Five Deadly Mistakes to Avoid in the Mountains

While the mountains inspire and invigorate thousands, they also maim or kill many who climb their ridges and summit their peaks. While it’s generally safe to explore the backcountry with the proper preparation, there are a lot of easy mistakes that quickly lead to disaster. Our brains are really good at leading us to poor decisions, especially when we’re dealing with 30% less oxygen than usual. Here are five mistakes you should avoid when spending time in the mountains.

1) Don’t use Shortcuts – They do not exist.

Of all the mistakes you can make, leaving the established route puts you in the most immediate risk. On most 14ers, especially the more difficult peaks, shortcuts do not exist. If they did, they would just be the standard route. Leaving the established path can quickly put you in Class 3 or 4 climbing on loose, unstable rock. Sometimes, you may end up cliffed out with a steep drop-off below, and loose rock above.

As you climb, take time to stop periodically and look around to ensure you’re where you should be. Social, non-official trails and cairns are easy to accidentally follow and get off track. If you think you’ve already wandered off the trail, try to identify the way back, or backtrack if needed. If you cannot get back safely, don’t try it. Stop and call for help (See point number 5!)

2) Don’t Leave the Ten Essentials at Home.

The ten essentials are just that: essential. They allow you to act positively in response to an emergency, instead of relying on someone else to come save you. They are essential for self-reliance and surviving an unplanned night in the mountains. If you’re not familiar with this list, they include:

  1. Navigation: Map, altimeter, compass, [GPS device], [PLB or satellite communicators], [extra batteries or battery pack]
  2. Headlamp: Plus extra batteries
  3. Sun protection: Sunglasses, sun-protective clothes, and sunscreen
  4. First aid: Including foot care and insect repellent (if required)
  5. Knife: Plus repair kit
  6. Fire: Matches, lighter and tinder, or stove as appropriate
  7. Shelter: Carried at all times (can be light emergency bivy)
  8. Extra food: Beyond minimum expectation
  9. water: Beyond minimum expectation, or the means to purify
  10. Extra clothes: Beyond minimum expectation

3) Never Stash Your Emergency Gear.

Gear weighs a lot. The more you hike and climb, the more this fact will become clear. Eventually, many hikers get complacent as they notice they rarely need emergency gear. This leads to all kinds of poor decision-making about gear. Some hikers drop their gear at the treeline to sprint up to the summit with less weight. Yet this is the precise point where you’re most likely to need your gear. Just this fall, a climber on Mt. Shavano dropped his gear at the treeline, only to get lost on his descent. While he was rescued, he lost both legs – a steep price to pay. Fight the temptation to drop your gear or leave some of it at home to shed a few pounds. Even if you’ve gone without something 99 times, you may still need it on the next trip.

4) Don’t Ignore the Weather Conditions.

While hiking, don’t forget to keep an eye on weather conditions around you. We focus so much on the trail and peaks that it is easy to miss a thunderstorm sneaking up on you. Whenever you take a water break, make sure to do a 360 degree check of the sky to look for signs of forming thunderclouds. Vertical clouds are a big warning sign, along with darker clouds and low pressure. If the signs are present of impending storms, turn around and get back below tree-line. The mountain will still be there tomorrow.

5) Don’t Hesitate to Call for Help.

Sometimes, despite all our preparations, things still go wrong. You could trip and fall, get off-route, or get exhausted and dehydrated. When disaster strikes, call for help – don’t hesitate. Many people fear significant rescue fees associated with helicopter transport. In Colorado and most other states, you are unlikely to be charged for search and rescue missions. Make sure you bring a phone, or better yet, a GPS/Satellite SOS device, so you can call for help when the time comes. If you ever find yourself questioning whether you need to use it, you probably do. Don’t hesitate to call for help.

A Little Mistake Goes a Long Way

A little mistake can quickly snowball into a catastrophe in the mountains. Take care and avoid these five simple missteps to ensure you make it home safe and sound after your hikes and climbs. Safe travels on the trail!

Alex Derr, Creator of The Next Summit

Alex is an Eagle Scout and mountaineer living in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. You can subscribe to his Next Summit Newsletter here.

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