TR: Nine Lakes Basin, November 13 – 17 | High Sierra Topix  

TR: Nine Lakes Basin, November 13 – 17

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Re: TR: Nine Lakes Basin, November 13 – 17

Postby kpeter » Wed Nov 22, 2017 9:50 am

It is absolutely terrific that you are sharing this experience with all its gory detail. You sound like you are quite experienced and were reasonably well prepared except the tent--if you were an average backpacker the outcome might have been quite different. That is one reason why it is important for all of us to point out the dangers--since this thread may be read by more than just us regular posters, but by neophytes who never post.

Out of curiosity, where at Hamilton did you set up your tent? Were you down by the bearbox to the N of the outlet with a view of Valhalla, or were you SW of the outlet with a view of the lake?

I was in the trees N of the outlet and a bit downstream from the lake, a little sheltered, but it probably would have become quite muddy. Just wondering how my campsite would have fared.
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Re: TR: Nine Lakes Basin, November 13 – 17

Postby Wandering Daisy » Wed Nov 22, 2017 10:18 am

Camping on sand with underlying rock slabs often cause tent flooding. You think you are up out of the flooding, but you do not know what the underlying drainage is- sloped or just a big bowl that collects water? I have made this mistake a few times and ended up floating. I was actually quite impressed with the floor of my MSR tent, which never leaked! It was like I was floating in a raft.

I have actually sponged up water from under my tent when the weather was too bad to get out and move it! A good quality sponge is useful. I take nylon gloves in my FAK. I wore them under my wet fleece gloves to keep fingers warm while I squeezed and bailed the water. My daughter, a doctor, gives me good quality surgical gloves. They weigh nearly nothing.
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Re: TR: Nine Lakes Basin, November 13 – 17

Postby oldranger » Wed Nov 22, 2017 12:02 pm

Like others I appreciate your willingness to share your story. Maybe because being hyper conservative in my backpacking decisions (probably why I am still backpacking in my 8th decade) and never been in a similar situation I'm a little more critical of several of your decision.
1. Weather report you don't have to be as anal as Dave to understand that in November even a 20% chance of precipitation if it occurs can have serious consequences. You can also extrapolate from the fact that Yosemite does not allow overnight parking along the tioga road after Oct. 15 that anytime after that conditions can rapidly change.
2. Just plain weird that you opted for lightweight for your tent but carried ice ax and micro spikes.
3. When the "unexpected weather" hit you continued going higher and away from safety.
4. Now from the get go you planned a route with obvious hazards and a long distance from the trailhead in the face of a significant chance of adverse weather. (To my mind a 4 to 6 mile trip with all downhill would have been a much more reasonable risk.
5. It seems like despite several recent November deaths in the High Sierra your ego said it can't happen to me.
6. It is a little incongruous that you say, "I am totally determined to take care of myself." And in the next sentence say, " I only carry the PLB in the case of an absolute desperate, life-threatening situation. Sounds to me like it is a backup for bad decisions.

One question did you consider going down toward the Kern? Somewhere on the way you would have encountered ample firewood.

Also given that the waterfalls at Hamilton lakes were frozen it is likely that the ground was frozen and that much of rain that fell and would normally soak into the ground stayed on the surface. consequently that probably contributed to the flooding you experienced. Really hard to predict that outcome.
Mike

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Re: TR: Nine Lakes Basin, November 13 – 17

Postby Wandering Daisy » Wed Nov 22, 2017 1:03 pm

I would not consider the trail to Hamilton Lake as risky this time of yeart. It is well maintained, big and easy to follow, and actually hard to get lost on. It also has many sheltered campsites. The main danger I see is the chance of a surge of flow in streams if there were heavy rainfall.

Hamilton Lake to Nine Lakes Basin is a more risky. You can get easily lost in Nine Lakes Basin, as you actually did for a short time. There is less shelter. And the trail can be outright dangerous if icy. However that may have been the reason to take microspikes. I am not sure what good an ice axe would have done. And I would spend money on a bombproof tent before I bought a PLB. I do agree that going up to Nine Lakes Basin in poor weather is not the best decision.

Rather than specific gear, it seems to me that decisions were based on a summer season mindset, rather than a winter mindset. I think in the fall it is hard to transition out of thinking like you do in the summer. For example, hiking past dark in the summer works; less so in the late fall when you need to be more particular about campsite selection. In fact I am not sure I would even attempt to do a solo backpack this late in the year. To me, that is a summer mindset. In the summer, getting clothing wet is not a big deal, as it is very likely you will be able to dry them out the next day. Not so in late fall which can easily and quickly turn to winter. A winter mindset would base nearly all travel decisions on being able to keep your clothing and particularly, your sleeping bag dry. I also find that even though intellectually I know that in November the Sierra is in winter conditions, as I sit here at sea level, and it is sunny and 70 degrees, it just does not sink in to my gut level.

