BAD DECISION


I put fourteen people, counting myself, at unnecessary risk the other night.  And I think I am the only one who knows that.

The Obsidian Hiking Club has a monthly full Moon hike to the top of nearby Mt. Pisgah.  Taking the most direct route, one climbs 1000 feet in 1.3 miles.  It is a popular hike near Eugene, the trail good, if a bit too wide, and the views of a moonrise or a sunset are stunning.

The woman who had led the hike for some time still wants to lead the solstice hikes, but she asked me if I would be willing to lead the other ones.  It’s no big deal, really.  The hike is easy to organize, people show up, we collect $1 from members and $2 for non-members, and I decide the route.  We go to the top, look at the sights, and come down.  Anybody who wants to leave early can, and the leader just makes sure everybody gets down without difficulty.

What can go wrong?  There is a saying in bridge when a contract is a sure thing, look for what could possibly go wrong.

People can get hurt by tripping, having heart attacks, heat stroke, hypothermia, and anything that can happen in the outdoors.

Like getting struck by lightning.

Two days before the hike, we had had very warm weather for April, and I suspect most thought the hike would be perfect for viewing an April moonrise.  I had noted the GFS weather model showed a low pressure system moving up from the south.  This was a little unusual, but the model was consistent, and with hot, moderately moist air over us, a low pressure system could trigger thunderstorms.  Thunderstorms are unlikely in Oregon, but they do occur.

Sure enough, the day of the hike, there was a chance of thunderstorms that evening, and I started wondering how this might affect the hike.  At 3 pm, four hours prior to meeting at the trailhead, it was sunny.  Two hours later, it had clouded over; although the clouds didn’t look threatening, the weather was changing.  I drove to the trailhead at 6 and looked at the radar, which showed a narrow line of precipitation 250 miles long, from Redding north to Roseburg, heading our way.  I knew from the NWS discussion that the storms were moving at 35-40 mph.  The wind had picked up, too, but the sky, while cloudy, was not showing any overt signs of thunderstorms.

People began to arrive, and we had all 14 just before 7.  I was concerned about the weather and voiced my concerns.  Nobody seemed concerned, but I didn’t ask, either.  I said I would be looking at the radar and the sky, and at the first clap of thunder, we would turn around.  That’s stupid. We are about to do an unimportant out and back hike, and if there is a significant possibility of thunder, we should not begin.

As we climbed the mountain, I figured an hour for the whole hike, since we wouldn’t see either a moonrise or a sunset, I hoped we would miss the storms coming up from the south, one of which was significant on radar.  I saw rain to our west, the storms appearing to be at least 10 miles away, moving north.  That was good news, and we stayed several minutes on the summit, along with maybe a dozen other people.  The sky to the south did not appear threatening, but on the radar the next storm was closer, still 60 miles away.

As we started down, all was fine until we heard thunder to our northwest.  The clouds to the west had become thunderstorms, and we felt a little rain.  I told people to spread out, which at this stage was perhaps helpful, but we were on an open trail, and there wasn’t a lot we could do other than to keep moving.  We descended to the trailhead in 20 minutes, much to my relief, but nobody else seemed concerned.  Everybody got off the mountain, and I heard no complaints.

Except from my own conscience.  What was I thinking?

I could rationalize.  The storms fired to our northwest, we were not in the path of the main body, and the radar showed that consistently.  But we easily could have been.  And had we been, we would have been rained on for the hike up, before thunder occurred right over the top of us.  The storm in the south could have arrived sooner.  Thirty minutes later, when I got home, it started to rain heavily, and there was some thunder.  We missed the main thunderstorms by about a half hour. That’s too close.

In short, it wasn’t smart hiking Pisgah that night just to do the hike.  I felt an internal pressure to do it, and that was wrong. Had I cancelled the hike, some might have been annoyed or disappointed, having made the effort to get out there, but there would have been zero risk of being struck by lightning.  Telling people that I would have us to turn around were there thunder was not good strategy.  We were on an open trail, and it would take us at least 15 minutes to get back down.  As it turned out, when we did hear thunder, we were on our way down, and not in a good position.

Had anything bad occurred, I had no defense.  I was the leader.  I know weather better than most, both reading the sky and understanding the models, soundings, and forecast discussions.  I knew the situation wasn’t good; I discussed it with the group.  And yet I still went.  It is this concatenation of small events that leads to major disasters.  The fact that we got away with it and people had a good hike was irrelevant.  I took a chance that I didn’t need to take.  We weren’t trying to rescue ourselves from some situation and had to continue, thunder or no.  We were doing a hike to see a full Moon, which we weren’t going to see.  Worse, we were going to one of the higher places around.  It was a bad decision.

I have cancelled trips before because of weather, both on the trail and beforehand.  On the trail, I looked at the distance we had to cover, noted the weather and called the trip.  Nobody complained.  It was a good decision.  Before another trip, I cancelled, because I didn’t like going into the mountains to do a difficult 12 miler with possible snow when it was raining hard in the valley and 45 degrees–hypothermia weather.  That was also a good decision.  This one on Pisgah was not.

Nobody has commented adversely to me, even when I stated my concerns.  Maybe they are being polite.  Politeness is a virtue, but there are times when one needs to stand up and say, “No, I am not doing this hike.  I do not like the weather, and I will not take the risk.”  And leave.

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