Staying safe in the mountains was truly brought home to me this weekend as bushfire season kicked off with a bang here in Australia. It was only this time last year that we saw over 200 homes destroyed by fires in the Blue Mountains and this weekend, we once again saw how fire can quickly ravage the areas we know and love for running, but more importantly, people’s homes and livelihood. I was running just a few kilometers away from the bush fires near Katoomba in the Blue Mountains on Saturday. Even though I’d taken pretty much every precaution I could think of (bar not running), you still never know when the unexpected is going to hit. Particularly when as it appears with the fires this weekend, they may have been lit deliberately.
It makes this article we’d planned ahead of the Alpine Challenge (sponsored by La Sportiva) even more timely, as we run down our best tips for making sure you stay safe in the mountains. When we talk about staying safe in the mountains, we often think of snow and the cold, but there are just as many dangers from the heat too, for which you need to be prepared. In the same area as I was running this weekend just gone, two experience trail runners I knew had to be helped off a nearby mountain after one ran into difficulties. It brings home the realities of what we do, and how at times danger can be just around the corner.
1.) Check all the conditions before you head out
Whether it’s 30+ degrees or minus 20, your first port of call before you head out on any long run is to check the weather forecast, particularly in the winter and summer months. While the weather might appear to start off fine, you never know just how quickly it can change and it’s even more relevant if you’re headed off into any form of remote territory. If I know I’m going to be at least 1-2 hours from any form of help should I run into trouble, there’s a basic list of kit that I’ll always have with me. In some instances it could mean the difference between life and death if you have that extra shell with you.
While you can’t control the unexpected, you can control your preparation for the unexpected and have a number of scenarios and plans mapped out just in case.
2.) Download an emergency warning app
Another of my go to pieces of gear is an app on my phone that tells me of every incident near to where I am. On Saturday, given the extreme heat conditions, I checked this thing nearly ten times before I headed out into the mountains, such is the level of caution we need to take in bush fire season. At 6am, there was nothing within a 50km radius of me, but by 9am, a bush fire had sprouted up kilometres away from where I was running. It goes to show that no matter how much you check and take precautions, incidents can crop up at any time.
If you’re in Australia, make sure you get this app on your phone and check it before you head out, particularly when we’re at risk of bush fires: http://www.emergencyaus.info/discover/app/
3.) Have your mobile phone on you
Another classic example of this was illustrated to me on Saturday. I passed a couple of guys I knew on my return run leg back up out of the valley, who unbeknown to me at the time, were headed straight for the bush fire danger zone. A few calls and I got in touch and told them to turn around and get out of the valley at the next opportunity. I was highly relieved this guy had his phone on him and took the call. While you never know what’s going to happen, having a mobile phone on you could be another life clincher. The only issue is getting any form of reception if you’re really remote.
4.) Have the right kit
Whether its going to be a cold one of a hot one, it’s always best to err on the side of caution. I know that if I’m headed down into the valley, I’ll take a shell jacket with me regardless of conditions (unless it’s crazy hot). It may seem extreme, but a simple slip and a broken ankle later, and you could find yourself stuck on the valley floor for a few hours with no protection from the elements. A few years back at the very first Northburn 100 miler over in New Zealand, I was just about to start the final 15kms descent down the mountains to my first 100 mile finish. I had stashed an extra shell jacket and pants at the aid station at the top of the mountain as a ‘just in case’. The weather was cloudy, but fine, and I was a happy man. But something inside me said, take the gear. I’m extremely glad I did. Within 30 minutes I was running in a snow storm that I could barely keep upright in, coupled with 90km per hour gusts of wind. I ended up in hospital after the race with mild hypothermia. Had I not had the extra gear, I’m guessing that it could have been worse.
The same goes for hot conditions. Australia, like many parts of the West Coast in the US is blessed with snakes. I love seeing snakes in their natural habit, but I don’t want to get bitten by one. Just this weekend, I got a timely reminder of them as one slithered past me on my final ascent out of the mountains. They’re the main wildlife issue we deal with in Australia. Of course in other parts of the world like the US and Canada, bears can be a runner’s worst nightmare. I’m not sure any amount of kit can help you deal with one, but I guess it pays to at least mentally prepare yourself in some way to help the decision-making process.
As we move into the summer months down in the Southern Hemisphere, running in hot and humid conditions is going to mean more water on the run. You’ll also need to properly plan where you can get hold of more water if you’re headed out on a long run in some particularly remote areas.
5.) Weigh up the risks
If you’re running solo out in the mountains, there are going to be times that you’re going to be faced with a number of decisions on your run, and you need a clear head to make the right calls. Often, people find themselves in trouble because they make the wrong decisions by not thinking ahead. When you’re running with friends, it’s fair to say that sometimes, you’ll make a decision to cross a mountain pass, or run in a particularly area because of safety in numbers. I’m sure we’ve all done it. But sometimes, when we’re alone, we make those same decisions without giving proper due thought and attention to the ‘what ifs?’
I was faced with a particularly tough decision on a run in New Zealand about 3.5 years ago. I was running up high (1,800m) along the tops of some mountain passes and the winds were very strong – Upwards of 90kms per hour. There was one pass in particular along a ridge line that had quite a drop either side. With such strong winds, I decided to cut my run short and head back to where I came from. The risks were too great and I was on my own. Getting blown off the side of a mountain was not on my agenda that day, even if it meant cutting the run short by over half of what I’d planned to do.
While this list isn’t exhaustive, it’s a good start to get you thinking about some of the basic decisions you need to consider prior to heading out on those long runs in the mountains or the dense Aussie bush. We’re all sensible people for the most part, but there are times when things can spiral out of your own control, and the important thing is to know what you’re going to so about them. Stay safe people!
This article forms part of our sponsored content series and is part of our partnership with the Alpine Challenge and La Sportiva. It’s a paid for article, but is drafted by Ultra168 who retain editorial control over its direction and content.