Shelter in place, hunker down, social distancing. In the past month, these terms are all too common with everyone around the World, as we collectively hunker down in our homes to help slow the spread of COVID-19. However, anyone that’s spent a good amount of their time in the great outdoors has likely been very familiar with these terms long before the COVID-19 pandemic, just not to this scale and importance. Odds are, you’ve had to hunker down at least a time or two when Mother Nature changed her mind on the weather in a matter of minutes. A beautiful sunny, day can quickly turn into life threatening weather conditions. As we are forced to stay at home, I want to reflect on and share a time when my wife, Rachel, and I had to hunker down last summer while scrambling in the Dolomites of Northern Italy. 

In late August of 2019, we spent two and a half weeks exploring the Dolomites, simply put, this area is stunning and one of the most memorable, special places I’ve ever been fortunate enough to visit. There is no other place like it. In that time, we did our best to enjoy everything this unique place had to offer but our main mission was explore the mountains. We spent every day of our vacation in these iconic mountains and put in well over 100 miles of hiking and scrambling. Most the days were great weather and went perfectly, except for one, a day that I’ll never forget.

The day started like so many of the others, we woke up, checked the weather, devoured some breakfast, packed our backpacks up and headed straight for the hills. The hike we were doing this day was a long circuit, or loop. Most of the hike was a steep ascent up and around a mountain and over several saddles. The first half of the day was textbook bluebird, you could see forever and I even got sunburnt. After lunch we ascended over the first saddle to the other side of the mountain where we could see some thin clouds building very far off in the distance but there was no need for concern. A few more hours into the hike the clouds moved in a bit more and it was lightly drizzling, still, nothing to worry about, we’ve hiked in the rain countless times and there was no signs of lightning. 

Looking back at the first saddle we crossed shows the contrast in weather as the weather started to get really dark on the right side of the picture.

As we were about 20 minutes from the top of the second saddle (the highest point in the hike) we ran into an Italian couple that was coming down the mountain and they looked pretty flustered. They were soaking wet and trying to tell us something. Unfortunately, we didn’t speak Italian and they didn’t speak any English. After a few minutes of making weird hand gestures at each other we gave up and parted ways. They continued down while we kept scrambling up towards the top. In hindsight, I realize they were trying to warn us what lurked on the other side of the mountain we were approaching. When we reached the top of that saddle, it all made sense, the other side was an entirely different world. It was no longer just a light drizzle, the rain had really picked up, the wind was howling and we started to hear thunder. 

Things were quickly deteriorating and we had to evaluate our options and make a quick decision. Option A was to turn back and go down the way we just came from but this route was very exposed with no places to take shelter for miles. Option B was to shelter in place on the saddle but, again, we were completely exposed, there was no shelter and lightning was getting worse. Nope and nope, option C it is. Our only option was to keep moving forward and risk a steep, wet descent down a couloir to get to a place where we could hunker down ASAP. From the saddle we could see a lower ridge with tree coverage that wasn’t that far but getting there was going to be rough. That was our target, that was where we needed to get to safety and hunker down. 

As we were carefully making our way down the couloir, things were getting worse by the minute, the rain managed to intensify even more and it was like being blasted by a non-stop fire hose. We were freezing cold and so drenched that I swear I’ve been drier in a swimming pool. By this point, we had four very real concerns- lightning, flash flooding, hypothermia and not slipping and falling down the couloir. We found a large boulder with a slight overhang about half way down the couloir. It was a good spot to quickly put more layers on to avoid hypothermia but it certainly wasn’t a place we could hunker down for very long as we were still too exposed to lightning and our growing fear of a flash flooding.

Shortly after we left our rock spot, our worst fear became a reality. With a loud rumble, the faint trail we’d been following down the couloir had turned into a raging waist-deep river. Just like us, the water wanted to find the easiest path down, it won and now it owned the trail. Without a trail and still left exposed, our only option left was to very carefully scramble over boulder after boulder until we reached that lower ridge with trees. As this new river snaked down the couloir, we were forced at several points to jump over the river to another boulder. I’ve never had to be so careful with each step in my life. The trail turned angry river was moving so fast down the steep face that if one of us fell in it would have swept one of us to bottom of the mountain in seconds. In normal conditions it would have taken us 15-20 min to reach the tree line below but in these conditions, it took us a grueling and terrifying hour. Fortunately, we eventually made it to our hunker down spot in the trees and the storm moved out. Other than being physically and emotionally exhausted, we were ok, we were finally safe. It was a very close call and, honestly, we were very lucky to make it out of that situation, at the very least, uninjured. 

At this point, we’d finally gotten to a ridge, out of the flash flood funnel we were in and were only a few hundred feet from the trees. This waterfall, that didn’t exist an hour earlier, was the last (mellow) remnant of our flash flood encounter. Rachel said it best, “This waterfall at the end of a steep descent turned raging river felt weirdly safe and beautiful. It felt like a reward because after and hour of Hell, I knew the trail heading away from the canyon meant we were safe. Mother Nature showed us today that she is truly wild. She reminded us to be prepared, be smart and don’t underestimate nature. Today was beautiful, but then it was scary. I’ve never experienced flash flooding before, but when it turns your only way out into a raging river in an instant, you realize how truly vulnerable you are.”

To this day, I still I go over that situation in my head and wonder if what we did was the right decision or not. Ultimately what I’ve realized is that sometimes there are situations out of our control where there is no “right” decision, just a decision that needs to be made. Sometimes there are only shitty options. You have to quickly evaluate the situation and lean on your past experiences to choose what seems like the least shitty option for the situation in that moment. 

Today’s COVID-19 pandemic draws a parallel for me to a tough situation in the backcountry. The situation is out of our control, we don’t have all the info and all the options are shitty. All we can do is our best to keep our heads on straight, not panic and hunker down to ride the storm out. Just like a crazy shit storm in the mountains, this storm will pass too and we’ll be stronger and more experienced because of it. The entire planet is essentially on pause, embrace your hunker down time as a learning experience and a gut check to what you really value in your life. 

Good times will prevail again but it is a guarantee that there will always more tough times ahead as well. Use these tough experiences to better prepare yourself for the next time things don’t go as planned. Remember, nothing is guaranteed, we’re not entitled to anything and your entire world can change in an instant. If we all do our part to help slow the spread, in a few months we’ll all be able to put ourselves back at the mercy of the mountains.

Jeff Popp – Product Line Manager at Mountainsmith

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