Air: Go or No Go
Posted by Joseph Anderson
Tech Tip – Element: Air Climbing in Marginal Weather (Go or no Go)
Making that final decision to climb on or turn around can be an extremely difficult decision. One can always air on the side of conservative although this would most certainly guarentee that I would have hardly gotten any climbing in in the year of 2010. Although this year was almost always marginal as far as weather is concerned I have been able to get a lot of fantastic climbing in while keeping the margin of safety well within reason. As a matter of fact many of the most memorable climbs I’ve done have begun or included a large amount of inclement weather. Using some of these simple rules of thumb you can do a considerable amount of solid decision making. These tips are intended for early July to late October when avalanche season is at a minimum.
1 - Check the Forecast – The most obvious, I know, and also the least predictable. Anything but the most dominant highpressure ridge (sunny, dry) or the biggest, most obvious low pressure trough (stormy, wet) should be treated with a large amount of suspect and one should get in the habit of at least sticking your nose into it to see what it’s gonna do. This past season I had to turn around on Mt Shuksan with a 20% chance of precip and just last Sunday I summited Rainier with a forcast of 50% chance of precip.
2 – Make a tour plan – Bring a map, compass, altimeter, GPS, know how to use them and make a tour plan. All of your route finding equipment should be practiced before hitting the field and you should always carry spare batteries for your GPS. A tour plan is a great habit to form for unknown terrain and inclement weather. This consists of breaking your route of travel into legs. and have it written down as a frame of reference as you’re climbing. Each leg consists of a compass bearing, UTM coordinates start and finish, distance, elevation from start to finish and how much is gained and lost, and finally an estimate for time.
3 – weather proof – Usually when the temperature is below 25 F weather proofing becomes easier. The coldest I’ve ever been is in the Cascades from spring to fall. A familiar Cascade experience is to hike up hill in saturating rain only to reach sleet and snow just as I’m getting soaked through. The most important thing to do is have trash compactor bags lining the whole inside of your pack, especialy sleeping bag. If all else fails you need to be able to crawl into a dry bag. Other things I’ve started doing is to have at least a second under shirt that you can throw on if the first gets wet and having a second warm hat and hard shell gloves.
4 – Know when to turn around – Climbing into inclement weather is a skill that comes with experience. As the only way to get experience is to push the treshold things will remain under your control if you know where you are, you know you’re going to stay warm and dry, you know the weather is not going to turn into the storm of the decade, and you are not completely inexperienced with the required movement skills. As soon as you find yourself becoming unsure of the safety outcome than you’re playing a guessing game and it’s time to go down.
5 – Practice – The best way to keep things within your control is to practice, practice, practice. Knowing any climbing skill “in theory” is akin to lifting weights “in theory”. Practice your navigational skills in town, practice crevasse rescue in the back yard, go rock climbing in wet and cold conditions or go to the ski area when the snow’s no good. The more mileage and skills you aquire down in the low lands the safer you’ll be when visiting the mountains.