Risk Assessments – Colorado Crest

My risk assessment for this trip different slightly from previous trips of mine, in particular because this was a solo trip. I was going to be by myself, and could not rely on anyone for help. The fundamentals of my risk assessment remained the same, however:

  • Terrain Challenges
  • Bail-Outs
  • Weather Updates
  • Exposure to Environmental Conditions
  • Access to Immediate Care / Help

And two added element this time:

  • The “Solo” Effect
  • How to Stay Connected

Terrain Challenges

One of the first steps in my risk assessment was identifying particular terrain hazards that I should be aware of. Summits, passes, river fords, exposed ridgelines, technical scrambles, etc.

I had to break down the long trip into smaller pieces:

How long was it between water sources? Could I carry enough water to carry me? 

When would I be hiking through the highest elevation points for the day? Was this in the morning or afternoon? Where could I seek shelter or protection if a storm hit? 

Where were the most challenging parts of the route? Any Class 3 scrambles? Class 4 scrambles? 

To answer these questions, I let my engineering degree do the work and hit the spreadsheets hard. I created my “Data Sheet,” a cumulative list of landmarks that I could use as waypoints for my route. Rather than looking at a 650 mile trail in its entirety, I broke it down point by point. If I could make it from one waypoint to the next, I could string them together to complete the entire journey.

The waypoints I selected fit into a variety of categories:

  • Water sources
  • Summits, passes, etc.
  • Trail junctions
  • Areas of interest

I used these waypoints on my Caltopo route file to break up the longer routes and get a sense of how the waypoints would spread out throughout the course of the hike.

In Caltopo, my waypoints plotted on the overall profile of an example day.

Each night at camp before I went to bed I would review the Data Sheet and study the navigational and terrain challenges for the next day. If I was coming up on a challenging pass, summit, etc., I might wake up earlier that next day to allow myself more time to adjust if necessary.

Bail-Outs

I liked to think of my thru-hike as a football game: I might call a certain play in the huddle, in this case my planned itinerary, but I would need the ability to call an “audible”, in this case a bail-out plan, if the defense, in this case mother nature, threw something unexpected my way.

Notice all of the red bail-out routes shooting off of my planned itinerary, the purple line.

I felt more confident on trail knowing I had a “playbook” that I could turn to if I ever needed to. My mantra whenever I head into the mountains: stay humble. Setting out on this journey, I knew that things might change, that I might need to abort at any point because of some unforeseen circumstance (fortunately I did not have to and followed my intended route from start to finish).

Weather Updates

I carried a Garmin inReach Explorer+ with me the entire way, which allowed me to message anyone back at home, especially my parents. It also afforded me the ability to have my father text me live weather updates daily. Before I left home I set up a system for him to send weather updates daily for the next few days so that I could be thinking days ahead of time.

At the end of each day, my Dad would send me a brief message with the:

  • Temperatures
  • Wind Speeds
  • Chance of Rain AND when that rain was expected
  • 3-day forecast for that area, which gave me a sense of what was coming behind it

These weather updates kept me ahead of the game, with up-to-date information on what was coming my way. If I knew that a storm was rolling in in a few days, I might try to combine 2 days into 1 to allow myself a contingency day to wait out a storm.

Exposure to Environmental Conditions

Was I going to be stuck on a ridgeline in a bad wind storm? How much sun exposure was I going to be getting? What about flooding?

One way that I went about informing myself about my exposure to environmental conditions before the trip was Google Earth. Nerdy, I know, but remember that I’m an engineer. It’s how I think.

A Google Earth snapshot I had generated of Mather Pass on the John Muir Trail, one of my previous trips.

I exported my Caltopo file as a .KML file and uploaded it to Google Earth, which laid out a nice visible track of what the route would look like. I then could get a 3D satellite view of what types of terrain I would be travelling through. It wasn’t exactly precise; I couldn’t tell the specific rocks I’d be stepping on, but it did give me a high-level overview of where I’d be hiking, which helped me visualize the route.

Access to Immediate Care  / Help

Just like a professional quarterback has a list of audible plays on his wrist, ready to be called into action, I had a list of Hospitals and other immediate medical care services ready in the event that I needed help.

Before I left for my trip, I personally called every single hospital on this sheet, asking them the following questions:

  • Do you have a 24-hour ER?
  • Do you receive airlifted victims?
  • What kinds of injuries do you normally treat? Do you have the capacity to treat trauma victims?
  • Do you have a burn center? If not, where is the nearest one?
  • If you have a severely sick patient, where do you forward them along to?

The “Solo” Effect

When you’re alone, everything is different. Not only do you have so much more to think about, but you also have a lot less help if something goes wrong.

For this solo trip, I had two partners throughout the entire journey: my Garmin inReach Explorer+ and my satellite phone. I bought my Garmin inReach Explorer+ when it first hit the market, and I have used it on every single trip since. I won’t go into too much detail here, as you should read my in-depth review of the device I wrote for Andrew Skurka, but I will summarize:

My Garmin inReach Explorer+ allowed me to track my route, text with my family and friends, and call for help if I need it. Invaluable.

Notice my Garmin inReach attached to my pack, where it never leaves.

I had only once before brought along a satellite phone on a personal trip of mine, and that was for Kilimanjaro, mostly to please my mother. But this time it was a real risk mitigation tool. I opted to rent a satellite phone from SatellitePhoneStore.com rather than buy one, as the rental was far cheaper than the thousands of dollars I would have needed to shell out to buy a SAT phone. If I had a real emergency and had to call for help, I would want to speak over the phone, not type the state of my emergency through a small keyboard on my Garmin inReach.

Making a call home on a SAT phone on the summit of Kilimanjaro.

How to Stay Connected

And what about everyone else? How would I stay in touch with friends, family, loved ones?

Before I left home, I went through my Contacts list on my phone, as well as my Facebook page, and identified the people who were most likely to contact me during my trip. I sent them this email.

Additionally, I set up my email to an auto reply with information on how to contact me, as you can see below. I am sure that this got very annoying for some people. Sorry. . .