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David Stanhope
(stanhope2003) - F

Locale: New England
Whiteout navigation... on 01/01/2010 23:27:45 MST Print View

I wanted to ask everyone what their suggestions are for how to navigate in a whiteout above treeline? I'm still learning and this to me is a necessary skill to learn to be safe. I would never intentionally climb in poor weather.

I have taken a mountaineering course offered by EMS and a guided climb on Mt Rainier. Both were great. But both were more focused with leaving the paying climber being more spoon fed and having fun and less about learning. The basics were taught but in terms of avalanche safety, rope tying, and winter navigation were all skimmed over. Not to mention that many mountaineering courses are extremely expensive. I have read many books but I wanted to get other peoples opinion on how they learned these necessary winter mountaineering skills.

I climb primarily in NH but want to expand to climb more out West. One of the biggest questions I have is what do people suggest for navigating in a white out? Hunker down? Make a snow cave? Pull out a bivy sack? A Bothy bag? Map and Compass to navigate down? Is a map and compass practical to use in high wind and white out conditions? What about GPS Units to navigate down?

I consider my mountaineering to be primarlily single day climbs, especially in New England. Maybe multi-day out West though. In addition I always check the weather before going out. As well as check into a Ranger station to inquire about conditions and weather.

Thank you.

Edited by stanhope2003 on 01/01/2010 23:38:27 MST.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Whiteout navigation... on 01/02/2010 02:17:43 MST Print View

We keep going.

The three rules for navigation in a whiteout are:
* Be very confident with your map and compass work, and an altimeter helps.
* Watch the slopes on the ground and on the map, and relate them.
* Practice, practice, practice.

Oh - and don't fall over too many cornices. You probably will go for a few slides - just avoid the big ones. This means that you don't do this on steep country! :-)


Edited by rcaffin on 01/02/2010 02:18:30 MST.

Mark Verber
(verber) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Re: Whiteout navigation... on 01/02/2010 11:07:29 MST Print View

I would add to Roger's list:

  • Be prepared (e.g. know you can ride out the storm so you don't feel compelled to get out). Otherwise you are likely to attempt to push through when you shouldn't.
  • If you are in an avalanche danger zone move to a safer location so if you have to hunker down you aren't at an elevated risk.
  • If you are feeling serious anxiety don't let it grow into a panic or force you to rush because that's when you will make stupid mistakes... stop and hunker down
People's preferences for what to hunker down in are highly variable... go with what works for you. My preference is something that can go up fairly quickly and gives me room to move so that's a pyramid tarp or a full on mountain tent.


Edited by verber on 01/02/2010 11:10:19 MST.

Diplomatic Mike

Locale: Under a bush in Scotland
Re :"Whiteout navigation..." on 01/02/2010 12:36:44 MST Print View

You can practice timing yourself over various distances to measure how far you have travelled. The average walking pace over easy flat ground is 5km/h, with added time for height gain/loss. There are various formulae for this, but Naismiths rule is widly used.

The only way to micro-navigate in a total white out however, is pace counting. Practice counting how many double steps it takes you to cover 100 yards/metres over various types of terrain. Some folk have a pace chart taped to their compass giving their step count over different types of terrain. How many double steps on flat terrain, uphill, downhill, deep snow, heavy undergrowth, stc, etc.

If you are navigating across high, featureless terrain with big drops in the area, throw a snowball a few feet in front of you when viz drops to only a few feet. If it is a total whiteout, then the shadow formed by the snowball may be the only sign there is solid ground in front of you, and not empty space!

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Re :"Whiteout navigation..." on 01/02/2010 13:20:24 MST Print View

> throw a snowball a few feet in front of you
Good one Mike!
Harder to do on skis, but in snowshoes we kick bits of snow ahead of us. Works well.


Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Whiteout navigation on 01/02/2010 18:01:53 MST Print View

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure the old saying goes. Definitely applies to whiteouts. Be aware of weather forecast before leaving and constantly monitor the weather as you proceed, with an eye on escape routes to lower, sheltered terrain. Carry map(s), compass, and altimeter, and know how to use them. GPS is good to have, but NOT a substitute for map, compass, and altimeter-it can fail. Carry necessary gear for going to ground if necessary: Clothing, food, shelter, shovel, possibly a stove/pot; this is one potential situation where a satellite capable device like a SPOT could really be worthwhile, both for you AND the SAR folks who will eventually have to try and pull your chestnuts out of the fire. Best of all, consider avoiding altogether intricate routes involving steep, exposed, corniced terrain with few opportunities for escape/shelter if the weather is unstable, or make sure your affairs are in order; things degenerate rapidly into a crap shoot in that kind of terrain if the weather goes south on you, no matter how good you are with navigation. My 2 cents.

adam peterson
(Pacbacker) - F

Locale: The Pacfic Northwest
i have to agree with Tom on 01/02/2010 21:33:36 MST Print View

always be ready to stop moving. but one thing that you can do is use a throwing line. use some cord with a weight on it to throw out in front you to use as a guide. in extreme cases you can set up a seated belay and send your partner down the hill, slow but pretty safe.

David Stanhope
(stanhope2003) - F

Locale: New England
Good advice everyone on 01/05/2010 20:19:29 MST Print View

Thank you everyone for your replies. I will brush up on my map/compass work it's been awhile. I will make sure I know the terrain as well and don't wander or do a route out of my element/skill level. I had considered SPOT or Garmin Rhino in the future. But in the meantime i'm going with a map/compass.

Douglas Ray

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Whiteout navigation on 01/09/2010 16:56:26 MST Print View

There is a good section on this in "Alpine Climbing: Techniques to Take You Higher" by Cosly and Houston. This is a most valuable reference on all aspects of alpine climbing.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Whiteout navigation on 01/09/2010 17:40:48 MST Print View

> a satellite capable device like a SPOT could really be worthwhile, both for you
> AND the SAR folks who will eventually have to try and pull your chestnuts out of the fire.

But be aware that when things are pear-shaped SAR will have to wait until it is safe for them to venture forth. You cannot rely on them turning up in the next few hours!


Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Re: Whiteout navigation on 01/09/2010 18:54:12 MST Print View

"But be aware that when things are pear-shaped SAR will have to wait until it is safe for them to venture forth. You cannot rely on them turning up in the next few hours!"

True enough, but at least they'll know where you are, a huge plus for them and your loved ones, and you can go about burrowing in and waiting things out, secure in the knowledge that help will be coming as soon as prudently possible and that you don't have to engage in risky behavior to self rescue; A huge plus for you. This approach "might" have saved 3 unfortunate souls a couple of years back on Mt Hood. That said, I'd still go with that ounce of prevention-not venturing forth in the first place on complex terrain presenting major objective hazards-if the weather were iffy.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
nav in a whiteout on 01/10/2010 17:19:17 MST Print View

First of all, I am a big believer in GPS. I've used GPS for over 15 years and have taught the classes.

However, in the old days before GPS, we simply had to learn by sticking close to the experienced leaders and paying attention. In the old days, we had map and compass, and some of us had military training in their use. However, you can't shoot rear bearings if you can't see anything in a whiteout! You really have to learn to use your compass, and probably you will need to near-memorize a section of a topo map to mentally keep your route going straight.

On one climbing trip, everybody was amazed that I seemed to know the exact route to the peak summit, despite the almost-zero visibility. Hell, I could follow crampon tracks through the snow and ice.

It helps if you have your serious compass on a neck loop, and also sometimes have a micro-compass on a zipper pull that you can see without getting out the serious compass.
When you get to some intermediate point, stop everybody and huddle everybody together to stare at the map, compass, or GPS screen. Make sure that everybody knows where you've come and where you are still headed before you move off again. If somebody gets lost, it is bad form.

I thought that I had lost the other three skiers in a whiteout one time. I whistled and yelled for minutes. Nothing. I skied back and forth until my tracks were no longer visible. Nothing. I gave up and headed toward safety. After a couple of miles, I found the others huddled up in a grove of trees. They had been afraid that they had lost me.

Robert Blean
(blean) - MLife

Locale: San Jose -- too far from Sierras
Re: Whiteout navigation... on 01/10/2010 18:13:29 MST Print View

1) The most basic rule is the old chestnut "a superior XXX is one who uses his superior judgment to avoid getting into situations requiring him to demonstrate his superior skills".

2) SAR -- see #1 above -- do not get into situations requiring SAR. I admire the good work they do, but their work should be reserved for *unavoidable* situations.

3) Map and compass -- use it frequently, even (especially) when you don't really need to. Avoid ever getting to "I will brush up on my map/compass work it's been awhile."

