Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Avoid Getting Washed Away

There's a lot of concern about floods and mudslides right now in about half dozen of the western states. Governors are filing for "state of emergency" federal funds, officials are ordering evacuations, people are losing their homes, and some are losing their lives. 

Flooding is a huge problem that can lead to both urban and backcountry survival situations. According to national statistics, flooding is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S., killing, on average, about two hundred people each year. Two hundred per year might not sound like a lot, until you compare that number with the average statistics for hurricane-related deaths (24), or tornadoes (69), or lightning strikes (81).

One of the deadliest flash floods in U.S. history swept down Colorado’s Big Thompson Canyon during the height of the 1976 summer tourist season. People were trying to escape Denver’s city heat by going to a popular camping area, where the temperatures were cooler and the day was perfect. As it turned out, the day was perfect for an unusual combination of atmospheric conditions to join forces, with deadly results. Afternoon heat created powerful updrafts that carried moist air aloft, and when that air reached the cooler upper atmosphere, it didn’t take long for a thunderstorm to form.

Heavy rain began to fall in the mountains above Big Thompson Canyon. Normally, thunderstorms move fairly rapidly across the landscape, being pushed across the countryside by strong winds. But this one didn’t. It just sat there and dumped. Three hours later, more than a foot of rain had fallen, with eight inches falling during one intense hour-long cloudburst.

The stream grew from its normally placid 2-foot-deep trickle to a violent killer that was 19 feet high and raging through the canyon, wickedly propelling 10-foot boulders and broken trees that had been ripped out of the ground. In a heartbeat, everything was gone — vehicles, buildings, and people. The crushing flood swept through the canyon with such speed and violence that it was impossible to out-run. Buildings and vehicles instantly became death traps, and there was no possible avenue of escape, except straight up the canyon walls. Two hours later, the death toll was 145, including 6 people who were never found.

The trouble with flash floods is that they arrive unannounced, and they often come from many miles away. It might not even be raining where you are, but twenty miles away a cloudburst can set things in motion and a few hours later the flood sweeps you and your camp away in a raging torrent.

Flash floods feed on three things — heavy rainfall (or perhaps sudden snowmelt), a system of drainages or lowlands where the water collects and funnels downstream, and time. A ten-minute monsoon isn’t going to create much of a flood but one that lasts an hour and dumps several inches of water will.

Soil that doesn’t absorb moisture easily is a huge contributor. And if the area is denuded of vegetation by fire, timber harvest or other land clearing operations, the problem is made worse. The brushfires that denuded hillsides over the last few years are a major factor in the flooding and mudslides now ripping up southern California. 

There is literally no region that is safe from the possibility of flash flood — deserts, mountains and plains are all vulnerable areas.

Flash floods are sneaky — they seem to come out of nowhere. There could be a violent thunderstorm taking place farther back in the mountains or on a distant desert plateau — a downpour might be hitting the rocky ground and funneling runoff into a drainage that eventually leads to your location. You might have no clue a deadly flash flood is roaring toward you like a liquid freight train until you hear the approaching rumble, feel the ground tremble, and suddenly see a wall of water carrying trees and boulders through your camp. 

So you need to have a survival plan, just in case you find yourself in the wrong place on the wrong day.

Preventive Planning
  • Listen to the weather forecast before heading out. If the forecast talks about unstable air, thunderstorms or other violent weather, don’t go into places where a flash flood might catch you.
  • Periodically monitor the NOAA Weather Radio station in your area to learn if there are weather events taking place that will affect you. You can buy a fairly inexpensive and compact, battery-operated weather radio at places like Radio Shack.
  • If Flood Advisories, Warnings or Watches are issued, heed them.
  • When you arrive in camp, look the situation over and imagine what the place would look like if it were suddenly swept by a 30-foot wall of water (yes, they get that big). Choose a campsite that is above the danger zone. Don’t camp in lowlands or even in a minor drainage. 

Surviving a Flash Flood
  • Get to higher ground immediately. The water level might rise incredibly fast.
  • Don’t stop to gather up your equipment. Saving your life (and the lives of others) is more important than saving your vehicle or other gear.
  • If you are trapped by floodwaters that are surrounding your vehicle, get out immediately and make your way to higher ground. It takes only 2 feet of water to sweep away a vehicle, and it will roll and tumble and smash as it is swept downstream. A vehicle is not a safe place to be. Approximately half of flood-related drownings are vehicle-related.
  • Do not attempt to drive across a flooded road. What you can’t see is that the roadway might have been ripped up by the rushing water, leaving a hole that will swallow your vehicle.

If you recognize the potential danger of a flash flood, take steps to keep yourself, your friends and loved-ones safe during your travels and camping trips.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Search & Rescue

Michelle Yu was a very experienced outdoor enthusiast who was preparing for an ascent of Argentina's Aconcagua, the highest mountain peak in the Americas at 22,841 feet, beating Mt. McKinley by nearly half a mile. As part of her preparation for the climb, she was hiking Mt. Baldy in southern California every week and had recently completed the ascent of several 14,000-foot peaks. To say that she had a good climbing and hiking resume would be an understatement. But even the best can get in trouble sometimes.

