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{Lesson Learned} Stormy Hikes Above Treeline

24 Mar 14
Heidi Kumm
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17 comments

Sierra Trading Post is pulling together stories of “biggest mistakes” and “lessons learned” for an upcoming Twitter chat. I’ve done some stupid things while exploring Colorado but naively hiking in the afternoon during predictable summer storms has by far been the most dangerous. Re-reading the stories I posted about these “adventures” is actually painful! Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes…

I have survived a few mishaps in the backcountry – hiking the wrong mountain on my first 14er attempt, nearly dying and desperately wanting to sell my mountain bike after misreading directions and shivering a lot on my first winter camping trip are a few of the more exciting ones. And I’m sure I’ll add to that list with time – sometimes I don’t extensively Google adventures before I pack my bags and head out.

Each time I screwed up I learned a thing or two. I look back and laugh at the misfortune of each mishap. With the exception of one very stupid decision we made, repeatedly, in our first month of Colorado life. We moved from Wisconsin to Colorado unemployed. We finally had zero responsibilities to get up early and take on the day…so we slept in and went exploring in the afternoon. Seems luxurious, and it was, usually.

We weren’t sure how long we’d be unemployed so we jumped right into exploring our new state. By the second week of residency we decided to make the 2 hour drive up to Rocky Mountain National Park to check out the trails. We packed sandwiches, grabbed the one backpack we owned (oh, how things have changed) and left Denver around 11am. We drove into an emptying Bear Lake parking lot at about 1pm, grabbed a trail map and headed for Alberta Falls.

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A sunny Alberta Falls

The first hour of hiking was fun – we were on a mission to get photos for our “hey, look, we moved to Colorado” cards for family so we fit every possible tourist stereotype. At least we were wearing running shoes, not sandals! We even took photos of the Garmin when it spit out 10,200 for elevation! We had eaten up all of our snacks but had not yet talked ourselves into heading back to the car when the skies opened up with thunder accompanied by pelting snow and rain. Of course, we didn’t own rain jackets so we were soaked within minutes.

As we headed back for the car we tromped through snow, followed barely visible trail and slipped down streams of mud. I was completely dumbfounded by the rumble of thunder. It was incredible. You could actually feel the rumble in your chest, this video does it no justice…

[Listening to that footage has me cringing – we were making so many horrible decisions…and my voice is so squeaky!]

We arrived back at the car, soaking wet, just as the storm moved out. It was an incredible experience and I still love the sound of thunder crashing through the mountains – we’ve backcountry camped through a few thunder storms, nothing compares to this day in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Looking back – we should NOT have been out in that storm. We should have paid attention to the skies as we parked and at least stuck closer to the car, on trails that were clearly defined. I never felt like my life was at risk, but what we did was not the best decision ever.

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Just before the storm – we were below the treeline when the storm hit.

But we didn’t learn that lesson overnight. Two days later we headed back up to Rocky Mountain National Park (the “day pass” is good for 7 days) with big plans for hiking up an actual mountain! We picked Twin Sisters Peak, just outside of the park, near the Longs Peak Trailhead. Once again we slept in, left Denver late and arrived at the trailhead parking lot as people were leaving. We got a tad smarter this time and had packed extra food and layers. The hike up was roughly 3.5 miles with 2,000 feet of climbing – a challenge, but probably not hard enough to kill us.

As we hiked up we met lots of people coming down…the smart people who actually read websites and stuff like that. By mile 2 we stopped seeing people and we started seeing clouds roll in. We should have turned around. But, no, we were far too stubborn for that! We only had 1.5 miles to go…we would get to the top!

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Over halfway up Twin Sisters Peak – we should have turned around here.

Before long the clouds rolled over the top of Twin Sisters Peak and let loose with rain. We ducked under nearby trees and decided we’d wait 30 minutes before heading back down. Just before the 30 minute timeline hit the rain stopped…and we stupidly continued upward. We hit treeline to see a mountain top surrounded by clouds. It wasn’t engulfed in clouds, just completely surrounded, giving it an ominous backdrop. Once again out stubborn stupidity had us hiking across a boulder field while listening to thunder in the distance. The wind was incredible, the clouds were scooting across the mountain tops and we were still plodding our way up.

