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As more runners take to the trails, particularly in the summer months, it is important to understand the risks involved with high-alpine mountain and trail adventures. There has been an explosion of trail running participation in the last few years, and with it comes a responsibility to educate ourselves on the numerous meteorological factors that could create unsafe conditions, including weather patterns, storms, exposure and temperature fluctuations. Taking classes on topics like Wilderness First Aid, orienteering and map reading, Avalanche education and basic mountain survival skills are all helpful steps in staying safe in the mountains. We must know how to evaluate the risks of mountain endeavors and determine whether we should make the all-out summit bid or turn back.
In the realm of mountaineering and alpinism, risk lives within the cores of the sports. Consequences to actions are not just an extra hour without water or a sheepish text to a spouse apologizing for a late arrival for dinner. Decisions can result in catastrophic injuries, life-changing trauma or death. Risk is firmly in the conversation of more traditionally high-risk mountain sports, like climbing and skiing. But as participation increases in trail running, the need for mountain intelligence and informed decision-making is more important than ever.
As we witness the boundaries of trail running, mountaineering, alpinism and rock climbing converge and become more blurred, the level of risk increases as athletes venture into more challenging, higher-consequence terrain. Trail runners must adapt and evaluate decisions in the mountains like our fellow mountain athletes. As races and training runs lead us into high mountains, through record-level snow packs, and variable and tumultuous weather, it is crucial to know how to evaluate risk and assess our decision-making skills.
What Is Risk?
The first part of assessing risk is defining what makes a situation risky. In the journal article “Risk Management and Mountain Natural Hazards,” Matjaž Mikoš defines risk as “conventionally expressed by the multiplicative equation Risk = Hazard x Vulnerability.” This equation highlights risk as a series of factors that multiply rapidly. Hazard represents the more objective risk presented by the mountains. These considerations include weather patterns, terrain, accessibility to services and rescue, altitude, exposure and wildlife. We cannot control these factors, but we can control how we interact with them.
Vulnerability represents the human element of risk. Area knowledge, route selection, experience, gear choices and so on are all within our power to understand and control. Our vulnerability is also tied to our risk tolerance, which is a highly individual but powerful component of how we choose to spend time in the mountains. Certain individuals have high risk tolerances—meaning they are willing to place themselves in more vulnerable positions in the mountains incurring higher risk—either because they have a high level of skill, vast experience or an inherent sense of confidence. Others who have low-risk tolerance—because of inexperience, a lack of skill or various psychological factors—attempt to mitigate as many points of risk as possible and exercise more caution in decision-making. It is vital to understand where you fall in this category on any given trail running endeavor and know how your tolerance and choices affect both yourself and others.
The next step is evaluating risk and identifying common hazards for mountain athletes. Failing to consider these numerous factors could result in serious harm to yourself and others. In “Mountain Recreation and the Art of Risk Management,” professional big mountain skier and mountaineer Chris Davenport writes, “Understanding the costs associated with your actions is key to the decision-making process. Incomprehension is a form of consent–the less you know the more you go. Comprehension is a form of constraint–or a motor that you can throttle back.”
Davenport beautifully illustrates the importance of understanding and evaluating each element of risk. It is not an all-or-nothing mentality, but rather a series of deliberate, thoughtful assessments that can facilitate an athlete pulling back if a situation changes. This decision-making could be changing the route choice to a lower altitude option if there are storm warnings. It could also be packing a pair of microspikes in case there is more snow on the route than expected. As Davenport highlights, it takes knowledge and restraint to move through the mountains safely.
The following is not an all-inclusive list, but here are some of the major factors to consider when going into the mountains.
Weather is one of the most uncontrollable and volatile hazards in the mountains. Especially in high altitude or exposed areas, storms can arrive with little warning and quickly escalate to a dangerous scale. Check weather forecasts like weather.gov for multiple locations if you are doing a longer route, but also continue to monitor the weather conditions (via your smartphone or watch) once you’ve headed into the mountains. The weather in the Whitney Portal area is vastly different than at the top of Mount Whitney, so it is key to understand and prepare for these variables. Watch for small changes and signs and listen to your instincts.
Surfaces of routes can present major challenges especially with lighter running gear. Snow, scree, loose rock, mud, sand and rainfall can all lead to falls and slides. It is crucial to have the proper footwear and traction for your adventure and know the conditions of the route you choose. Especially with record snowpacks in certain places and flooding in others, changing weather is affecting the surfaces and causing challenging trail conditions. Another less common hazard for trail runners is snow bridges. Snow bridges form over creeks and begin to slowly melt during warmer temperatures. Much like glacier crevasses, there is no clear warning when they will collapse. Be wary of snow bridges, especially in warmer temperatures.
Ultra-distance like Badwater 135 and Arrowhead 135 are known for their extreme high temperatures, but mountain ranges can have large temperature swings that catch unsuspecting adventurers off-guard with frigid cold temperatures as well. There can be 50+ degree temperature fluctuations from peak to valley in bigger mountain ranges. Preparing for cold and windy weather up high is crucial to staying safe and warm in extended exposed conditions. At the very least, pack a lightly insulated jacket, a warm hat, gloves and an emergency blanket in case your trail running objectives go awry and you need to spend the night in the wild unexpectedly.
