A month in the Mojave is almost enough to make one believe that rain does not exist. After weeks of climbing under the scorching sun in Red Rock Canyon, our re-acquaintance with unfavourable weather was as unwelcome as it was unexpected. Within days of arriving at Indian Creek, Utah, we were forced into an inglorious retreat after an unseasonable snow dump. The immediate effects of this were unfortunate in themselves, but the further implications put a dampener (pun intended) on our climbing itinerary. Given that the entirety of the region is formed of sandstone, a particularly porous rock, climbing in the days after precipitation is irresponsible at best and suicidal at worst. Suggestions on waiting times after rain vary from days to weeks, depending on the location and rock type. Climbers have been known to destroy holds and even yank bolts from the rock (a la Vertical Limit) when climbing on saturated sandstone. So it was that we performed a hasty exodus from our picturesque campsite in the shadow of Bridger Jack Mesa.
The incident got me thinking about how interdependent weather and our mood can be. As a motorcyclist and a soldier who spent roughly 6 months of every year in the field, rain was my nemesis, my one true foe. Luckily, I lived in Brisbane where there are 300 or so days of sunshine each year. In my outdoor wanderings, however, I am usually at the mercy of weather patterns with much greater volatility than that of my home town. I can recall several repeated trips in identical locations wherein the prevailing weather vastly altered the morale, efficiency and general enjoyment of the group. A perfect example harks back to two Mountaineering 101 courses I undertook in Patagonia, one as a student and the other as an assistant guide. The venue and plan were virtually identical, consisting of a 4 day warm-up in Cerro Castillo National Park followed by an 11 day jaunt on the Exploradores Glacier and beyond.
The first trip, which incidentally was also my first expedition with MTS, featured a Cerro Castillo traverse typified by perfect bluebird weather and an Exploradore traverse that was characterised by persistent rain, wind and even a touch of snow. For the second trip, the reverse scenario was true. In retrospect, it feels as though the second option is more advantageous. Not only are the cumulative days of misery less in number, but an initial arse-kicking sets you up well to deal with the prospect of future sufferfests. As it happened, our first group was lulled into a false sense of security, the illusion of which was comprehensively shattered in short order. So given the choice, I’d opt for dealing with the misery sooner rather than later. The reality, however, is that we are never given that choice. The weather is what it is, entirely regardless of our desires, aspirations or skills.
There is a time-honoured mantra that states that “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad equipment.” This might help assuage the physical pain you feel when purchasing Gore-Tex clothing which often retails at $400+ a throw, but it definitely does little to diminish the sting of betrayal when you realise the truth in the following bombshell: Gore-Tex doesn’t work. For anecdotal evidence, ask anyone who’s sat out a storm on the Ice Cap for tips on staying dry. To be fair, it works well in certain circumstances, to wit light rainfall and dry snow. It doesn’t, however, cope well with saturation, a marvel of nature that occurs with remarkable consistency in Patagonia. Describing the weather there would play out a little like that scene in Forrest Gump (big ol’ fat rain) with a series of snow related addendums. In addition, intense physical activity causes one to sweat, thereby causing the often unavoidable “raining on the inside” phenomenon. Despite the claim that Gore-Tex is “Guaranteed to keep you dry”, the harsh reality is that you will get wet, both often and thoroughly.
Whilst bad weather is an inevitability, bad attitude is a choice. Our perception is the only true variable that we have control over. But how much control do we truly have? To a certain extent, climatic circumstances have both psychological and physiological effects on humans. This can be observed on a broad scale by the existence of Seasonal Affective Disorder (and it’s aptly labelled acronym SAD). Prominent in countries of the far north, the disorder describes the hormonal changes and attending symptoms that occur with decreased levels of light in short winter days. Sufferers show signs of “classic depression including insomnia, anxiety, irritability, decreased appetite, weight gain or loss, social withdrawal, and decreased sex drive.” (Wikipedia.org). Obviously, it’s a bit of a stretch to attribute a shitty day on the trail to SAD, but there are many examples of weather affecting human behaviour and the body on a micro scale. For example, sudden changes of barometric pressure can trigger headaches and joint pain in some individuals. One study found links between high temperatures or rainfall with aggression (Hsiang, 2013). So it seems that weather does have real, measurable effects on us as humans, but the depth and severity of these depends largely on the individual. I’ve noticed that there are three types of responses to weather among folk of an outdoor persuasion. Here’s my graph charting the responses:
The Average Joe (80% of the populace)
These are the people I would describe as normal. This contains with it a certain amount of bias, as I’d probably lump myself into this category. Essentially, the Average Joe is as happy as a clam under bluebird conditions and experiences a decline in mood that is directly proportional to the decline in weather.
If you fall into this category, it helps to remember that you have placed yourself at the mercy of the wilderness by choice. Pleasure and pitfall go hand in hand in the outdoors. If it was easy, everyone would do it. Try to recognise your declining mood before it spirals out of control and in doing decrease the steepness of the decline.
The Poseur (15% of the populace)
We’ve all met one of these. They’re the guy or gal who professes to love terrible weather and the challenges it entails, but in reality they turn to custard as soon as the proverbial shit hits the fan. This type is the most unpredictable. The rate of decline as described by the graph is an approximate and could occur earlier or later than shown.
If you’re one of these people, try to be less of a douchebag. If you identify one within your group, or someone makes an early, overt wish for dramatic conditions, make a mental note and proceed with caution. You’ll be able to correctly identify a Poseur if they make initial gains in mood during slight deteriorations of weather, followed by a sharp decline in mood when circumstances become serious.
The Nutbag (5% of the populace)
These near-mythical individuals exhibit the rare gift of deriving genuine joy from the worst that nature can throw at them. Their mood is inversely proportional to a decline in weather, though you’ll notice a slight drop off towards the end. This is because they are human beings and respond poorly to the prospect of imminent death.
A Nutbag can be a boon in certain circumstances. Their stoicism in the face of adversity can help unify a group in the grips of a morale crash. On the other hand, it can be all but impossible to talk them into alternative plans of action that don’t involve pitting themselves against incoming fury. They are a double-edged sword.
Whatever situations befall you on your next adventure, forewarned is forearmed. Many locations have specific climatic conditions that hinge upon unique geographical nuances. In our Golden Age of Information, it proves easy to arm yourself with the right information, and subsequently the best gear and a reasonable plan with contingencies. Bad weather is not something to be feared, but it is certainly something to be respected. Remember, sometimes the best campfire tales come from pitting ourselves against the most brutal forces of nature. Inform yourself, stay safe and keep up the awesome.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.
Originally published in April 2015