We did make it to the top, snapped a few photos to prove it and then headed back down. As we descended through the boulder field we watched the clouds dip in and out, hiding the treeline from view. The thunder was still ricocheting off the nearby mountains but we never saw a streak of lightning, but clapping booms of thunder.

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The top of Twin Sisters – ducking behind a rock for the photo because the wind was SO strong!

Once again we made it back to the car rather wet as the storm was clearing out. In exactly 3 days time we managed to get soaked to the bone while trekking around Rocky Mountain National Park in conditions that would have kept any sensible, slightly seasoned Coloradoan in their car!

Looking back both adventures were stupid. We should NOT have been wandering unfamiliar trails in a storm and we definitely should NOT have hiked up a rocky mountain as a storm raged around us. We had only been in the state for two weeks so we had not yet come to realize the predictability of Colorado’s afternoon summer storms. Now we know and every time I see someone hiking up a 14er at 3pm I want to stop them and turn them around…maybe they aren’t stupid, maybe they just don’t know!

So, have we made mistakes in the backcountry? Heck yes! More often than not I learn from my mistakes, sometimes it just takes a few tries. Luckily I survived each lesson in regards to afternoon hiking!

What mistakes have you made?
Please share something good so I don’t feel so ridiculous!

If you really want to share your stories – and listen to everyone else’s so you feel better about your mistakes – come hang out on Thursday afternoon for the #STPLive Twitter chat. We’ll be talking about learning lessons the hard way…and we’d love to have your input!

17 Comments

  1. Natalie @ Free Range Human March 24, 2014 at 1:23 pm Reply

    I was just thinking about a very similar experience while I was reading Heather’s blog! Last summer we had to experience an wicked thunderstorm in the middle of the night on the second leg of our trip in Ouary. Luckily, we were below treeline, but it was still intense!

    • Heidi Nicole March 27, 2014 at 1:35 pm Reply

      Summer storms in Colorado are no joke, especially when you are in the mountains with all the echoing. I love the sound of it but it can get sketchy, fast! Glad you survive…mostly dry, I’m guessing?

      • Natalie @ Free Range Human March 28, 2014 at 9:42 am Reply

        We stayed dry during, but packing up the next morning wasn’t very much fun!

  2. Kate March 24, 2014 at 2:26 pm Reply

    Glad your trips ended safely! I’ve read so many horror stories about Colorado weather that I am a serious nervous nelly LOL.

    • Heidi Nicole March 25, 2014 at 12:07 pm Reply

      If you’re smart about the weather you’ll be fine…but risking the weather for a summit is just plain dumb. I can say that because I survived it. We’ve actually started doing a lot of really early hikes with summits before noon just so the weather risk is lower. That said, camping in a protected area of the backcountry during a storm is absolutely incredible.

  3. Laura March 24, 2014 at 3:32 pm Reply

    I am SO glad all of you are doing this post series because I can bet I’ll be making a lot of similar mistakes in the next few months! I had no idea about the thunderstorms and will probably also be hitting you up to see if my gear is okay/sufficient before I go ANYWHERE 🙂

    • Heidi Nicole March 25, 2014 at 12:09 pm Reply

      Sometimes you just have to learn the hard way before you get smart…but yes, ask your heart out! I’ll gladly share whatever information I have, point you in the right direction if I don’t have it and play trail guide if you choose to trust me! 🙂

  4. Terry Miller March 24, 2014 at 4:12 pm Reply

    I had a similar experience even thought I knew better very well. I did Gray’s/Torrey’s with a bunch of non-runners. They were just doing Grey’s(sp?), but I ran ahead and went from Gray’s to Torrey’s, back to Gray’s, then down to The Rascal to walk up the last member of our party. Sent them down, but since I knew I’d be faster I decided to hit Torrey’s one more time to give them a head start so I could be the sweeper. Totally didn’t even notice the clouds rolling in until someone said something. About 2 minutes later lightning struck within a couple hundred yards of me. Scared me to death and I think I had a couple 6 minute miles getting off that mountain!

