“Survival is the celebration of choosing life over death. We know we’re going to die. We all die. But survival is saying: perhaps not today.” Laurence Gonzales
We’re going to define mountain running and talk about the 3 Ts of Mountain Running Safety—Trip Planning, Training, Taking the Essentials, as well as Risk Management and Decision Making.
The worlds of trail running and mountaineering are colliding. As such, the risks, skills, and consequences are different than typical front country trail running. Whether you’re a seasoned mountain runner, just getting started, or transitioning from trail running to mountain running, the differences are vast.
Trip Planning: Environment and Conditions
In late June 2021, this is an example of a trip to Snow Pigeon and Turret’s where the lower elevations were completely dry but higher elevations were still holding on to snow. We were able to identify this beforehand with adequate trip planning and had the right tools. Conditions during the same month can vary from year to year, welcome to the mountains of Colorado.
Trip Planning: Route
The above image is an example of 2D vs 3D Gaia GPS mapping of the same route. This allows you to identify features and is more discoverable than a flat map. Familiarizing yourself with different mapping features can assist in gaining knowledge of potential terrain before your intended objective. 3D mapping makes terrain features more discoverable and helps to identify turn-around terrain. Turn-around terrain is an area you may not feel prepared for, lack skills for, or are simply not willing to take on the risk.
You can explore satellite features for snow, slope angle shading, 3D, and so many more. Difficult terrain can become a turn-around point if the mapping does not provide certainty. Always be sure to save your map for offline use!
Trip Planning: Time
Time is really important in trip planning; calculating how long it will take to you to reach the goal and turn around times. CalTopo offers a time calculator which can be customized to the activity and your speed based on previous runs will give you a pretty accurate time. Estimating total time ensures you don’t end up in technical terrain in the dark or stranded.
Trip Planning: Weather
Weather is another factor that can change drastically and vary in short distances and elevations. A reliable site is the NOAA website for point forecasts. In NOAA, you can open up the map, and select the exact peak and region to get a more detailed forecast. As a general rule, summitting all peaks and passes by noon will limit your exposure to lightning and storms; and don’t forget about wind chill. Above is a picture of the La Platas in October when it was warm and sunny in Durango.
Trip Planning: Goals
Part of trip planning is setting goals and all previous information should guide your goals. When you are setting goals, what mode of risk are you assuming? There’s “stepping out” and “stepping back”. Stepping out means you are taking on more risks and willing to push your limits. Stepping back means you have a more conservative approach and are not willing to test those limits.
It’s beneficial to have three plans for a goal:
- Aspirational plan: everything aligns, the day is perfect, and you accomplish all your objectives
- Conservative plan: something changes, unexpected delays; having this plan helps you make decisions on the fly
- Retreat plan: this establishes turnaround terrain, turnaround times, and other absolutes which means the goal has changed to safety
When we set out with a single goal in mind, we tend to ignore valuable data because we become fixated on the goal. We need to allow new data, i.e. changing conditions, physical health, broken gear, etc. to influence our decisions and constantly reevaluate.
How remote is it? What gear does this plan require once you’ve assembled it? Will I be traversing snow? Do I have the appropriate footwear if I’m running/scrambling snow? Should I have spikes or sticky rubber if I’m rock climbing?
Trip Planning: Partners
It is highly recommended to bring a partner and be familiar with their skills. Also making sure everyone is aligned with all the plans and modes of risk. If you become disabled, you’re not going to be able to help yourself; a partner can help especially if they happen to be a doctor.
Trip Planning: Communicate the Plan
It is important to communicate your plans to someone who is not with you yet they understand the information and know what to do with it (preferably someone who also has adventures in the great outdoors). In case there is a mishap, this point of contact can report the direction and area with a high probability of where you’ll be. Some good information to share is:
- planned route and the alternatives (aspirational, conservative, and retreat)
- expected return times
- useful gear on your person
- communication method (this is an ever-changing field, be sure to do your homework before selecting a device)
Trip Planning: Resources
Links to Planning Resources:
14ers (provides more terrain info about peaks)
Training: Terrain Skills
Do I have the training and experience for what this route will demand? As this picture shows, this is a 5th-class terrain; if the climber were to fall, it’s potential outcome is death. This particular route actually has a conservative approach as well. If it doesn’t feel right on a particular day, you can take the saddle so you still complete the objective with an alternative route. Understanding the risk and research helps make the best-informed decisions.
