When to turn around

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When to turn around

Post by mgl45 »

Hello folks!

I am new to the forum and I've been soaking up tons of helpful info about the importance of weather in mountain hiking, especially higher peaks.

I've gained an understanding that looking at forecasts is important but a lot of this comes down to watching cloud formations during the climb, keeping an eye out for those that indicate instability and increased risk of thunderstorms.

From a link one of you posted, I found a great description of the stages of cloud development (below). From what I've read, the cloud development toward thunderstorms in the earlier stages sometimes is halted and storms never form.

My question for you all is, when watching cloud development when have you decided to turn around? I realize this is probably pretty subjective, just hoping to get a feel for it based on how you all have made your decisions in the past.

Thanks much for any advice you can offer.

Cloud Development descriptions from
https://www.fs.fed.us/psw/cirmount/wkgr ... 031607.pdf

First cumulus clouds: Small fragments of cloud appearing in the morning, above the high points. Earlier and lower appearance of such clouds indicates more water and/or instability available for cumulus development.

Cumulus growth: Potential for further growth is indicated by turrets rising above general cloud-top level, by individual cloud columns that are taller than wide, and by cumulus clouds that are at least as high as they are wide.

Towering cumulus: Large clouds showing multiple turrets on top and sides surge upward rapidly, and in overall shape are taller than they are wide. Powerful towers under gray skies are especially telling forerunners.

Glaciation: Ice forms in the high, cold cloud tops, initiating shower formation, the electrification that leads to lightning, and a surge in cloud growth. Visual indicators include softening of cloud edges, less bright white, silkytexture, diffuse veils and streaks. You can assume ice formation when the tops reach the -10oC level and colder.

Shower formation: When ice forms, showers develop in the cloud, in about 30 or 40 minutes. Evidence can sometimes be seen in the diffuse streaks that remain when a recently-grown tower dissipates.

Graupel, rain, or hail can reach the ground in the next 10 or 20 minutes after initial shower formation within the cloud.

Lightning: Electrification arises from the precipitation process, and can reach discharge potential in minutes. First lightning usually occurs within the cloud, and strikes to the ground follow within minutes. Lightning can hit the ground even miles outside of the cloud base.
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Re: When to turn around

Post by pvnisher »

At the last possible minute but well before it's too late.
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Re: When to turn around

Post by nyker »

Depends on the mountain/route, where you are on the route and time of day as well as weather in general and your fitness at the time (are you feeling strong or already tired).
Also sometimes you can't see the cloud formations such as in a whiteout.

If its the tail end of a system, I might be more aggressive or at least wait it out. If its the beginning of a storm or where there is more than a day of weather ahead, I'll be more conservative going into a situation where if something went wrong, I'd have multiple days of bad weather ahead (but then again you should be aware of the next day's weather forecast and plan accordingly). If it's in a shoulder season where material snowfall is a threat, I'd probably opt to be more conservative especially if route finding would be a concern.

If it's 7am and I am starting a more technical portion of a route, but dark clouds are looming, I might wait it out lower down below treeline and see if it clears, in those situations maybe I wait an hour or two, but again depends when I started or if I feel I am running behind my schedule. If it's a longer and more exposed route with greater consequences if something goes south, I might also wait if early enough, but will factor in return time to get back to a safe point and see how timing might be then, factor in downclimbing wet rock in the dark/under headlamp, etc. If I started late and its 2pm with still 1-2hrs to the summit, I'd probably just turn around if anvil clouds are building or snow starting etc, but again depends on the route, distance, etc. If I had to hike 7 miles back half of which is on boulders in the dark, I'd think twice about that. If I had a 4x4 truck parked at 12,500ft a mile or two away on flat terrain, maybe I'd go for it, if no lightning or snow was expected.

