Surviving A Whiteout – AMC Outdoors

October 16, 2009

Professional mountaineer and climbing guide Mark Synnott has seen his fair share of whiteouts, but the worst by far was on Moose’s Tooth, a 10,335-foot peak in Alaska. While climbing the mountain’s steep knife ridge with a friend in 2001, he found himself socked by a menacing cloud. He could barely see his feet, let alone the cornices on either side of him, beyond which the mountain dropped thousands of feet.

“It was total vertigo,” Synnott says. “Everything was white in every direction. You could have a cliff right in front of your face and you wouldn’t be able to see it.” Though he had little balance or sense of direction, Synnott made snowballs and threw them a few feet in front of him. The impacts provided enough depth of field to get his bearings. Eventually, he and his partner found a steep gorge with rocky walls that they used to safely descend.

Whiteouts aren’t limited to professional mountaineers or even the highest peaks. Synnott, who runs Synnott Mountain Guides and lives in Jackson, N.H., has seen plenty of whiteouts in the Presidential Range. Caused by fog, thick clouds, and blowing snowstorms, they can happen to hikers in alpine environments, skiers above treeline, and even kayakers.

The dangers are serious: backcountry skiers have fallen off cliffs and hikers have become inextricably lost. But even without a GPS or compass, a few simple rules and techniques can mitigate the dangers of a world turned white.

STAY PUT It may be counterintuitive when the wind is blowing, but if you can, stay put for a while and wait it out, especially if you’re in an area with cliffs, drops, or crevasses. “Sit tight and maybe it’ll clear out,” says Synnott. “It never lasts for that long where it’s just pure vertigo. Every time I’ve ever been in that situation, you’ll get a little break.” Dig a small pit in the snow or, if there are rocks, hunker down on the leeward side of one. Keep a watchful eye on the weather for your break. Ideally, you’d like to see a few feet in front of you, so take a moment to assess the situation, rather than panicking or walking in circles. If you’re on a multi-day trip with plenty of food and adequate shelter, an overnight stay at your location might make sense. However, your actions should depend on your situation.

More than 100 snow-producing storms affect the U.S. each year.

TEAM UP “Stay together no matter what,” says Synnott. “That’s a cardinal rule of mountain climbing.” When Synnott was 12, he and his dad found themselves on top of Mount Washington in a foggy whiteout. Young Synnott would search for the next cairn while his father stayed at the first. Once he found it, he’d yell, his father would follow his voice, and then they’d start the process over again. This technique can prove useful with other landmarks, like rocks or trail markers. The key is to stay within earshot of your companion.

TOSS AND WALK If you’re alone, make snowballs and toss them ahead of you to discern the angle of the slope and whether there is anything dangerous ahead. If there’s no snow, use a brightly colored piece of clothing or gear. Moving slowly with this technique will help you avoid cliffs or other dangerous features.

DESCEND If conditions persist for more than several hours, turn around and try to find an area with objects, like trees, that will give you a sense of depth and bearing. “If you see yourself getting into a tricky situation, the best thing is to bail out,” Synnott says. “If you look at the accidents that occur on Mount Washington, if there’s one common thread it’s the fact that the people were unwilling to turn back.”

DEAD RECKONING When all else fails, get back to the basics of navigation. Dead reckoning has been used for millennia by seafarers. By discerning your last known point and the rate at which you travel—an average hiker walks at about 2 miles per hour in alpine environments—you can calculate your current position and what direction you need to take to get to your destination.

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