Out Alive: Chased by Widowmakers

A violent storm ravages a stressed forest, threatening to crush two dayhikers.
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A violent storm ravages a stressed forest, threatening to crush two dayhikers.

The VictimsFalling trees nearly splattered 22-year-old Joshua Prestin and his friend Ben Earwicker, 32, while they were hiking near Idaho’s Crooked River on June 4, 2012.

When a towering ponderosa pine crashed down less than 15 feet from us, my friend Ben Earwicker and I knew we had to find cover—or die trying. The first sign of danger had occurred less then 20 minutes earlier, when an old-growth giant toppled 30 yards away.

We were on the edge of the Crooked River in Idaho’s Boise National Forest, so we blamed the loose, soggy soil above the cut banks for the timber’s instability. But when we noticed that a moderate gust tipped a second, healthy-looking tree nearby, we looked around the forest—ravaged by pine beetles—and saw that we were about to be caught in a deadly game of pick-up-sticks.

We’d set out eight hours earlier on a 32-mile route we planned to cover alpine-style in just one day, and the wind picked up as late afternoon approached. Since we didn’t plan on camping, we weren’t on alert for clearings or looking for sites away from deadfall hazard zones. We’d checked local weather forecasts before we left that morning, but a 30-percent chance of thunderstorms didn’t raise any alarms.

As we hiked, we didn’t think much of the darkening gray-green clouds rolling into the valley, the increased humidity, or the relative closeness of deer and elk, which seemed skittish. We also mistook the increasing frequency of 10- to 15-mph gusts for anabatic breezes—common upslope currents caused by rising, sun-warmed air that we’d experienced many previous afternoons here.

Had we been more alert, we might have recognized the signs of an impending storm. But we didn’t. What finally made the danger painfully obvious was the violent gust that toppled the second tree and shot dart-like pine needles through the air. We were on the leading edge of a serious front. Firecracker-like snaps and booming crashes rang out as pines across the valley snapped mid-trunk and leveraged giant root balls from the earth.

Our priority turned from completing our trek to finding safe shelter. We sprinted toward a clearing, hoping that it would provide a safe haven from the cascading conifers, or at least ample space to dodge them. There weren’t any cliffs or rocky overhangs nearby, so our instinct to move into the clearing would have been right—had the meadow been larger. But as it turned out, the 70-foot diameter of the open space was smaller than the height of nearby trees, and it was downhill and downwind of two dead-pine covered slopes.

The storm intensified as Ben and I searched hastily for shelter, tripping and looking over our shoulders as we fearfully zigzagged through the forest. After five minutes, Ben spied a large, overhanging boulder on a ridge above us. An adrenaline-fueled sprint landed us there just in time to turn and watch a tree fall from the top of the opposing ridgeline. The 40-foot trunk slid down the mountainside, carrying rocks, earth, and debris to the valley floor where we’d been hiking only moments before.

While many mountain thunderstorms are fast and furious (with a life cycle often shorter than one hour), we waited out the storm for 10 intense hours as trees continued to tumble and winds leveled the forest. We emerged unscathed, but we should have anticipated the danger of being in the dead forest, especially as the storm developed.

We should have also sought separate shelters, which would have reduced the chances that a direct hit from a falling tree would have incapacitated us both—and provided us more room and a better rest. We rose at dawn to find our intended trail strewn with fallen logs. Stepping over the deadfall, we cautiously joked about what to call the trees, since we’d soon be home to hug our wives, who were not made widows after all.

Lifesaving Skill Escape a widowmaker

If a tree is falling toward you, run away at an angle; foliage thins as it extends from the trunk, so moving laterally can reduce impact if you have only seconds to react. Stay clear of roots, which may fling debris. Find a meadow that provides sufficient clearance from upwind trees (see left). Small, living stands in a largely dead forest may have shallow roots, and large trees act like sails. Both are prone to tumbling.

Never Forget Tents aren’t safe shelter.

The canopy won’t deflect falling debris, and a tent’s roof will block your ability to see—and dodge—looming danger. Don’t camp beneath dead trees or unhealthy branches. Pitch your tent alongside overhangs, beside large fallen logs, or in narrow ravines, which can help shield you from wind-tossed snags or limbs.