Scorching Sun and Deadly Snakes: Staying Safe in the Field

Scorching Sun and Deadly Snakes

Staying Safe in the Field

NASA’s Patrick Whelley hydrates in 100-degree heat in Potrillo field. (Photo: Katherine Wright)

By Taylor Ha

Five years ago, Jose Hurtado had a close call.

Hurtado, a planetary geologist at the University of Texas at El Paso, was guiding about 30 students along the edge of Kilbourne Hole, a giant volcanic crater, when a rattlesnake struck at the third student behind him.

There’s an adage about rattlesnakes, he joked:  The “first person wakes it [the snake] up. The second person pisses it off. And then the third person is the one it’s trying to bite.”

On that October day five years ago, the rattlesnake didn’t hit its mark. Even if it had, high boots would have shielded the student’s feet and ankles. And luckily, snake encounters in the Chihuahuan Desert aren’t that common, Hurtado said.

“My entire field career – you know, that’s twenty-something years now, longer than I admit – I’ve probably run into snakes maybe three or four times in the field,” Hurtado said. “I’ve had more injury due to desert plants than anything like a snake.”

Hurtado, a member of the RIS4E team, helped guide fellow researchers during the team’s fieldwork in June at Kilbourne Hole and Aden Crater, in southern New Mexico.  No snakes were encountered, and no injuries were reported.  Meticulous planning and preparation helped researchers be ready for hypothetical mishaps, and may well have prevented some.  But the main hazard the team encountered – heat that was excessive even for that desert in June – required some last-minute scrambling.

“You plan and plan, and then the best laid plan is worthless once your boots hit the ground,” said Jacob Bleacher, a scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center, who led the field team. 

Before the trip, Bleacher relentlessly reminded team members that they would need to drink a lot in the arid desert, even if they didn’t feel they were sweating.

“You are definitely sweating, but it just evaporates so quickly,” Bleacher said. “The way to tell if you’re not drinking is if it’s 3 p.m. and you haven’t had to go to the bathroom yet.”

To quote one of his preparatory emails:

“You must drink water.  Bring sunscreen and use it for uncovered parts of your body.  You must drink water.  I advise wearing clothing to cover your skin as much as possible.  You must drink water.  I will provide safety vests and first aid kits for the team  . . .  Also, don’t forget to drink water.”

Just in case, the trip leaders stocked their cars with ice chests of bottled water and sports drinks.

Still on the first day in the field — when temperatures hit 105, rather than the usual mid-90s – it wasn’t enough.   Instruments failed to operate properly, researchers’  soles melted off their boots, and several team members felt ill by the end of the day.  Several seasoned geologists on the team said it was the worst heat they had ever experienced.  By the next field day, the team had purchased some shade for the equipment, in the form of sun canopies from Walmart.

“It’s not so bad,” Bleacher said later in the week, when the midday temperature had fallen below 100. “It feels less like the sun and more like your oven.”

Potrillo’s terrain in the Chihuahuan Desert boasts a diversity of textures: smooth to very rough lava, sediment, soil, sand and ash dunes. After a day in the field, everything was coated with dust, and some felt it caused coughing and congestion. The unstable footing required attention.

“The biggest, most immediate hazard that I always see, running campaigns like this, is just tripping – tripping on things,” Bleacher said. Tripping can result in sprained ankles and shredded hands if, as often happens, people stretch out a hand to break their fall, and it lands on thick brush or a jagged rock.

To prevent that, he invoked the “Do one thing” rule. That meant don’t walk while you take a picture or send a text or check a map. Just walk. Or stop walking and do one other thing. But only one thing.

Another reason to pay attention is the desert’s abundant vegetation. It includes not only mesquite, yuccas and creosote bushes, but also short- and long-needled cacti.

“Those little needles, cacti needles, are sometimes impossible to see,” Lora Bleacher, RIS4E’s Education and Public Outreach Lead, said. “Having a nice big pair of gloves are good to sit on and protect yourself.”

But gloves didn’t protect a colleague of Nicole Whelley, a NASA research and education outreach specialist. She accidentally sat on a cactus during a potty break.

“Day One of a 30-day field campaign, and she’s bent over and we’re picking cacti out of her bum because she didn’t turn around to make sure that there wasn’t a cactus there,” Whelley remembered.

Protecting their bodies from cacti needles and the sun is the norm for many geologists in the desert. And at the end of the day, that’s okay.

“You get back [home] – you’re tired, you’re sore, your shoulders hurt from carrying stuff, but you did an awesome job,” Bleacher said. “You get to walk to some of the coolest places on the planet.”

Potrillo Packing Checklist 

  1. Long pants, sturdy boots, leather work gloves, and gaiters – protective knee-high cloth coverings worn over shoes – can protect you from brush, cacti, snakes and sharp rocks.
  2. Bright orange safety vests allow colleagues to easily spot you on a huge, sprawling terrain.
  3. Tweezers or a hair pick can pluck cacti needles from unlucky victims. And if you’re having a lunch break among the cacti, gloves can turn into nifty seat cushions.
  4. A hydration pack, such as a Camelbak – a water pouch in a backpack with a long, easily accessible straw – and an emergency water bottle are essentials.
  5. Long-sleeved, collared shirts, long pants, bandanas, sunglasses, SPF clothing, sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats are useful. Bleacher, who often wears an Indiana Jones-ish leather hat, encourages colleagues to protect themselves from the sun through the “bad-ass hat challenge.” “I wanna see who has the most bad-ass hat out in the field,” Bleacher said. “You can kind of get into the kookiness of it,” said Whelley, who typically dons a neon pink hat.