I do see a bit of rationalization in your defense of your decisions. But I hesitate to play Monday morning quarterback. Epics and accidents often happen, not because of any one poor decision, but a series of decisions, that cumulate into a disaster. Luckily, yours only cumulated into discomfort. That first decision is only mildly risky. Next one seems to be justified by the first. You just roll on, somehow thinking you will overcome, when the real answer is to retreat! Sort of like summit fever. You are so close! Why not just push a little more. I must admit, that I am the queen of retreat! I have lost track of how many times I have bailed out or altered course. So my risk tolerance is way lower than yours.

Anyway, I am so glad you got out without serious consequences. You obviously have a good survival instinct. A book I read on who survives and who dies, pointed out that the "will to survive" does a lot to keep one alive. Most people who survive, never once thought they would not. I myself, prefer to avoid survival situations in the first place.
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Re: TR: Nine Lakes Basin, November 13 – 17

Postby longri » Wed Nov 22, 2017 6:49 pm

EpicSteve wrote:...the main reason I didn't cook inside my tent was because I didn't feel I had room in my tiny tent to do it safely. Another reason was that I'd have to go back outside to get my bear canister, dig the nickel out of my pack to turn the screws to open it, get out my stove, set it up, and handle a lot of freezing metal surfaces during the entire process. And simple laziness probably came into play too.


What kind of stove did you have?

The Sublite is a small tent but if it were me I'd have pushed my stuff out of the way and fired up the stove. A Jetboil shines in tight quarters. You can heat water with it lying on your back with it on your stomach. A Pocket Rocket or equivalent can't be hand held but will work in a small space with some care. A white gas stove would be more of a problem.

I don't get the bear canister thing. I wouldn't have even taken one in mid-November. The food would be in my tent.
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Re: TR: Nine Lakes Basin, November 13 – 17

Postby gdurkee » Thu Dec 07, 2017 11:30 am

Well, I'll join in though don't have much to add to SSSDave, WD & Oldranger. But this is an important learning event (e.g. "how could this accident have been prevented?"). I've spent a lot of time doing after action reports on SARs (in fact, taking a break here from doing one right now) and interviewing resucees (is that a word?) so maybe can add at least a little to the discussion that might help the Group Mind.

So, weather: anytime after about October 10, you have to be prepared for winter conditions in the high sierra. ANYTIME! That means that any snow that falls might not melt. Snow over about 8" can cover trails and make route finding very difficult. At about 12+" walking alone can become exhausting. So, not only does it make route finding difficult -- even on a well maintained trail -- but on sections with exposure the snow will fill in creating a downward slope off the edge. A very dangerous situation.

When the forecast says 40% chance of snow, especially that time of year, it's going to snow! I would have recommended not going at all and, especially, not even attempting that route. At most, go to Pear Lake or something and hang out. You were putting a lot of very difficult terrain between you and safety when the predicted storm hit. Weather forecasting is actually very good but, that time of year (~10/10 or so) I wouldn't depend on a forecast more than three days out.

Tent. There's no rationale for not taking a solid 3+ season tent that time of year. You saw how critical it became so, with luck, that's a warning to others. Dump the ice ax weight and bring a better tent. You had poles and ice creepers, no need for ax.

Extra clothes. Good recommendation for all to have dry clothes separate in plastic bag. But I don't understand your resistance to use them only in extremis. You were at that point. I've recovered bodies that had dry clothing in their packs. Hypothermia is very quick. When you cross that line, you no longer make good decisions which is why people no longer think of their dry clothing.

Gloves: sounds like you had good gloves but maybe not enough. I'd carry 5 pair -- including bombproof shell -- starting mid October or so. One pair also kept in plastic bag. Points for goggles... . I'd also recommend a balaclava for that time of year (or, really, any time of year).

Break for story: Last year on 10/20, a guy hiked alone over Bishop Pass and into Barrett Lakes area. Same setup: moderately experienced, well-predicted storm. He, too, had an emergency signal device (SPOT). Storm started during the night (though all snow). He started hiking out in very high winds (~>60mph) through 2 feet of snow on the ground and likely whiteout. One difference is he was fairly lightly dressed but also had an inadequate tent for conditions though it seemed to have survived the high winds and driving snow that night. Anyway, he was likely overtaken by hypothermia on the way out leading to poor decision making and did not activate the emergency beacon on his SPOT. He died just a few yards east of Bishop Pass. Wasn't found until this last spring.

