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"A PERSON THAT SAVED AT LEAST ONE LIFE WAS NOT BORN FOR NOTHING"

THE DANGERS OF MOUNTAINS

FOG

An enemy of every tourist and skier.

Everyone have experienced fog while driving, everyone experiences it in everyday life. When we are in the car, there are two things we can do: turn the fog lights on and significantly slow down. Still, sometimes fog is so thick that the broken line in the middle of road is not visible any more...

A what should we do in the mountains?

In the mountains the scale of everything is different. The landmarks are usually distant, so when the visibility is low they simply disappear...

It happened more than once that a skier got lost on Kasprowy Wierch in the Tatra Mountains because of the foggy weather - instead of following the Goryczkowa valley down to Kuźnice, he or she would head in the opposite direction, down the extremely long and deserted Cicha Liptowska valley, to Slovakia. That happened even to experienced skiers who had been there many times before.

There are also many examples of experienced hikers (and even distinguished mountaineers) who were so deceived by fog that they died of exhaustion just next to the mountain shelter, for which they had been looking for hours.


What is fog like?

It's always cold and humid. Sometimes it's close to a drizzle – dampening and unpleasant. If the temperature is around zero, it will often freeze on everything: rocks, grass, bridges or safety railings. In such cases the wet clothes become inflexible and if we don't wear gloves, the skin on our wet and frozen hands cracks, creating little but painful wounds.

But the most dangerous of the possible results of fog is the loss of sense of direction.

Even people who know a hiking trail or a ski slope very well can get lost there, because everything looks different in foggy weather: rocks and trees become bigger, distances are longer, bridges, turns and chasms appear all of a sudden. The situation is even worse if we are moving along a hiking trail that's completely covered in snow and where no traces can be found. In such circumstances remember to be especially careful, as a mistake may cost you a lot... At least a lot of unnecessary effort.

The density of fog varies. The visibility might be limited to a hundred or to a couple of meters. One loses the sense of direction even quicker when it becomes dark, as the drops of water in the air (from which the fog is built) reflect the light of the torch. The visibility is then as bad as if one was holding a white piece of paper in front of his or her face...

Moving around in such conditions is especially difficult in winter as the natural contrasts of landmarks, usually still visible in case of fog, disappear under snow. Then the clouds on mountain tops and in the valleys are the biggest, most treacherous enemy of every tourist and mountaineer.

But skiers should be careful as well! Even the easiest slope, which one knows quite well, can become dangerous in fog. Why? Fog flattens the slope and makes it seem even, although in reality it's full of bumps and moguls. If a speeding skier, who is unaware of the threat, gets into such a terrain, he or she can get seriously injured.

When skiing on broad slopes remember that in case of fog they'll all look the same. Try to remember their numbers and colours, as not all slopes lead to the same valley.

What to do in case of fog?

When hiking in the mountains in a numerous group it's a good idea to choose two leaders. The first one will walk in front. It would be best if that was a professional mountain guide but if that is not possible, choose someone that has already been in that place (hiked along this trail), has the best sense of direction or at least has got a map and a compass and knows how to use them. Make it a rule that no one can walk in front of him or her. The second leader will walk at the end of the group. For that function choose a person that's most fit and most respected (even if that's only because of his or her physical strength). Make it a rule that no one will stay behind him or her. Make that person realise how important the function is. Of course, the bigger the group and the more foggy the weather, the more closely this rule should be observed. If you follow that advice you can at least be sure that no one will be left alone in the fog, which might have tragic consequences.

If skiing in a group with diverse skills, make sure that the eye contact is always retained. Great skiers will have to wait for their less advanced friends with patience...

People used to believe that voice can save us in case of fog. That's not true! Fog reflects sound just as it reflects light. The reflected acoustic waves can come back to us from most unexpected directions (as the density of fog varies, the sound is reflected in many directions).

What should you do if you lose your way completely?

If you lose your way completely, follow your traces to the place where you still knew where you were. Remember that strong wind (especially during a snowstorm) can quickly cover your traces. When you get lost don't allow your group to panic or to walk around, remain cool. Keep looking for the trail but don't try to take shortcuts as they are hardly ever a shorter way.

There are often special orientation poles placed in the mountains (e.g. on Babia Góra, in the Bieszczady mountains and in the Karkonosze) in order to prevent people from getting lost. They might look funny in the sunshine, but you'll definitely find them useful in case of fog. Moving from one pole to the other should enable you to find your way and reach the destination, especially as the colour of the hiking trail is often marked on them. By the way, it's worth remembering that the colours of hiking trails have nothing to do with their difficulty, unlike in the case of ski slopes.

Another method to find your way in fog is to follow the border posts. There are symbols of the bordering countries on opposite sides of each post e.g. the side with S will show us the direction of Slovakia and the side with P will show the direction of Poland. The signs on the border poles simply inform a tourist coming from one country where is he or she heading.

On the ski slopes you should pay attention to the information boards. In case they're covered in snow you should shake it off, if you don't want to end in a wrong valley.

How to prepare for bad weather?

As the weather in mountains changes often, it's always wise to be well prepared. Even if we plan to be back in daylight, it's good to have a torch, a compass and a map of the area with us. More and more often sport watches will have a built-in compass and altimeter, which are helpful in the mountains. It's also a good idea to take a little flask with hot tea or coffee, a bar of chocolate and a rescue blanket. The chocolate will be a source of carbohydrates – needed in a stressful situation and the rescue blanket, although dispensable, is a great way to keep warm, especially when waiting for the arrival of mountain rescue.

Remember that mountain rescuers are not trained in telepathy... If you are going for a mountain trip always take a charged mobile phone with you and save the Mountain Rescue emergency number:+48 601 100 300. It will enable you to call for help in case you need it.

While waiting for the rescuers find a place that's covered from wind and be patient. Unfortunately, everything takes time. How long will it take them to arrive? Do you remember how much time it took you to get there? The rescuers will definitely arrive quicker...

To sum up

Hiking and skiing in the mountains, especially in their top parts, is always a bit risky in foggy weather and with no experience. One of the popular mountain guides used to say: Hiking in the mountains in such weather is like kissing a tiger's ass – it's not very pleasant and the risk is significant.

So, when there's dense fog in the mountains it's a good idea to stay in the shelter or go for a trip to... a local tavern. It's definitely more pleasant to spend time there, with mulled wine or tea with rum, listening to a band playing traditional music and to the local tales, than to go to the mountains in such a treacherous time...

To be continued...