Friday, September 1, 2017

9 Essentials for Hiking in Colorado

I live part time in Buena Vista, Colorado, at 8,000 feet in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Over the years, I have hosted quite a few visitors who want to experience the back country, or even try a 14er ascent and I have successfully guided quite a few group ascents.  Since 2013, I have climbed over 150 summits as a participant in the SOTA program.What I have learned from this experience and from my affiliation with the Colorado Mountain Club is that Colorado is on "another planet", with its own set of rules. The common sense rules we've learned at sea level don't apply here and, in fact, can put you in danger. Skeptical? Check out Alferd Packer (click the link). You don't want to end up like the Donner party! Or, for a more recent update, checkout the September 17, 2017 headline of the Denver Post - 11 Deaths This Summer.

I can remember my first 14er ascent in the summer of 1973 of Longs Peak, shortly after moving to Colorado from Illinois. I wore shorts, a tee shirt and carried a pint of water. For the 16 mile round trip, I started at about 7 am. When I finally made it back to the car at 8pm, I was dehydrated and suffering from hypothermia. Quite a powerful and memorable introduction to high altitude mountaineering! Fortunately, I was young and prepared to learn lessons the hard way.  That's not the case now.

The purpose of this post is to provide some basic guidance and encouragement to activators who want to visit Colorado and enjoy the back country without the sort of mishaps that rookies often encounter. By applying these rules, starting modestly, and gaining some experience, there;s no reason why your hard earned SOTA skills can't be applied in this "alien" world. 

1. Extra Layers

 As you ascend, the temperature drops about 3 degrees for every 1k feet of elevation gain. If you start in Denver and drive 1 hour west to Bierstadt and hike up, you can expect the temperature to drop 40 degrees (or more). Tourists don't get it. It is amusing to visit Pikes Peak and see tourists in shorts and tee shirts shivering their butts off in 40 degree howling wind and flurries after driving up from Colorado Springs where it's a balmy, sunny 80 degrees. I hike in a poly tee shirt, a long sleeve shirt (or turtle neck, depending on the season), a puff vest, and a shell (with under arm vents). Wind can be fierce, especially above timber line, so a shell is essential to keep out wind and moisture. My pants are poly, and my hiking boots are gore tex. In the winter, I often add an extra layer. Avoid cotton, which retains moisture. Remember, there is no such thing as bad weather, only poor clothing choices.

2. Start Early

The mountains create their own weather. In the summer, the pattern generally starts with a perfectly clear sky with clouds building up gradually as the day progresses. Thunderstorms with lightning typically occur in the early afternoon, after 1pm or so. It's a good idea to be back to timberline by 1pm or so. After my youthful Long's Peak debacle, my next summit of that peak included an overnight above timber line. When I woke up at 5am for my final ascent, I saw headlamps coming over the ridge. The experienced in and out hikers had started their trip at 3am and chosen a full moon to do it. I now consider dawn to be the latest time to start a 14er ascent. Earlier if the approach is a long one. Hit the trail at the break of dawn.

3. Food and Water

Water is heavy and it is tempting to skimp on it, but that can be a big mistake. You want to stay hydrated to keep your body and mind functioning well, and you want some extra water, in case things go wrong. As a general rule I recommend a minimum of one liter for every four miles, but more is better if you can handle the weight. Irecommend the Platypus bladder system. I also carry extra water in the truck and drink a liter before I hit the trail - and it's there if I run out on the way back.  Throw some food in the pack. I carry a few extra energy bars and a sandwich. It's OK if you don't eat them. But, you may need them. It's not good to hit the wall for lack of food or water. Colorado has low humidity. This dryness which increases with elevation sucks water from the body. Avoiding dehydration at high altitudes requires regular hydration. Don't wait until you are thirsty - that's too late. Hydrate at regular intervals. The first thing to think about if you feel dizzy or have a headache is dehydration. 

4. Personal Locator Beacon  and APRS


Thinking about some worst case scenarios, I began carrying a PLB. I hike alone about 90% of the time. Much of that time I am bushwhacking in remote areas with no cell coverage and low likelihood of encountering another person. If I am injured and cannot walk out, I need a way to let people know where I am. This 4.3 ounce PLB takes care of that. I also carry a VHF/UHF hand held radio. Colorado has great APRS and repeater coverage, so I can spot myself using APRS, or use it to message my status back home. I can even let SOTA chasers follow me up the mountain just by turning of the location beaconing as I ascend. I often grab a few WHF contacts on 146.52 at the end of an activation. With these two lightweight devices, I can call for help if I need it, or communicate with family and friends when I am out of cell coverage. Be prepared to communicate in the event of an emergency and no cell coverage. If you are in the backcountry and don't have a ham license and carry a handheld radio, you are missing out on a fantastic free public safety system. The same system that Amateur Radio Emergency Services use. 

