Elevation 12, 430 ft.: Smile Now, That’s a Hail Storm Behind You

In March, several years ago, I went on my first backpacking trip. Destination: Canyonlands National Park outside of Moab, Utah. As you may know, it’s a desert environment. Temperature-wise, the weather was ideal, but rain was non-existent and water sources were, at times, dangerously scarce. Since then, most of my backpacking excursions have been similarly dry, at least in one respect: nice daytime temps and little to no rain, but fortunately, fresh-flowing streams near every campsite. Dream conditions for backpackers (this one, anyway).

My lucky streak ended last summer when I was caught in what objectively could be called the mother of all hail storms while backpacking Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness. Making matters worse, I was above tree line at around 12,000 feet when the storm began. (Meaning: I was the tallest object around, and so if lightening started…) The sky unleashed so much hail so quickly that I was soaked before I could put on my waterproof pants and jacket, which like a good backpacker, I had stashed in an easy-to-reach area of my pack.  But, like a bad backpacker, I had sloppily tied a lot of gear (sleeping pad, hiking poles, an old shoe I found the day before) to the outside of my pack.  As a result, the waterproof pack cover I bought before the trip didn’t fit over my now-ridiculously oversized, misshapen backpack. And for the first time in a long time on a backpacking outing, I cried.  Big, fat tears mixed with cold raindrops clung to my cheeks as I realized with genuine horror that all of my belongings—from my clothes, to sleeping bag, to thermal underwear, to fleece jacket, to medications, to food—were not just getting wet; they were saturated with water. My predicament wasn’t just uncomfortable, it was downright dangerous, and it could prove deadly.

Looking back, none of this should have happened.  Despite my backpacking experience and first-hand knowledge of the Weminuche’s prevailing weather patterns, I ignored or strangely didn’t recognize nearly every warning sign for the nasty weather coming my way.  What could explain this behavior?  Why did I pose for pictures at yet another trail marker—not a care in the world—when a storm practically was brewing over my shoulder?

Missed warning signs aside, part of my predicament can be blamed on being ill-prepared, but maybe only regarding one piece of gear. (Otherwise, I’d say I was very well-prepared in terms of not only material goods, but also physical conditioning). Simply, my pack cover didn’t fit that day because my backpack had so much gear lashed to the outside. Making this kind of mistake is both irritating and odd, as it’s my policy on “major” outings never to use new, untested gear or to alter big habits such as packing style. Local, shorter outings, on the other hand, are better suited for that kind of experimentation.

That being said, I don’t think I can attribute my Weminuche mishap entirely on ill-preparation.  Simply put, I wasn’t paying attention, and I paid the price.

From what I recall, I encountered no less than four signals suggesting that some bad weather was approaching and that I needed to take action immediately, either by suiting up in my rain gear or reconfiguring my pack into a more easy-to-cover shape. The ideal for my Gregory Deva pack? Kidney bean. I was toting a tentacled amoeba. (See above.)

So what did I miss?  Well…

I had been in the Weminuche for four nights and five days and knew to expect a thunderstorm with a heavy rainfall in the mid-to-late afternoon.  On the first day, it started to rain as I set my tent up; on the second day, it rained after dinner; on the third and fourth days, it poured right as the dinner crew began their prep-work.  Thunder and lightening were present during part of these storms, as well.  How could day five be any different?

Our seasoned, well-trained wilderness adventurers–Sierra Club Outings volunteers–knew to expect poor weather and altered our schedule accordingly. On day five, we broke camp very early in the morning in order to reach our next site before the afternoon storms rolled into the Weminuche. Arriving at our destination at this time posed a concern because we had a long, arduous hike to get there: it required crossing two passes linked by a trail that, at times, devolved into a cliff-hugging, scree-filled scratch of earth.  Navigating this path would be slow going, not only because of the scree, but also because ascending two passes meant gaining (and then losing) altitude twice; hiking such a route takes time and energy, and it poses its own dangers beyond these concerns, as well. In our case, we’d be exposed above treeline for a longer period of time–the exact place you don’t want to be in an electrical storm.

As I we maneuvered across the second scree field and towards the final pass, the temperature fell rapidly, the sky darkened, and the wind picked up speed. Moreover, the atmosphere had a heavy, laden-with moisture feel–you know, the way the air feels right before it’s going to rain. Still, I carried on, putting one foot in front of the other.

Next, perhaps five to ten minutes before the hail began, I misread a comment by one of the leaders as we summited the pass and began our descent to camp. I remember the trip’s primary leader mentioning that, if we had to use the bathroom, then we better get to it. Of course, now I realize the angle of his comment. The storm, rain, and whatever else it would bring was imminent, and even if we wanted to take a bathroom break in the  driving rain, we wouldn’t have time. We’d be descending to treeline as quickly as possible or, in the worst-case scenario, we’d need to hunker down in “crouch mode” if conditions were too severe to safely move forward. At the time of the comment, however, I completely missed the full import of what our leader said because I was so focused on my victory: enduring what I considered to be two tough passes and a pretty precarious traverse across a scree field.  (I’m afraid of heights, you see, and while backpacking has helped to diminish that fear, certain conditions, like narrow, gravel-dusted trails that give way to almost sheer vertical drops, kick my fight-or-flight response into full tilt.)

Why did I unintentionally ignore and misinterpret signs that heavy rain was near and that I needed to prepare my belongings before the weather hit? What was I thinking?

While I’m sure I could look to a variety of literature and fields (e.g., survivor studies) for answers, I like Laurence Gonzales’ Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. I think his text offers some pretty compelling explanations for my illogical behavior–actions that prompt one (myself included) to ask, “what was she thinking?” Yet, Gonzales would say that the absence of rational thought is precisely the point.  I wasn’t thinking.

Extra goodies: Did you like the first part of this post (i.e., before the jump)? I created it as part of my Blog Lab series in a entry exploring the connections between blog post opening gambits and introductory paragraphs in academic writing.

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Posted in Backpacking

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Dr. Amy Rubens
I'm an "ambulant scholar," and I move among several worlds. As a professor of English, I research and write for audiences within and outside of academia. As a teacher of writing, literature, and culture, I facilitate learning. As a blogger, I critique, question, and reflect. Learn more about this blog and the work I do as a professor and workplace writing consultant.

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