NASA’s Patrick Whelley hydrates in 100-degree heat in Potrillo field. (Photo: Katherine Wright)

By Taylor Ha

Five years ago, Jose Hurtado had a close call.

Hurtado, a planetary geologist at the University of Texas at El Paso, was guiding about 30 students along the edge of Kilbourne Hole, a giant volcanic crater, when a rattlesnake struck at the third student behind him.

There’s an adage about rattlesnakes, he joked:  The “first person wakes it [the snake] up. The second person pisses it off. And then the third person is the one it’s trying to bite.”

On that October day five years ago, the rattlesnake didn’t hit its mark. Even if it had, high boots would have shielded the student’s feet and ankles. And luckily, snake encounters in the Chihuahuan Desert aren’t that common, Hurtado said.

“My entire field career – you know, that’s twenty-something years now, longer than I admit – I’ve probably run into snakes maybe three or four times in the field,” Hurtado said. “I’ve had more injury due to desert plants than anything like a snake.”

Hurtado, a member of the RIS4E team, helped guide fellow researchers during the team’s fieldwork in June at Kilbourne Hole and Aden Crater, in southern New Mexico.  No snakes were encountered, and no injuries were reported.  Meticulous planning and preparation helped researchers be ready for hypothetical mishaps, and may well have prevented some.  But the main hazard the team encountered – heat that was excessive even for that desert in June – required some last-minute scrambling.

“You plan and plan, and then the best laid plan is worthless once your boots hit the ground,” said Jacob Bleacher, a scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center, who led the field team. 

Before the trip, Bleacher relentlessly reminded team members that they would need to drink a lot in the arid desert, even if they didn’t feel they were sweating.

“You are definitely sweating, but it just evaporates so quickly,” Bleacher said. “The way to tell if you’re not drinking is if it’s 3 p.m. and you haven’t had to go to the bathroom yet.”

To quote one of his preparatory emails:

“You must drink water.  Bring sunscreen and use it for uncovered parts of your body.  You must drink water.  I advise wearing clothing to cover your skin as much as possible.  You must drink water.  I will provide safety vests and first aid kits for the team  . . .  Also, don’t forget to drink water.”

Just in case, the trip leaders stocked their cars with ice chests of bottled water and sports drinks.

Still on the first day in the field — when temperatures hit 105, rather than the usual mid-90s – it wasn’t enough.   Instruments failed to operate properly, researchers’  soles melted off their boots, and several team members felt ill by the end of the day.  Several seasoned geologists on the team said it was the worst heat they had ever experienced.  By the next field day, the team had purchased some shade for the equipment, in the form of sun canopies from Walmart.

“It’s not so bad,” Bleacher said later in the week, when the midday temperature had fallen below 100. “It feels less like the sun and more like your oven.”

Potrillo’s terrain in the Chihuahuan Desert boasts a diversity of textures: smooth to very rough lava, sediment, soil, sand and ash dunes. After a day in the field, everything was coated with dust, and some felt it caused coughing and congestion. The unstable footing required attention.

“The biggest, most immediate hazard that I always see, running campaigns like this, is just tripping – tripping on things,” Bleacher said. Tripping can result in sprained ankles and shredded hands if, as often happens, people stretch out a hand to break their fall, and it lands on thick brush or a jagged rock.

To prevent that, he invoked the “Do one thing” rule. That meant don’t walk while you take a picture or send a text or check a map. Just walk. Or stop walking and do one other thing. But only one thing.

Another reason to pay attention is the desert’s abundant vegetation. It includes not only mesquite, yuccas and creosote bushes, but also short- and long-needled cacti.

“Those little needles, cacti needles, are sometimes impossible to see,” Lora Bleacher, RIS4E’s Education and Public Outreach Lead, said. “Having a nice big pair of gloves are good to sit on and protect yourself.”

But gloves didn’t protect a colleague of Nicole Whelley, a NASA research and education outreach specialist. She accidentally sat on a cactus during a potty break.

“Day One of a 30-day field campaign, and she’s bent over and we’re picking cacti out of her bum because she didn’t turn around to make sure that there wasn’t a cactus there,” Whelley remembered.

Protecting their bodies from cacti needles and the sun is the norm for many geologists in the desert. And at the end of the day, that’s okay.

“You get back [home] – you’re tired, you’re sore, your shoulders hurt from carrying stuff, but you did an awesome job,” Bleacher said. “You get to walk to some of the coolest places on the planet.”

Potrillo Packing Checklist 

  1. Long pants, sturdy boots, leather work gloves, and gaiters – protective knee-high cloth coverings worn over shoes – can protect you from brush, cacti, snakes and sharp rocks.
  2. Bright orange safety vests allow colleagues to easily spot you on a huge, sprawling terrain.
  3. Tweezers or a hair pick can pluck cacti needles from unlucky victims. And if you’re having a lunch break among the cacti, gloves can turn into nifty seat cushions.
  4. A hydration pack, such as a Camelbak – a water pouch in a backpack with a long, easily accessible straw – and an emergency water bottle are essentials.
  5. Long-sleeved, collared shirts, long pants, bandanas, sunglasses, SPF clothing, sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats are useful. Bleacher, who often wears an Indiana Jones-ish leather hat, encourages colleagues to protect themselves from the sun through the “bad-ass hat challenge.” “I wanna see who has the most bad-ass hat out in the field,” Bleacher said. “You can kind of get into the kookiness of it,” said Whelley, who typically dons a neon pink hat.