Don’t underestimate a mountain; deadly hypothermia
I can’t believe how quickly time passes. A week has gone by since I went to New Hampshire and climbed to the summit of Mt. Washington.
There are bigger mountains to tackle but Mt Washington, the tallest mountain on the East coast, isn’t easy.
It’s famous for its brutal sudden weather changes. As a matter of fact, the highest wind gusts ever recorded were taken at its weather observatory.
I did my homework before I went on this hike. I made sure I had gloves, good hiking boots, long pants, and sweater, ski pants and jacket along with the usual food and water.
To me, that’s common sense but a lot of the hikers I ran into– mostly young adults- were dressed in shorts, sneakers, and short sleeve shirts.
Half way up the mountain, the temperature dropped. Those same hikers were now turning back because their hands were burning and they were cold.
At 6,000 feet, the temperature dropped into the thirties and it started to sleet but my hiking buddy and I pressed on. It wasn’t so physically strenuous as it was dangerous. We had to climb up and over slippery rocks. Some of the climbs had drops of ten feet or more. If you fell you would either die or suffer serious injury. A few times, our feet slipped but we were able to hang onto the crevices we dug our fingers into. I’m not exaggerating when I say we were scared. Thankfully, we ran into three Canadian men- they were lost, too. They never left us even though I’m sure we slowed them down. What a Godsend they were.
As soon as I finished my hike, I headed straight for the coffee shop. Inside, there was a poster that listed the names and ages of those who died on the mountain. Most were in their twenties. A few died from falling –at the same areas I had just hiked through- yiii!
But, the majority of deaths were due to hypothermia.
The last death occurred not in the dead of winter but in JULY!
What happened to these unfortunate hikers?
They underestimated the mountain. They weren’t careful. They didn’t have proper shoes or clothing. They got lost. They got caught in a storm and become disoriented. They went hiking alone.
I had a scary experience. My hiking buddy and I got caught in sleet and strong winds. We got disoriented and began to panic. If it weren’t for the Canadian men, we would have been in trouble.
Fortunately, this hike was a triumph for me. I made the summit. I also learned a few lessons.
#1- Never go hiking alone in rugged terrain. At least three people are optimal. If someone gets hurt, one can stay and another can get help.
Injury was a great concern for me. Suppose, one of us fell, broke a leg, or got stuck in between the rocks, it would haven taken hours before help arrived.
# 2- Communicate- Always tell friends or family members, where you are going and what time you expect to return. We had no reception on the mountain. Our cell phones were worthless. Next hike, I’ll bring my walkie-talkies – in case of an emergency. (Three of our group turned back- they could have had a walkie talkie and we would have been able to communicate).
Carry a whistle. If all else fails use your whistle to get attention. Someone is bound to hear you- hopefully sooner than later.
Mark your trail – make a rock cairn, use ribbon or chalk to mark a tree so you don’t get lost. If you do, your family or friends will know where to start looking. (We took the Lions’ head trail, which turned out to be the most strenuous trail- we didn’t know that- LOL. It was poorly marked and we got lost.)
#3- Be prepared for the worst. Never assume. You never know what’s going to happen. Bring proper clothing, water, socks, snacks, food (Dried foods can be bought at Eastern Mountain sports, and REI) compass, first aid kit, all weather blanket, waterproof gloves, waterproof pants and jacket.
#4- Know your body. It will tell you when it’s had enough.
Don’t ignore the symptoms of hypothermia- sometimes they creep up on you.
Signs of hypothermia are –
You’re cold. You shiver then you shiver uncontrollably- this is your body’s automatic defense. It’s telling you to seek shelter or dress properly. Keep in mind as your core temperature falls, shivering stops.
The nose, ears, fingers and toes are the most vulnerable and will be the first to indicate trouble. They burn/sting and then go numb. Eventually, the tissues freeze then die. This is known as Frost bite. When frost bite happens- the nose, ears, toes and/or fingers blackened then literally fall off/snap off- this doesn’t happened right away – sometimes it takes weeks or months and it’s extremely painful.
As the hypothermia progresses- confusion, unsteady gait, slurred speech or mumbling set in. If hypothermia is severe enough, the brain cant function properly. Vision blurs. Decision-making is impaired. Hikers wander off aimlessly. They lose sense of self and do crazy things like taking off their clothes.
In an effort to increase body heat, the body increases its metabolism by increasing respirations. The heart beats harder and faster. Unfortunately, this dramatic attempt to maintain body heat leads to extreme fatigue and eventual collapse. Panic sets in. Confusion increases. If help doesn’t arrive, the vital organs freeze, the blood freezes, and the body dies.
Deaths from hypothermia are avoidable. It doesn’t just happen while hiking in mountains, it can happen anywhere even in your own home.
Being aware of your body and being prepared for severe weather even in July is key to keeping yourself safe.