Mountaineering Difficulty Rating
In mountaineering, we do have a difficulty rating starting with Class 1 (easiest) to Class 5 (hardest, possibly deadly). Ensure that you have the physical fitness, mountaineering, and climbing skills for the planned route; recognize when the run turns into mountaineering or climbing.
Training: Survival Skills
Besides technical skills, having survival skills is very important for the times when things do not work out as planned. In the wilderness setting, exposure is one of the top three killers.
Hypothermia can occur in temperatures above freezing; the process can begin in minutes and even in temps above 40° and death can occur in mere hours. Hypothermia is when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it; this starts gradually and you may not even be aware of it. It causes confusion and a lack of self-awareness which can lead to risky behavior. We can try to mitigate that by preventatively staying warm with layers to protect you from wind, rain, and insulation for warmth (think synthetic or wool, avoid cotton). Consuming calories will also help increase body heat; so if you do have to stop, you do not allow yourself to get cold. A bivy (as seen in the picture above) and/or fire-building skills and supplies will also help.
Keep in mind, if you sustain an injury, your body temperature will drop significantly. Our body temperature is normally at 98.6°F and if it drops to 95°, the body begins to shut down. Heart and breathing rates slow down, accompanied by confusion and sleepiness. The heart, brain, and internal organs cannot function and everything starts to shut down. Someone with hypothermia usually isn’t aware of the condition because the symptoms often begin gradually.
Here is another list of survival skills to consider. It is important to think about potential survival situations in preparing for your outing. If something goes wrong, what would you do? Do I have the skills and resources to self-extract or endure until help arrives? Do my partners or I have any medical training, such as Wilderness First Aid or CPR skills?
In a lot of the areas where we recreate, it’s highly likely there will be no cell phone service and signaling is critical. Signaling can happen with InReach or another satellite device that will allow you to send out an SOS if you are in trouble. You can communicate with someone if it is not an emergency. You can also communicate with the person who knows your plan if you are running late or conditions have changed. Check with your local running clubs to see if they have access to a device to rent. If you are going to use a device, explore and learn how to use it as they can be a bit unintuitive.
Take the Essentials
The last “T” is to take the essentials. What essentials will I need based on remoteness, time out in the backcountry, and conditions? Here is a list of essentials as we are not advocating heavy packs as we’re mountain runners, not backpackers and speed is important. The bare necessities will all fit in your running vest. If using electronics, bring a lightweight battery pack capable of recharging your device if you will be out for extended periods such as when fast packing or multi-day ultra running. Most of the time, when something goes wrong, we are out there longer than we expected and devices need to be recharged.
As a Search and Rescue team, we have Recco Detectors and if you have a reflector (available at local shops and many outdoor gear brands), you can be searchable. We also have access to helicopter Recco detectors and hand-held detectors.
The main point is, are you searchable?
Layers are also crucial as long as they are appropriate for elevation, remoteness, and time required. If you know you’re going to be starting or finishing in the dark, bivvying, or unexpectedly walking out, having layers will better your odds.
Psychology: Risk Perception
We now get into another factor that affects our ability to survive our outings: it is our ability to perceive and manage risk accurately. Risk is difficult to conceptualize without direct experience related to the exact risks you face.
Risk parameters can be calculated once they are known to you by using probabilities that reference terrain, weather, skill, ability, etc., but there is so much ambiguity and uncertainty in the dynamic realm of the wilderness that is not quantifiable.
Each time we go out and don’t die, we gain confidence. This confidence is important for personal growth and skill development but lacks negative feedback to inform us of where the envelope ends and it becomes difficult to truly perceive threats and the magnitude of their consequences.
It’s important to note that just because we come home and we survived that doesn’t mean it was because we made all the right decisions; there is an element of fortuitousness, which is difficult to assess as the narrowly avoided catastrophe is often unseen to us.
