Still relishing the high from an early morning 14er summit, Chris Warner cruised towards home in Aspen, Colorado, letting his mind wander as he thought ahead about the day. Earlier, up high in the technical terrain, Warner’s senses were dialed as he relied on decades of experience climbing 8,000-meter peaks to keep himself safe with a responsible route choice, pacing, foot placement, layering, fueling and hydration. Now, though, back in the lowlands with a road in sight, his guard was down and he was simply out for a run. Ending the run, Warner pulled a fly rod from his pack and began wading in a stream wearing his running shoes. Mid-cast, a slippery rock rolled and – “crack.” Warner immediately knew his ankle was broken. He was thankful – and fortunate – to be out on a sunny day and next to a road where he could likely flag down a ride.
What if the same injury had occurred high on the mountain where help wasn’t nearby?
Adventuring in the mountains inherently involves risk. Moreover, as we gain fitness and move more quickly to places that are hard for most people to reach, we ultrarunners can be susceptible to thinking that takes safety and accessibility for granted. “No biggie…I can run down from there in no time.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve fallen into that kind of thinking – even when there is a remote and rarely-visited place beyond cell coverage at high altitude with unpredictable weather.
While Warner’s broken ankle was relatively inconsequential, that’s not always the case. Planning is paramount, and I checked in with Colorado-based elite ultrarunner and Run Infinite coach Brandon Yonke for some thoughts on mountain running safety.
I carry an empty Nuun tube holding about five feet of cord, some waterproof matches, shredded newspaper and a small knife. I also have an emergency space blanket and rain jacket. I’ve utilized this kit before when scouting a big route in the Sawatch range. A friend and I got caught in an intense spring sleet and rainstorm at tree line, high above the ghost town of St. Elmo. The cord and space blanket made a quick tent between tree branches with rocks to weigh down the sides, and we were able to get a small fire made to stay warm for 30 minutes.
The Garmin inReach makes it easy to message or call for help no matter how remote you are. I’ve used it when I’ve had to bail out of routes at places other than the planned destination, report to my crews that I’m held up by weather, etc. I use these pre-programmed messages:
“I have reached a planned waypoint and no action is needed from you. I am continuing on the route.”
“I am resting, sheltering or delayed by natural events, and plan to continue the planned route when able. No action is needed.”
“A non-life-threatening event has occurred. Attempting self rescue via closest direct route out. Send crew.”
Eat while you are “low and slow” at the bottom of a climb. It is easiest to digest food at lower altitudes and when your stomach isn’t sloshing around. Filter bottles have come a long way in the past few years. They are so fast to filter and compact, and it is hardly possible to have too much water in the alpine. I typically have a 1L Katadyn collapsible filter bottle with me when in the mountains. Dip it in a stream and you’re good to go without even stopping.
Yonke’s advice is sound. You can watch for him at Leadville this year as he runs with First Descents, an organization which helps people who have suffered life-changing medical events get reacquainted with the outdoors and use wilderness as part of the recovery process.
While gear choices are highly personal, I strongly second the space blanket, which has also saved me in storms and accidents, and the Garmin inReach, which increases my backcountry confidence. Anytime I start a run that may go beyond cell coverage, I fire up tracking on the inReach and send my wife a text with an active link to my location. This makes us both feel better and has reduced her need to nervously wonder why I’m late. Think a GPS rescue device sounds heavy and expensive? Try a broken leg and search and rescue bills.
Let’s finish with some questions to consider. What gear are you carrying? Rain layers? Insulation? Space blanket? Water purification or treatment? GPS messaging device like Garmin inReach? Medical kit? Is it solid or minimal? Extra calories and hydration? Map? Can you read it and use a compass? What’s your medical training level? Does anyone even know where you are?
Have a great summer in the mountains and remember that safety first—even if it means a little more weight—keeps you out there for next time.