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By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 12 November 2010

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High Sierra Mountain Safety
NEWS & TOPICS

Current Backpacker Alert

March 22, 2017

All Backpacker Alerts

Welcome to the introduction to the High Sierra Backpacking and Hiking Safety Forum. As the website is currently under construction (3-3-17), this is currently a catch-all safety page. As construction of the trail guide content eventually winds down, I will build each of the following topics into its own safety page.

High Sierra Mountain Safety
Topics Addressed Below

Greatest Threats

Fording

Lightening

Internal Threats

Navigation

Animal Kingdom

Bears

Mosquitoes

Small Mammals

Plague

Marmots

 

Disclaimer
Backpacking is Dangerous

 

HIGH SIERRA MOUNTAIN SAFETY
NEWS
This is the place for Mountain Safety
News & Topics
A.K.A.

OUR
REVIEW of HAZARDS

Rescue Log & Events

 

March 6, 2017

Trees-Snags 
Woman Struck By Falling Tree Dies in Yosemite National Park,
Sierra News Online, March 6, 2017.

More in Sac Bee

Mountain Safety: Snags

 

Avalanches
Avalanches and road closures persist from major Sierra snowstorm,
SF Chron, March 6, 2017.

New avalanche and snow burial practice guidelines released by wilderness medical society
ELSEVIER HEALTH SCIENCES, March 2, 2017.

 

Animals 
Man kills mountain lion after attack at Mono Lake,
Sierra Wave, February 28, 2017.

 

Adversity 
What doesn't kill you makes you stronger
SANFORD-BURNHAM PREBYS MEDICAL DISCOVERY INSTITUTE, February 15, 2017.

 

Avalanches 
Men post selfie while trapped in avalanche on Highway 89
Sacbee, January 23, 2017.

As California goes from drought to deluge, a dangerous old foe returns: mudslides.
LaLa Times, January 22, 2017.

 

Flood 
Much of Ca Nailed by Flooding
AT LEAST 4 REPORTED DEAD IN CALIFORNIA STORMS,
AP, January 23, 2017.

 

Avalanches-Weather 
Sierra slammed: Avalanche warnings, 154-mph wind gust recorded,
SFCrate, January 22, 2017.

 

Drugs 
Do most Mount Everest climbers use medications, and should they? 
MARY ANN LIEBERT, INC./GENETIC ENGINEERING NEWS, December 14, 2016.

 

Statistics 
Survey: 1 in 4 vacations includes a trip to the ER,
MediaSource, November 21, 2016.

 

Altitude 
Andeans with altitude sickness produce massive amounts of red blood cells,
University of California - San Diego, November 7, 2016.

Adjusting to Altitude

 

Fire 
'Above average' wildfire activity is forecast through October,
LAT, August 3, 2016.

 

Fire-Smoke 
High Sierra Weather, Fire and Smoke ReportsDrought.

 

Animals 
Los Angeles mountain lions hunt closer to human settlements than expected
PLOS, July 27, 2016.

 

Stupid Human Tricks: 
Death by GPS 
Hilarious 
Why do we follow digital maps into dodgy places?
ArsTechnica, May 3, 2016.
Navigation Intro and Info

 

Stupid Human Tricks:
Animals

Half of the large carnivore attacks are due to the imprudence of human behavior,
Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), 2-8-16.

 

Two thirds of cattle attacks on people involve dogs, new study finds,
University of Liverpool, 2-1-16. 
See
When cows attack
and

I’m not a freeking cow, nor a cowboy.
A Mule, maybe…

 

American Stupidity:
 Quantified

Distracted walking: A serious issue for you, not me,

December 02, 2015, American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. 

 

 A 1000 year flood per decade

After historic flooding, Death Valley gears up for 'a long, hard recovery,'
Nov 9, 2015, LAT. Also see original report, and note this is the second "1000 year" flood DV has seen in the last decade.

