Monthly Archives: July 2012

The East-West Rule and Daytime Navigation

Two summers ago, I went on a forty-day hiking and biking journey from Calais on the north shore of France to Chamonix, in the French Alps. I covered nearly 800 miles of terrain, and I used three main navigational tools: map, compass, and my wristwatch. At the beginning of the journey, I made a lot of route-finding errors, but I got better along the way as I learned to use the position of the sun to help me determine my direction–in addition to the information I gained from my map and compass.

The most important thing to remember when using the sun to help you find direction is that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Of course…there’s a bit of seasonal variation, and we’re not talking exact direction here, but the east-west rule is a general truth. Since I walked for many, many, many miles through fields in Northern France, I saw lots of wheat and hay, and I looked at how the sun hit the bales:

Since I knew the east-west rule, I knew that the side of the bales that was lit up by the sun at first light was the east-facing side.

Another general truism is that the sun is due south in the sky at midday. Notice where the sun is hitting these bales–photographed at midday–in comparison to the other bales photographed at first light.

Knowing how to use a map and a compass–your basic navigational necessities–is the best way to go about navigating through unknown terrain, but you can also use the east-west rule to help you move more confidently in your desired direction.

Want more daytime navigation tips?
Read my article on the About.com Survival Skills site:
“Daytime Tips for Finding North in the Northern Hemisphere”
Figuring out which way is north can help you find your way through unknown terrain. Here are a few tips for finding north during the daytime in the Northern Hemisphere.

Photos © Traci J. Macnamara.

The Utah Desert: Hot, Hot, Hot

Yikes–I just got an email from someone I know who is canyon guiding in Utah, and he said that the temperature was 101°F. I love the desert landscape of Southeastern Utah, but I can’t complain about the mild mountain temperatures here in Chamonix, France–cool evenings, sunny mornings.

With temperatures spiking into the triple digits, the Utah desert can be a pretty dangerous playground for those who aren’t expecting its particular climate challenges. Beyond high daytime temperatures, it can also get very cool at night. It’s important to stay hydrated and to carry emergency gear to self-support in remote areas. Flash floods can also be dangerous, as summer thunderstorms can quickly oversaturate the dry land.

Despite the dangers, I think Southeastern Utah is one of the most beautiful and fascinating places to pass time. Here’s a bit of evidence to support that claim. First of all…sunrise in Arches National Park:

Cartwheeling on top of Castleton Tower:

Big sky in Canyonlands National Park, near Salt Creek:

Evening sun at Indian Creek:

Sunset at Bridger Jack Mesa, Indian Creek:

What to know more about desert hazards and desert survival tips?
Read this article that I wrote on the About.com Survival Skills site:
“Desert Survival in Utah’s Canyon Country”
Knowing these desert hazards and desert survival tactics will help you stay safe in Utah’s high desert canyon country and other desert landscapes.

Photos © Traci J. Macnamara.

Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Summer Snow Survival

Title: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail // Author: Cheryl Strayed // Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf // 315 p. // 2012

I recently read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and loved how Strayed tells her story of a life-changing adventure hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. She’s funny and honest and real. Strayed sets off to hike the PCT in the midst of grieving over her mother’s death and a recent divorce. She’s able to tell a balanced story that offers the details of an exciting adventure and reveals the emotional depth that underlies it. Strayed does most of the hike alone, but along the way, she encounters rattlesnakes, endures excruciating blisters, and pushes herself to achieve new mental and physical limits. She meets a host of interesting characters along the way, but she emerges as the most interesting one of all.

The Pacific Crest Trail begins in Mexico and ends in Canada, crossing through California, Oregon, and Washington along the way. It crosses through both the Sierra Nevada and the Cascade mountain ranges, so Strayed covers a lot of high ground on her journey. She tells about hiking across snow slopes and learning how to use an ice axe to self-arrest in case she falls. Even though she bypasses a particularly snowy area in the Sierra Nevada, she encounters snow in many other areas and has to cross the snow slopes that she fears.

Crossing a snow slopes is a challenge that many hikers will face in the mountains during the summer, even if it hasn’t snowed for months. If you plan to go into an area where you might encounter snow this summer, check out these two articles I recently wrote on the About.com Survival Skills website. First of all, get some snow slope basics by reading “Summer Hiking and Snow-Covered Terrain.” For more on a related skill, read “How to Self-Arrest With an Ice Axe.”

I’ve also created a YouTube video demonstration of how to self-arrest with an ice axe:

Enjoy Wild–and get out there for some good mountain adventures this summer while you’ve still got a few months left!

Photo © Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times; Jacket: Alfred A. Knopf.

Further Reading on the About.com Survival Skills website:
“Summer Hiking and Snow-Covered Terrain”
Hiking across snow-covered slopes in the summer requires a specialized set of skills and techniques. Learn how to survive this challenging terrain by knowing what to do when you encounter it.

“How to Self-Arrest With an Ice Axe”
These step-by-step descriptions and photos demonstrate how to stop yourself from sliding down a snow-covered slope.

Outdoor Adventures: What to Pack?

My sister and three of her friends just arrived here in Chamonix, France for a hiking vacation. Over the next twelve days, they’ll walk nearly 110 miles in the Alps around the Mont Blanc massif through France, Italy, and Switzerland following trail of the Tour du Mont Blanc. I’m planning on mountain biking the route in two days and meeting up with them along the way.

Simply choosing what to carry is one of the biggest things to sort out before going on an extended outdoor adventure. Obviously, the activity will dictate most of the required gear, but other considerations come into play such as…pack weight, shared gear, and emergency gear.

