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Perfect weather can ruin a day in the Chugach Mountains

  • Author: Vicky Ho
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published May 5, 2017

This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.

When daylight starts stretching past 9 p.m. in Alaska, the mood shifts.

It's as though we're collectively shrugging off the weight of winter, tiptoeing past the thawing dog poop of spring and eager to dive into the sunshine and mosquito swarms of summer.

Pump the brakes, folks, and slather on some sunscreen.

"Sun poisoning" is an actual medical term. But it has a slightly different meaning to some of us who recreate or work in the outdoors.

So, what is sun poisoning in that context? I'd define it as the detrimental effect ideal weather conditions can have on your decision-making.

Call it what you will. A friend described it as bluebird fever. Another suggested the name "dirtbag plague." You likely know the feeling, that compulsion to charge hard and take advantage of a beautiful day. When the skies are blue and the sun is shining, what could possibly go wrong?

As it turns out, a lot. A lot could go wrong.

When our decision-making is compromised, the trouble starts. We take mental shortcuts, or arrive at convoluted conclusions about what we should do. We know better, but that sunlight can be intoxicating.

That's the danger of sun poisoning.

"It's everywhere," not just in Alaska, said Nick D'Alessio, an American Mountain Guides Association-certified ski guide based out of Girdwood. (D'Alessio should know: He works as an avalanche educator and ski guide year-round in Alaska and New Zealand.)

"However, I bet some would say it's amplified here due to the darker midwinters and the prolonged stormy, rainy days we can have … When it goes blue here, people are yearning to get out and play."

I first heard about sun poisoning in the context of winter backcountry travel and avalanche safety, but its impact is broad. I've expanded my personal definition of sun poisoning to include that feeling of mania in spring when we're adding daylight in five-minute chunks each day.

Two things I wasn’t wearing on Matanuska Peak on a sunny day in May 2016: sleeves and sunscreen. I would come to regret this after a nasty sunburn set in. (Vicky Ho / Alaska Dispatch News)

Here's a sampling of what sun poisoning has led to in my life, ranging from low-level to high-level bad decision-making:

* Shirked responsibilities: The nicer the weather, the more likely I am to prioritize spending time outside. Instead of, say, folding the clean laundry in a heap on my bed and changing out my tires on time.

* Hiking in my sports bra, with a side of sunburn: On an isolated stretch of trail, my sweaty shirt comes off because I think no one is around and I want to revel in the sunlight. 1) Someone else is always around. 2) All the skin that hasn't seen the light of day in eight months is now exposed. This is where mental sun poisoning (fair-weather mania) begets physical sun poisoning (ouch). And all that time spent shirtless can lead down a bad road when it comes to skin health, and the resulting medical bills.

* Inadequate preparation for the weather: Giddy about blue skies over the Chugach Front Range, I fail to check the weather forecast and decide to guess instead. I wear shorts and ditch the rain pants because to my eyes, there's no way it'll rain. I posthole in spring slush up to Wolverine Peak, my legs scraping against brush. The wind batters my bare skin. And when I get to the top, you know what? It doesn't rain. It snows. (I wish I could say this happened long ago, and not last Sunday.)

* Long days I didn't plan for: Every beautiful day, I make excuses to stay outside longer. This would be fine if I had brought food of more substance than gummy bears and waffles.

* Missed red flags: Hiking toward Matanuska Peak last spring, I follow some old tracks in the snow until they abruptly end. As I push forward, the snow gets deeper, and it's beautiful snow, the kind I dream of skiing. I am snow drunk. Then, WHUMPH! A large slab of snow settles beneath me, and the sound echoes through the valley. Spooked, I turn around immediately and search online for local avalanche workshops.

It's not just about poor preparation, which is certainly a factor. These were all situations where I let how I felt about the conditions take precedence over what I knew I should do (be responsible, protect myself against the sun, bring rain pants, carry extra food, monitor my surroundings).

Sun poisoning. It'll get you.

So what can you do?

Whether your adventure involves skiing or sunbathing, anticipate the effects of sun poisoning before you set out. Once you're outside, resist acting on impulse and, instead, take a step back to re-evaluate the situation.

"What I try to do professionally for work and personally for play is identify your known human factors for the day," said D'Alessio, who also operates the guiding business Remarkable Adventures. Among those human factors: how we might be swayed by the allure of the conditions once we're outside.

D'Alessio's advice? "Discuss them with your group, embrace the fact that these human factors do change your decisions and try to combat this with tangible facts versus emotions."

This is a good time to play devil's advocate, whether you're with friends or on your own. It forces to you be honest with yourself about where you're going, what you're doing and why you're doing it.

When the weather is perfect, I also pack extra supplies (read: more sunscreen) because I know myself. No matter what I say now, later I'll want to wring out every last second from a day spent outside. And on longer day hikes — 20-plus miles — I may not expect to spend the night, but I'll still gear up for an overnight contingency plan.

As longer days draw more of us into the mountains, let's make sure we prepare ourselves.

Sometimes, we are our own worst enemy — and that's natural. Hell, that's human.

But hopefully, we can keep the sunlight from going to our heads. Or at the very least, keep it from frying our skin.

Vicky Ho is the night homepage editor at Alaska Dispatch News. An avid hiker and skier, she's also a mediocre runner, terrible biker and part-time employee at a local outdoor retailer. Have a cautionary tale to share? Contact her at vho@alaskadispatch.com, on Twitter @hovicky or Instagram @hovcky.

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