 

Insects-Disease
General
 
Aggressive nonnative mosquitoes spreading across state carry disease risk,
Oct 24, 2015, LAT.

Mosquito Information for Hikers

Mosquito News & Information

 

Plague Persists
Squirrel Tests Positive for Plague in South Lake Tahoe Area
El Dorado National Forest, September 4, 2015.
Also See: Plague Persists, August 19, 2015. 

 

Insects 
‘Killer bees’ found in the Bay Area for the first time,
SF Gate, Sep 28, 2015.
 We are going to have to develop "killer-bee safety plans" that address potentially dangerous interactions with "killer bees" on the trail. It's just a matter of time and more heating.

 

Insects-Disease
West Nile
 
The Bugs are Coming... The Bugs are Coming 
First West Nile virus death reported in Los Angeles County,
LAT, September 15, 2015. 

Mosquito Information for Hikers

 

Mosquito News & Information

 

DONT EVER FEED THE ANIMALS
Aggressive mountain goats close down Idaho hiking trail

Mashable, September 14, 2015.

 

Weather 
Expect the Unexpected
Grey Swans: Rare but predictable storms could pose big hazards
Princeton, August 31, 2015. 

 

Lost 
Folsom hiker found alive after 9 days in Sierra National Forest,
Sac Bee, August 29, 2015.

 

Insects-Disease
Plague Persists 
Second Yosemite tourist diagnosed with plague,
SF Chron, August 19, 2015. 
Also See: 
Yosemite Plage earlier this year

Mono Country and Sierra Plague Warnings

Plague Index of Information and News

 

Insects-Disease
Plague Persists  
Tuolumne Meadows Campground Closing 
 Plague Threat Expands 
AUGUST 14 2015
By my recokening plague rolls through the Sierra every few years, judging by the rise and fall of the craziness of the small and large mammals over a couple of decades. Seasonal weather changes have expanded species suseptibility to infection, increasing human risk and exposure. In my opinion.

And, making the small mammals crazy almost every other year...

That bodes well.

Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows Campground to Be Closed After 2 Squirrels Found Dead From Plague, KTLA,  August 14, 2015.
(Closed from noon on August 17 to noon on August 21)

Yosemite National Park Plague Information

Mountain Safety, High Sierra Plague Warning.

Tuolumne Meadows, National Park Service
(Closed from noon on August 17 to noon on August 21) 

 See Recent and Historical Plague Warnings.

Also See:
Mountain Safety, High Sierra Plague Warning.

Plague Index of Information and News

 

Food Fight
Animals-Bear
No such thing as a free meal... when the food fights back:
Man fights off bear near Yosemite National Park, drives himself to hospital,
LAT,  August 14, 2015.

 

Snags

Tree limb falls on tent in Yosemite, killing 2 minors,
CNN,  August 14, 2015.

Also See
Mountain Safety, Snags.

 

Insects-Disease
General 

Mono County offers smorgasbord of diseases,
The Sheet, August 14, 2015.

Mosquito Information for Hikers

Mosquito News & Information

 

Insects-Disease
Plague

L.A. County child treated for human plague after visiting Yosemite National Park, Stanislaus National Forest,
OC Register, August 6, 2015.

Also See
Mountain Safety, High Sierra Plague Warning.

Plague Index of Information and News

 

Water 
Watch Out for the Green Water 
Toxic blue-green algae pose increasing threat to nation's drinking, recreational water,
OSU,  August 12, 2015. 

 

Calculated Risks

LAT on Grahanm Hunt's Death with Dean,
LAT, May 18, 2015. 

Extreme athlete Dean Potter hailed as 'a visionary' by fellow climbers and friends,
Guardian, May 14, 2015.

 

The Sun 
Shining a light on the damage that daily sun exposure can cause: Study highlights need for better sunscreens,
U Michigan Health System, 12-4-2013.

 

Rodent Droppings-Disease
Hantavirus
Outbreak of Hantavirus Infection in Yosemite National Park,
CDC, November 1, 2012.