High-altitude mountains are subject to large storms, extreme temperatures and high exposure. Altitude also impacts everyone in a unique manner and is not dependent on fitness or athletic ability. It is crucial to know the warning signs of HAPE (high-altitude pulmonary edema) and HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema) and be able to recognize the symptoms in yourself and others. If you are experiencing any symptoms, the only cure is to get to lower elevation as soon as possible. Hydration and nutrition needs are greater at higher altitudes as the body compensates for the strain. Pack extra water and food when you go up high, and be sure to keep fueling and hydrating.
As more athletes combine trail running, mountaineering and rock climbing into fluid mountain adventures, it is imperative to know how to move through the terrain on your route. Check to see if your route includes scrambling and know what the different classes mean in comparison to your abilities. Ascentionism.com defines the five classes as:
Class 1: Normal walking
Class 2: More difficult walking, with your hands required at some spots
Class 3: Sustained hands-on scrambling, with decent exposure
Class 4: Difficult scrambling in no-fall territory
Class 5: Technical rock climbing.
Fourth- and fifth-class scrambling requires a specific skill set and experience to handle safely and should not be taken lightly. High ridges with steep drop offs and exposure can physically, mentally or emotionally paralyze a less-experienced mountain athlete and create a safety hazard for everyone in the group. Know your route and your abilities when choosing to venture into bigger and more exposed terrain.
Not every route has a plethora of trail markings or signs. Especially in variable weather, have a clear idea of your route and have a GPX track with offline maps of your area downloaded. Know the area you are running in, have approximate distances, bail-out points and key landmarks to check yourself against the maps. Understanding how to read a topographical map is an important skill if you plan to spend significant time running in the backcountry. There are many online videos and resources available for developing this skill, but spending time looking at maps and speaking with experts is a fantastic way to put your skills to the test before you are in the backcountry.
Don’t ever mess with, befriend or try to feed wildlife. We are guests in their home and it is our responsibility to treat them with care and respect. Check out potentially dangerous animals in the areas you’ll be running and know how to defend yourself or escape safely. Be familiar with expert protocols on how to reduce interactions with mountain lions, big-horn sheep, mountain goats and various species of snakes and bears. In general, give plenty of space, be prepared to reroute and take the necessary precautions to keep yourself and the animals safe.
Develop a Strategic Risk-Management Plan
The final step in managing risk is coming up with a plan. The plan should be specific but provide check points and places for assessing and evaluating the current situation. Follow the wisdom of Josh Cole of the North Cascades Mountain Guides: “Managing risk effectively requires that we have a variety of techniques and apply the right technique in the right way at the right time and that when we don’t, we recognize this and correct our errors.”
The more techniques you have, the more chances you have to make a safe choice and reduce your risk. Techniques can literally mean climbing or running techniques, but it also refers to the preparation and plan-making process. There are a few key aspects of making a plan.
– First, plan out a route with mileage, elevation, altitude, expected time, water sources and share it with someone who would be able to help you immediately if trouble arises.
– Download the offline maps or have a GPX track in your watch of the route so you can access it without service.
– Give your emergency contact the latest time they should hear from you so they know to alert emergency services.
– Check your weather forecasts before you begin, plan your gear appropriately and continually monitor the conditions in real time.
– Have proper equipment for your route including but not limited to: food, hydration, headlamp, emergency blanket, rain gear, warm clothes (if appropriate), buff or head covering, sunblock, whistle, and gloves.
– If your route is high, exposed or extremely remote, prepare as if you might need to spend the night. (One of the most crucial pieces of gear in remote areas is a safety beacon such as a Garmin InReach. Know how to use your safety beacon and make sure you have emergency numbers programmed into it.)
– Last but not least, take the time to research how and who the search and rescue team is in your area. This will set expectations on rescue times and give you a better understanding of the process and procedures associated with a potential rescue.
As a mountain athlete, it is your responsibility to be safe and responsible in the mountains. The reward of the summit views are not worth the risk of placing yourself, your companions and search and rescue teams or other emergency services personnel in a bad situation. Safety in the mountains is achieved through a series of well-organized plans, with constant points of reassessment and adaptations as necessary. Plan for the unexpected and prepare for the most challenging circumstances.
“Success in the mountains is all about good decision-making and good timing,” Davenport writes.
The true summit of any mountain is not the highest point.
The summit is the parking lot.
Alyssa Clark is a professional mountain athlete specializing in ultrarunning and combining technical mountain pursuits with trail running. She is an Uphill Athlete coach, host and producer of the Uphill Athlete podcast. Alyssa is committed to empowering and equipping underrepresented communities to get out into uncomfortable spaces and know they belong. She does so through education, coaching and community building through the avenue of mountain pursuits.