I participated in the Boy Scout program when I was a teenager and enjoyed many experiences in that program. Of course, we camped out alot and played tons of Capture the Flag. I also had a few experiences which underscored the value of preparing for the unknown, especially unanticipated severe weather.
One particular troop outing comes to mind. In all my preparation before the event I had momentarily considered packing some gear other than the light snow gear I had in my pack. I did not take my wool gloves because I didn’t think they’d be necessary. Boy was I wrong. I was also wrong about carrying less food because I wanted a lighter pack.
The day came that we arrived at our drop-off point and began our hike through the valley and up the mountains. Almost 4-6 hours into our hike, the winds began to pick up and and the temperature began to drop. It was no later than 2 pm but the visibility was cut because of a haze forming. Within 20 minutes the weather completely darkened, bringing with it torrential rain. For a large portion of those 20 minutes we could not decide if we should continue up the trail in hopes of finding a good location for shelter, or if we should bunker down where we were. It turned out that we wasted critical time because of indecision. By the time we could proceed no further, we were already wet, winds were moving fast, and we were somewhat disoriented. We frantically labored to throw up our tents but the winds seemed to mock our efforts.
Eventually, we were able to shelter ourselves but the storm continued to pound upon us as we shifted gear inside the tents, working to prevent the walls from bearing down upon us. My buddy and I began eating some of our foods because our frantic energy expenditures had left us shaking for warmth. It is now clear that our bodies were following their natural inclination to create warmth by muscle spasms. Such shaking was taking its toll on our ATP and so food was necessary to replenish our energy levels.
I had successfully changed into dry clothes although the inside of my tent was a bit wet. I can still recall that my hands began to itch and my fingers ached terribly. The storm continued to rage on beyond 6 pm, although one might have guessed that it was already midnight. We were stuck.
Two more hours passed. It was now 8 pm and the storm continued its menacing fury. My hands still hurt and nothing seemed to provide enough warmth. I remember thinking to myself that I was possibly experiencing frostnip. The redness in their color had changed to a hint of purple and the fine motor control of my fingers was concerning to me. I recall that at some point, I had held a very hot cup of hot chocolate in my hands and was unable to feel the heat. I don’t remember how I stopped holding the cup because I should have sustained a burn from its heat.
Our group endured the freezing rain and at the first sign of light in the morning, one of our leaders hiked out to the ranger’s location to radio for rescue. A few hours later a SAR team arrived and helped us make it back to safety, outside of the storm which continued over the next couple of days.
I can still recall how grateful I was to smell the Egg McMuffins and hash browns that were awaiting us in the vehicles there to pick us up. After brief medical check-ups by the medics there, we headed back home with a story to share with our families.
That experience gave me the practical knowledge that having a lighter pack is not always the wisest solution, especially at the expense of adequate preparedness. I also learned that I should follow my adventurer’s gut instincts a little better. I should have taken my wool sniper gloves with me which would have helped in retaining heat, although the wool would have been wet.
In another post, I’ll share my experience in the Sierra Nevada mountains with a friend’s exposure to hypothermia. He shouldn’t have tried walking on that frozen lake. He nearly died.