Hantavirus in Yosemite,
NPS. 

Death at Yosemite: The Story Behind Last Summer's Hantavirus Outbreak,
Outside, December 18, 2012.

 

Rescue Log & Events

Greatest
Physical Threats

In my opinion fording rivers and lightening present the greatest dangers in the Sierra Nevada during Spring and Summer, respectively. Fording during the Spring Thaw and high water, and lightening during Summer Thunderstorms. After fording and lightening, I figure that injury from falls is next, closely followed by soft-tissue injuries caused by poor physical preparation, previous injury, and overuse injuries. Then exhaustion. Exhaustion is the rogue skirting around the edge of camp, looking for a way in.

Fording
Fording is exceptionally dangerous once the Spring Thaw begins in earnest. At certain times and flows fording will be impossible. At other times it will present a range of conditions from "dangerous" to passive.

You must be able to judge conditions sufficiently to identify the level of danger each ford involves, and if it is within your capabilities. I have a few tips for when conditions permit safe fording.

First, I always carry a set of light tennis shoes that double as camp, fording, and emergency shoes. My boots are secured to my pack, and I cross in fording shoes. Second, I employ a stick to use as a "tripod" leg. Third, I face upstream as I maintain two points of stability as I re-situate one leg, or the "tripod stick" towards the opposite shore.

I have a careful plan for what I am going to do if I go down crossing. I figure on floating for a bit as I'm ejecting the pack, then observing it as I swim for where I figure my efforts and the power of the current will naturally push me.
 Then I have a plan for how long I can search for my pack before circumstances force me to begin my self-rescue, forcing me to jog down mountain towards warmth as quickly as circumstances permit.

My "dangerous fording" butpack always has a couple of power bars in it.

Well, that's the general outline of how I approach fording, and even for crossing a downed tree over a surging river.

What happens if I slip off? That is always The Question.

I have a plan!

Discussion on fording and lightening.

Lightening Story 
 A few years ago I was hiking with my buddies Dave and Bubba. Dave and Bubba are from Walker, Ca, which sits just about 14 miles North of the junction with Highway 108 on Highway 395. Walker literally sits in the shadows of the Eastern Flank of the  Sierras. It's a fine place with some classic folks.

We entered the Sierras through the Eastern flank and were passing down to a junction of the Silver King Creek with a major tributary. We were taking a break at a large juniper tree when very troubling thunderheads formed above us. We were in a very dangerous situation. 

Then a massive bolt of lightening struck the crest of the ridge above us, brilliant in its flash. Holey-Moley!
I automatically "count the flash," and the thunderclap sounded before my count reached "1," which meant it was time to run like the dickens.

I advised the boys to saddle up, and prepare to begin a spaced trot down the trail as quickly as possible. The first hiker would begin trotting down the trail, and the next hiker would begin when the first got about 50 yards down the trail, and the third would follow 50  yards later,They frkn skoffed at me, thinking me crazy. That got me excited, and I began to berate them as I saddled up to run down the mountain, and get my ass the hell out of the danger zone.
 

  I had observed the formation occurring, I had communicated  the potential of impending danger to my buddies, and they laughed. I then inspired them to movement by the force of my personality, (I got damn mad, and was as scared as mad...and my anger and fear apparently convinced them to move, but they moved quite slowly) but they did not move with conviction until the second lightening bolt almost smoked us.  

Those boys jumped up, instantly got their packs on, and Bubba was running down mountain as quick as you could snap your fingers. I had to pause the rush to properly space our retreat down the ridge. Lightening was now striking constantly, and no thunderclap was more than 2 seconds behind the flash.

Retreating down the ridge quickly removed us out from under the active lightening storm, though I was not feeling safe until we finally entered the forest in the valley around the Silver King Creek. Lightening from a storm cell can strike Ten Miles from the orginating cell...

Afterthough on the lightening incident..