I don't think people take Fall conditions in the high country seriously enough. There's generally one or two major SARs every fall that involve up to 100 searchers and multiple helicopters and in truly gnarly and dangerous conditions. Never go anywhere you can get snowed in and have no safe retreat. I'm a major fan of hiking alone but trail breaking in 2' of snow by yourself is exhausting.

If the problem becomes one of hypothermia, it's quite likely help can't arrive in time that an emergency beacon would do any good, though at least we'd know where to find people... . Not clear if you had an actual PLB, but I'd recommend an InReach or a SPOT. PLB's can sometimes have significant errors in location.

OK. With luck, stories like this help everyone be better prepared both in planning and techniques to use if things go wrong. In pretty much every single SAR I've looked at, it's not just one thing that goes wrong but a chain of poor decisions -- often starting at the trailhead -- and inadequate equipment. In summer, you've got some room for error but not in winter. Thanks for posting -- it's really valuable.
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Re: TR: Nine Lakes Basin, November 13 – 17

Postby maverick » Thu Dec 07, 2017 1:10 pm

Not clear if you had an actual PLB, but I'd recommend an InReach or a SPOT. PLB's can sometimes have significant errors in location.


OP indicated he was carrying a PLB George.

Hypothermia is very quick. When you cross that line, you no longer make good decisions which is why people no longer think of their dry clothing.


This is one of the most important factors, the Big 3, 1# being 3 hours without no shelter, which can be much shorter due to temps and injury, there is a reason it is listed as the first thing that must be addressed!

What percentage of your SAR cases George, do people perish due to hypothermia/exposure?
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Re: TR: Nine Lakes Basin, November 13 – 17

Postby gdurkee » Thu Dec 07, 2017 3:50 pm

Mav: Hi! Not sure of deaths by hypothermia in Sierra. In fall, I'd say 70% (????) -- not stats at hand, just anecdotal memory over the years. I can think of a couple in summer storms as well (Whitney in '78). That said, the number is small as is the number of people who get in trouble in the backcountry. But, as you know, many of those are preventable. With all respect to Steve here, so was this one. Also a danger in the spring -- punching through snow and getting trapped in a stream channel or in cold icy water (likely Randy and another case in Mineral King some years back). Same with going getting swept into a stream in spring -- hypothermia takes you pretty fast though can't think of too many cases where it's clear that's the case. I'm suspicious of spring drowning cases where the cold water might make them lose muscle coordination and unable to get to shore.

And PLB: saw that but just wanted to be sure. Sometimes PLB is a generic beacon so was wondering.
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Re: TR: Nine Lakes Basin, November 13 – 17

Postby robow8 » Thu Dec 07, 2017 7:18 pm

Glad you are okay. Reminds me of this post: viewtopic.php?f=9&t=15790

This might be your heron. It's from a few years ago.
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Re: TR: Nine Lakes Basin, November 13 – 17

Postby OzSwaggie » Sun Dec 10, 2017 12:03 am

Hi EpicSteve thanks for the trip report, it was well written and - because I knew you had lived to tell the tale - good to read. I think it's great when people have experiences like this and share them, because the ones who do not make it out alive cannot share cautionary tales with us that we can learn from! I would have found it very frightening to be in your situation, especially alone, and it was interesting to read how your were thinking.I found it interesting that you "saved" your warm clothes for "tomorrow". That must have been a hard decision to make, because of course if you had gotten hypothermic and your thinking had been affected, there may have been no tomorrow! - but I can totally understand your fear of getting everything wet and having nothing warm and dry. My partner and I come from overseas (Australia) to hike in the Sierra and this year we visited in September for the first time and were caught in a snowstorm (first time I had seen snow falling, and it was falling horizontally, and too dense to see through!) - but it was not in such a remote location as you were in (we were in Dusy Basin area). We had lugged our four season tent over several high passes in the nine days prior (I am pretty risk averse!) and were for the first time that trip glad that we had done so! - as we have very little snow experience. Next time I would bring microspikes as well, as the ice on the granite next morning was hazardous. Like you, we knew there was a storm coming with possible snow when we entered, and we didn't quite make it out in time! I was actually pretty impressed that they could forecast the storm (with chance of snow) 7 or 8 days out! Thanks again for the story and the happy ending.
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