Van Beek: How to be safe out there this spring |

Van Beek: How to be safe out there this spring

After a winter with record snow, it’s time to head in new directions for adventure.  The spring ritual begins … hauling our gear from the garage, dusting off the bikes, excitedly opening the tackle box, picking out new hiking boots, shopping for dried meals like we were planning for the apocalypse, and pacing like a caged animal, waiting for the snow to melt.  Welcome to springtime in the Rockies!

Once again, we must accompany our childlike enthusiasm with adult sensibilities. It’s the little things that we take for granted that can do us in.  We actively imagine climbing that 14er with a body that has greater plans for a six-pack on the lake. 

So, while we patiently wait for trails that don’t resemble a downhill ice rink, we might want to begin that New Year’s workout routine, which we made while digesting all of those holiday meals and never got quite past the purchase of a gym membership. 

Just as in skiing, we must get into shape to avoid injuries and some of the muscles we use for one sport are inactive in another, so adjust your workout accordingly. Venturing into the wilderness can be life-threatening if we are not fully prepared for the environment and the physical rigors that accompany what many consider to be life-endangering sports. 

Aside from physically preparing, and assembling the proper equipment, we must remember that seasonal transitions often last well into June. 

Prep yourself

Redline Guiding and Rocky Mountain Hiking Trails remind us of familiar cautions that if missed, could become critical. 

Before heading out for a hike, make a quick call to the forest ranger for updates. It will include recent wildlife activity, evolving trail conditions, and other information. Begin your outdoor expedition early in the day because the hike may take longer than expected and you don’t want to be stuck on the mountain in the dark. With that in mind, remember to bring enough to carry you through the night if you are stranded. Many websites and some of my earlier columns include a list of outdoor essentials and safety tips. 

Here’s what you need to watch out for in the wilderness:

Icy trails: With partially melted snow and repeated freeze-thaw cycles, that thin ice cover can result in a catastrophic fall down a mountain slope. Trekking poles and crampons will help considerably. Bringing a rope for steep descents is a good idea. Ice axes help to break up a slippery trail, but be cautious because they may cause a rock slide. 

Potholes are not just driving hazards: Large wildlife and seasonal sports gear can cause deep holes in the terrain. The spring thaw-freeze can disguise these mudholes, creating stealth hazards that can easily break a leg. While trekking poles can warn of what’s ahead, it is impractical to probe an entire trail.  

Thinning ice: That lake, where you drove your truck this winter, may look the same but it has thinned considerably. Warmer weather has caused cracks and melted the ice to the point of easily collapsing as you attempt to skate across. Use trekking poles to check the density and listen for hollow sounds underneath. Walk around the ice, hang on to rocks, and if absolutely necessary, use snowshoes to redistribute your weight. Getting trapped under river ice will most certainly be fatal.

Rising water: River crossings during spring can be treacherous due to snow melt causing rising waters and resulting tides. A mild rainfall can exacerbate the situation, causing sudden swells of water.  There is increased danger in spring fly fishing. 

Rock slides: When traveling in areas where avalanches were likely, rock slides may take their place. As ice dislodges, rocks may loosen to the point of tumbling and picking up smaller rocks on the journey toward your beautiful nature walk below.  If you must be in a hazardous area, wear a helmet and move quickly, as gravity may not be your friend.

Changing weather: Remember that temperatures are cooler at the higher elevations, so layer accordingly. As clouds roll by, along comes rain and often lightening. Of course, during storms, we know to avoid bodies of water, but lightning can strike more than 10 miles away, which is well beyond hearing range, meaning that if you can hear it, you are already in striking distance.  To measure the storm’s proximity, count the number of seconds between the flash and sound, then divide by 5, which will measure the approximate number of miles. If stuck in a storm, immediately drop all metal objects, including frame backpacks, trekking poles, crampons, etc. and get away from metal fences, powerlines, or tall trees.  Avoid running into caves, as they can channel electricity.  If you feel the hairs on your body tingling, you are in imminent danger of a strike. As a last resort, reduce your body’s surface contact with the ground, which conducts the lightening’s current, by crouching down on balls of your feet and covering your ears. 

Wildlife: Bears are out of hibernation and mountain lions are on the prowl. Be sure to make noise while hiking, to avoid surprising wildlife, possibly prompting a defensive attack, which might not otherwise occur. Carry bear spray. 

Be safe and enjoy the season in this place we call home. 

James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. You can reach him at

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