Good point from Bob Gross: "It helps if you have your serious compass on a neck loop, and also sometimes have a micro-compass on a zipper pull that you can see without getting out the serious compass. When you get to some intermediate point, stop "

Bob's point said another way -- keep your map and compass so handy that you can, and do, use them frequently. There is no substitute for practice. You'd be surprised at just how useful a small zipper-pull compass is -- I personally favor the ball type.

4) Obvious point -- staying found (always knowing where you are) is always better than just being able to figure out where you are. That is harder, but even more true, in whiteout conditions.

-- Bob

Edited by blean on 01/10/2010 18:18:56 MST.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
another idea for whiteouts on 01/10/2010 18:41:33 MST Print View

I was on a X-C ski trip, and we had gone about 75% of the way to our destination, and we had just enough visibility to see where we were going.

At the 75% point, we paused for a minute, because we looked up ahead and we could see dense weather approaching. So, while we still knew where we were, and before we got into trouble, we each got out our maps and compasses and confirmed everything as a group. The three best navigators estimated the proposed route bearing, and then compared. We matched to within 2 degrees. That was good enough. One former leader estimated, and he was off by 90 degrees. So, we just quietly skied off in the correct direction and left the former leader to make up his mind. He still had enough sense to follow tracks. The weather closed in, but we all made it.


Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Re: Whiteout navigation... on 01/11/2010 02:53:57 MST Print View

I haven't bothered with the little mini-compasses - they seemed to stick too much. But my compass always hangs around my neck - inside or outside my shirt.

I remember one time in bad weather (mainly rain) in fairly thick scrub on a fairly flat plateau with little visibility (no tracks anywhere). Sue went in front trying to find the watershed as she went. I followed behind with my compass in one hand and a waterproof map in the other hand. I called small corrections to Sue as needed. I think we must have travelled for 2 - 3 hours like that. Came out on target. Lots of concentration needed though.


John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Re: Whiteout navigation... on 01/11/2010 18:58:31 MST Print View

Which zipper pull ball compass does Bob Blean use?

Steve S
(idahosteve) - F

Locale: Idaho
whiteout on 01/12/2010 17:03:27 MST Print View

here is an addition that we used regularlry... on our Sunnto watches there is an altimeter... ALARM... and its a great additon to let you know if you are too high, too low, etc. There are actually miltiple alarms, and when you can't shoot a direction, altitude and your map skills will help a ton!

Nicholas Luhr
(nhluhr) - F
following your bearing on 02/04/2010 12:42:58 MST Print View

It is easy to keep yourself pointed along a bearing, but as far as actually traveling that bearing in whiteout conditions, it really helps to spread your party out in a single file line, with communication between the leader and sweeper to keep the leader following the straight line instead of maybe meandering a bit because he has no visual target, just a compass.

It's the vertigo that gets you most when the snow slope blends perfectly with the snow sky so that frame of reference is super helpful.

Also, a long drag-line is useful if you're solo... just keep looking back at the drag to make sure it's straight.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
whiteout conditions on 02/04/2010 14:00:22 MST Print View

For most of us, if we are caught in a whiteout, we are up somewhere in the steep hills, so we kind of know which way we are working, up, down, or sideways. It gets worse if we are on flat land because we don't have that hill to guide us. There is a natural tendency for a hiker or a skier to start curving off in one direction or another, typically depending on whether the hiker is right-footed or left-footed. Sometimes, the hiker will come all the way back to his original trail, which is called walking in circles.
Three very experienced skiers headed out from camp one time, and each one assumed that the others had the map and the compass. Of course, they had nothing, not even a flashlight.
After touring around for a long time, they discovered that they were headed in a circle, and they couldn't see which way was back to camp. They finally escaped, but they had to spend a night away from camp. Let that be a lesson.

Walter Carrington
(Snowleopard) - M

Locale: Mass.
Whiteout navigation in New England. on 02/04/2010 16:56:11 MST Print View

A hiker got caught out on Mt. Moosilauke, NH, recently in a whiteout. He was familiar with the terrain and pretty experienced, but couldn't find the entrance to the path through scrub. He spent the night, made his way out on his own in the morning and was OK.

A pair of Canadian climbers got caught in bad weather on Mt. Washington in an emergency shelter. They knew where they were, they knew where the trail was, but were unable to make their way against the wind a short distance to the trail.