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- 14er Beginner Guide Part 4 -

Staying Safe on 14ers: Preparing for the Worst

The mountains are an inherently risky place to spend time. The more time you spend climbing them, the more likely it is something will go wrong. Staying safe on 14ers is never guaranteed. 

The three main problems that can occur on a 14er include getting sick, injured, or lost. First, we’ll talk about how to avoid these issues. Second, we’ll share advice on what to do if it happens regardless. Remember, no amount of preparation can mitigate all the risk of the mountains – you should always be prepared to respond to an emergency. Here is my advice for staying safe on 14ers.

Preventing Emergencies with Proper Planning

Many injuries and missing people are the result of mistakes made before the climb started. Taking time to review the map and route, bringing the right footwear and emergency supplies, and taking your time before attempting difficult peaks all decreases the chances that something will go wrong. While all our advice in Part 1 and 2 are helpful, here are some of the most critical considerations for emergency preparedness and staying safe on 14ers:

  1. Can you respond positively to an accident or emergency? 
  2. Can you safely spend a night (or more) outside? 
To be prepared for any situation, you should have the gear and proper knowledge to respond yes to both questions. What’s “proper” depends on the peak and route you’re climbing, the time of year, weather conditions, and level of experience. When in doubt, bring a bit extra. You can always turn around and try again. The Ten Essentials are a great starting point for making sure you have what you need. 
If you plan to keep climbing 14ers, you may want to invest in a GPS SPOT device, or similar tracking SOS beacon. If something goes wrong, it allows you to call for. help using satellites, so it’s helpful where cell phones are not. Never count on your cell phone working when you need it to. That’s a bad strategy for staying safe on 14ers.


Reduce the Risk of Altitude Sickness with Acclimation

Acute Mountain Syndrome, or altitude sickness, can affect anyone who ascends too fast up a 14er. If you’re coming from below 5,000 feet, spend a night in Denver or elsewhere before heading into the mountains, and spend another night above 7,500 feet if possible before your climb. Spending even longer will provide more, albeit smaller, benefits. You can also plan shorter acclimation hikes, ascending to 10,000-12,000 feet before descending to sleep at lower altitudes. These tactics will help when it comes to staying safe on 14ers.


Getting Lost: What Should You Do?

First of all, determine whether you are truly lost, or just off-route. Many 14ers have social trails that depart the main route before meeting up again. It’s also possible to take a wrong turn on rock sections but be within a few feet of the trail. If you think you’re no longer on route, stop immediately and survey the area around you. Take out your map and GPS to identify your location. If you are positive where you are, and how to get back to the. route, go ahead and try. However, if this fails, do not attempt to get back on the route – you are lost. 

When Lost, Stay Put, Survive, & Get Attention

Fight the urge to try and find your way back to the trailhead. If you’ve properly packed, you should have some kind of shelter which you can use to stay warm and dry. I recommend this set of bivies, which works well for most mountaineers and are lightweight. You should also have enough food and water to make it 48 hours or more. 

You can also use natural shelters, like snow caves in the winter or rock shelters in the summer. However make sure you remain visible by laying out brightly colored gear or clothes to get attention from the air. You can also use signal mirrors, whistles, or just yelling to get attention when you see or hear rescuers nearby. If you leave camp to get wood or water, make sure you leave a clear path back. Of course the best strategy for staying safe on 14ers is to avoid getting lost in the first place.

Starting a Fire is Critical in Cold Conditions

If you’re hiking in the fall, winter or spring, starting a. fire may be crucial to staying warm while awaiting rescue. For better or worse, leave no trace considerations take a backseat when you’re fighting to survive. Use dead branches, alpine dwarf trees, or downed longs to start a fire. Once lit, keep it burning continuously – it’s key to keeping you warm to conserve body heat and energy. 

To start a fire, collect small twigs smaller than your pinkie finger, as dry as possible. Try to pack them tightly in your hand and light them. Once light, add slightly larger sticks until a full fire is going. While I always pack a lighter for convenience, bring matches in a water-proof bag just in case. Don’t try using a backpacking stove for warmth. Instead, boil water before sleeping in nalgenes and keep next to you to help stay warm. 

Exceptions to Staying Still

In rare circumstances, it may be necessary for you to try to rescue yourself. For example, if injured severely and far from help, you may need to self-evacuate to get medical attention. Similarly, if you are list in an area you know is unlikely to be searched, rescuers may have trouble finding you.  

For example, if you change your routes and get lost in an area different from where people think you are, you’re unlikely to be found. In both cases, if you must self-evacuate, try to follow the slope to a creek or river, and follow that downhill. It will ideally lead to human civilization, and is one of. the first places SAR teams look. 

Getting Injured: What Should You Do?

There’s a reason first aid supplies are one of the ten essentials. Injuries aren’t uncommon on 14ers, especially those with more significant challenges. Here is an overview of the most common injuries you may need to treat on the trail. This info is critical for staying safe on 14ers in case something goes wrong.

