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Mountaineering The Mountaineering forum is for discussion that relates directly to mountaineering (alpinism, climbing).


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  #1  
Old 08-14-2009, 08:31 PM
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Hanger Hanger is offline
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New to Altitude and Alpine

I recently moved from the South East to Colorado, from 800 feet to over 5,000. I've already been hit with the realization that many of the things I've come to learn about backpacking will change, whether they be gear or technique. So I would like some advice, tips, and tricks to hiking and backpacking at higher elevations and above treeline. There are some things that are already new to me:

- Lightning storms. They seem to roll in like clockwork. Do you plan your whole hike to avoid being above treeline in the afternoon? What if it is unavoidable, what do you do then?

- Camping. Is it wise to camp above treeline, or is the exposure too much?

- Gear. What type of gear is needed at high altitude or above treeline that I wouldn't have normally taken in the South? Different first aid items?

- Cooking. I know that water boils faster at altitude, but how much will this actually affect my cooking? Do alcohol stoves become less efficient at altitude?

- Food Protection. What if there are no trees around to hang your food bag? I don't really want to use a bear canister, but are animals even that much of a risk when you are above treeline?

- Snow. Is there a correct way to cross lingering snow on a slope?

I'm sure there are a lot of things I need to learn. My tarp has already been upgraded from a rectangular one to a more robust pyramid type. I hope that it will to a better job shedding winds and keeping me from the elements. I've also learned to be much more thoughtful about putting on sunscreen. No more dark green tunnels for me! The highest elevation I've been at so far is 11,000 ft. I felt fine then but would I have noticed it if I had been any higher?

Any feedback or help would be much appreciated.
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  #2  
Old 08-19-2009, 10:22 AM
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adventure_dog adventure_dog is offline
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I don't live at altitude, but I frequent a lot of places above timberline and have some experience with what you're after. I am by no means an expert, but here's my experience:

Quote:
Originally Posted by Hanger
Do you plan your whole hike to avoid being above treeline in the afternoon? What if it is unavoidable, what do you do then?
Above treeline, no. On exposed ridges and the tops of mountains, yes. We generally get up early and try to get the bulk of our hiking in before the thunderstorms roll in. In our experience, they are spotty - sometimes you can walk all day with thunderstorms on the horizon and never experience any issues with them. Other times you have to find shelter and weather them out, which can be very exciting. Read up on the best way to protect yourself during a thunder/lightning storm.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Hanger
Is it wise to camp above treeline, or is the exposure too much?
Depends. In fair weather, nothing is finer than an alpine camp. In a storm, nothing is more treacherous. Just use your good sense. I wouldn't limit yourself to always camping below timberline. There are usually protected areas above timberline where you can scratch out a camp, whether tucked in between large boulders or in a natural wind break. I would exercise extreme LNT principles in these environments. They can be extremely sensitive, particularly the plant life.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Hanger
What type of gear is needed at high altitude or above treeline that I wouldn't have normally taken in the South? Different first aid items?
Wind protection and warm clothing are a must. A hat with a brim. Closed-toe shoes. Good sunglasses, perferably those that wrap. Water, water, water. Sunblock. Lip protection. Potentially an ice ax and traction devices, depending on where you're going.

When dayhiking, take the 10 essentials PLUS. Mountain weather at altitude is extremely volitile and weird stuff happens. You need to have the ability to weather a storm, or at least a burst of hail, snow and 40 mph winds.

As for first aid, there may be a propensity for sprained or strained limbs given the different terrain. You might want to keep an ACE bandage (or similar) and a SAM splint (or similar) on hand, or have the training to deal with these injuries.

