By Lucy Higgins • October 5, 2022
A few years ago while on a trip to visit family in Colorado, my husband and I joined up with a small group of friends on a hut trip to Goodwin Greene Hut. The cabin lies nestled in the Elk Range, tucked at the head of the Difficult Creek drainage about 12 miles outside of Aspen as the crow flies. It’s known as the most difficult of the Alfred Braun Huts to reach, as it sits at the highest elevation and three sides of the cabin are surrounded in federal wilderness. It’s notoriously tricky to find in inclement weather, burrowed in along a basin after a long slog through a snow field.
In winter, it’s a full day’s skin in to reach Goodwin Green, and we picked our way across drainages and paths for hours, happily catching up with old buddies under the Colorado sun. Thanks to friends who’ve spent a lifetime in the range, we navigated the route easily and made good time to the cabin. Soon enough, we were hunkered down for the evening and our plan for the following day was to ski a bit before packing it back out.
The next morning greeted us with more sun, and we spent the day exploring nearby lines that ran short and sweetly back to the hut. As we were about to head out, however, the weather shifted. Snow drifted down, first vertically, then increasingly slanted. Our window to leave dropped, and it did so quickly.
So we did what all backcountry skiers—and all who travel along trails—have to do each time they venture out. We made a risk assessment. And then we made the best decision that we could.
For us, that looked like rapidly packing up and heading out into the approaching storm. We knew, given the weather that was expected later, that this storm wouldn’t ease up anytime soon. Our best bet was to chance it and head for home. It was a decision that took us deep into the night. Luckily, two friends had ridden snowmobiles in, and flanked the groups with their lights on as we carefully picked our way through blurry, dark conditions for hours. Eventually, we made our way back to the trailhead, gratefully loading into our cars and praying a fast food restaurant in town might still be open. It was a harrowing trek, but ultimately the right call.
Risk management is an inherent skill to bring on any trail. Since we can minimize but never eliminate risk from an outdoor scenario, our best bet is to understand it as much as possible.
That starts with our own knowledge. Before venturing into terrain, it’s imperative to educate yourself on the basics. Read up on the weather forecast, even if you’re heading into a place you’ve traveled to countless times, check online forums to see if there’s been changes to trails, and make sure you’ve packed all the supplies that you will need to get to and from where you’re headed—plus a little extra. Simple preparation can be the best risk mitigation of all. In our case, we each had studied maps of where we were heading, and knew of weather patterns moving in—including their intensity and expected duration.
While we can’t control our environment—in our Goodwin Green trip, this was certainly proven true—we do have influence over not only our own behavior, but that of our group. Fully talking through the day’s plans and a few backup plans before even hitting the trail allows everyone to start from the same vantage point. Stopping regularly to chat about observations, energy levels, and anything else also gives folks time to voice concerns that may have arisen since starting out. Without proper and consistent communication, risk management simply does not exist in a group setting. We’d spend enough time weighing our pros and cons together before heading back out for the trailhead that our entire group was in agreement about our decision. No one left wanting to hunker down in Goodwin Greene, and each person’s concerns about the trek out were addressed.
Should the worst occur—an injury, a storm rolling in, a case of food poisoning—it’s time to bust out the tools. In our case, it was headlamps and sled lights, as well as plenty of snacks, water, and warm layers. We had plenty of tools that we didn’t end up needing, thankfully, but could have easily relied on should we have gotten lost or needed to hunker down for the night. Satellite radios, bivvies, and camp stoves take up fairly little space in a pack, and can greatly decrease outcomes like hypothermia and dehydration.
Risk is an inherent part of the journey, and it’s something we accept each time we venture out. In most cases, some foresight and preparation allows for adventure to go off without a hitch. In the event that the storm clouds do roll in, having the right tools and the education in how to use them is paramount to proper risk management. And should the scales not tip in a favorable direction for you, there’s always the option to opt out. Risks come and go. The trails will be there.