Safety in the world above the trees |

Safety in the world above the trees

Shauna Farnell
Bret Hartman/Vail DailyHikers embarking on trips up 14,000-foot peaks such as Mount of the Holy Cross should be aware that they are traveling in a wilderness area. They should know where they are going and have provisions such as extra food, water, clothing and shelter.

EAGLE COUNTY – With winter moving in and fall colors on their way out, hiking might not be on many agendas. However, in the wake of missing hiker Michelle Vanek, who disappeared on Mount of the Holy Cross on Sept. 24 and who has yet to be found, backcountry users should keep some precautions in mind.Colorado’s numerous 14,000-foot peaks (there are 54-56 of them, depending on whom you ask) hold an allure for visitors and locals. But even fit, experienced hikers will face challenges when trying to summit these peaks, whose difficulties vary significantly, depending on the peak and the route up and down it.”On any given day, you’ll see people running to the top of fourteeners in their running shoes and nylon shorts. They’ll get up and down, no problem. Then, for whatever reason, we’ll have some of these situations like with Michelle,” said Vail Mountain Rescue Group director Tim Cochrane, who headed up the mass search for Vanek over the week following her disappearance. “If you’re just starting out, take the normal, established route. Leave the more adventuresome routes to those who have the equipment and the experience.”

Equipment is a major factor in safe mountaineering, especially on trips up and down Colorado’s fourteeners. “You always have to be prepared for the worst,” said Dave Van Norman, recreation staff officer at the Holy Cross Ranger District. “You should always have extra food with you. In case you have to stay out at night, you should have matches and things to build a fire if you need to. And really, it doesn’t matter that it’s fall now and there’s snow on the peaks. Almost any time of year here you get rain, snow and cold, especially at those elevations. You can get hypothermia at any time of year.”This isn’t to say that for every day hike, one should bring an enormous pack full of provisions, but there are a few key guidelines and items that mountaineers should never be without on any journey.The ’10 essentials’

“I got introduced to the mountains over 50 years ago and the same rules hold true today,” Cochrane said. “You need to let somebody know when you start, where you’re going and when you expect to return. You need to take along a minimal amount of gear. You need a light source, water source, food source, a lightweight shelter, which can be as simple as a giant trash bag lining your daypack, and extra clothes. With today’s technology, there’s no reason to have cotton or wool. Don’t skimp on body armor. If you’re venturing into elevation, get a map and compass and work with someone so you can navigate by map and compass. Do not rely on a cell phone to get you help. And read the guide books. All the little quirks and nuances of all the 14ers are documented in the different guidebooks.”The guidebooks that highlight Colorado’s 14ers classify them in difficulty from No. 1 to No. 5, No. 5 being the most difficult. Even the frequently traveled routes classified as No. 1 can involve vague trail markings once the route goes above timberline (between 11,500-12,000 feet), using cairns (rock piles), which hikers who haven’t climbed 14,000-foot peaks (as Vanek never had before she went missing), are not accustomed to. Once above timberline, mountain terrain often consists of large, loose boulders and scree, which can drop unexpectedly into sheer cliff bands, as Holy Cross does in many places. Vanek and her companion were attempting a longer, less traveled route up Holy Cross, where Vanek stopped at around 13,700 feet while her companion continued to the 14,005-foot summit. Vanek then failed to meet up with him in the area where they were to start their descent. “The rule of thumb is, if you’re lost or in trouble, you stay where you’re at,” Van Norman said. “How many times have people started moving and people are trying to catch up with them? Also, you need to know your limitations. If you start to get tired, stop and turn around. Don’t get to that point of exhaustion.”

Sticking with what and who you knowOne of the most common responses to Vanek’s story has been shock and anger at how her companion left her on her own. However, the same scenario has happened time and time again with no disastrous or tragic repercussions. Still, one of the No. 1 rules of the backcountry is that there is safety in numbers.”I for one believe you should hike with a partner,” Cochrane said. “Find someone you get along with, someone with the same skill level as you or a little better. One rule is to never leave your climbing partner behind. If both of you subscribe to that before you’re tired, before you’re disoriented, then you can go out and have some fun.”Following Vanek’s disappearance, there has also been some backlash from the public regarding marking the trails more clearly and adding signs to the various routes up 14ers.”There’s a lot of talk every time a search like this comes up that we should put signs up and crosses. That totally negates the whole idea of it being a wilderness area,” Cochrane said. “I’d hate to see that happen.”

Mountaineers and wilderness officials point out that hikers who are meticulous about knowing routes should invest in a GPS (Global Positioning System) device.”With today’s GPS technology, they’re invaluable for getting back to where you started from,” Van Norman said. “And they’re not that expensive anymore.”With a GPS, individuals can track their exact elevation, mileage, route and location wherever they are on the globe.”You can always load the route into your GPS and punch in the way-point from where you start in your car,” Cochrane said. “It can guide you right back to your car. All you have to do is follow it. You don’t need signs and arrows.”Sports Writer Shauna Farnell can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 610, or Colorado

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