Mountain Safety

  • Avalanches
  • Altitude Sickness
  • Threats From Animals
  • Weather Situations
  • Diseases Associated With Mountain Environments
  • Along with unique thrills and spectacular vistas, hiking and camping at high elevations offers its own unique risks and potential dangers or ailments. Possible emergency situations range from avalanches to altitude sickness to encounters with dangerous animals. Hikers and campers who plan excursions into mountainous terrain should familiarize themselves with these distinctive dangers, learning both preventive measures and the steps to take should they occur.


    Avalanches are potentially fatal, ever-present dangers in high-elevation, mountainous environments. The greatest threats are snow or ice avalanche, which may occur at anytime but are more common during winter months. Rock and earth avalanches (also known as rock or land slides) are less common but equally dangerous, if not more so. Campers and hikers can be seriously hurt or killed not only by the avalanche but also by what falls in its path, such as trees and large rocks. Unfortunately, it is impossible to predict precisely when an avalanche will happen; what can be discerned is the probability of an avalanche.

    Avalanche conditions form as a result of the interaction between terrain, weather and, in the case of snow avalanches, snow pack. Slope angle is the most important factor when assessing terrain. Slopes under 25 degrees almost never avalanche, and slopes from 25 to 35 degrees rarely do. However, any mountainside with a slope angle over 35 degrees should be considered a potential avalanche risk. Using an inclinometer, a person can ascertain the slope angle of any mountainside. Another aspect of terrain to assess is preexisting fractures in a rocky mountainside; since most rockslides occur along visible fractures, be wary if such fractures are present.

    Weather plays a large role in avalanches. Rockslides are most common after heavy rains, and snow avalanches are most common during or after heavy snow, especially when it is a heavy, “wet” snow. Wind can also be a factor, which can shift the load into a position more likely to avalanche. Watch out for wind slabs near ridge tops and in gullies subject to cross loading.

    Snow pack strength is another factor. In general, a heavily timbered mountainside will have a stronger snow pack than one without trees. The existence of dense tree growth is also a good sign that avalanches have not occurred there recently, lowering the likelihood of one occurring now. To assess the strength of a snow pack, look for signs of a buried weak layer: if when stepping onto the snow it makes a “whumpf” sound, that is usually an indication of a snow pack likely to avalanche.

    Another sign of avalanche terrain is the abundance of slide alder, a hearty kind of plant that will bend but not break during avalanches. If slide alder exists and large trees do not, the area is probably avalanche terrain. When traversing a suspect area, be sure to evaluate the terrain for an escape route.

    Here are some additional rules pertaining to group hiking and avalanche safety:

  • Cross any suspect area one at a time.
  • Everyone not crossing watches the person who is.
  • Maintain visual and voice contact.
  • Follow the same track when crossing a suspect area.
  • Altitude Sickness

    The human body functions less efficiently at high altitudes (usually defined as anything above 8,000 feet) than it does at sea level. As altitude increases the amount of oxygen a person takes in per breath decreases, reducing the amount of oxygen the blood receives. For people hiking or camping in mountainous areas, the end result can be altitude sickness.

    Approximately 20 percent of people who ascend more than 9,000 feet in one day will develop acute mountain sickness (AMS). Symptoms of AMS include dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, vomiting, loss of appetite and insomnia. Mild cases of AMS are common, with 75 percent of people displaying minor symptoms at elevations over 10,000 feet. Usually the only treatment required is ibuprofen or aspirin for the headache and avoidance of further ascent, but if symptoms persist or become severe, the hiker should immediately descend to a lower altitude.

    Given time, the body will adapt to the decrease in oxygen, a process known as acclimatization. Other factors that help acclimatization are drinking lots of water, avoiding tobacco and alcohol (and other depressant drugs), and eating a high carbohydrate diet. Also, because different people acclimatize at different rates, a group should be sure everyone in the party is acclimatized before going higher.

    Another way to avoid AMS besides acclimatization is through preventive medications. Diamoxtm allows for faster breathing and metabolizing of oxygen, thus minimizing the symptoms of AMS. Diamox should be taken 24 hours before the trip to be effective. People who are allergic to sulfa drugs should not take this medication, however, and it may be wise to take a trial course of the drug prior to the trip. Another option is Dexamethasone,tm a steroid that decreases brain and other swelling. Dexamethasone should be used only on the advice of a physician.