There was no immediate threat when we began our crossing of exposed terrain. A hot, wet air mass driving West out of the Southern Pacific Ocean had already brought days of light rainstorms with no lightening. Now the weather was changing on the departing tail of the Pacific Storm. Heat in the valley was being sucked up the tail end of this weak storm, the departing low pulling moist hot air up the Sierra in the wake of the Pacific Storm. Frkn weird weather...

The massive layer of stratus began to break up into a seres of messy but strong cell formations as big cells of Valley heat disrupted the tail end of the storm.

A cell formed directly above us as we were taking a break at the sole big tree in open terrain. We took our break under a stratus layer, and ran as a thunderhead formed around us!

Other Potential Options
At that point it may have been best to stash the packs away from us, get away from the tree, and flatten out on the hillside in widely separated positions. Or retreat off the trail down to the creek to our South down the mountain a short way.

But, there was no cover whatsoever anywhere near where we were. We were fully exposed. The lightening was hitting the high points. We had the ridgetop to our North attracting the strikes, and our tree was the next highest thing around.

I decided a spaced run down mountain was our best option. The kids were running down the trail seconds after the second lightening bolt struck, and it would have been more dangerous to try to stop them at that point to stand around and communicate our options as it was to run down to safety.

I advise you have a lightening policy for your group. There are two basic moves that I make, and that the group should be instructed to understand.

The first is to run. If you can see that an active electrical storm is approaching your exposed position, get the hell off of that position before the storm gets to you. The object is to get off of the exposed position before the cell catches you out.

I am thinking that storms are capable of  throwing lightening into us from 15 miles out, and we have a big target painted on our asses once they get within 7 miles of our position.

 A smart application of this tactic is to figure out our daily schedule, note which involve afternoon mountain crossings, and institute careful observation of evolving weather conditions on days we make late-afternoon exposed crossings.

If thunderstorm clouds are forming up we are going to try not to have any exposed terrain crossings happen after 2 pm in the afternoon. 2pm is typically when afternoon electric storms in the Sierra form-up.
I find that thunderstorms typically happen in patterns, or cycles. Observe the daily weather cycle. Thunderstorm cycles build when Summer heat waves are tormenting the Valley, and are generally inactive when the Summer heat is down in the Valley.

Thunderstorm conditions are transported to the Sierra Crest when the Valley is heating up to the high '90s and low 100s during the day, and there is a light onshore wind. This moisture and heat is transformed into epic thunderheads and fierce lightening storms as it approaches and crosses the Sierra Crest.

Our second potential move is the self-stash. Get at least 50 yards away from our pack. Make sure you remove your food from the pack. Don't let a bear drag your pack off when you are hiding from lightening. Flatten your self at the lowest point  of your nearby terrain as far away from elevated rock or trees as possible. Maintain your position until the cell passes or breaks up.

Summertime Tropical Downpour and Fierce Lightening Video.

Summertime Snow Video on YouTube.

Doc Boswell's Great Thunderstorm and Lightening Advice.
 

The Threat Within

Bad decision making is the basis of most of the safety issues cited above and which follow below. Bad decisions have a number of sources. Bad decisions can eminate from  improper or faulty information, a lack of experience, or the psychological stresses induced by the physical demands of the trail, which are magnified by emergency circumstances.

Bad decision making can put you at risk before you even leave home. If you improperly gear yourself for the conditions you encounter, independent of what you think you will encounter, things can go very wrong very quickly. An event like an unexpected snow storm, rather than being an intense delight,  and a trail-finding navigational challenge, will put your life at risk.

All of these potential dangers are consolidated and accelerated by poor fitness and improper physical preparation. Getting your muscles and joints stretched out while breaking in a pair of boots before hitting the trail reveals potential problems where they can be addressed constructively.

Making sure that you and your gear work as anticipated requires testing your assumptions in a safe environment before deeply engaging with Nature.

I have written an introduction to the gear section that generally addresses the safety aspects of proper gearing.

