September 18, 2013

America's 10 Most Dangerous Hikes

The finale of our Grand Canyon traverse.
Backpacker magazine just released a listing of America's 10 Most Dangerous Hikes.
I have to say, most of them are just silly to be included, especially since I've conquered five of them and none struck me as particularly dangerous.

First, the list, their top ten most hazardous trails are:
  1. Abrams Falls, Great Smoky Mountains, TN
  2. Barr Trail, Pikes Peak, CO
  3. Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon, AZ
  4. Buckskin Gulch, UT
  5. Huckleberry Mountain, Apgar Range, MT
  6. Kalalau Trail, Kauai, HI
  7. The Maze, UT
  8. Mist Trail, Half Dome, CA
  9. Mt. Washington, NH
  10. Muir Snowfield, Mt. Rainier, WA

I can only assume that these highly-trafficked hikes made the top ten because of some statistics they've pulled on rescues, weather issues, etc. There are certainly much more treacherous hikes in America than these, and I'd say the more remote trails are much more dangerous for the simple fact that rescue is often days away even if you're found.

Taken from Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon.

Now for the five I've tackled. First, the three weather-related "dangerous" trails. There's the Barr Trail in Colorado, which I ran a few miles after the ascent of the Manitou Incline. Granted I wasn't on the section above the treeline, where the danger comes from Colorado's notorious changing weather. But much like the weather issues on any other outing, a prepared and conscientious hiker will assess the situation and make a smart decision. There were storms possible when we did the trail, and we checked the weather forecasts every hour for the day before and repeatedly checked forecasts during the ascent. As for the altitude gain on the Barr Trail, like any other high-elevation excursion, you just have to be aware of your body and altitude sickness symptoms; know when it's time to descend. Mount Washington is similar to Barr, probably included mainly for weather and lightning issues; again, weather was a possible factor in my ascent of Mount Washington during the Presidential Traverse, but a prepared hiker knows the descent points and shelters available. Buckskin Gulch, which I hiked in dry conditions on the West trek, is likely included for heat-related issues and weather since flood waters can rush down the slot canyon with no escape. Again, if you go prepared with adequate water and watch the forecast, checking in with the backcountry rangers and their thoughts as well, there's nothing dangerous about it. These are family hikes if you're smart about the situation.

Warning sign on Bright Angel Trail.

Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon was ranked the top risk in heat stress, as it should be. We hiked the Grand Canyon traverse in one of the hottest months of the year, and again, planning is key. Start early in the morning with a headlamp and take advantage of water; there are at least three sites with tapped water on the trail and the mileage between is not extreme at all. I'm assuming this made the list because of the number of tourists who are unprepared and attempt to hike down to the river in the morning, leaving a return trip up steep elevation gain in the late day sun and carrying no water.

The Mist Trail at Half Dome probably made the list due to the lightning potential, but the magazine also mentioned a falling hazard. The cables at Half Dome can get crowded and tricky, but again, being prepared and knowing your personal limits is your first priority as a smart hiker. When we did Half Dome, we chose a horrible day and ended up in a line of people; we took an hour or more to get up the cables and to the top. Choosing wise points to step and hold are key, but the real danger is on the descent. People try to go down backwards and lean into the rock, which puts all the pressure on a small footprint; if you walk down straight, staring into the abyss, and stay perpendicular to the rock, then it's really no more challenging than walking down some stairs.

Start early, carry water, be prepared. Always.