In short, it depends. A good way to help mitigate (not eliminate) the weather risk is start early, typically well before dawn to give yourself ample time to wait and see how conditions change if they are iffy or unexpectedly poor.
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Re: When to turn around

Post by Wentzl »


The threat is way overstated, just like . . .
Shorter of Breath and One Day Closer . . .

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Re: When to turn around

Post by ekalina »

I like to turn around prior to the towering cumulus stage, especially if exposed on a ridge. Once clouds are taller than they are wide, thunderstorm formation can progress rapidly. You're right that it doesn't always– it depends on how the temperature and moisture change with height in the atmosphere – but in the field it's difficult to tell whether the developing cumulus in front of you is going to keep growing full-steam ahead or hit a pause when the cloud top reaches a stable layer in the atmosphere.

In the link you posted, the right panel of Fig. 6 shows a situation that has gotten me stuck in storms in the past in less than ideal places. I'd recommend turning back before that happens – long before if it's going to take you a significant amount of time to get back to treeline. If the clouds in Fig. 6 are off to the races, you might only have 20–30 minutes before the lightning starts.
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Re: When to turn around

Post by Jorts »

I sat around on the summit for 15 min today with dark but static clouds all around.

I’m far from an expert but couple anecdotal things I notice when that dangerous energy seems to be building: cooling temps, higher wind, rapid darkening, and lastly, thunder in the distance. I’m a pansy, if I hear distant thunder I bail or at least hunker down BTL.
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Re: When to turn around

Post by Imcp »

Watching the rate of change of clouds is one of the best things you can do. I was on Redcloud at 4 pm a couple years ago and it was light fluffy clouds all day, maybe 75% blue sky, with no change in cloud density. With a dry sunny forecast, that was a safe decision. Also keeping track of where the clouds are moving is good. A storm 30 miles away and not moving toward you isn't something to worry about.

One thing is that I have never regretted turning around and learning by turning around is better than learning by near misses with lightning. The worst turnaround my brother and I ever had to do was Bierstadt at 5 am. There was graupel and lightning and it wasn't safe to be up so high so we went back down to the bottom. Since we had already done it before we just went home even though it was awesome weather for the people who had woken up later than us.

Edit: Also I second that figure 6 is where it is time to turn around unless you have a very good reason to believe they won't develop past that. Densely packed building clouds like that, particularly if they grew into that quickly shouldn't be messed with.
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Re: When to turn around

Post by Tigerbear »

Start with a headlamp on the easy part of the trail to avoid weather......
people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel...
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Re: When to turn around

Post by cedica »

Wentzl wrote: Sun Jun 27, 2021 10:01 pm The threat is way overstated, just like . . .
... big cats, maybe?
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Re: When to turn around

Post by nunns »

I would like to pretend I have objective criteria, but honestly it is very subjective and as others have said depends on many factors. I have turned around several times, and have continued up two times when in hindsight I should have turned around. If I am getting near the top, then I would most likely wait until I saw a lot of dark clouds before turning around. Lightning would definitely make me turn around immediately no matter where I was, unless it was a LONG ways away (10 miles or more).

I am sure there are people on here who have much better criteria.

Starting earlier in the day can alleviate some of the danger, but not all. One of the two times I was caught up high during a storm was at 10am.

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Re: When to turn around

Post by climbingcue »

Tigerbear wrote: Mon Jun 28, 2021 6:19 am Start with a headlamp on the easy part of the trail to avoid weather......
This, if the weather is a bit iffy, we just start earlier. Or we pick another day with better weather.
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Re: When to turn around

Post by pvnisher »

I, like most people here who have done a few things in the mountains, have numerous stories of things I've done wrong, close calls, "good stories", etc

I'm definitely more cautious now but in the past have definitely over stayed my time and ended up literally sprinting down, off trail, knowing I was risking broken ankle but felt the risk of the broken ankle was outweighed by the pressing electrical danger I was in.

You know when your hair is standing up, the tips of your hiking poles make little crackling noises, and the air tastes like when you put your tongue on a battery? Yeah, like that.
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