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Backpacker Magazine – June 2001

Skills For The Upwardly Mobile

Everything you need to know about hiking in the high country, from talus hopping to finding the right gear to dealing with wind and glaciers.

by: John Harlin


"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves."

-John Muir, Our National Parks, 1901

Muir knew a good thing when he found it, which is why he spent a fair portion of his life in the high country. You, too, may know the joys to be found amid the peaks and alpine meadows and cirques and sheer rock faces. Perhaps you also understand that mountain travel has its risks, and that the unprepared can pay dearly. This special section describes the skills you'll need to get up and down safely, and to unlock the gates of a heavenly world. -The Editors

Thunderstorms
Check with park rangers and local outfitters about weather patterns in the mountain range you'll be hiking, then plan to be below timberline during hours of maximum danger. If you're caught in a thunderstorm, avoid lightning magnets, such as open terrain, caves, low spots, and isolated trees. Squat on your pack, sleeping pad, or other insulator. (See Body Language on page 27 for lightning guidelines.)

Whiteouts
Mountains make their own weather, with visibility-killing clouds sometimes appearing out of thin air. Occasionally, snow falls from these clouds, even in July. To handle sudden whiteouts:

  • Take periodic compass bearings and keep track of your location on the topo (see "I Was Lost, Now I'm Found" on page 56). Identify escape routes before hitting the trail.
  • Memorize major landmarks like ridges, cliffs, trees, and ravines so you can recognize them if you must descend or backtrack in dense clouds or snow.
  • Head for a landmark. If a swirling fog gives you brief glimpses of the next cairn or landmark along your route, take a compass bearing and follow it to the landmark.

Testing Handholds
The constant freeze and thaw of mountain environments loosens potential holds. These can pull off suddenly, causing falls or showering loose stones on your companions. Test every hold before you rely on it; pull or kick down to see if it shifts. Listen for the sound it makes; a hollow "bonk" means the hold is loosely attached.

Wind
When strong winds blow across a ridge, walk on the ridge's lee side (terrain permitting) and take rest stops behind big rocks. Don't let sudden gusts blow you off balance; bend low and brace into the wind with trekking poles or by leaning against boulders and trees.

Plunge Stepping
The best way to go down a steep, soft snowfield is to plunge your heels hard into the snow with your knees slightly bent. Bend forward at the waist for stability.



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