It has been very hot for the last few weeks. Since the only hikes I feel like doing right now are over 8000 ft. elevation – and that is a couple hours drive away – I haven’t been doing much hiking. Might as well tell you about a hike I did a couple years ago.

Weather in the mountains is fickle. You cannot trust a weather forecast farther than the clouds on the horizon.

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Here we are at the beginning of the trail. A simple 7.5 mile out and back, starting at about 6200 ft heading up to 7500 and back down. Around 60 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. 7.5 miles round trip.

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Regardless of what it says on the sign, this is what the route actually is. No fears. There is no way to get lost. I am on 21W02. The trail is the trail and to leave it is climbing a steep hill, either up or down. Down would be the better choice since it will inevitably take you to the road. That could take a while and would be no faster than going back down the trail.

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A well-maintained trail on a beautiful, sunny day in May. The temperature in the mid-am was now in the high 50s. (I wrote off the temp. drop to change in elevation.) The forecast was fair weather with a small chance of showers. I did not bring anything I don’t always bring on a day hike.

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Oddly, it started to get colder, not warmer as the day wore on. So I improvised with a couple of safety pins to convert the brim of my boonie hat to earflaps. This boonie has been treated with Scotchguard to make it somewhat water repellent.

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But still gorgeous weather! I got to McGill and reversed my course.

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Then it started to change. Hey, this isn’t what the forecaster predicted!

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I am always on the lookout for quick and easy shelter. There were several viable expedient shelters along the way but this one required almost no modifications. Despite recent rains, the interior was still dry. The tree was big enough I could sit down in it. Blocking the opening with a space blanket tied in place with paracord would make it snug. I could even make a vestibule with a natural chimney and have a tiny fire. There were other options such as logs that one could crawl under, rocky overhangs and very dense junipers that would shed rain and block wind but this was the best.

Or I could go back to McGill (nobody else there now) and hide in an outhouse. The ability to see the shelter potential of whatever is available and quickly modify it to your needs is an important survival skill. It is one of several background processes that are constantly going on in my mind, using minimal resources, yet ready to spool up quickly if I click on the “seek shelter” icon in my head.

Suppose I injured myself or became ill. I can signal for help. I might have cell service up here, but a text on my SPOT would include exact GPS coordinates if I didn’t. Help won’t be here for a couple hours and the weather was getting really bad. I could take shelter in this tree. I have snacks to eat and interesting thoughts to think. The space blanket would be glaringly obvious to a searcher.

A lot of what many consider “survival skills” are really engineering skills. You know what you need, this is what you have. How do you engineer a solution? Back at Lockheed, we did a lot of what we called “plastic drawer engineering”. You have a cabinet full of plastic drawers of random parts, none of which were picked for this particular project. Yet you need to get a prototype “breadboarded” up and running right now. Do what you need to do with what you have and improvise what you do not. Survival in the wild is no different.

But of course, the best survival skill is never to have put the skills to the ultimate test.

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Then things got worse and the wind picked up. Temps had dropped from roughly 57 to about 38 by now. Time for survival mode. (LOL!) I put on my jacket, which I’d brought to be prepared for such an eventuality. It has also been Scotchguarded to be water repellent but for real emergency cold rain protection, it is hard to beat a couple of space blankets, one worn poncho style and the other as a skirt. They are so lightweight and small I always have a couple of them on me. Didn’t need them today.

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Snow started coming down fast and heavy. Out of focus snowflakes show up as glowing balls in my camera’s flash. The thermometer on my watch was reading 35 and dropping fast.

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And as I return to the car on the now snow covered and muddy trail, I reflect on the fact that though I really didn’t need to draw on any of my survival skills, having them meant that even if the storm had gotten far worse or even if I’d been stuck out here overnight, I’d have been OK. I could go right on enjoying the unexpected gift of snow in May. Having tools, skills, and confidence in their use takes away all the anxiety.

 

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Having made it back to my car, I know I’m safe. They don’t lock the snow gate until they verify nobody is beyond it. It is well below freezing now but I can survive almost anything in my car. Warm blankets, extra clothes and most of a tank of gas.

But – I’m not out of the woods yet. The road is now just ice and snow. Driving home as it gets dark, I could easily spend the night in a ditch and out of sight. Or slip over a cliff. It will drop into the 20s tonight. I drive cautiously and slowly with Wrangler tires and 4WD. (I am kicking myself for taking the chains out of the car in April.) It is still slippery but these are the kind of roads I grew up on. (What a luxury! We didn’t have chains or 4WD when I was a kid. We had snow tires and  bags of salt or sand.)

This is the most dangerous leg of the journey. My main fear is some other idiot driving faster than conditions allow and hitting ME. I’ve had to rescue other people on roads like this more than once. Snowplow has been thru once already and the next step will be to close the road after they’ve made sure no cars were still on it.

Since I’m writing this, you know I made it out ok. I enjoyed every minute.

 

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