peak will be there tomorrow; don't let it be the last one you ever bag.

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Re: Was this stupid? (Weather related)

by DrGranola » Sat Aug 04, 2012 8:44 pm

Considering the fact that some people are more or less comfortable with different weather forecasts and setting that aside, I still think its a personal judgement call. Was this abnormal decision making for you and your group?

Obviously if the weather clears, it's usually safe to continue. As for the going solo - it's probably fine as long as its in your acceptable realm of safety / risk. Although you do realize you were checking every box for an epic, right?


If it feels wrong, it probably is.

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Re: Was this stupid? (Weather related)

by POLUKO » Sat Aug 04, 2012 10:42 pm

Lightning isn't just isolated to ridge lines. People have been killed at the bottom of a canyon by lightning. You could have easily been caught in some nasty stuff since all of the signs were there. Visible lightning and hail are pretty strong indicators that the conditions for death are primed. It doesn't matter how much analysis and mitigation you run through your head. It's fricking weather and does whatever it does.

So the answer is yes but we all make mistakes and you are ok.

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Re: Was this stupid? (Weather related)

by lcarreau » Sun Aug 05, 2012 3:11 am

YES .... but NOT as stupid as this ....... :D

"Turkey Vultures always vomit when they get nervous."

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Re: Was this stupid? (Weather related)

by Ben Beckerich » Sun Aug 05, 2012 5:06 am

You survived, were uninjured, and it doesn't sound like you had any near-misses with anything... so no- what you did was, quite obviously, perfectly safe. Most peoples' hindsight is better than their foresight, though... so I wouldn't bank too much on the ol' hindsight.

It's not really an answerable question. We all have our own perception, fear threshold, experience and competency levels.. a situation that would scared the shit out of one guy and be labeled "epic" might be just one more "suck fest" for another guy.

T-storms aren't something to go climbing up into. But they're also not likely to kill you. Lightening and avalanche are real hazards, but if you ask me, people make WAY too much out of both. Can they kill you? For sure. But what are the odds? What's your personal threshold?

It's just like wearing a seat-belt. You just have to develop your own risk assessment skills, and fap what anybody else has to say about it.
where am i going... and why am i in this handbasket?

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Re: Was this stupid? (Weather related)

by Sierra Ledge Rat » Sun Aug 05, 2012 5:08 pm

theuglybear wrote:This moment is the first decision I'm unsure of. It seems, to at least some degree, reckless, but to what extent? Was this a potentially lethal bad decision, or is it understandable in the scope of the inherent risks one faces mountaineering?

Mountaineering is reckless endeavor. You have to manage the risks for yourself and decide how "reckless" you want to be. But remember, there is a very fine line between bravery and foolishness.

In general, sounds like you were aware of the risks, assessed your position and options, made a decision, and got on with it. So it sounds to me like you're doing just fine.

Specifically, lightning is an unpredictable and very unforgiving enemy. In the past I have bagged climbs because of the lightning danger. I have been badly electrocuted and scared piss-less on a high summit. Other times I have flaunted the danger. It is probably best with this adversary to err on the side of conservatism and be very, very careful.

A lot of people will get a super-early alpine start to be off the peak by noon-ish, to beat the afternoon thunder-and-lightning storms.

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Re: Was this stupid? (Weather related)

by mvs » Mon Aug 06, 2012 10:36 am

The last two weekends I had a day to climb, and an initially promising forecast always turned to storm. Rather than stay home, we sucked it up in two ways: 1) leave town at 5 am, 2) modified our objectives. In both cases we ended up practically the only climbers on a couple of classic ridge climbs when everyone else stayed home. We were well off the routes before the storms started, and keep a "trigger finger" attitude of paranoia when deciding whether to get on the ridge or not.

Here is a pic from yesterday, we had a blast:

We had to be ready for a few things: 1) retreat from anywhere at the first sign of trouble, which means a willingness to leave expensive gear if required without a second thought. 2) Full knowledge of each descent (emergency or otherwise) possibility. On one day, our climb was about 5.5 at the hardest. The decision for speed meant we soloed most of the ridge to beat the storm, and used a thin 8.5 mm rope doubled so we could simul-climb the 5.5 pitches. On another day, with harder climbing (5.10a), we carried 60 meter double ropes, because this climb was more of an "edge" than a ridge, and we could actually retreat down it. The heavier packs slowed us down a bit on the approach but it was required to maintain our safety margin so we didn't give it a second thought.

If you ask me, these calculations of time, weather, ability, energy, etc. are one of the great gifts of mountaineering. It's a kind of "deep play" that unites rational and creative abilities. I'd say in this realm you are only stupid if you didn't think through the possibilities and come up with an answer you can live with at the end of each decision tree. Of course, you could always just stay home and avoid this whole line of thought! :D

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Re: Was this stupid? (Weather related)

by Kahuna » Mon Aug 06, 2012 2:25 pm

Unsettling (but not necessarily alarming) clouds are moving towards us early.

One or the other. This statement doesn't makes sense. You were either concerned at the impending weather or you weren't. IMO, this here is the crux of this particular situ.

I set a boundary line for myself some 35 years ago. I follow the weather forecast for a couple days prior to my adventure. If the three different forecast models come together indicating a high probability of dangerous weather (thunderstorms), if the actual day is upon me and I can see that the potential for bad weather is becoming a reality, I postpone it till another day. I do not even attempt to push my luck with Mother Nature.

I have only pushed that boundary once (last Oct) and regretted it. I survived the incident to only reaffirm to myself that I need to abide to that standard that I put on myself 35 years ago regardless my motivation.

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Re: Was this stupid? (Weather related)

by CBakwin » Sun Aug 12, 2012 2:25 pm

You made the summitt and didn't die or even get seriously maimed, so it sounds like it was within the safety parameters you set for youself. Everyone sets their own safety limits, pure self determination in the mountains. When in doubt you can always use my Maxim and remember : "Nobody gets out of this world alive".

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Re: Was this stupid? (Weather related)

by mueller22031 » Mon Aug 13, 2012 12:48 am

If you have to ask the question here you already know the answer in your gut and you are just looking for validation of your answer. At least you didn't put anyone else in danger in you solo dash to the top.

I climbed with a novice climber who exercised bad judgement on a climb. He and a third climber got lucky that day when they went for the summit, I chose to abort the climb. Everyone makes their own decisions. Needless to say I choose to no longer climb with him.

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