Getting to the top is one of the best things about hiking up a peak or doing an alpine crossing. We all love those incredible views and want piercing blue cloudless skies, mountain ranges stretching far off in the distance, and not a puff of wind. But the alpine terrain doesn't often lend us these great conditions. There are dangers and risks to be aware of...
THE DANGERS OF ALPINE PEAKS AND CROSSINGS
Alpine terrain in simple terms can be defined as terrain at an altitude where trees stop growing (often due to cold, but not always). You can see this on many mountain ranges where there is a clearly defined tree line.
What alpine terrain means for hikers is some extra precautions we need to take to ensure we stay safe and are prepared. Every year, people around the world die or need rescuing. Many underestimate the weather, others are unaware of it, and a few leave decision making too late before turning around.
Alpine areas, especially peaks and alpine crossings, have rapidly changing weather, are cooler, have poor visibility with clouds, and can frequently have snow and ice at all times of the year.
In New Zealand, nothing sparks more rescues than the Tongariro alpine crossing. Almost every week, rescue teams head out to help someone who is injured, lost, or in bad weather. Deaths do occur in some cases. Mt Whitney in the US has its own problem with countless people now attempting it, leading to a huge increase in rescues and deaths.
To be aware of what you can face when trying these sorts of trips, these are some of the dangers and conditions that exist in alpine areas:
One of the most common reason people run into difficulties on alpine peaks or crossings is the weather. Elevation plays a key role in shaping a regions micro climate to the point that individual mountains can have their own. Mountains will form their own weather compared to the surrounding land, often with increased wind and rain/snow. You can have a downpour on one side of the mountain while the other side is still sunny. And on top of that, when the weather changes in the mountains, it changes fast and often violently!
As soon as you get above any tree line, the terrain dramatically changes. Vegetation no longer gives support and you will encounter scree slopes of loose rock which not only present sliding dangers, but the risk of sending rocks onto hikers below you as well. Scrambling is often required to get around steep sections. Rocks can get slippery with cloud moisture (or ice). Even in summer, patches of snow may exist (depending on region) and many are unprepared for this with the right gear or knowledge of how to stay safe. In many rescues, a sprained ankle or other small injury is the cause from being physically unprepared for the harsh terrain. In ideal weather conditions, a rescue is straightforward. But in bad weather, many people simply don’t carry all the clothing layers and gear they need to survive.
You can expect a 9.8°C decrease in temperature per 1000m rise in altitude (5.4°F per 1000 feet). So even on a hot, sunny day, it’s going to be cooler as you go higher. In New Zealand for example, most accessible peaks and crossings involve hiking over 1000m in elevation. Hypothermia is a very real danger in alpine regions and in the back country. Above the treeline, it’s always more exposed to the wind and lower temperatures, as well as snow, ice and rain. Getting cold without the means of warming up can quickly lead to a deterioration of mental and physical function. And don’t think it can only happen with snow or ice around! Hypothermia can happen to you in above freezing levels, so just because it doesn’t feel cold, doesn’t mean you are safe from it if unprepared.
How to Layer for the Outdoors. Your Complete Guide to Layering
Summit Fever and How to Avoid It
The wind is a hazard many people forget about. Expect a windchill of -2°C per 10km/h of wind. And mountainous areas love strong winds! The wind is often magnified into strong gusts, and a sudden, strong gust while you are walking a delicate section of a track with steep drops is more than enough to throw you off balance. Many people have fallen this way. Always assume there will be strong wind at some point on your hike up a peak or over an alpine crossing.
Snow and ice on the ground mean you are best off waiting for a different time/season, or hiring a guide unless you have the proper training to use crampons and ice tools. In the morning, snow slopes are often frozen from the night. In the afternoon, they are soft and wet and will ‘ball’ up under your feet, also leading to slips. Once you start sliding on snow or ice, it's hard to get control again in anything but a gentle slope. Often, ice can also sit beneath soft layers and can lead to a slip.
Avalanches are also a hazard to respect. Unless you are trained in backcountry travel through avalanche terrain, it is best to assume all routes crossing through, or under alpine terrain, will have avalanche dangers. Even with low risk avalanche forecasts, there are still isolated pockets of unstable snow. It takes a surprisingly small amount to knock you off your feet, and if the slope ends in cliffs, the outcome is catastrophic.
Since its often much more windy up top, peaks and alpine crossings are often subject to whiteouts. As clouds close in, visibility can be poor or even less than a few feet which leads to many losing their way, or worse, falling off cliffs or down slopes. Navigation is extremely tricky in whiteouts. With no prior experience, people will easily become disorientated. And even with experience, these are dangerous conditions.
Social Media and getting that 'photo'
In this day and age of sharing our photos and videos online, people can often not realise what is involved in getting to a location or undertaking a trip. The person posting may not share the full story or their background experience.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand is a good example of this. There are comments from people who have done the trip complaining about the lack of handrails or their misjudgement of how serious it would be, despite the vast amount of information and signage available. This shows a complete lack of research before they even started, and for many, a desire to get that photo no matter the conditions.
HOW TO PREPARE FOR AN ALPINE PEAK, CROSSING OR PASS
Before you even arrive at the carpark to start your hike, you should have a good look online or by visiting a rangers office. This will often reveal what is involved in doing your chosen hike and if it meets your expectations. This simple step alone could prevent many deaths each year.
Layering for the outdoors is the key to being not only being comfortable, but also staying safe as the weather changes for better and worse. Having adequate rain, wind, snow and cold protection can literally make the difference between life and death when the weather turns for the worst.
And just as important is this: NEVER WEAR COTTON IN THE OUTDOORS!
Below is an example on general layering for the outdoors. It doesn't take into account how active you are (eg: sweating), so for a detailed guide on layering, see my post:
How to Layer for the Outdoors. Your Complete Guide to Layering
Make sure to carry equipment that will hold up to the conditions and is reliable. Having your backpack fall apart, or worse, trying to carry everything in your hands without one, is not ideal and can lead to some dangerous situations. I thought I had seen it all when someone brought a suitcase on a hike, but then something even crazier happened... You can read about it HERE.
Your food & Water
Carrying enough food and water seems like a no brainer, yet even people experienced in the outdoors can underestimate it on certain trips. Carry at least 2 L per half day. When it’s cold, you might think you don’t need as much water but it’s actually just as important to keep taking in fluids. Food is important as you may need extra energy throughout the day, so always pack more than you need. Packing the night before is a good idea to make sure everything is ready to go in the morning.
We can often overestimate our fitness and that’s OK. Not every hike is going to be easy. That’s all part of the challenge anyway, right? But if you have never hiked before and you want to try 1000 meters of elevation gain up steep terrain, it might be best to work up to it on some smaller hikes first. Going up is hard work, and going down is actually quite tiring as well, so try to have a look at what sort of distances AND elevation gain/loss you will be doing on your intended route. Start small and work your way up to the bigger stuff, you’ll have a better time doing it that way!
Most importantly is your attitude to the trip. If you are of the stubborn type, take extra note here! Avoid summit fever and turn around when things aren’t going to plan. Be honest in the outdoors. If you are not prepared, both physically and mentally and with the right gear, your attitude can save your life. Alpine environments are harsh and brutal. The mountain will always be there tomorrow, but you might not be if you don’t make the right choices!
Alpine peaks, crossings and passes hold wonders for the curious and adventurous. Staying safe and respecting these environments lets us enjoy them, have a good time, and make it home for another day.