On December 4th, she set out for a training and conditioning hike and was seen by other hikers near the summit of the trail she chose that day. But that night, she didn't return. The following afternoon, a friend reported her missing, and the West Valley Search and Rescue unit was called into action.

Even though there was no information available about the route Michelle had taken into the mountains, her car was located and SAR teams were deployed to scour Goode Canyon, San Antonio Canyon, The Sierra Hut Trail, and the Devil's Backbone.

The search was difficult and slowed by very high winds and severe rain. At high elevations, the rain turned to snow and ice. The rock fall hazard was serious because of all the flowing water, with reports of very large boulders crashing down the canyons. But the search continued for the next three days, and spread out into new areas that had not already been searched. Additional SAR teams from all of California were called in to help.

Then a team being extracted from Fish Fork noticed something during their helicopter ride out of their area.   They put people on the ground to investigate and found that it was Ms. Yu. She was discovered in the same general drainage that the team had descended, but the drainage is a complex of three drainages that combine at the bottom and Ms. Yu was in the "sub drainage" that was adjacent to but out of sight of the one the team had been searching.

Apparently Michelle Yu had fallen 2,100 feet from the rugged trail above. How did that happen? Nobody knows for sure. The day of her hike had started out beautiful and sunny, but bad weather swept across the area later in the day, bringing rain, snow and ice. Could she simply have slipped and fallen as she was crossing the drainage, and tumbled more than 2,000 feet to her death? Maybe.

Could she have succumbed to hypothermia due to the cold, wet conditions and suffered a breakdown of judgement that took her into that steep drainage looking for a fast way to get off the mountain and reach warmer temperatures at a lower elevation? Maybe.

Could it be a combination of those two scenarios, or something else entirely? Maybe. Nobody knows for sure.

So what can we learn from this incident?
  • No matter how experienced you are (or maybe it's just that you think you are), accidents can happen. 
  • Going alone into the wilds is rewarding on some personal levels, but increases the risk all the time. 
  • It doesn't take much to kill a person. A misstep or a twisted ankle at the wrong time can send you over a cliff or tumbling down a steep ravine.
  • Always leave specific details about the trail you're going to hike, and then stick to that plan. If you deviate and find yourself the object of a search, it will take additional time before rescuers locate you. 

Monday, December 13, 2010

Stranded Traveler

From coast to coast, the U.S. has been experiencing unseasonably cold weather. Jokes are flying about, "where is global warming when we need it?" First it was the Pacific Northwest, now it's the Midwest and east coast, all the way down the Florida where the winter strawberry crop is at risk of freezing.

But it isn't the strawberries we're most concerned about — it's the people. When we lived in Wisconsin, there was one memorable winter when the wind chill factor drove temperatures down to -100 degrees F. That winter, there was one man in our small town who died in his car because he couldn't get it to start and he stayed there until hypothermia took him. Another man died on his porch because he couldn't get the key in the door lock. It doesn't take long at -100 degrees to lose dexterity, and that is the first domino to fall before the rest collapse.

Right now in the Midewest, several cold-related deaths have already taken place, and the winter is just getting started. National Weather Service meteoroligist Jim Taggart said the weather in the region is what would normally be expected in January, but not December. As I write this, we're still more than a week away from the official start of winter, so if this is any indication of things to come, it's going to be a long, cold one.

Some airports have been shut down. Thousands of flights have been cancelled or delayed. At Chicago's O'Hare Airport alone more than 1375 flights were canceled. Stranded travelers are wondering what to do. O'Hare officials set up more than 200 cots and supplied toothbrushes and toothpaste to help ease the situation for those stranded in the airport.

This is a good time to talk about what you can do insofar as personal preparation is concerned.

  • Nothing trumps situational awareness — be informed about what's coming before you make plans to travel. Watch the weather forecasts. Look at the long-term situation, not just what's going to happen this afternoon. 
  • Be prepared to cancel or alter travel plans. If the trip absolutely must happen, consider altering your route so you miss the bad weather, even if it means going out of your way to dodge the trouble. 
  • Pack your own emergency supplies so you don't have to depend on someone else to share a toothbrush with you. An emergency blanket will help keep you warm, some high calorie snack foods will keep your energy up, and be aware of where the water source is. 
  • Might be handy if you carry your own emergency supply of toilet paper. I know, it sounds goofy, but you haven't lived until you've been trapped in an airport with a thousand other people and there's no toilet paper in the restrooms. 
  • Wear appropriate clothing that you would be comfortable in if you were forced to sleep on the floor at the airport. Pack gloves, a watch cap, a scarf, and a base layer of merino wool clothing to help stave off hypothermia or just misery. 
  • If you have luggage, spread it out and sleep on it rather than on the cold floor. This is assuming there is no more comfortable place to rest — like a chair or bench — which would be your first choice. Trouble is that those spots disappear quickly when folks are stranded, so you might end up on the floor. 
  • Do not wear fancy clothes or jewelry, and don't flash your money around because that will put a target on your back for thieves who take advantage of the situation when folks find themselves stranded. 
  • Remain calm and cooperate with officials. Trust me, they don't want you sleeping on their floor any longer than necessary and they're doing everything possible to get you out of their hair as quickly as possible, so it's counterproductive to get upset and behave poorly. Try to be a positive, rather than a negative. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ten Quick Tips

To collect water from damp ground, dig a seep hole and allow water to ooze into the depression. To keep your water filter from clogging, let water in a freshly dug seep hole settle for an hour before filtering for drinking.

