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A Dark and Stormy Ascent

By Nancy Prichard - February 11th, 2004

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While at graduate school at the University of Colorado, Boulder, I lived in Eldorado Springs, within a stone's throw of the spectacular climbs of Eldorado Canyon. Having the cliffs in my backyard made for unbeatable access to climbing. It also provided valuable insight into how a good many climbers are seemingly blind to potentially deadly weather conditions - from fast-moving summer squalls, to life-threatening lightning storms. Since Eldorado State Park is somewhat of a Disneyland for climbers - lots of fixed anchors, groomed trails, and many routes so close to the road you could almost belay off the bumper of your car - it's easy to see how many climbers dismiss the danger of weather.

Being familiar with the predictable occurrence of late afternoon thundershowers, my partners and I would start climbing early and be down by the time the clouds had gathered and skies darkened in late afternoon. When the rains hit, we'd be having a cool drink back at my cottage, looking up at the walls where not-so-weather-savvy climbers were hunkered down on ledges and on hanging belays, soaking wet, trying to figure out how to retreat down the slick lichen-covered rock. Since you can rap from nearly every pitch in Eldo, we reacted with humor, rather than concern. It wasn't until I'd lived in the canyon for a couple years that things got serious. Two out-of-towners had attempted the Naked Edge, one of Eldorado's tallest, most exposed climbs. They had done the route clean, until the final pitch, where they had to pull on gear to get through a difficult section. Unhappy with their ascent, they returned later that afternoon to re-climb the last pitch. In spite of gathering thunderclouds, they hiked up the back of the formation to the top. They planned to rappel from the summit to the start of the last pitch. Disaster struck as the first climber was midway down the rap. A bolt of lightning hit the partner on the summit. He died. The rappelling climber was lucky. Although the electrical current shot down the rope and knocked him unconscious, it also melted his belay device to the rope. He dangled there, upside down, until Rocky Mountain Rescue arrived and saved his life.

Climbers know that weather can make or break a trip. Most also know that there's no climb worth risking your life for. "Want to go climbing this weekend?" is the question, but the answer depends, or at least should depend, on the weather forecast for the days in question.

Here are some tips on how to stack the odds in your favor by understanding weather forecasts, and by doing a little predicting of your own.

  • Find a source. Most of the weather data that is used in TV and newspaper reports started out as raw data from the National Weather Service. That data is then redistributed through a variety of outlets, with varying levels of interpretation. Your best bet for quality interpretation is the Weather Channel, either on television or at www.weather.com. Newspaper weather forecasts are usually prepared 24 hours in advance of publication, so they are of limited value. If you are depending on local TV, find a station with a real meteorologist, who formulates his or her own local forecast. Para glider and hang glider pilots, as well as expedition climbers, have long relied on NOAA weather radio. There is an abundance of weather information available on the Internet - WeatherNet at cirrus.sprl.umich.edu/wxnet and the before-mentioned www.weather.com are excellent sources. Remember to always check the time and date of any forecast to make sure you are armed with the most recent data, and double-check the location of the forecast issued to ensure that it is the closest one to your destination.
  • Even if you are climbing in the dead of summer, hypothermia can rear its ugly head. Hypothermia is a lowering of the body's core temperature, which results from exposure to cold temperatures, or cool, wet weather. It can be egg-frying hot at the base of the climb, and cold and windy a few pitches up. Unless you are just climbing a single pitch and lowering off - be prepared. Even a light windbreaker tied around your waist can be a big help when temperatures drop.
  • Consider the duration of your planned activity, and the time it might take to return to your car. If it is a multi-pitch climb, can you retreat from every pitch? Evaluate your ability (as well as the ability of the rest of your group), and your knowledge of the terrain. Then, go over your equipment checklist to ensure that you are well outfitted. If it is a climb that requires natural pro (i.e. no bolts or fixed anchors), you may need to leave gear for rappel anchors. If the descent is a walk-off, what is the danger of slipping on wet rock? Last but not least, consider your "risk tolerance." If a storm does pin you down, how long could you survive?
  • Practice "Go" or "No Go" forecasting. Constantly evaluate your activity. Are you planning a close-to-the-road climb, or a major backcountry expedition? Is there a "point of no return" where it becomes impossible to rappel off the route? A chance of rain shouldn't be much of a detriment if you are sport climbing at Smith Rock, but could prove to be life-threatening if you are attempting the Diamond on Colorado's Longs Peak.
  • Timing is everything with forecasting. Don't let your goals cloud your thinking, or change your forecast. If there is uncertainty in the forecast, then there should be uncertainty in your plans. Forecasting is an ongoing process. Constantly re-evaluate whether or not you should proceed. Imagine the worst weather scenario for the day. Consider the consequences of being caught out in the weather. Once you are out in the backcountry, you must keep watching the weather, all the time weighing your options to turn back, continue on, or stall, and wait to see if the weather gets better or worse.
  • And if you are caught in a thunderstorm, get to low ground as soon as possible. The safest place during a lightning storm is indoors, or in a car. Your second best bet is low ground in an open valley (not under the only tree in the meadow!). Basically you want to avoid being a lightning rod - you don't want to be the tallest point in the vicinity.
Two good sources for learning about how to make your own forecasts are Jim Woodmency's book, Reading Weather - Where Will You Be When the Storm Hits? from Falcon Press. This pocket guide is designed to provide backcountry travelers with the tools to make your own forecasts, even if you are miles from home, deciding whether to go for another pitch, or to make a break for your car. Another good do-it-your-self guide to forecasting is Jeff Renner's Mountain Weather Field Guide (The Mountaineers, 1999) - a laminated chart that gives you tips on everything from thunderstorm safety rules to reading clues from clouds.

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