Every year I teach a polar training course in northern Canada. People from across the globe learn, practice and refine the skills that they need to embark on their own cold weather adventure. It’s an intense week-long immersion into all things ice and snow.
I teach people to respect and understand cold environments and wilderness weather while balancing the goals of the adventure. It’s easy to sit inside your tent, listening to the wind howl and then take a storm day.
One of my most important platitudes is that ‘there is no such thing as bad weather.’ Still, I’ve been in enough bad situations to have a healthy respect for Mother Nature and what she can unleash. It’s important, when you encounter bad weather, to make the right decisions in the moment, even if it means foregoing your current adventure. But you never know when weather can change out in the backcountry. To give you an idea, I’ve compiled a list of my most extreme weather stories – several of which include quick-changing weather systems that could have easily left me in danger or stranded.
1. Kenai Peninsula, Alaska
I was working as a backcountry ranger (way back in the day) and was on patrol somewhere way up in the mountains. I set my pack down (with my radio and all my gear) to check out some cool rocks about 400 yards away. Clouds rolled in and it turned into a complete whiteout. I quickly became disoriented and had no idea where my pack was located. I had to wait for over 20 minutes for visibility to improve enough to see the where I had stashed my gear.
2. The Arctic Ocean
Even on a sunny, calm day the Arctic Ocean is wicked nasty. It’s easily home to some of the harshest conditions on the planet. On my most recent expedition to the Geographic North Pole, I experienced my first-ever storm day on a polar expedition. Our tent nearly blew away with us in it. When we got out of the tent the next day, the ice was polished smooth all around us. It’s wilderness weather stories like this that remind me not to mess with Mother Nature, and to take a day off if she demands it.
3. Any time I’ve climbed Mt. Rainier
Washington state and Mt. Rainier are beautiful places, I just wish I could have seen them when I was there. For whatever reason, both times I’ve summited Mt. Rainier the conditions have been completely terrible. The whiteouts were so bad that it was impossible to see any marker, trail or even the side of the mountain.
4. Mt Shasta
I don’t know what it is about the Cascades, but I’ve never had much luck with wilderness weather while climbing there. We got off to a slightly late start but were making good progress until a storm blew in. It snowed several inches in 30 minutes or so. Visibility was non existent. Turning around was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made. Still, the danger wasn’t over yet. Climbing down when it was impossible to judge the slope of the terrain (or even see the terrain) was one of the more precarious situations I’ve ever been in.
5. Everest summit, October 15, 2010
Most people don’t climb Everest in the fall. In fact my summit in 2010 was the only fall summit in the past eight years. There is more snow, it’s colder and the weather is generally more unpredictable. Starting out for the summit from Camp 4 (the death zone), it was completely clear and calm. However, once we reached the South Summit, it was a complete whiteout. Luckily, we had a small break in the clouds and were able to hurry up the Hillary Step and reach the top. Unfortunately, the cloud break was short lived and the weather quickly devolved. We descended in a complete whiteout and increasing winds. The next morning wasn’t much better when we climbed down the Lhotse Face and made our way back to base camp, all the while wading through thigh-deep snow.