So, this is a bit of a different episode of the podcast today. I had something else entirely planned for this one, but I'm switching things up after the adventure I had three hours before recording this. Basically, this episode will cover why and how to be prepared for being in the mountains. I say it a lot on here, be prepared. And that your safety is the number one priority. I'm going to use this adventure to talk about some of the things we could have done much better to help you do better the next time you're outdoors and adventuring.
Alright, that being said, a little on the adventure. So, I went for what should have been a nice, leisurely hike with my brother-in-law on Sunday (the day I am recording this for release on April 26). We picked a route that had been relatively dry, one we had done before, and that would take us about 3.5 hours. All in all, it should have been a great morning.
But, this nice leisurely hike turned into a 7.5 hour arduous, snow stomping, post-holing slog up some treacherous terrain. It was anything but the fun, easy day we were looking for in the mountains.
The first mistake we made, not checking the weather.
Both my brother-in-law and I know better than this. He has spent probably quadruple the hours in the mountains I have (if not more), and I've spent enough time to know to always check the weather. And not just for the area around where you are going, but for the top of the mountain you are going to as well. We didn't do this.
I vaguely knew there was a chance of snow, but that's about it. No, not just a chance. There was a winter storm warning for the area (yes, in the spring, we get winter storm warnings). They were expecting 40cm of snow over 6 hours. This wasn't some gentle storm, but a full-on rager at points. And when we drove into it, and the roads were a mess, and the snow was coming down, we probably should have stopped and down some recon or research. But we didn't. We've hiked lots in the snow and just jumped out of our vehicles and kept going.
So, I've said this a lot before and didn't take my own advice this time. Always check the weather for the bottom and the top of the mountain. Make sure you are ready for and comfortable with the weather you could encounter.
Mistake number two happened right after this. We made assumptions. I had been to the base of the mountain we were climbing a few weeks before, and the mountain itself looked pretty dry. Some patches of snow, but up to the false summit, things seemed pretty clean. You can't see past the false summit from where I was, but up to that point, it looked great. So when he suggested that spot, I told him what I'd seen, and we went with that. Oh man, was that a bad idea. We made a terrible mistake and assumed that what I had seen a full 16 days earlier would still be the same, if not even better. It wasn't, not even close. The snow had really come down over the last few weeks, and the route was totally covered.
But it wasn't so bad we needed to turn back. We had microspikes, and things seemed like they'd be ok. There was no post-holing or any other problems. But, alas, that also changed quickly. But not until after a difficult point that left us with no good options for turning back.
You see, the route we were on was a scrambler's route that leads to a mountain top that connects to two others, and then you hike down the far side of basically a horseshoe shape. So, once we went up the scramblers route, we wouldn't have to go back down it, which is fantastic in the winter. In this case, this was well planned for today. So lots of hands-on the rock and some steep sections, mixed with difficult climbing during the scrambling. Typically, not a great winter route, but there was very little snow until after the crux. So, we kept going. And once you go past the crux, turning back becomes a complicated and dangerous task. Which, with no snow past the crux, like we ASSUMED there wasn't, this isn't a problem. You just finish the loop and head down the hiker's trail. We even commented that it was great we didn't need to do any post-holing. For those of you who don't know, post-holing is when you step into the snow and sink to your knee or even deeper.
Well, that ended quickly. Not less than 10-seconds later, I post-holed. And then again a few steps later. And this was a preview of how most of the rest of our hike was going to go. Post-holing for the next 5ish kilometres while also climbing another 400 meters and then going down about 1,200 meters. We post holed and slid on deep snow, and all in all just were not enjoying the slog. But, turning back at this point likely would have been more dangerous, so we pressed on.
Making assumptions about the state of the mountain and the route got us into a slog of a hike and a bit of trouble that could have ended very badly. Thankfully, so thankfully, we got down and out safely with seemingly just a few bruises, some very sore muscles, and a sunburn. This was incredibly lucky as this day could quickly have gone sideways. It's vital as you adventure not to make assumptions about routes and do your research in advance to know how the path is looking. And to turn back if you have the inkling of trouble - which we kind of did - but dismissed because we assumed.
Mistake number three is on me. I was hoping to reduce the load in my pack for this fun hike, and being that I'd done this before, I knew that I wouldn't need more than a litre of water in my bag. So that's what I brought. I desperately needed more on this hike. I should have had two litres with me as a just-in-case reservoir. Post-holing for as long as we did and going for as long as we did meant I needed more water, but I didn't have it with me. The second thing I left behind was a painkiller of some form. My muscles cramped bad and walking at certain points became very hard. A painkiller would have helped me get out of this hike a bit quicker and in better shape. But, I left the bottle in the truck, taking it out of my backpack to find something and not putting it back in. The final thing I made a mistake about in planning was forgetting that the sun still burns even when the snowfalls. I didn't put on sunscreen, and my face (my only exposed skin) burned, and it's paying for it now. I was underprepared, and it cost me. I am hurting now and slowly sipping on some water. But, I could have been better off now if I'd done my due diligence and double-checked I had everything I needed.
Mistake number 4 can easily turn deadly. Thankfully, it didn't this time. But, route and summit fever was our fourth big mistake. We set out from Calgary to do this route. And then the snow started falling, but we ignored that, thinking we've done a lot of winter hiking. Then we saw the snow getting a bit deeper, but we ignored that as well, assuming the trail would be fine. Then, my water reserves were not very high, but because I'd done this trek before, I thought I'd be ok and just kept going. And finally, in the crux of the route, we went from simple scrambling to full-on alpine mountaineering. I am not a mountaineer, never have been, may not ever be. But we did this, and we kept pushing through the challenge. We got focused on making it through this rather than being smart about it and turning around. The whole thing should have taken 3.5 hours. By the time we finished the crux, it had been 3.5 hours. We should have noticed our time and turned for home just before the crux. Instead, we pushed on. This is one of the most common problems in adventuring. People pushing past obvious warning signs. This wasn't a manly thing or a macho thing, just two people thinking about their goal and objective. Be cognizant of what you are doing, and why, and how in these situations. Don't get focused on the end goal so much that you may not live to make it there or home again. This is massive advice and something that could save your life.
Now, thankfully on this hike, my brother-in-law was there. No way would I have done this on my own. But he is incredibly skilled and understands routes and risks. Together we've done a lot of things, so I felt confident with him there. We've both been in the mountains a lot and know what to do when things go sideways, which is always possible. But this was one of those times where we should have communicated more.
So, why does this matter to you? Well, firstly I'm hoping you learn from my mistakes. I got home safely, but I just as easily could have been flown to a hospital on this trip. So, take these mistakes and learn from them before your next mountain adventure.
Secondly, I partially needed to reflect on the day, so thanks for being a part of that with me! I hope you can take something out of this experience I had today, grow from it and learn from it.
As always, thanks so much for tuning in. I know today wasn't about photography directly, but it was about what you need to think of when you are in the mountains and the outdoors exploring and creating.
You can follow along with Robert’s adventures on Instagram @RobertMasseyPhotography.