Some good questions to ask before deciding what to pack include: Will it be possible to resupply food and water along the way? Will you need fuel? Will you carry a shared first-aid kit and shared navigation tools (map/compass)? What are the necessities, and what would you like to carry for extra comfort? Obviously…fancy shoes are neither for comfort nor for necessity, but sometimes they’re nice to have in town…

I keep a laminated checklist in my gear closet that lists all items I might like to take on a variety of outdoor activities ranging from hiking and backpacking to climbing and skiing. Simply looking at the list helps me remember what I may or may not need.

Using a checklist can help make packing faster, and it can reduce the chance that you’ll leave something essential out of your pack. See a sample checklist in an article I wrote for the About.com Survival Skills site titled “A Checklist Approach to Packing Outdoor Essentials.” This sample list includes common items you might like to pack in these major categories: clothing, food, navigation, emergency/first-aid, and personal items.

Want to read more about what to pack for the outdoors? Read on:
“A Checklist Approach to Packing Outdoor Essentials”
Use this checklist to pack outdoor essentials, survival gear, first-aid supplies, and other personal outdoor items.

Photos © Traci J. Macnamara.

The Dru: Rockfall and The Siren of The Alps

I mentioned in a post last week about the Floria Slabs that I was climbing when a large rockfall came crashing down from a peak called The Dru. I stopped climbing and turned around to watch it pull away and tumble to the ground. Plumes of gray dust looked like they were smoking from the peak, and everyone was in awe of the sight and sound.

In response to the rockfall that I saw on The Dru, I wrote an article earlier in the week on the About.com Survival Skills site titled “Surviving Rockfall Hazards: Look, Listen, and React.” Even if you’re not climbing in the Alps, rockfall is common in mountain terrain, and it can be avoided.


I felt thankful that I wasn’t climbing on The Dru–or anywhere near it when the rockfall occurred. This peak is notorious for its rockfall, and a friend of mine once called The Dru “The Siren of the Alps.” It beckons climbers to its beautiful face, but it’s deadly, too, like a Siren. Here are a few photos of the peak and its surroundings, beginning with the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) glacier at its base:

One of the best places to view The Dru is from the opposite side of the valley, in the Aiguilles Rouges. One of my favorite mountain huts at Lac Blanc has The Dru always looming in the backdrop, with its light gray rockfall-scarred face:

The Siren of the Alps can look pretty frightening in a storm (again, photographed from Lac Blanc, Aiguilles Rouges):

Most of the time, The Dru simply looks beautiful against the Chamonix skyline, as it does here in the winter…still proudly showing a rockfall-scarred face:

What to read more about rockfall? Here’s my article:
“Surviving Rockfall Hazards: Look, Listen, and React”
Rockfall can threaten anyone hiking in mountain terrain, so learn how to identify rockfall hazards and how to survive an active rockfall…click here to continue reading

Photos © Traci J. Macnamara

Get Tough: Adopt a Survivor Mentality

Are you the type of person who confronts challenges confidently? Or do you back down and cower away when they occur? I’ve certainly done my share of whimpering in the outdoors, even though I know that moaning might not help the pain of blisters, scrapes, or bruises. And it does nothing but annoy my outdoor-adventure companions. Most survival experts agree that having what’s called a survival mentality is key to surviving life-threatening situations. Especially when you’re in the outdoors, it’s important to adopt a survivor mentality when someone in your party gets hurt, when you confront an unexpected environmental challenge (bear! rockslide!), or when you get lost at night…for example. Sure–skills and tools and physical fitness are all important to your success, but having the right attitude is the foundation upon which you should build your skills.

If you’d like to strengthen your survival mentality, read my article titled “Adopt a Survival Mentality: How to Get Tough” on the About.com Survival Skills site. You’ll see the importance of, simply, deciding to survive and managing your stress. Developing a plan, sticking to a routine, and thinking positively are also important to overcoming your worst-case scenario.

Photo © Traci J. Macnamara.
Caption: Yours truly, displaying battle wounds–blisters–and exhibiting a positive, survival mentality: smiling through the pain.

Click this link to read more:
Adopt a Survival Mentality: How to Get Tough”

Mont Blanc: Beautiful, Tragic, and Sublime

The sad news here this week in Chamonix, France is that an avalanche killed nine climbers Wednesday morning on their way to summit Mont Blanc.

BBC News Reported on July 12 that four climbers are still missing. Reports aren’t clear on the cause of the avalanche–some say that it may have been caused by the climbers, themselves, passing over avalanche-prone terrain, or it could have been caused by a serac falling and then triggering the slide.

I’ve climbed Mont Blanc two times and wanted to post some photos to share the stunning beauty of this place in honor of the lost climbers. In the July 12 BBC Article, Chamonix-based guide Richard Mansfield described the area as “very beautiful” but very avalanche-prone. It’s not difficult to understand why people would want to go to this place; the tragedy is that many do not return.

The Cosmiques Hut, where many climbers stay the night before attempting to climb Mont Blanc:

Climbers making their way towards the Mont Blanc summit:

Sisters on the summit of Mont Blanc:

The view from the Mont Blanc summit:

Photos © Shawna Macnamara.
Captions (top to bottom): Mont Blanc in the evening light from Lac Blanc,seracs on the way to Mont Blanc summit, the Cosmiques Hut, climbers on the way to summit Mont Blanc, Shawna and Traci Macnamara on the summit of Mont Blanc,view from the Mont Blanc summit.

July 12, 2012 BBC article,
“French Alps avalanche: Climbers killed near Chamonix”:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-18688871