From the ATRA Archives: Staying alive on the trail by Hal Walter

In this edition of From the ATRA Archives presented by Salomon, Hal Walter delves into some of the dangers on the trail – lightning, rattlers, and cougars. Hal’s article first appeared in our Trail Times newsletter issue 8, published in spring 1998. Hal has several books to his credit including Wild Burro Tales, Endurance, and Full Tilt Boogie. He lives with his family in the Wet Mountains near Westcliffe, Colorado.

Staying Alive On The Trail

It’s not just the scenic beauty that attracts us to the wilderness. There’s something else. It’s the sense of danger – the chance, however small, that at any moment your very survival could be threatened by an act of nature. Not that you want it to, really. But, just the idea that your whole concept of safety could be put on its ear without a moment’s notice – that’s what makes wilderness truly wild.

There’s a lot of danger out there. There are slab avalanches and falling rocks in the spring, flash floods and marauding bears in the summer. You could fall off a cliff or drown in a river or lake. But most of these are dangers that you can anticipate and control with some common sense. What about the other dangers, the ones that happen often, but always seem to catch outdoor sports enthusiasts completely by surprise?

Lightning, rattlesnakes and mountain lions are the three most likely dangers in the back country – especially in the summer. If you spend time in the outdoors and don’t want to be a crispy critter, or if you’d rather not mainline a little buzzworm venom or end up in a cougar turd, you’d best take a few precautions.

Beware of bears! Drawing by Michael Hughes.

High Voltage Overhead

The most serious and common backcountry hazard is lightning. I find bolts of high-voltage electricity being hurled at me by a guy named Zot far more frightening than stepping on a poisonous serpent or staring down a hungry puma. I should know – in this field of adrenaline-pumping, I’ve experienced all three. Besides, statistics back me up: In a typical summer, lightning kills more people just in Colorado alone than snakes and mountain lions sink their fangs into individuals nationwide.

Here’s the deal – as much as you’d like to think of yourself as being constructed of muscle, sinew and bone, your body is made up of water, which is the best electrical conductor around. Also, you generally motate in an erect position. You, Bub, are a lightning rod – and a pretty good one at that. The time-honored mountaineer’s rule of being off the peak by noon was not instituted so people could get back to town in time for happy hour. In the summer, moisture tends to rise over the mountains in the afternoon, than raise havoc in the form of thunderstorms the rest of the day.

Always one to practice my preaching, I climbed Venable Peak – elevation 13,333 feet – in Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains one afternoon a few summers ago. It looked safe enough when I started, but adding my name to the sheet in the jam jar, I heard a rumble that got my attention. Sure enough, a thunder-boomer was heading my way with a fury. I ended up getting shelled big time by a driving sheet of hail, and taking some big chances to get back down below timberline.

Don’t do this. It is not fun and it messes with your nerves. It could earn you an all-expense-paid trip to the local funeral home. If you stay below timberline after the noon hour, you cut your risks for a lightning strike considerably. But, you’re not completely safe. People have been killed by lightning while standing in Aspen groves. They’ve been nuked off the links while playing golf in Denver for that matter.

The best advice – if you get caught in a lightning storm – is to seek appropriate shelter and crouch. Do not hide under a nice tall tree – these, like you, attract lightning. If you can find a big rock or a bank of dirt, take cover there. Thunderstorms do tend to move quickly. Simply wait until the storm moves on.

Venom Underfoot

Lightning is electrifying to be sure, but the distinct buzz of a rattlesnake underfoot can give you quite a jolt also. For those of you who don’t think snakes live in the mountains, I’ve seen rattlesnakes as high as 8,800 feet near the middle of their latitudinal range in Colorado.

Once while running downhill on one of my favorite mountain trails, I stepped right on the rattles of a buzzworm. The snake instinctively rolled over and snagged me in the midsole of my running sneakers. I stood on the trail shaking with disbelief as the snake slithered away. If I had been walking, it probably would have nailed me square in the ankle. Luckily I was running and my foot was back in the air by the time the snake reacted. If you think you’re going to see a snake before you step on it, you better have pretty good eyes. I can pass the driver’s license test from double the prescribed distance. Only blind luck saved me from this snake’s fangs.

Rattlesnake at Montaña de Oro State Park in California.

But, I have seen other rattlers before it was too late. I remember spying one big timber rattler coiled when I was about three steps away. I turned off the trails and watched the snake bob his head exactly three times before striking at the thin air that would have been my ankle. I believe the snake was doing math in his head and counting my steps through vibrations in the ground. No warning rattle or anything. I killed that bad-karma snake with a stick. Other snakes have been courteous and have rattled when I got too close. I merely passed around them and left them alone.

Your best defense against a rattlesnake is to see or hear it before you step on it. If you are bitten, take some comfort in that very few snake bites are fatal. The potency of the snake’s bite depends on how long it’s been since the particular snake has bitten something else. If the snake has recently bitten something, its poison sacks may be dilute, in which case you are in tall clover. However, if it’s been a while since the snake has bitten something – a rattlesnake can go a long time without eating – you could be in deep trouble. Stay calm (yeah, right).

Remember, time is on your side – speed it not. If you try to run for help it will only elevate your heart rate and move the poison around in your body more quickly. Don’t lie down – standing up forces the poison to work its way uphill to your heart. If you’re with someone, send them for help while you stay vertical and motionless. If you are alone, walk slowly for help. If you’re lucky, the snake that bit you just poisoned a Packrat for breakfast.

Mountain Lion Encounters

Now for the lions, which in recent years, humans have begun to encounter with some regularity. This will happen more and more as a larger number of humans begin to share the same living space with an increasing number of big cats, which are dining on the burgeoning lawn-fed deer population.

The first time I saw a lion on the trail, I was convinced that these animals are not something with which you want to do hand-to-hand combat. I rounded a switchback and spooked three mule deer to the uphill side of me. A couple of steps later, the oak brush on the downhill side exploded in a tawny blur as the startled lion ran downhill about 30 years, then stopped and turned broadside. For a few seconds I thought this sighting was pretty darn cool. But, when I leaned over and put my hands on my knees to get a better look, the lion took a step toward me. I stood back up and shouted at the lion. It turned and—with no lack of attitude – slowly padded away. I turned and ran away at very high speed. Knowing what I know now, I did some things wrong and some things right. But, all in all, I still think it was worth it to have seen that lion.

A number of big-cat experts agree that bending at the waist is not a wise idea, nor is running away. Both of these things make you appear more like the deer that these beasts are used to preying upon. But looking toward the animal – not staring fiercely into its eyes – but just looking in its direction, is a good idea. Like a house cat hunting a sparrow, cougars jump their prey when the not-so-fortunate critter looks away. Shouting might be a good idea because it lets the animal know that you are a human – an animal which big cats rightfully fear. Don’t run away from a big cat. This strikes the lion’s primal instinct for chasing prey and regardless of your PR for the cross-country 10K, you won’t even come close to outrunning a puma.

The wilderness is a true wonder and these dangers shouldn’t keep you from doing what you love in the outdoors. Even with all the close calls I’ve had, I’m still out there! Just keep in mind that anything can happen. Know the dangers and know the rules. And if worse comes to worst, and you buy the farm on a mountainside, be thankful – I’m sure it beats a hospital bed all to hell.

Editors Note: Good advice from Hal in light of this mountain lion attack which took place last week.

Tags: ,