Before building a fire on cold or damp ground, construct a solid firebase of stone or green logs to keep the fire up off the ground where moisture from below can weaken the blaze.

Study local wind patterns before erecting a shelter, and keep the opening opposite the direction of the night wind.

To help prevent blisters, remove boots and socks frequently during long treks to rest your feet and allow the boots and socks to air out and dry.

Always gather dry tinder material as you encounter it, and store it in a dry place, because you cannot be sure of finding good tinder when you need it most.

Never pass up discarded materials. Examine every piece of litter you find to determine ways to put it to use. For example: A piece of a tin can or broken bottle glass can be used as a cutting edge.

In cold weather, start seeking or building your overnight shelter about three hours before sundown, to give you time to secure against the elements, get a fire going and gather sufficient firewood to see you through the night.

In hot weather, naturally seek the shade as you hike, moving from one shade to the next as much as possible. Move slowly, inhale through your nose to help prevent dehydrating your lungs.

Use a t-shirt to make an expedient covering for your head, neck and the sides of your face. Tie it on using a belt, a strip of cloth, or even a limber tree root. If necessary, just hang it over your head without a tie.

In your pocket, carry a folded sheet of heavy-duty tin foil to be used for fashioning a pot in which to boil water. 

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Water Conundrum

One of the most pressing needs for human survival is adequate drinking water. By adequate I mean sufficiently abundant and sufficiently pure. The definition of "sufficiently abundant" changes depending on environmental conditions of temperature and humidity, individual activity level, conditions of health, age, body size, and other factors. In a survival scenario, where conditions are more demanding, the need for water intake increases. I recommend planning on one gallon per person per day for drinking and food preparation — and that doesn't take into account the need for water to handle sanitation issues.

Insofar as water is concerned, our bodies are like car engines that are never turned off, but are left running all the time. Unless the fuel supply is replaced, eventually the tank runs dry and the engine quits. Extending that analogy to our bodies, even in our sleep the engine is running.  The metablolism that keeps our cells alive involves processing water through every cell 24/7, so there's no such thing as shutting down the need for constant water intake.

The challenge comes when we try to keep enough water on hand to supply our needs in the event that some kind of catastrophe shuts down the "normal" water supply. To prepare a method of suppling our own water needs when the domestic supply is unavailable, there are only so many solutions.

One is to have a well on your property, along with the means of raising the water from the depths of the well to the surface — a pump — and the means to keep that pump running: an electric power generator or some mechanical method. That might work for those who live in an area where drilling a well is possible, but that doesn't apply to the vast majority of folks in this country. And even if you have a well, it might go dry in drought years, or if an earthquake causes a shift in the subterranean supply. So wells are not totally infallible.

A few lucky people live near some kind of surface freshwater supply — a river, lake, pond, etc. If you're one of those, you might be able to capture sufficient water and then purify it for your use. If you live in a big city and expect to collect water from the pond in the city park, you'll find yourself competing with other folks and probably dealing with seriously contaminated water from pesticides and industrial pollutants. So factor all that in.

Another solution is to simply store water by utilizing containers ranging from 1-gallon plastic bottles to 55-gallon barrels. Freshwater weighs in the neighborhood of 8.4 pounds per gallon, so the small containers are easier to deal with than larger ones. And if you live in an apartment or condo, where you don't have any property on which to store such items, you'll have to use the smaller containers, storing them in a closet or under the bed, etc.

For those who have the ability to store larger quantities of water in 55-gallon drums, the issue of keeping that much water "fresh" over the long term comes into play. Some people I know dump their barrels every six months and refill with new water. That's not only a pain in the neck, but it can be a huge waste of water unless you are able to make use of it as it's discarded.

I recently learned about a product that makes it unnecessary to recycle the stored water so often. It's called Water Preserver Concentrate (#2C) and is available from a company called QuakeKare ( For $11.95 you can buy a proprietary formula of stabilized, ph-balanced sodium hypochlorite that is designed especially to treat a 55-barrel drum full of stored water. The company claims that this product has been tested for 10 years and is registered and licensed by fenderal an state EPA. The company guarantees effectiveness against bacteria, virus, mold and fungus for a 5-year period.

I wanted to let you know about it in the event that it will be useful for your water storage system.