Springtime Mountain Dangers

We’re barely into spring, yet this year — thanks to an extremely thin snowpack and a generally warmer average temperature — the typical springtime dangers are already making themselves known, as if spring is in full swing (which apparently it is). Let’s looks at some of the more common springtime hazards.

Icy Trails

Combine a little bit of snow with high foot traffic and you’ll find trails with lots of ice, formed by packed snow as well as freeze/thaw cycles.

To deal with the ice there are a number of things hikers can do such as wear traction like Microspikes or crampons, pay attention and tread with care, slow down a bit, and use trekking poles to add hand support.

Thin Ice

River and pond crossings that were once supported by ice and as strong as concrete are melting out, breaking, collapsing, being undermined, and are generally no longer trustworthy.

To deal with this hazard go around larger bodies of water and treat all crossings carefully being sure to stay on rocks or other supported structures. Also, test ice with your trekking poles to reveal weak, hollow-sounding ice.

Ice/Rock Fall

It’s time to be especially wary of that which is above you. Old ice floes, for example, are now being separated from their underlying anchors of rock and earth by runnels of water. The attachments fail at this time of year — especially later in the day — and the ice falls. Rock, loosened by ice over the winter, may also fall.

To deal with rock and ice fall, aside by being super vigilant, stay out of the hazard areas where rock and ice looms above. If these areas are unavoidable, be sure to travel in them very early in the day; it’s colder and everything is more stable. Also be sure to travel through them quickly. It’s no time to dawdle, break, and have a photoshoot. Oh, and wear a helmet.

Sliding Falls

Long sliding falls are possible in steep terrain when there is hard packed snow and ice underfoot. These falls can lead to serious injury thanks to the thin snowpack, meaning lots of rocks and other hazards may be in the fall line.

To deal with this there are many options. First one can simply stay out of such terrain or choose a clear fall line. One can also be ready to arrest a fall, which in hard packed snow might be able to be accomplished with an ice axe and knowledge on how to use it to perform a self-arrest. Another option is to travel (especially when skiing) during the warmer parts of the day when the snowpack is softer. But do watch out for ice/rock fall during this time, as noted above. Lastly, stablize yourself with trekking poles and careful footing and treat said terrain as a “no fall zone.” Proper use of crampons, choreographed with an ice axe, can be solid protection in of itself.

Weather

Sure, it’s sixty in town, fifty-five at the trailhead, but it’s still well-below freezing on the summit. Moreover the day/night temperature swings can be great. Add to that odd spring cycles running fast and strong… well, mountain weather can catch the unwary off guard.

To deal with this at this time of year it’s important to be winter-prepared when it comes to selecting gear and clothing. Do check the forecasts and prepare for the worst at the same time that you proceed on only the best days.

Yahoos

Other people can be a problem at this time of year. It’s warmer, hikers are getting back out there, some out of shape from the winter, some for the first time, some poorly prepared, others acting foolishly.

To deal with this you must watch for these people, for their benefit as well as your own. Or just stay home.

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