Environment

Seven Common Mistakes That Can Kill Winter Hikers

Additional photos below.
Additional photos below. NPS photo/VIP Marino via Rocky Mountain National Park Facebook page

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click to enlarge ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK FACEBOOK PAGE
Rocky Mountain National Park Facebook page
5. Timing is everything.

"You need to time your hike to make sure you get back to the trailhead before it gets dark," Patterson advises. "It can be hard to gauge how quickly night will fall, and the time varies so much depending on the time of year. Right now, sunset is roughly about ten after five, but if you've ever spent any time in a place like Rocky, where you're often surrounded 360 degrees by mountains, it gets dark more quickly there. It's not necessarily that you're in a bowl, but because of the mountains, it gets darker sooner."

The shadows the mountains cast as the sun is descending "may mislead you into making you think you've got plenty of time to get back to the trailhead," she acknowledges. "But in the wintertime especially, when the days are shorter, it's important to give yourself ample time."

click to enlarge NPS VIA ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK FACEBOOK PAGE
NPS via Rocky Mountain National Park Facebook page
6. Don't keep your hike a secret.

"When you're hiking alone, you should always let someone know where you are and when you expect to be back," Patterson stresses. "We realize that a lot of people travel solo, but they can still tell someone, 'I'm heading out at this time, and I expect to be back at this time.' And give yourself some wiggle room. Say, 'If I'm not back in touch with you by late tonight, then please call somebody.'"

Such a suggestion won't appeal to everyone, she concedes. "People want freedom. They may think, 'I don't want somebody checking on me.' But many times, that's exactly what's needed in a number of situations where someone gets in distress and they suddenly realize that no one knows they're there. And that's a horrible feeling to have."

Another option "is to leave a note in your car indicating where your destination was," she continues. "But there are some problems with that. We don't monitor the cars at the trailhead until we've seen a car there for multiple days. Then we begin to become concerned and will check the car, and we'll find the note then. But even if you're going on a short hike, it's still a good idea to call or text a friend and let them know. It's one of those conversations that's good to have."

click to enlarge ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK FACEBOOK
Rocky Mountain National Park Facebook
7. Avoid postholing.

What's postholing? Allow Patterson to explain.

"This time of year, we have a variety of different winter recreationals, including backcountry skiers and showshoers. And snowshoers often take off from popular trails, which is fine. But often people who are hiking in boots will start to follow someone's snowshoe tracks, not realizing that they're heading into an area where the snow is deeper. That's when they start postholing — sinking into the snow in places where snowshoes were able to stay on the surface."

The repercussions of postholing can be huge. "If you're on a snow-packed trail and you're in boots, you're fine, because people have patted it down," she says. "But when you start breaking through deeper snow, your socks can get cold and wet and your legs usually get pretty wet, too, unless you've got water-resistant clothing. You become tired more quickly, because you're trying to step through this super-deep snow, and you can become lost, too, because you're off the trail and following a snowshoe track that leads you to somewhere different than where you were anticipating to go. That's when people can get into trouble."

Patterson adds, "The winter and the cold temperatures can be unforgiving." In the case of Seaborn, "we were fortunate, because even though the temperature was about ten degrees, we didn't have bitter winds that would have led to even colder wind chills. But when you get cold and wet with really cold temperatures, it can be life-threatening. That makes it even more important to be prepared."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts