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Where Have All the Hikers Gone?

Flakes drift from a silver sky and transform the path before us into a stretched white shawl. The air is palpable with frost and our breaths fashion fog ghosts that float amorphously behind our walking figures. Ice stalactites hang from the colossal trees scratching the sky and from the knee-high shrubs bordering  streams. The tracks of deer, bobcat, and squirrels merge with, and then diverge from, the wilderness turnpike we follow.

Photo: Which one of these prints belongs to the real cool cat?

That turnpike, step by step, takes us higher into increasingly bitter air. A lake we pass wears an armor of ice that had been black before this snow. Now it’s changing its color as it is painted with new snow. How could frozen water that looked so totally black be coated with more frozen water to make itself perfectly white? 

We walk on with the dry, weightless snow spraying around us with each footfall. Brief crystalline squalls also swirl around us, dampen our shirts, and then give way to sun breaks that press heat into the same fabrics and steam away the moisture.

We move through stands of giant conifers whose furrowed barks are coated with hairy mosses flocked with frost. Gradually the big trees give way to stunted firs with smooth, silver skin. Higher still, the trees disappear and are replaced by fields of granite boulders capped with snow roofs.

Blue skies come and go. Long views come and go. And after a few hours of glacier skiing, we come and go as well. On the return, the scenery is 180 degrees reformed. Mountain silhouettes, alpine lakes, and forest details we missed seeing on the approach all vie for our attention. 

Also grabbing our attention is the current solitude of an area that is well-used in summer. “Why isn’t anyone else out here?” my partner wonders aloud. Why aren’t others out here observing the southward migration of the sun and the crack in the climatic cycle through which winter has just emerged?

Certainly we’re not surprised by the absence of other half-witted skiers like us who carried boards for hours to log minutes of turns. But hikers interested in watching autumn being put to bed, mountaineers looking for a scramble into the sky, snowshoers observing winter’s arrival … where are they?

The sun is well below the horizon and only a few minutes of usable light remain when we drop packs by the bumper of the car. The temperature has plunged as fast as the sun and we quickly shed snowy boots and load up. We’re tired and are happy a long day of walking is over. We are also happy winter is just getting going -- days like these leave you wanting more.


Hiking All Year Long

During the hike described above, the snow wasn’t deep enough for skis or snowshoes and yet the frozen ground covered by snow was a slippery combination. MicroSpikes pulled over our trail shoes provided traction equaling that of walking dirt trails in summer.

It doesn’t take much snow to turn an easy hike into an impossible slog. If you’re unsure of how much snow is out there, or at what elevation you’ll hit enough snow to hamper efficient travel, throw lightweight snowshoes into the pack. Now you’re ready for whatever comes your way.

Photo: Snowshoes add only a few pounds of weight to the pack yet ensure you're prepared to handle all snow conditions encountered during a hike.

Cold temperatures are not to be feared, but do need to be matched with more clothing. Bring gloves and gaiters to protect fingers and toes, an extra shirt and a puffy jacket to insulate your core, a thin and a thick hat to slow heat loss through your head, and good waterproof outer wear to keep everything dry in the event of falling or blowing snow.

Photo: A pruning saw (right) or the blade of a pruning saw (left) as well as firestarters are useful wintertime safety items.

The ability to create shelter and fire fast are important for winter safety. Should you get lost or injured, a few precautions are critical for winter safety. A lightweight silnylon tarp, lighter, and fire starter are all particularly important. And in deep-snow conditions a pruning saw and small fire pan are also important. More about winter fires.