Other high-altitude issues are HAPE and HACE - High Altitude Pulmonary Edema and High Altitude Cerebral Edema. Both can be life threatening and symptoms should be taken seriously. Read up on both and educate yourself about the symptoms and treatments.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Hanger
I know that water boils faster at altitude, but how much will this actually affect my cooking? Do alcohol stoves become less efficient at altitude?
I don't know about the alcohol stoves. We haven't done much "cooking" at altitude because we typically don't cook: we rehydrate meals. We haven't noticed any real difference with water boiled at altitude. if anything, the food needs to sit a little longer than normal to rehydrate.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Hanger
What if there are no trees around to hang your food bag? I don't really want to use a bear canister, but are animals even that much of a risk when you are above treeline?
You can "bear bag" off larger boulders and cliffs, which is recommended because deer, elk, marmots, porcupines, and other mountain mammals will potentially want to get into your food items and potentially go after your salty gear. I would look into a food bag alternative like the UrSack or RatSack that doesn't require hanging and is a lighter-weight alternative to bear canisters.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Hanger
Is there a correct way to cross lingering snow on a slope?
Carefully.

It depends on the angle of the slope and what the run out is like (over a cliff? into some scrub? over a field of rocks?). In the morning or in shade (typically north slopes), the snow will likely be very hard and slippery. An ice ax may be necessary, and potentially crampons or similar traction device.

After the snow softens up, you will be able to kick steps into the slope and cross with the aid of trekking poles or a stick - or with your own balance. Try to cross on the same contour as the trail, keeping your steps as uniform and "clean" as possible. It may require kicking a few times for each step to create a good foothold, which can be tiring. If you're going to be crossing more than the occasional lingering snowfield, take a short course on mountaineering techniques.

Enjoy your new home and adventure spot!
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  #3  
Old 08-19-2009, 12:03 PM
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Hanger Hanger is offline
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Wow! Thank you very much adventure_dog!
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  #4  
Old 08-21-2009, 05:33 PM
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Flyingyetiman Flyingyetiman is offline
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I've never hiked in Colorado, but I go above treeline or very close to it on almost every hike (Sierras and Cascades). I must commend adventure_dog on being so generous with well-written information. I agree with all of it.

One thing to add about lightning: Do NOT take shelter in natural caves! It would be better to descend as quickly as possible, even if you're in an exposed position, than to be in a cave or crevice. Ground current from lightning travels along the same natural weaknesses in the landscape that we generally do. Obviously you don't want to be on a summit or ridge crest either.

Water does boil at a lower temperature at altitude, so you have to boil it longer to get it hotter. If I'm measuring water for cooking, I always add a little extra, to allow for some of it boiling off while I'm giving it that extra time.

A couple of points of emphasis...

If you're going to cross steep snow with bad runouts, never underestimate the danger of slipping. Too many people have made that mistake. Buy an ice axe and learn self-arrest technique from a qualified instructor and practice!

Don't underestimate summer weather conditions at altitude. One summer day at 12,000 feet on Mt. Adams in Washington, the wind was so intense that my partner and I had to walk leaning forward severely, to avoid being blown backward. To stay warm enough, I wore 3 layers on my feet, hands and head; 4 layers on my legs; 5 layers on my torso; and goggles over my balaclava/hat/hood. This is an extreme example, of course, but it does happen.

I have no experience with tarps. I've always carried a mountaineering tent or bivy sack. Usually some degree of shelter can be found above treeline on the lee side of a boulder or ridge, as adventure_dog said. But even so, you can be buffeted by very strong winds for extended periods. If you're going to use a tarp, you'd better know how to pitch it as gale-proof as possible.

Having said all that, there's nowhere I'd rather be than above treeline. The distant views are superb, the nearer landscape is surreal, and the sense of adventure is exhilarating. Have fun!
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  #5  
Old 09-10-2009, 08:07 PM
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0nelove 0nelove is offline
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To ad:

Yes, your stove will be harder to use at altitude than at sea level. A lot of people won't carry an alcohol stove if they're going above 10k' for that reason. There's less oxygen in the atmosphere, and that is a big factor in an alcohol stove. If it's windy, even harder. Typically canister stoves work the best at higher elevations. YMMV, and I'm sure plenty of people take alcohol stoves above treeline.