Notes on Navigation

Navigation, Time, and Space Resources

Discussion on Unmaintained Trails
Basic Details of Unmaintained Trails

Discussion on Cross Country travel
Manzanita,  Constant Observation, and the Big View.


Animal Kingdom

Bears

Some of you may have noted that I did not include animals, specifically bears, as a safety issue in the Sierras. I have seen and experienced my share of bear havoc, and bear problems are almost always a function of bad decision making.

Bears are not a problem if you are not a problem. 

Two Very Important Things
  Never sleep with your food, and never store food in your pack in camp. I've seen this too many times, and seen too many backpackers running when the bear comes for the food they are sleeping with. Well, most are just scared-shitless, if not wounded.

 Storing food in your pack overnight means we will eventually have pack-stealing bears here in the Sierra at some point in time. That is unacceptable.

In a nutshell, the issue with Sierra bears is always about food. I'll eventually do a complete bear section in this safety section, (See Trail and Camp Skills) but the fact of the matter is there is no bear problem where there is secure food storage. It's a people problem. And I've got some good bear stories for you! I mean people stories...

Bear Technology

 

Mosquitoes

Also in the Animal Kingdom are our flying friends, the mosquitoes. These delightful devils were only a hassle, granted a major hassle, until about 15 years ago, when West Nile disease spread across the United States on the Wings of Rising Temperatures, bringing weird seasonal patterns, and accompanied by legions of bark beetles. Protection against the mosquitoes is no longer for comfort alone, but for protection against West Nile Disease.

Information about Sierra Mosquitoes

Hiking and Camp Strategies for Mosquitoes
 

"Mosquitoes and Seasonal Temperature Shifts: Backpacking the High Sierras"

 

Little guys

Don't mess with the squirrels, chipmunks, or other mammals. They carry fleas, and the fleas in the Sierras carry bubonic plague. Really.

But the damn things are hella cute!

 I was just dozing-off one Spring evening, laying on my pad, and wearing only my shell for protection, (not even a bag or tent) when a vast falling star startled me back to quasi-consiousness.
As I settled back to sleep, two tiny baby chipmunks ran onto my Left leg, and began to play. I rotated my head up to peer at them, which caused them to freeze, looking intently at me. I said, "what are you guys doing?" and they turned back to each other and continued to play.

I enjoyed their play for a few minutes, but as the fog of sleep parted, I remembered the plague, and sadly decided they had to go. I caught their attention, and firmly said, "you guys gotta go," which got me no respect at all. So I upped the pressure a notch, loudly repeating my invitation to leave,  accompanied by gently shaking my leg.

The little bastards thought I was playing with them, and dug their little claws into my North Face Shell lowers, and enjoyed the ride. I was exsaperated. I did not want to be mean, but they had to go. So I summed up my Voice of Authority, and told them in no uncertain terms that they were leaving NOW, and they did. Watching those little guys run up and down my leg is a fond memory. I hope they made the Spring Cut, and did not end up as a snack.
 

Typical Trailhead Plague Warning

2015  Plague Outbreak

 Marmots

Marmots are an issue if you improperly store food.  Oh, and store you pack properly as well. The Marmots and the rest of the Varnmits will chew the heck out of sweat-encrusted shoulder and hip straps.

If Marmots or even gophers are a threat I tuck the straps inside my pack's frame, placing the pack straps-side down on the ground, then secure it with a heavy rock.

 

See the
Backpacking is Dangerous!
 warning-disclaimer.

See the related
Backpacking Unmaintained Trails is Dangerous
warning-disclaimer.

 

Backpacking is Dangerous, The Legal Disclaimer: 
Terms and Conditions
of use for the Tahoe to Whitney trail guide and forum...

 

 News Categories

Bee News

Bear News

Health and Fitness

Mountain Safety Issues

Astro-Physics News

Spider Forum

Trees

Mosquito News

Geology News

Anthropocene

Video Two: 
Snow falls in July on the Sierra Crest.

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