Sunday, March 4, 2012

My (probably unfounded) worries #1: Inclement Weather Hiking

Watching the wet snow fall in Ridge Farm this evening got me thinking about hiking in inclement weather. For those who know me, you are probably aware I'm a bit wary about walking around in snow and ice. Part of this is my worrisome nature, but a part is based on personal experience, as I've had the misfortune of falling many, many times on icy and snowy terrain. Fortunately, its never been more than a few scrapes and bruises, a bit of humility, and the occasional ruined pair of pants.

It should be noted that most of these slips have happened in my own yard, driveway, or while walking to work from the parking lot. I've only slipped three time while walking in muddy, snowy, or icy conditions out in nature, at least in recent memory. One was because I was a dumbass who stepped right on to a frost-covered bridge without thinking (Fat Man Goes BOOM on his bottom at Unicoi Bottoms! This and more at 11), while another was walking down a small snow covered hill in Cade's Cove. The most serious was when I took a tumble on an incredibly slippery boardwalk in Okefenokee Swamp. There I felt tightness in my upper leg, which probably would have become serious had I not pulled my leg out from under me surprisingly quickly. It was a little sore walking around at Disney World (and the lovely Tibet-Butler Nature Preserve) with my sister, but other than that it was fine. All in all I've been lucky.

However, being lucky with my slips still doesn't abate my worries. That doesn't mean it controls me, as I've gone out hiking in rainy or even snowy (in the case of Cades Cove) conditions even fairly recently. Were it just a fear of falling down, I don't think I'd think that much on it.

Of course, there is more than just slips and falls to think about when it comes to hiking and inclement weather. When hiking in the winter, in wintry conditions, or when it is rainy and 60 degrees or colder, the ever-present threat of hypothermia is out there. When I think of this, I'm reminded of a short hike my brother and I did out at Rocky Mountains National Park. Although it started out nice and sunny, it turned cool and rainy as we finished up the hike. A good half-mile or more was in these conditions. Of course, that isn't that far, but when you are an idiot out-of-shape flatlander hiking without a jacket or any covering in pouring rain, it seems like 20 miles. I'm not sure we were ever in danger of hypothermia, although it certainly wasn't good for us. Still, had it been colder, or were we a couple miles deeper into our trip, I'm not sure how that would have turned out.

As you could probably gather from that only partially related tale above, another factor of hiking, at least on trails in mountainous areas, is the dynamic nature of weather. Having spent several weekends in the Smokies, and having taken several trips to the Rockies, I can attest to how quickly weather can deteriorate. Although the Appalachian Trail and its companions in the east aren't quite as exposed to threats of lightning (because of their lack of land above treeline), it still is something to think about, especially when hiking in balds or our ridgelines. And of course, especially out west, you have to watch out for normally gentle streams becoming death channels when heavy rain is dumped from above. Being as tall as I am, lightning and open spaces always makes me wary. However, most of this can be avoided by using common sense, not being stupid, and keeping an eye on the weather.

There are other worries related to hiking and inclement weather, but most of those are of a lesser concern. I'm not much of a winter hiker, so things like watching for possible areas of snow that could collapse or the proper use of an ice ax aren't really a concern of mine right now. While I would be worried of camping in a gap as a tornado comes through, I've grown up with that concern my entire life (living in IL, after all), so it doesn't really bother me that much. I'm sure getting caught in a hurricane would be awful, but that is something that you should be able to anticipate. If the track shows it going through north GA, don't hike in north GA around time it is expected.

In the end, I think it is good to be worried, provided it doesn't prevent you from getting out there and hiking. As long as you channels those worries into being prepared, it is a very productive thing to do. So I won't let a little ice, mud, rain, or snow get in my way. After all, there are much bigger things to worry about, like 'squatches and snipes.

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