5. Map and Compass

When I started out, that literally meant a map and compass. Today, for me, it means my iPhone, Gaia app, and Google Maps app. Todays cell phones have built in GPS receivers and, with a little planning, they work fine in areas with no cell coverage. I simply download a coverage map to my phone from Gaia and Google Maps in advance of my trip. Learn to read topo lines and follow them and learn your hiking speeds (up and down) so you can estimate travel times accurately.  Prior to a hike I derive a parking spot from Google Earth and lay down a waypoint in Gaia. I use the Gaia coordinates as a driving destination in GMaps. Most of the pre-trip planning I do is consumed by determining where to park and begin the trek. In Colorado, it's also important to descend the same way you came up. After an activation, in a rush to get down, it's easy to pick the wrong descent line and find yourself stuck in a ravine. Many Colorado search and rescue operations can be traced back to a hiker taking a "short cut" whether intentional or unintentional on the descent. Don't just "fall off" the mountain, follow the proper descent line. The easiest way to do this is to record the ascent and follow the same line of the descent. One other tip. I also wear a compass watch and take a bearing on the summit at the start of a hike. If all else fails, I can follow that bearing down. I also mark the car with a waypoint before ascending (I learned that lesson the hard way.) Don't lose your way.

6. Flashlight and backup phone/gps battery
I know you don't "plan" to hike in the dark. But if you find yourself in the backcountry after dark without a flashlight, it's not fun - it's dangerous. I carry a "lipstick" backup battery for my iPhone, that also serves as a flashlight.  If you are going to rely upon a smartphone for navigation, as I do, you must carry a backup battery. Don't get caught without power and light.

7. Strike Ignitor
Not only does the temperature drop with elevation, it also drops 30-40 degrees when the sun goes down.  In the event of an unplanned over night stay in the wilderness, this will allow you to stay warm and survive until morning.    Be prepared to start a fire.

8. Sun Protection



At higher altitudes, a thinner atmosphere filters less UV radiation. With every 1000 metres increase in altitude, UV levels increase by 10% to 12%. That's the primary reason why Colorado has the highest incidence of skin cancer in the country. Precancerous actinic keratosis is extremely common here. Many Coloradans visit a dermatologist each year for a check up and come home with arm, leg, face or scalp bandages from AK removal. You really have two choices, slather your skin with sun block or cover your skin with long pants, long sleeves shirt, and a wide brim hat to protect your ears and nose (a ball cap won't cut it). I prefer the latter, with some sun block on my nose and ears. Protect your skin.

9. Medication



The most common medical problems I have encountered on high altitude hikes are foot blisters, altitude sickness, and aches. Foot blisters are generally the result of poor footwear choices, bad fit, or inadequate break-in time. All of these can and should be identified and corrected prior to hitting the trail just by wearing the footwear for a week or so at home and taking some long walks. Carry some moleskin. Don't underestimate the misery you can inflict on yourself by failing to heed this advice!

The air is much thinner up here and it takes some getting used to.  Fewer than ten percent of people visiting Denver get altitude sickness. That jumps to 35% when once you get up around 10,000 feet and increases with elevation. The most common symptoms are dizziness, nausea, headache, loss of appetite, and insomnia. I've observed it first hand on several occasions, and it's alarming. Altitude sickness can often, but not always, be avoided by spending more time acclimating in Denver before heading up to higher altitudes. There is a lot of randomness associated with this reaction. Just because you get sick once, doesn't mean you will the next time, and just because you've never been sick doesn't mean you won't be in the future. So, it's best to be prepared. Ibuprofen has been shown to be an effective treatment, and it also has the benefit of treating the aches and pains that often accompany strenuous hikes. Taking ibuprofen before hand is probably a good idea. For more severe symptoms or as a prophylactic,  doctors often prescribe Diamox (or another similar drug). If you won't be spending a few days acclimating, it's good to have some Diamox handy, just in case. Just call your Doctor and let her know your plans and concerns and fill the prescription before your departure. Diamox is not an over the counter drug.

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