    • Heidi Nicole March 25, 2014 at 12:11 pm Reply

      Speed work at its finest! I love thunder…could do without close calls with lightening!

    • Some Guy July 21, 2014 at 8:52 pm Reply

      Back when I was in IL I had my own close call with lightning. It was close enough that I felt it run through me without electrocuting me. I think my sprint back to my car was a world record time for the 100 meter sprint. I was shaking for about two hours after that event.

      As for storms and the mountains, I learned my lesson in the foothills of the Patagonian Andes. The storm didn’t pack the lightning of Colorado storms, but it was a monsoon…in every sense of the word…something that I would expect in a rain forest. I am really not too surprised by the amount of rain because it is within 400 miles of the Pacific and the Andes adds to it. It was not fun waiting 40 minutes for the bus and then walking at least 1.5 miles through town to my hotel in that storm. Everything but my shirt was soaked and I was beginning to develop hypothermia by the time I reached my hotel.

      I just moved out here, but the two experiences above have taught me some very important lessons and when combined with my research I am prepared. If I am not to the trailhead by 6:30 am at the latest during thunder storm season, I won’t go out, although I honestly don’t plan on spending a lot of time in the mountains until winter when the real fun and lack of theme park like crowds occurs.

      • Heidi Nicole July 22, 2014 at 8:53 am Reply

        Whoa — that is crazy with the lightening! I’m yet to come that close and I’m okay with that!

        You’re coming out with some stormy experience and enough common sense to do research + bail out if the weather gets bad, you’re set! And if you can get into the mountains on week days the theme park crazies are fewer and further between! I used to have Monday/Tuesday off work — it was perfect for mountain time!

  5. Jessica @YouDidWhatWithYourWeiner March 24, 2014 at 9:41 pm Reply

    Living in Western Washington, I am not used to afternoon thunderstorms. My hubby and I visited Bend, OR last summer. We were on vacation so we headed to the trailhead around noon. When we pulled into the parking lot, the skies opened up with pelting rain and thunder. We weren’t stuck out in it (we opted to go back into town and have lunch at a dog friendly restaurant instead) but I know what you felt like experiencing a sudden storm.

    • Heidi Nicole March 25, 2014 at 12:12 pm Reply

      It is crazy (yet completely expected if you think about it) how much the daily weather pattern can change from one state to another. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if southern CO was completely different — don’t know, haven’t been there, but should probably do some research before I go wandering!

  6. lynne March 26, 2014 at 5:12 pm Reply

    Ahhhh! We got caught in a thunderstorm once too! We ditched our packs and bolted back down the trail until the storm passed.

    Definitely a scary situation to be in – but now you’re all the wiser for it!

    • Heidi Nicole March 27, 2014 at 11:29 am Reply

      Yea… I feel like your reaction was FAR more responsible than ours. We stupidly kept going up into it. I mean, my hair never felt tingly, so it wasn’t as bad as Paula’s Mt Evans experience, but still! Silly newbie us!

  7. Lena March 27, 2014 at 2:21 pm Reply

    I’m so paranoid about things that I religiously read (probably too much) before taking on something new, so this thankfully hasn’t happened to me. Now a good coworker, on the other hand, she and her mom were caught on the top of Grays when a massive lightning storm rolled in. They said they could feel the electricity running through the rocks and ground…yikes

    • Heidi Nicole March 28, 2014 at 1:05 pm Reply

      That would be absolutely terrifying!

      A friend of Chris’s was at the top of Pike’s Peak [drove up] when a random bolt of lightening stuck the wet ground near their car as they were getting out of the car — they felt the strike! Crazy scary, even with the safety of a building/car nearby! I love thunder…not such a big fan of lightening/electricity!

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