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Pre- and Post-Hike Risk Analysis — High Sierras Wilderness Adventure

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“Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

—General Dwight D. Eisenhower 


“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

—German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke



In the  “Safety and Prevention” section of my hiking and backpacking website, I have posted an article on “Risk Management Principles Applied to Hiking.” Besides discussing a variety of general principles to consider when planning a hike, this risk management article recommends that one identify the highest probability risks, mitigate those risks as much as possible, and undertake a post-trip evaluation. This present “Pre- and Post-Trip Risk Analysis” article focuses on all three of these elements as they relate to a recent two-week backpacking trip into the High Sierras.

In late 2012, four of us from Washington State began planning a two-week backpack trip into the High Sierras following parts of Steve Roper's Sierra High Route (SHR). The SHR stays close to the Sierra Crest at elevations between 10,000 and 12,000 feet. Most of the SHR is off-trail while occasionally traversing the nearby John Muir Trail. This would be an adventure of a lifetime for four aging gentlemen who have spent much of their lives hiking and climbing in and around the mountains, but who had spent little or no time in the Sierras. The actual trip took place in mid-September 2013 starting at the North Lake trailhead in the Sierra foothills west of Bishop, California. The trip was broken into two roughly equal segments with a resupply in between.

The methodology used in this present article is simple: (1) detail the pre-trip planning and thinking related to the highest probability perceived risks (eight in number); (2) immediately following each pre-trip narrative relate the post-trip evaluation of the reality experienced in the field; (3) conclude with a brief section analyzing our group’s success at risk management.

The following narrative is written from the perspective of only one person (your author). All four participants in the Sierra trip were involved in the long planning process, but no attempt was made to discuss the specifics detailed below with the other three participants.

Eight Identified Risks or Potential Problem Areas

1. Rarified Air (the plan)

The starting altitude for this High Sierra trip would be 9400’. Most of the time we would be hiking and camping between 10,000 and 12,000’. Our itinerary involved hiking over three passes that were in the 12,000’ range. The lowest point of our planned adventure (LeConte Canyon-Dusey Basin trail junction) would be 8700’ and the highest (Lamarck Col) at 12,900’. The rarified air of the High Sierras could be a serious problem for all four of us used to living at sea level and climbing mostly in the Olympics with elevations rarely over 7,000’. People have died in the Sierras from HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema). It is common for Sierra hikes to be significantly disrupted by needing to get one or more members to lower altitudes. The oldest member of our party (your author) took several steps to ward off potential problems from altitude: (1) camping above 8000’ for five consecutive nights prior to beginning the hike; (2) day hiking to the top of a 13,000 peak (Mt. Dana); (3) taking a commonly prescribed medication for this purpose (Diamox) in low dosages prior to being at altitude.  The other three members of our party, having climbed Mt. Whitney (14,505’) the year before without serious problems, did not follow my lead. After they flew in from Reno we all planned to camp two nights at moderate altitude (7800’ and 9400’) to acclimate prior to the start of our backpacking. All four of us undertook serious pre-conditioning programs (but not at altitude) in the three months prior to the trip. Most of us judged the risk of serious problems with altitude to be low given our preparations.

Rarified Air (the reality)

No member of our party suffered from the symptoms of altitude sickness per se. This is not to say that the 10,000-12,000’ altitude didn’t play a significant role in our reduced energy levels while humping full packs. Longer rests and lots of deep breathing were common early in the trip while still getting acclimated. Two members reported shortness of breath trying to sleep during our seventh and eighth nights out while camping just above 12,000’.  Two members of our party did suffer serious nosebleeds from the dry and rarified air. At the suggestion of one of the bleeders, regular applications of Vaseline or its equivalent inside nasal passages helped to mostly solve this problem. One member who was taking blood-thinning medications (e.g., anti-inflammatories) reduced the dosages.

2. Adverse Weather Conditions (the Plan)

Everything we read about the High Sierras suggested that with any luck we would have good weather with the caveat that rain, lightening and snow storms can happen any time of the year but they are usually of short duration in mid-September. All of us would carry storm gear. All of us packed sun hats for intense sun and three carried umbrellas for both sun and sustained rain. During the first half we planned to pitch our tarps on those evening when it looked like the weather might threaten. The tarps could be staked to the ground in case of heavy wind and storm conditions. We judged the risk of adverse weather as low, but were still prepared.