This is anecdotal, but I tend to opt for more layers at a given temperature at a higher elevation than I would for the same temp at sea level. I find I just get colder easier. I think it's probably because there is less atmosphere to insulate your body (same reason the temp changes so fast), so it's important to keep that air near your body warm. Again, I'm no expert and have no factual evidence, but that's how my body behaves. Gnothi seauton as they say.
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  #6  
Old 09-11-2009, 06:06 AM
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AlanBaljeu AlanBaljeu is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by 0nelove
To ad:
This is anecdotal, but I tend to opt for more layers at a given temperature at a higher elevation than I would for the same temp at sea level. I find I just get colder easier. I think it's probably because there is less atmosphere to insulate your body (same reason the temp changes so fast), so it's important to keep that air near your body warm. Again, I'm no expert and have no factual evidence, but that's how my body behaves. Gnothi seauton as they say.

Open air is a conductor, not an insulator, especially if there's wind. I suppose Mountain air moves up and down mountains, so an updraft may feel relatively warm and a downdraft cold. I expect cold feelings are due to reduced oxygen and thus reduced metabolism.

Which lead to the obvious issue of mountain sickness and oxygen deprivation. I don't have advice concerning that, but I'd like to see some.
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  #7  
Old 01-09-2010, 06:24 PM
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ConnieD ConnieD is offline
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I prepared for altitude, by drinking more fluids several days ahead and by camping at a basecamp to allow for the adjustment. If anyone had any symptoms whatsoever, nausea, anything, one or two people accompanied them to lower altitude.

I carried oxygen once. I didn't need it.

It's just that people are different and there is no way to know, in advance.

The best advice is to make a list of symptoms of altitude sickness, become "self aware" and/or have companions you rely on to accompany you down to lower altitude safely. It's that important.

If you reside at high altitude, it should be easier for you.

Do not consume alcohol.
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  #8  
Old 01-23-2010, 09:23 PM
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adventure_dog adventure_dog is offline
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Hey Hanger - now that you've spent a season in your new locale, what can you share with us? What did you learn and/or experience?
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  #9  
Old 03-15-2010, 05:22 PM
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ConnieD ConnieD is offline
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I, too, would like to know.

I didn't want to talk him out of it.

I prepare by looking at weather satellite photos out to the Gulf of Alaska, and watch it move across Oregon and British Columbia. But I am in Montana, unless I am in Oregon or California. Sometimes, Arizona.

Even so, I carry a bivy and sleep system for down to 20 F, and Coastal Oregon and California down to 30 F.

In the high mountains, I do not rely on being able to pitch a tarp or a tent. However, I do like to make a nice camping experience. I think of the nice camp, as a base camp.

I don't really know Colorado weather systems, except it is seriously dry weather up that long drive up to Telluride, CO, unless you come up from Cripple Creek. I did that once.

I do know mountain weather can suddenly change, because, in a very real sense, the mountains can make the weather.

I hope the OP checks back, here.
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  #10  
Old 03-17-2010, 12:23 PM
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Hanger Hanger is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by adventure_dog
Hey Hanger - now that you've spent a season in your new locale, what can you share with us? What did you learn and/or experience?

I haven't been out nearly as much as I would like, since graduate school and work have been very time consuming. I have learned a few things about backpacking in Colorado:

- High-altitude hasn't really affected me. Being at 10-11,000 feet didn't really phase me, although I live, run, and bike at around 6,000 feet.

- Weather reports are worthless. Here in Boulder, sometimes you can't even take the weather forecast for the same day seriously. At the weather can change in an instant. Today is sunny and 70*, but it is supposed to snow on Friday.

- Due to the radical weather changes you have to be more prepared. My pack weight has gone up because I have to bring warmer clothing/sleeping bag just in case.
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