    For a small percentage of people (and for reasons still not entirely understood), high altitude can cause fluid to leak from the pulmonary blood vessels into the lungs, a condition called high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). Another rare form of altitude sickness involves fluid leakage into the brain, a condition called high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE). Both of these conditions can be fatal and require immediate evacuation to lower altitudes and prompt medical attention.

    Threats From Animals

    Though not confined to mountainous areas, there are some dangerous animals that a camper or hiker should be especially aware of while in these environments.

    Perhaps the most potentially dangerous animal threats come from bears. Because of their strength, speed, claws and sharp teeth, even an immature bear can easily maim or kill a human being. However, fatal bear attacks are extremely rare; since records have been kept since 1906, there has been less than one bear-related fatality per year in all of North America.

    The main thing campers should remember regarding bears is to never feed them. Feeding a bear eliminates the animals’ natural fear of man, replacing it with a dangerous association between humans and eating. Food should always be kept in specialized bear-proof containers, especially overnight. If these tightly sealed containers aren’t available, food should be placed in a sealable bag and hung at least 10 feet in the air and 4 feet from the nearest tree trunk, as far away from a tent or camper as possible.

    Campers in bear country are safer if they travel in large numbers. When a camper finds signs of bears in the area, such as fresh droppings or signs of feeding on berries, they should leave the area. Checking with park officials beforehand can also alert campers to areas of recent bear habitation.

    If confronted with a bear, a camper should never turn and run; bears can run faster than humans. The camper should establish that they are not a threat by stopping and slowly walking backwards, avoiding direct eye contact but still watching the animal. They should identify themselves as a human by talking calmly; however, if the bear shows signs of aggression (sometimes in the form of a bluff charge), the camper should make loud noises and wave their arms. Bears have poor eyesight and may not know what the blurry image in front of them is a human. Often, bears will leave when they realize that is so.

    If attacked, pepper spray or Mace should be sprayed in the animal’s eyes. If the camper does not have pepper spray they should fight back with any means available (punching in the nose, throwing rocks, etc.), unless it is a grizzly bear that does not appear to be stalking the camper as food. In that case, playing dead may reduce the level of injuries sustained.

    Never get between a mother bear and her cubs. If a camper finds himself in that position, they should back away quickly.

    If a mountain lion is encountered, the camper should stand erect and make direct eye contact with the animal. Research has found that mountain lions will attack cattle while ignoring humans standing nearby. For this reason, small children should be picked up (they are often targets of mountain lions) and adults should not bend or squat down. Campers should raise their arms or, if wearing a jacket open it up to appear larger. If attacked, campers should fight back; mountain lions have been successfully fought of with sticks, garden tools and even bare hands.

    Weather Situations

    Few places experience changes in weather as fast and as drastic as the mountains. For this reason it is imperative that campers check weather reports prior to hiking, and to continue to monitor them during the trip, both through radio and observation. Since hypothermia can occur even in summer, extra clothing should be brought along, especially cold-weather and water-proof clothing, as well as hats and gloves. Dressing in layers is ideal.

    Diseases Associated With Mountain Environments

    There are two main ways that campers contract diseases while in the mountains: from drinking water from streams or from contact with ticks. Since typically the symptoms of these illnesses don’t become apparent until after a trip, it’s important to recognize them if and when they occur.

    Giardiasis, cryptosporidium, and cyclospora are three water-borne parasites that are contracted by drinking mountain water. Each causes flu-like symptoms such as diarrhea, fever, fatigue, headaches and vomiting; they can be especially dangerous to people with weakened immune systems. All water should be chemically treated through purification filters or treated with tablets before ever being consumed in the wild.

    Diseases spread by contact with ticks include Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. The onset of Lyme disease is usually characterized by the development of a large, red rash that may develop a characteristic clear central area ("bulls eye"), one to two weeks after a tick bite, often in the area around the puncture. Other symptoms include joint pains, flu-like symptoms, and neurological or cardiac problems. The most characteristic symptom of Rocky Mountain spotted fever is a rash on the ankles, wrists, and forehead one to two weeks after the victim is bitten. The rash spreads to the trunk and is accompanied by fever, chills, and prostration.

    Both Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever are transmitted after the tick feeds for several hours. Prompt removal of attached ticks greatly reduces the chances of infection. Both diseases are usually successfully treated with antibiotics in their initial stages. Therefore, early diagnosis is imperative. For this reason, it is recommended that the date of a tick bite be marked on a calendar. If unexplained disease symptoms occur within two to three weeks, a physician should be consulted. Strategies for avoiding these diseases are spraying the body with bug repellants and promptly removing ticks that become attached to the clothing or body.