Adverse Weather Conditions (the Reality)

We generally experienced good weather during our two weeks in the High Sierras, often hiking in shorts during the day and sleeping out in the open at night. Our storm gear usually resided at the bottom of our packs. Occasionally we hiked in wind shells because of cold winds that accompanied periods of low pressure. We experienced brief snow flurries on two occasions during mid-day. One evening a 40-minute rainstorm kept us in our shelters. Our one and only close lightening strike occurred during this rainstorm. During our second day out thunder and lightening boomed off in the distance over Glacier Divide. Because of our experience with exposed and windy camps above tree line during the first half, we wisely switched from tarps to pyramid-shaped tents for the second half. The tents were especially valuable in reducing the wind chill factor. The aluminized umbrellas (8 oz Chrome Domes) that we carried and used occasionally in the intense sun would likely be left at home on future trips (at least for a couple of us). The weather feature not anticipated during the trip was the high winds we experienced (15-25 mph sustained with 25-40 mph gusts) along the Sierra Crest during clear, sunny days whenever a low-pressure system moved through. We did cut our trip short by one day because of a prediction of snow and 60 mph winds coming in that evening (reported by a backcountry ranger in Dusey Basin).


3. Cold Nighttime Temperatures (the plan)

Since we planned this High Sierra trip for mid-September sleeping at altitudes from 10-12 thousand feet, we were concerned about how cold it would get at night. The John Muir Trail (JMT) Yahoo chat site provided links to weather data, especially recorded lows during all months of the year at a weather station near Bishop Pass in the Central Sierras (probably the one west of the pass at 11,500'). The data indicated that we should expect most night-time temps to dip below freezing once or twice during our two weeks of backpacking. The data also indicated that most below freezing temps are recorded towards the end of September. Only one period in a nine-year span showed single digit lows anytime in September. Also part of our planning was to regularly sleep under the stars ("cowboy camp") so we would have to plan for some wind chill. JMT Yahoo chat site participants generally felt that 20-30 degree sleeping bags would be sufficient for hiking the JMT trail (generally camping at 7-10 thousand feet). All of us carried sleeping bags in this temperature range. Three of us made special purchases of air mattresses having higher R-values for extra sleeping warmth. Overall, we judged the risk of cold sleeping to be low, something we might have to put up with only a night or two.

Cold Nighttime Temps (the Reality)

Even though daytime temps were quite pleasant (often hiking in shorts and shirt sleeves), nearly every night when sleeping above 10,000’, we recorded below or near freezing weather (the lowest recorded was 21 degrees). Wind chill was also a factor in that we experienced high winds (25-35 mph gusts) a few nights. Several nights found some of us putting on, during the night, most of our carried clothing and insulation. Some resorted to often sleeping in the tent rather than under the stars. We did not resort to extreme measures (e.g., hot water bottles or middle-of-the-night jumping jacks). Post-trip analysis indicated that at least two of the group would carry warmer sleeping bags on any future trip into the Sierras in September. The consensus was that the higher R-value air mattresses probably added to our overall sleeping comfort.


4. Traveling Off-Trail (the Plan)

From the beginning of our group planning, there was a strong desire to spend most of our time in the High Sierras off-trail, especially avoiding the heavily traveling John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails (JMT and PCT respectively). We desired to experience the High Sierra wilderness at its most pristine. Most of our potential itineraries involved doing potions of Steve Roper’s Sierra High Route, nearly 200 miles along the crest of the Sierra winding its way off-trail as much as possible. We estimated that about half of our time on our selected routes during the two weeks would be spent traveling maintained trails and the other half off maintained trails. Instead of trail shoes all of us decided to wear mid-weight boots to facilitate off-trail travel with full packs. Because of the fall season and low snowfall the previous winter, we did not plan on traveling over ice or snow. No traction devices were carried. Our research suggested that lots of experienced off-trail enthusiasts were doing what we were planning with only a few difficult spots to contend with (e.g., a Class 2+ climb over 12,300’ Alpine Col). Overall, we judged the risks minimal since we were all experienced mountaineers used to traveling off-trail over steep terrain.

Traveling Off-Trail (the Reality)

Even though much of our travel was off maintained trails, we found distinct “way” trails in most areas indicating that many had passed our way. We often found rock cairns (“ducks” in Sierra lingo) marking the way when it was too rocky for a boot path. Most of the off-trail involved gentle grades and wide open terrain (sometimes described as “moonscapes”). This made walking surprising easy, EXCEPT WHERE IT WAS NOT. When our route went through narrow valleys and over steep passes, we encountered large talus/boulder fields. These involved boulders of various sizes to navigate over and around with full packs. This proved at times to be quite nerve-wracking and physically tiring, partly because of the greatly increased chance of injury so far from any trailhead. This difficulty of navigating extensive fields of talus was one of the reasons we made significant modifications to our itinerary during the 2nd half (namely eliminating the climb over 12,300’ Alpine Col). For future travel on this kind of terrain, it would be well to review Ryan Jordan’s “Techniques for Talus”. Our expectations about not hiking on snow or ice proved correct. However, we did walk around a couple of large patches of ice while going over two passes. Luckily, no one got hurt traveling off trail.


