You’re enjoying another good long day in the mountains when you realize that those friendly clouds on the horizon are getting a little too close for comfort. Before you know it, you’re enveloped in thick fog; a whiteout. Do you know what to do?
Every situation is different, but following these six tips for handling sudden whiteout conditions can help you get through the worst of it.
1. Stay Calm
It’s easy to panic when the sky and snow merge. Especially if you have lots of ground to cover, it can feel eerie and disorienting. You may be worried, but as with most things in the mountains it’s essential to pause, take a deep breath, and take stock of your situation.
2. Never take Visibility for Granted
Once you’ve calmed down, you’ll remember that (thank goodness) you’ve been keeping track of landmarks all day. You know you were moving towards that fin of rock or that saddle when the storm hit, and you know what you passed along the way. Keep a running tally of landmarks and hazards, such as crevasses or terrain traps; this is your first line of defense should you lose visibility.
3. Know your Navigation Tools
Along with landmarks, it’s a good idea to quiz yourself periodically on your cardinal directions, even in good weather. Have a good look at your map before you start moving, and store a mental snapshot of your route. Knowing your general orientation at all times makes navigating with your compass much easier, should the need arise. The topo maps app is great for phones (but be cautious of battery life), and tools like the Adventure Racing Plotter Pro can help simplify traditional map navigation.
4. Track Your Rate of Progress
If you’ve got an altimeter watch or GPS, it can be used to track how fast you travel over different types of terrain. If you know it takes you 25 minutes to skin a mile ascending at altitude, then you can estimate how long it will take you to make it to certain landmarks, which is a good way to make sure you’re heading the way you think you are. Keep in mind that if your altimeter works on barometric pressure, it may be thrown off by an approaching low pressure storm cycle.
5. Use Flags
If there aren’t any landmarks, you can always make some. Particularly in glacier travel or in situations where low visibility is expected, you might need to be prepared to flag your route. Maybe you’ve just got a bushel of sticks or something more formal- the point is to mark where you’ve been so you can spot the safe route for return.
6. Be Prepared to Wait it Out
Sometimes it’s just not wise to keep moving. Maybe the terrain is too hazardous to risk getting off route, or maybe you’re running low on supplies. If you know you’re going to be in a remote enough place that a bivy might be necessary, especially one in bad weather, be sure to have emergency supplies like a lightweight stove and the Ultralite Alpini Shelter.
Whiteouts can be serious, so pay attention, be prepared, and go safely.