Outdoors

Five tips to keep safe on early season hikes in the Cascades

Snow is still visible in the foothills around Mount Baker, as seen from a campsite on Goat Mountain Monday, May 30, 2016.
Snow is still visible in the foothills around Mount Baker, as seen from a campsite on Goat Mountain Monday, May 30, 2016. chutton@bhamherald.com

A 24-year-old hiker from the Seattle area who apparently fell into a waterhole Sunday was on a backcountry route that is particularly treacherous this time of year because of unpredictable conditions.

Accidents are more common as hikers ascend more than 2,000 feet in less than a mile — and the route requires special care in addition to physical fitness.

The hike is a shortcut to The Enchantments, a popular backpacking area with a series of alpine lakes and rugged peaks renowned for their beauty.

Snow levels can vary widely, create obstacles and complicate route finding. Mountain weather can change quickly. Forest roads might be washed or difficult to pass.

Warm weather accelerated some changes in the mountains this year. Record-setting spring temperatures zapped mountain snowpack, which had been at normal levels.

Here are five tips to help you stay safe on early season hikes:

Do your homework

It feels like summer in the city, but significant snow can linger in the Cascades and Olympics well into July. Variable snow levels and conditions make researching routes and checking the weather even more important.

Reports posted by other hikers to the Washington Trails Association's website and hiking forums such as nwhikers.net can help give a sense of what elevations have melted out. This early, some areas above 4,000 feet have significant amounts of snow. Fresh snow could fall in the Central Cascades as low as 5,000 feet this weekend.

If you're not ready to hike on snow, save the high-alpine trekking for later in the summer.

Get the right equipment

When you feel ready to tackle snowy routes, make sure your equipment is well-suited to the conditions.

Layer up and bring insulation. In the mountains, a sunny day can turn wet and windy — fast.

Sturdy hiking or mountaineering boots will help keep your feet dry and your ankles intact. Trekking poles will keep you balanced.

It's helpful to have microspikes or crampons packed along for extra traction.

If you plan on going up or across steep snow, bring an ice ax and know how to use it.

Never forget the 10 essentials in case something goes wrong.

Keep your navigation skills honed

Patchy snow is one of the easiest ways to get lost hiking on established routes: The trail is there one second, and gone the next.

A topographic map and compass or GPS device are essential — not only for staying on the route, but for recognizing and avoiding hazards such as hidden streams and steep cliffs.

Consider taking a navigation course or practicing your map and compass skills in less-challenging terrain before setting out on snow.

Get an early start

On warm days, snow fields can start to soften by midmorning and become a slushy mess by afternoon. Warm snow is not only more exhausting to travel through, it can create added dangers like rock fall and wet-slide avalanches. Postholing, when your boot collapses through unsupported snow, becomes more likely and can lead to injury around rocks, trees and running water.

Snow bridges comfortably crossed in the morning can be treacherous by afternoon.

Starting early also means you'll feel less rushed, which translates into safer hiking. It's much easier to get lost or forget to drink enough water when you're in a hurry to get back to your car before dark.

Be ready to turn around

As much as you research and prepare, there will be times when early season conditions throw you a curveball. Live to see another summit by calling it quits when you're out of your element.

Turning around is part of the learning experience and will give you a better sense of what you're capable of next time.

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