5. Reasonable Itineraries (the plan)

The High Sierras covers a range of mountains over 400 miles long and 60-70 miles wide. None of us had backpacked in the Sierras so this was new terrain for us. There were many options for a two-week adventure involving two loop trips with a resupply in the middle. My first attempts at coming up with some itineraries resulted in several options that, upon closer analysis, proved to be way too aggressive. We would exhaust ourselves trying to make it to our exit points and there would be no lay days, short cuts or emergency exit points. Our group finally agreed that 5-6 miles would be the maximum per day travel distance, especially when off trail traveling at altitudes above between 10,000 and 12,000’. Our final selected itineraries would likely have a lay day or two built in to each half of the trip.

Reasonable Itineraries (the reality)

The old adage, “my eyes were bigger than my stomach” proved to be true for our adventure—even given our relatively conservative itineraries. Four different hiking days during the two weeks proved to be rather long and exhausting. During the first half we ended up with one lay day in Granite Park. One member took advantage of this lay day to go on a 12-hour day hike to explore a new area (strikingly beautiful Bear Lakes Basin). During the 2nd half, we used our lay day to exit a day early because of incoming weather. Given the reality of our first half itinerary, one member of the party was ready to head home at resupply time. He reluctantly decided to join us for the 2nd half after the group revised our itinerary downward once again. The revision necessitated getting a new permit and a new map. The reality was that our group had much different goals and objectives, but were still able to be flexible.

6. Marauding Critters (the plan)

Research suggested that bears, raccoons and mice might be a problem when we traversed popular maintained trails. It also suggested that ticks, mosquitoes, bees and snakes would not be a problem. Because bear canisters were required in some parts of our trip and because much of the time we were above treeline (or above trees of any size to hang our food), all of us planned to carry our food in Park Service approved bear canisters. Overall, we judged the risk of marauding and pesky critters as low.

Marauding Critters (the reality)

Even though we were hoping to see a bear or two, the only four-legged mammals we saw of note included: deer, rabbits(2), pikas. For two of us, the only problem with the bear canisters (besides their two pound plus weight) was getting 7-8 days of food into them. The canisters make good seats around camp. Our group was in contact with one backcountry ranger during the two weeks, but there was no request to see either our canisters or permits. The reality matched the planning.

7. Fording Rivers and Streams (the plan)

A careful analysis of our planned final itinerary showed no rivers or streams that would need fording; some inlet and outlet streams would likely require some rock hopping. This lack of fords was partly due to our off-trail itinerary, partly to the time of year and partly to a low snow year the previous winter. No one decided to bring actual fording shoes. Fording rivers and streams was judged to be a non-existent risk.

Fording Rivers and Streams (the reality)

The reality in the field matched our expectations. Streams of any size were crossed using bridges or preplaced logs.


8. Transportation and Logistics (the plan)

Even though problems with transportation and logistics would unlikely result in any physical harm, it was still an important area from a risk management standpoint. Time, energy and money are important considerations given the huge amount of it expended on this adventure. From the beginning, the plan was to have at least one party member drive to California to coordinate transport to and from the trailheads and to facilitate the mid-hike resupply. For this purpose, your author and his wife chose to buy a 23’ motor home RV that would be a reasonably comfortable hang out while “the boys” were traipsing around the mountains. It would also have to have enough storage space to carry packs, resupply food, etc. for four backpackers. The plan was for us to arrive early to reconnoiter the trailheads and needed services (e.g., nearby RV parks with swimming pools).

Transportation and Logistics (the reality)

This is one area where all the advance planning worked beautifully. A week after leaving the Seattle area, the RV was waiting at the Reno airport for the three members flying in from SeaTac. Getting the fully loaded RV up to the North Lake trailhead (9400’) was a stretch on the steep and narrow access road. My wife lived out of the RV at four different RV parks during the duration and did well except for the heat (thank goodness for air conditioning units). She made timely arrivals at our two exit points. The motor home performed flawlessly during the month we were gone from home.


Some Conclusions and Observations Regarding Our Success at Risk Management

The trip was an unqualified success. This was a great team effort by highly experienced individuals. Following the lead-in quote at the top from General Eisenhower, our extensive planning proved successful and indispensable (i.e., the realities were not greatly different from the planning scenarios). But in this context, some critical questions still need to be asked about the quality of the planning and our risk management efforts:

—Were the eight problem areas identified in this article the most important areas of safety and risk with which we should have been concerned? [Answer: Yes]

—Were there any potential or actual risks that we did not take into account in our pre-trip planning? [Answer: No]

—What kinds of things would we do differently? [Answer: None, except for a couple items already identified in the narrative. Some might question whether our democratic decision-making process was effective. My answer is that even though it was not efficient at times, a more autocratic form of leadership probably would not have worked any better.]

—Did we over- or under-plan this adventure? [Answer: hard to judge but some over-planning was justified given the amount of time, energy and money invested. If we over-planned, it did not seem to take away from our awesome and memorable experiences.]

Picture of Mountain Landscape