Lightning flashed on nearby peaks, thunder following in a second or two. Caught in a high-mountain maelstrom in the Italian Alps, I sprinted as fast as I thought my skill and fatigue would allow. Heavy rain settled in, squirrelly winds gathering it into walls. Hail followed, in sheer, jarring ferocity.
I dove into a collapsed stone shepherd’s hut, among semi-collapsed stone walls. My headlamps illuminated a few old tin cans, piles of rocks that were once walls, and the flapping tarp that covered the corner under which I had cached myself.
I am pretty sure there are vipers in here. I have seen them, the only poisonous snakes in the Alps, before in places just like this. Given how the last hour has gone, I am resigned to a fatal bite.
It all felt oddly personal. I imagined I was the storm’s direct target.
The day was going so well. Thirty-plus miles into a training day for Italy’s 330-km Tor des Geants, I was just five more away from pasta, beer and a warm bed in the village of Cogne. The day had it all – big mountains, wild pastures, quiet villages, airy technical traverses. And now, a raging storm.
Huddled and shivering, I wondered just how badly I had f*cked up. What could I have done differently? A half hour back, I ran past the cozy Vittorio Sella refugio, its guests drinking post-dinner cappuccinos. The skies were dark then. I could be riding out this storm learning Italian and eating leftover polenta.
Back home a week later, I posed the same question to Sandy Stott, author of Critical Hours, an in-depth look at search and rescue in New Hampshire’s rugged White Mountains. For the past several decades, Stott – a longtime trail runner – has edited the Accidents section of Appalachia, the oldest mountaineering periodical in the U.S.
“With thunderstorms and sudden fronts, best to err on the side of caution, which would have meant stopping for a refugio evening,” said Stott, who then tapped into the very reason I kept pushing forward: “But the deeper into the day, the closer to the goal, the harder it is to stop. You ran through the stop sign to reach the end line.”
Fair enough, and a good reminder that the pasta and beer will always be there – never tasted if I am vaporized by a billion volts from on high.
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Run big days in the mountains enough times, and epics will happen. Fortunately, there are good people working to minimize the risk for us trail runners. One of them is John Anderson, an ER doctor, longtime ultrarunner, Medical Director at California’s Broken Arrow Skyrace, and one of the founders of Tahoe Wilderness Medicine. Anderson breaks situations like mine into two categories: short- and long-term.
“I judge how any action I take will affect both of those risks,” he says. Anderson identified lightning or a fall as the short term risks, and hypothermia as a longer term risk.
“In your case,” he points out, “the short term risk was high.” In those cases, he says, “it’s generally better to seek temporary shelter than push on.”
Anderson then took a step back. “With decision making in the mountains, the most important thing is to imagine different scenarios and make your decisions before you even set out. You can think about thinks more objectively when you are warm and sipping espresso,” he said, “than when you are getting pelted by hail and rain on a mountain pass.”
I can confirm this point, Doc. Focusing on making smart choices is hard when you’re getting pummeled from above. I learned that – even if the forecast is all hearts and rainbows – it’s still good to review your plan and remind yourself of your options. I had experienced a bad case of “Back to the Barn” syndrome…When you can just about taste the cold microbrew at the trailhead, cutting corners is mighty tempting.
Back at that decrepit stone hut, trying to pull my brain away from the predicament, I glanced at emails on my phone as I shivered, wondering what Zeus would pitch next. In rolled a breezy note from my editor at this very magazine.
“Got anything for your next column?”
Yeah, I do. But I don’t know how it ends.
Doug Mayer finished that day sometime around midnight in Cogne, Italy. There was no steaming bowl of fresh pasta left out, but there was a key and a warm room. He lives in Chamonix, France.