Falls & Trips are the Most Common Accident

Injuries are common on 14ers, and falls and trips are by far the most common type of injury. They’re called the Rockies for a reason – it’s easy to stumble and fall while scrambling, especially if you aren’t very experienced. If someone falls, consider whether it was greater or smaller than 5 feet. If it’s smaller, check for sprains, broken bones, or other injuries, and turn back if necessary and possible. Call for help, or get assistance from passer-by’s, if you cannot. 

If the fall is greater than 5 feet, you need to. consider the possibility they have a. neck or spinal injury. If you’re trained to respond, act accordingly. If not, you need to try to stabilize the patient and get rescue support. These are complex situations – to truly be prepared, you should take a Wilderness First Aid course offered by REI or the CMC. Here’s another good source on stabilizing patients, focusing on the ABC’s (airway, breathing, circulation). 

Ultimately, if seriously injured and unable to summon help, you may need to make the difficult decision to leave someone so you can go get help. If this is the case, act, and minimize the time spent decision-making or putting off the inevitable. This is critical to get help as fast as possible and for staying safe on 14ers.

Dehydration & Heat Exhaustion are Possible in Summer

It’s important to stay hydrated on the trail if your goal is staying safe on 14ers. The body uses more water at high altitude, so it’s easy to become dehydrated quickly. Bring at least 2 liters of water on your climb. It’s not a bad idea to bring some water treatment tablets or a filter too, so you can get more water if needed. Watch for the symptoms: 

  • Intense feeling of thirst and dry mouth
  • Decreased urine output, and darker yellow color
  • Headache and Dizziness

If you or someone on your crew is dehydrated, stop for a break and have them sip water. Don’t gulp large amounts fast as they may vomit. Minor cases may resolve, however in serious cases you should turn around and head back to the trailhead. 

On especially hot days, you could face Heat Exhaustion. This is when the body’s temperature rises above normal – the opposite of hypothermia. It becomes a much greater concern if you run out of water and aren’t able to stay hydrated on an especially hot day. Watch for the symptoms:

  • Heavy sweating and rapid pulse
  • Headache, dizziness and fainting
  • Muscle weakness and camping
  • Nausea and/or vomiting

If you suspect someone has heat exhaustion, it’s time to head back to the trailhead . Have them sip water, take breaks in the shade repeatedly, and monitor their status closely. If they aren’t cooled, it can progress to Heat Stroke, a potentially deadly medical emergency. Heat is an important concern for staying safe on 14ers.

In Winter Watch Out for Frostbite & Hypothermia

Freezing temperatures are possible on 14ers year-round. However staying safe on 14ers is more difficult during the majority of fall, winter and spring. Hypothermia can occur year-round, especially if you get wet in cold, windy conditions. Bringing a rain jacket is key to staying warm, as much as it is about staying dry. In any cool environment, watch for these symptoms:

  • Uncontrollable shivering
  • Memory loss & confusion
  • Slurred or mumbled speech
  • Loss of coordination and motor control

When you suspect hypothermia, get the victim back to the trailhead as fast as possible. Give them any extra layers you have, and get them into warm clothing if possible. If they are unable to move or walk, get them out of the wind and call for help. 

Frostbite occurs when your tissue cells freeze, becoming permanently damaged. Keep your fingers and toes warm with good gloves and warm socks when temperatures are chilly. Keep hand warmers with you in case of emergency. Watch for blueish-gray colored fingers and toes that have gone numb – that’s when you need to stop and warm up.  

Getting Sick: What Should You Do?

Even with the proper acclimation, it’s possible to get altitude sickness on any 14er. The most common symptoms of AMS include fatigue, dizziness, nausea and headaches. However, these are also common signs of dehydration. If you start to feel this way, try sipping water for a bit to see if you improve. If you do not, and know you’re hydrated, you probably have AMS. There is only one solution: Stop ascending, and turn back. If you continue ascending, your body will be unable to acclimate fast enough and your symptoms will likely worsen. Staying safe on 14ers at that point is impossible if you continue.

In rare, serious cases, altitude sickness can become deadly. High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) have occured on 14ers before in rare occasions. If you have severe shortness of breath or confusion, you should immediately evacuate and seek medical attention.

In Review: Staying Safe on 14ers

Remember that many deadly mistakes occur before someone leaves to climb a 14er. Without the right gear and knowledge, it’s impossible to positively respond to an emergency, or spend a night outdoors unplanned. If you get lost, injured or sick on a 14er, despite your precaution, here’s what to do:

  • Getting Lost: Stay put, survive & get attention. Only keep moving if you have reason to.
  • Getting Injured: Treat falls according to. height. Remember the ABC’s. Watch out for Dehydration and Head Stroke.  
  • Getting Sick: Altitude sickness only has one cure: Descend. Acclimate over time to. avoid it.
This advice will help for staying safe on 14ers. Remember that ultimately, staying safe on 14ers is never a 100% possibility. Be prepared for anything to go wrong when you head into the mountains.

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