How to beat the odds

[ Follow Ups ] [ Post Followup ] [ Yellowstone Up Close and Personal Chat Page Version 1.60 ] [ FAQ ]

Posted by Ballpark Frank ( on 08:22:03 06/11/14

In Reply to: I think about that possibility posted by Granite Head

Granite Head,

There's a reason the name "widow makers" came into our lexicon a long time ago, to describe dead trees that are poised to fall on someone. For all I know, it may have been borrowed from the logging industry.

I notice the responding rangers spoke of windy weather conditions in the area. That is the key ingredient to producing extremely hazardous conditions in a burned forest that features "snags" (fire-burned trees still standing).

Most visitors are unfamiliar with lodgepole pine ecology. One of the key features is that they have a very shallow root system, and no tap root. They also have a decided preference for sandy soil. Combine that with historic fire and a strong gusty wind, and you have the makings of a serious hazard.

Those of us who have hiked extensively in Yellowstone's forests that burned in 1988 have witnessed this deadly force at work. A group of us hiking the Howard Eaton trail from Canyon to Fishing Bridge, east of the Yellowstone River, were treated to the sound of falling snags one day, many years ago, just south of LeHardy Rapids. It really spurred us on. The spooky aspect of this event was that we were not walking in a burned area. These were largely live trees that were being toppled by the wind. In this case, exposure to the wind was likely the key variable.

The worst I have ever experienced was about 5 or 6 years ago. Roadie and I were exploring an area just north of Hayden Valley, west of the road. We were caught by a weather front that moved in quickly from the west. As sometimes happens, this featured intense wind. Had we been in Phoenix or Tehran, we probably would have experienced a "haboob". We heard a strange noise to the west before the wind arrived where we were standing. It moved steadily closer. When it got to within a couple hundred yards of us, we were able to determine it was the thunder of scores of snags crashing to the ground. We had to seek shelter quickly. Thankfully, the remnants of snags that had already fallen provided a relatively safe solution. We were surrounded by a hodgepodge of fallen trees, criss-crossing each other at various angles. The trick was to find a trapezoid or triangle deep enough for us to crouch or lay beneath. We each found a suitable spot, and laid there until the surge advanced past us. We could look toward the wind, and see entire clusters of trees dropping, some fire-burned and dead, others still green and alive. The sound I will never forget, a sentinel alert somewhat like the train sounds reported by tornado survivors, was the snapping noise created by the root systems giving way, shortly before the larger sound of the tree hitting the ground. Seeing clusters of anywhere from 3 or 4 to as many as 8 to 10 trees go over at once was way spooky. We got out of our shelters and resumed walking, only to have a second line of wind come through. It wasn't as strong as the first, but it still brought down some trees.

In case anyone wonders why Bridge Bay campground is so "naked", compared to the lovely forest that adorned that ground 30 or 40 years ago, it is because those live trees started falling over in strong winds. I know there were incidents of RV's, tents, and vehicles being struck by falling trees. I don't know about people. I've been told that at some crucial juncture, the NPS decided to remove most of the mature trees to mitigate the threat. I have vivid memories and old slides of a memorable stay in the thickly forested A Loop at Bridge Bay back in the 1970s. Those trees were thick diameter and tall.

My advice to anyone hiking in a Yellowstone lodgepole forest in high winds is (1) get out of there ASAP, and (2) if you are stuck walking for miles to get out, make the judgement call as to whether it makes sense to shelter in place versus trying to make a speedy exit.


Follow Ups:

Post a Followup

Optional Link URL:
Link Title:
Optional Image URL:
Please enter the following value as your Submit Key:     
Submit Key:
Note: The Submit Key is Case Sensitive. Do not Copy and Paste!

[ Follow Ups ] [ Post Followup ] [ Yellowstone Up Close and Personal Chat Page Version 1.60 ] [ FAQ ]