Safety Awareness

Thousands of people venture outdoors without giving any thought to safety issues. We live in a society that expects others to care for us. However, everyone must take responsibility for their own safety.

Many people go into the woods woefully unprepared for conditions that might arise. Here are some examples:

· Assuming that the weather conditions will be very warm all day, and then encountering freezing conditions on the hike
· Not carrying any rain gear (coat or hat), assuming that it will not rain during the hike
· Not carrying any protection from the sun
· Not carrying enough water or food
· Not informing friends or relatives where they are going hiking or for how long
· Not carrying maps, compass or GPS, or spare batteries for the GPS

A book called, “Mountaineering…The Freedom of the Hills” was first published in April 1960. The book speaks about the importance of constant evaluation. Constant evaluation of one’s own physical and mental condition is of primary importance. In addition, each member of the hiking or climbing group must communicate concerns and problems to others, and in particular to the group leader, as the day progresses. As the group invests more time and energy towards the day’s goals, the prospect of turning back becomes increasingly more difficult as the group approaches its destination. When the group is gathered at the start of the day and observes that dark threatening storm clouds are perched above the peak where the group wants to go, that is the easiest time at which the group can decide to go somewhere else or cancel the hike altogether. After the group has driven 2 hours (especially if many vehicles are involved) to get to the trailhead, it is more difficult to cancel the hike. Those who are apprehensive about the hike are very reluctant to cause inconvenience by insisting on returning, which might require re-arranging drivers and passengers into “go/no-go” groups. 3 hours into the hike, after experiencing some downpours, which may have affected some more than others, it is even harder to turn back. Even later, if someone is injured, the safety of the whole group might be threatened by worsening weather conditions or by the lateness of the day. Of course, this type of thinking can result in undue pessimism about any given day’s activities. If people are too cautious, they would never venture outdoors. Most often, adverse weather in the morning dissipates, and a ridge or peak is reached in bright sunshine. However, awareness of the importance of constant evaluation is critically important, especially for those who are leading group activities.

The book contains a Climbing Code, which is as applicable to hiking as it is too technical climbing. The Code provisions that apply to hiking are:

1. A party of 3 is the minimum. When one person is injured or in need of care, one person attends to that person, and the third can go for help.
2. The party must stay together, heed the leader, or work by majority rule. A handy rule to follow is that everyone in the group must be within sight or sound of another person in the group. If someone is falling behind, the person ahead must be notified, who must notify the person ahead of her/him, so that eventually the lead person becomes aware of the need to wait for everyone to regroup. If the group is large enough, it can divide as long as each smaller group is capable of functioning as a unit. Full acceptance of following the leader’s decision, or by majority rule decision making keeps the group together.
3. Never climb/hike beyond your ability and knowledge. By the same token, don’t be afraid to tell the others in the group that an intended climb or ridge is beyond your comfort or ability level. Pushing beyond one’s mental and physical boundaries leads to injury.
4. Never let judgment be overruled by desire. From the book, “Desire is a very useful element in the climbing venture, reducing weariness to a minor annoyance and calling forth true best efforts. If not constrained it also leads to a crawling approach to catastrophe: just another half hour, just around that next corner, that rock just might hold. Of course, the turn around time should be reconsidered during the day as the current strength or weakness of the party is assessed, as observations of the weather replace predictions, as the travel surface and route detail are at hand. But the decision to change must involve the same calm evaluation that went into the original choice, not wishful thinking induced by the nearness of the goal”.
5. Carry at all times the clothing, food, and equipment necessary. Think of this for a moment. If you are the one who is starved for food or water, or need an extra layer of clothing to ward off hypothermia, and need to obtain those items from others, who will provide them to those other persons when they need such items themselves?
6. Leave the trip schedule with a responsible person. It doesn’t help a search and rescue party to find a group if nobody else knows what general area your group went to, or the time of departure or estimated time of return.

Subacute Hypothermia

Those of us who have experienced hypothermia know that we will take every precaution not to experience it again. Many people who hike or climb do not understand what hypothermia is, and as a result can easily become victims of it. Hypothermia is the lowering of a person’s core temperature to such level that internal heat cannot be generated to counteract it.

There are 3 types of hypothermia:
1. Chronic hypothermia – a chronic condition resulting from alcoholism, senility, or a profound medical condition
2. Acute hypothermia – caused by sudden immersion in cold water
3. Subacute hypothermia – occurring in healthy people because of inadequate insulation or a result of environmental stresses.

The most common misconception is that you cannot experience hypothermia on a hot, sunny day. Remember that evaporation causes cooling. People have suffered hypothermia when the temperature is 40 degrees F, with a steady 30 mph breeze. When the rate of cooling through evaporation exceeds the body’s ability to generate heat, hypothermia sets in. As the temperature decreases the problem becomes worse and worse. When a person is injured, it is vitally important to protect her/him from the wind and to provide more insulation to retain heat. That is why “space blankets” are so helpful in such situations. They fold up into very small rolls or packages, keep off wind and breezes, and reflect body heat back to the injured person. They weigh very little, are not expensive, and save lives.

As the best protection against hypothermia is to prevent excessive heat loss, the best preventative methods are wearing layers, including layers that “wick” moisture away from the body, wearing rain gear that actually keeps the rain away, and wearing a hat. Gore-tex or similar fabrics are expensive, but there are many sales after ski season. Good gore tex lasts years and years and rejuvenates itself under high heat in a clothes dryer. Cheap plastic “rain gear” is a waste of money. Wet clothing loses 90 percent of its insulating value. Heat escapes most rapidly from the head, neck, and hands. Put on extra layers before you start shivering. Eating sugar and keeping active generates heat.

Early detection of the signs of hypothermia is very important. “Believe the symptoms, not the victim” means that many people will claim that they are okay, but if they are showing signs of hypothermia, steps must be taken to help them before their condition becomes much worse. Remember that any group is only as strong as its weakest member. At different times for various reasons, a person who at most times is the strongest person in the group can become its weakest if she/he experiences hypothermia. Remember that “normal” body temperature is 98.5 degrees F. Serious hypothermia sets in at 95 degrees F., just 3.5 degrees lower.

The signs of hypothermia are:
1. uncontrollable shivering, often coming in fits
2. slurred, vague, incoherent, slurred speech
3. irrational actions
4. lapses of memory
5. inability to move
6. fumbling hands
7. stumbling or lurching about
8. exhaustion/drowsiness
9. inability to get up after a rest

Immediate treatment requires removal of wet clothing and replacement with dry warm clothing if possible, shielding from the wind, wrapping in extra clothing or sleeping bags, or wrapping in “space blankets”. Many times people have been saved by someone else hugging the affected person skin to skin to transmit body heat directly. In these situations, modesty is the last consideration.

Hopefully, this article will help to raise awareness of some very important considerations when venturing out into our wonderful backyard. Think of carrying that larger, heavier pack as contributing to your strengthening and endurance program. The time that you use your emergency supplies to save your own or someone else’s life will make all those other times when you didn’t need them worthwhile.

by Don Kawano

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