Saturday, July 7, 2012

What to do during a windstorm while hiking?

In light of the devastating windstorm that struck the Great Smoky Mountains Thursday evening, I have been wondering what a hiker should do if a severe windstorm were to hit while out on the trail. I did a few Google searches but could not find any advice.

So, I will pose my questions to my readers to see if anyone has any advice, recommendations, or even an authoritative source to quote:

My first question is what you should do if you're out on the trail, in the middle of the forest, miles from your car, and a severe windstorm hits? Running back to your car doesn't seem to be an option. Assuming you don't have meadow, a cave, a rock outcropping, or a steep embankment to use as a shelter, I'm thinking getting behind the largest (live) tree you can find might be the best thing you can do. I'm assuming you would have time to get out of the way if that tree were to fall. Of course I really don't know the answer to this question - any thoughts from anyone?

My second question: What do you do if you're driving when the storm hits - such as on Little River Road or Laurel Creek Road? Do you keep driving and hope to find a pull out or clearing in the tree canopy? Do you stop and get on the floorboard of your car? Get underneath the car? The last two options may protect you if a smaller tree falls on your car, but I'm not so sure about a large hemlock. Does anyone have any thoughts or suggestions?



Jeff said...

Hi Jeff. I've always heard it's best to find the lowest ground possible. If caught out in the open, even a small stream bed is better than nothing. If trees or branches begin falling around you, then the "V" of the drainage may be just enough to protect you.

It isn't a desirable situation, and there simply aren't many options, but the longer you remain in the open, unprotected, the greater your chances of being struck by debris, or worse.

Trubrit said...

Rhododendron is everywhere. Get deep under the bushes close to the main growth. Lay flat. You will be sheltered from the wind and any debris blowing around. A large tree dropping right on you is the same odds as lightning hitting you. You will be surprised just how sheltered you will be underneath Rhododendron growth. Rock shelters are great but dont touch the walls during lightning the current will pass right through the rock. Laying in the 'V' of a creek exposes you to a chance of a sudden flash deluge. If you get pinned yet unhurt then you risk the chance of drowning! .I will choose my friend the Rhododendron every time in any storm.

Nate said...

We were at campsite 17 when this storm blew up. It was completely disorienting, as the minimal thunder was in the NE, then the first large gust of wind came from the SE (perhaps down the valley of Abrams Creek). After the first gust, trees with 5 inch trunks basically split 2-3 feet off the ground and fell. We could hear several larger trees cracking and crashing down on the S side of the creek and at the edge of the area scoured by the tornado last year. Lots of branches crashing down all around. Alltogether, about 5-8 minutes of chaos, followed by steadily increasing rain.

We chose to shelter in our tents as the thunder approached, as we expected a big rainstorm rather than the wind storm. But, a large tree or branch would have caused significant injury. Lowest ground possible near us was Abrams Creek, where larger trees were falling. Although I've cursed rhodo before, I think Trubrit has a point about the rhodo, although a well-aimed branch or large tree could pin or injure.

Wherever the right place to be is, there remains the decision to abandon or not abandon tents--is this going to be an episode of straight-line winds, or just a garden variety summer storm? We never imagined that much wind or damage (which was still mild in our area compared with the damage and events near Abrams Creek Campground), so we chose the tents.

The Smoky Mountain Hiker said...

Nate - I'm glad to hear you and your group were alright. Based on what I've heard so far, it sounds like thousands of trees were blown down - do you think that's right based on what you saw? How long did it take you to get out of Cades Cove?


Nate said...

We hiked in and out from Abrams Creek Ranger Station. It took about 1 3/4 hours from site 17 (just over 3 miles), with our six year old setting the pace.

The EMS were at the Ranger Station when we arrived, and they were cutting thru downed trees on the road into the station. The injured had been stabilized and were awaiting enough space to be cut through the 3-4 trees to be carried out to waiting ambulances on the other side.

By 11pm, the road was mostly cleared by a backhoe and crews that we could leave. Lots of trees down along the Foothills Pkwy as we made our way to Maryville for a hotel. We didn't see Cades Cove at all, but from the areas we did see, I would estimate hundreds of trees down into the roads, with many many more in the park that didn't impact roads or trails.

Abrams Creek already had a lot of trees down, presumably from the 2011 tornado, but perhaps just regular deadfall. I would guess dozens more new that we saw, ranging from small to large. Little Bottoms trail had a few larger trees, and Cooper Road had 3-5 huge trees down. Trails and campsites will take some time to clear...

The Smoky Mountain Hiker said...

Nate - thanks for providing us with more information. Yes, that area the park was hit hard by the tornado.

Hopefully your next trip to the Smokies won't be so eventful!


Jack McCarron said...

Hey Jeff - I have little to add to the comments above. However, while checking the web for authoritative advice, I ran across these beautiful words from John Muir's "A Wind-Storm in the Forests" (1894).

Jack McCarron

The mountain winds, like the dew and rain, sunshine and snow, are measured and bestowed with love on the forests to develop their strength and beauty. However restricted the scope of other forest influences, that of the winds is universal. The snow bends and trims the upper forests every winter, the lightning strikes a single tree here and there, while avalanches mow down thousands at a swoop as a gardener trims out a bed of flowers. But the winds go to every tree, fingering every leaf and branch and furrowed bole; not one is forgotten; the Mountain Pine towering with outstretched arms on the rugged buttresses of the icy peaks, the lowliest and most retiring tenant of the dells; they seek and find them all, caressing them tenderly, bending them in lusty exercise, stimulating their growth, plucking off a leaf or limb as required, or removing an entire tree or grove, now whispering and cooing through the branches like a sleepy child, now roaring like the ocean; the winds blessing the forests, the forests the winds, with ineffable beauty and harmony as the sure result.

After one has seen pines six feet in diameter bending like grasses before a mountain gale, and ever and anon some giant falling with a crash that shakes the hills, it seems astonishing that any, save the lowest thickset trees, could ever have found a period sufficiently stormless to establish themselves; or, once established, that they should not, sooner or later, have been blown down. But when the storm is over, and we behold the same forests tranquil again, towering fresh and unscathed in erect majesty, and consider what centuries of storms have fallen upon them since they were first planted,--hail, to break the tender seedlings; lightning, to scorch and shatter; snow, winds, and avalanches, to crush and overwhelm,--while the manifest result of all this wild storm-culture is the glorious perfection we behold; then faith in Nature's forestry is established, and we cease to deplore the violence of her most destructive gales, or of any other storm-implement whatsoever.

There is always something deeply exciting, not only in the sounds of winds in the woods, which exert more or less influence over every mind, but in their varied waterlike flow as manifested by the movements of the trees, especially those of the conifers. By no other trees are they rendered so extensively and impressively visible, not even by the lordly tropic palms or tree-ferns responsive to the gentlest breeze. The waving of a forest of the giant Sequoias is indescribably impressive and sublime, but the pines seem to me the best interpreters of winds. They are mighty waving goldenrods, ever in tune, singing and writing wind-music all their long century lives. Little, however, of this noble tree-waving and tree-music will you see or hear in the strictly alpine portion of the forests. The burly Juniper, whose girth sometimes more than equals its height, is about as rigid as the rocks on which it grows. The slender lash-like sprays of the Dwarf Pine stream out in wavering ripples, but the tallest and slenderest are far too unyielding to wave even in the heaviest gales. They only shake in quick, short vibrations. The Hemlock Spruce, however, and the Mountain Pine, and some of the tallest thickets of the Two-leaved species bow in storms with considerable scope and gracefulness. But it is only in the lower and middle zones that the meeting of winds and woods is to be seen in all its grandeur.