We often get lucky and can erroneously confuse this with skill and keep pushing the limits without merit. Also, previous successes imbue us with a sense of capability that may be misplaced because it may not apply accurately to the current situation and its unique elements.
It is important to remember to be humble. Our past successes galvanize us to push limits and we should, our growth is predicated on it, but it needs to be done with moderation and wisdom; this is what we are advocating. We also need humility in order to resign in time when the situation calls for it. There is a threshold and once you surpass it, you may not have the opportunity to turn around anymore or address the changing conditions appropriately.
Psychology: Risk vs Reward
- A method to help us take the perception of risk from the abstract to tangible is to have a risk assessment model which will help identify and mitigate risk; we like to use the Risk/Reward Inquiry:
- What could go wrong?
- If what could go wrong goes wrong what will it cost?
- Am I willing to pay that cost for what I am gaining?
- How much is that cost going my loved ones and my community?
- Am I willing to pay that price today or should I save this objective for another day when conditions are appropriate/favorable or I’m more capable?
For example, if you encounter 5th Class terrain and you are not a rock climber, you shouldn’t just “hope” you can ascend this route, maybe come back when you are trained for what the route calls for.
Psychology: Cognitive Bias and Judgment
Cognitive bias affects our ability to make an accurate judgment We can’t trust our minds to always be objective.
We have a tendency toward confirming what we want to believe. This is generally true in life: We see what we want to see. Denial is a major factor influencing this as we filter out information that disagrees with our intentions, beliefs, or goals we’ve set.
This can lead to us underestimating the risks or overestimating our abilities to fit our desires. Now we are operating on hope and “Hope is not a strategy,” is a quote from a very dear friend of our team.
We adventure in environments that change frequently and dramatically, in which case we have to be able to perceive and adapt to what’s really happening. We must hold onto our plans with a flexible grip and be willing to let them go. Rigidity is dangerous.
What separates the living from the dead is the ability to see errors that we’ve made and the changes occurring around us and adapt.
Psychology: Cultural and Peer Influence
Cultural and peer influence impact decision-making as well. In our mountain running culture minimalism is the dominant paradigm and there is merit to the lightweight strategy as speed and efficiency can be valuable survival tools.
Speed and efficiency can mean the difference between completing your objective in a timely fashion and avoiding certain hazards such as weather and being stranded in technical terrain in the middle of the night.
There is no denying this fast and light strategy but it has to be balanced with real needs and the contingency of the non-perfect day. Anything can happen, you stumble on 5th Class and a rock slips out on you; it doesn’t matter how good you are and your skill is not going to save you. You may have a broken leg and you’re 15 miles out and all you have on you is the absolute minimum, your margin for error is razor-thin; everything from that moment on has to go perfectly for you to survive the rest of the day.
Another part of the part of Risk psychology to consider is the Halo Effect and other Group Dynamics that impact decisions within small groups as well as the larger culture. This leads to “Group Thinking” when nobody is offering dissenting views and it leads to riskier behavior because nobody is questioning anything. So be sure to think for yourself, trust your intuition and speak up if you are out there with partners. Speak up to yourself if you are out there by yourself (not the recommended approach).
We know that risk is not only an unavoidable part but a necessary part of adventuring and we’re certainly not advocating total avoidance, we are encouraging getting the information, skills, training, taking the essentials, and knowing how to identify and mitigate your risks.
Thank you for taking the time to read and support your Search and Rescue Team by donating locally and getting your CORSAR Card
All photos and remarks are prepared by David Deliz and Arcelia Valle from La Plata County Search and Rescue. They are members of the Technical Rope Team, the Helicopter Deployment Team, and the Winter Response Team. They are also avid skiers, mountain runners, and climbers of 20+ years.
Across the various differences in their expertise, they’ve experienced both poles of the risk spectrum, having been in harrowing situations where their lives depended on preparedness and critical decision-making to the other end of the spectrum where they’ve rescued people and been in unfortunate situations where adventurers have not survived. Tragically we’ve experienced several of these deaths in our community this past year which has especially impacted our running community and is a contributing reason for this safety course. We want to impart knowledge that will increase your chances of survival in the mountains and coming home to your loved ones.