Saturday, March 11, 2017

Snowshoeing in the Rockies

Hallett's Peak above the frozen Bear Lake - Rocky Mountain National Park
          When invited by my brother-in-law to go snowshoeing in Colorado, I jumped at the chance for a winter trip of a different sort. In retrospect, I think Gretta would have loved snowshoeing, and like so many things she did, she would have easily mastered it.
          Reflecting on the trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, I was amazed at the contrasts of each day. The same area around Bear Lake looked so different due to clouds, sunshine, wind, temperature and time of day. The first day we were greeted with low temperatures, no wind and falling snow. The second day the mountains were swept with strong winds (30 to 50 mph) and variable cloudiness. The snow was blowing so strongly through the mountains and forests that the large peaks were not visible. On the third day, the wind kept blowing, but the peaks stood out in all their glory. The trip reminded me that high altitude and the weather are powerful forces that must be respected if one wants to be safe and enjoy the unique environment.

Snowshoeing in the Rockies

travel memoir
by Gregory E. Larson

          The snow continued to gently fall as we strapped on our snowshoes. I had assumed the snowshoes would look like tennis rackets on the feet, but the outdoor equipment has evolved into high-tech gear. The shoes, made of plastic with aluminum grippers on the bottom, are much narrower and have parallel sides, which prevent imbalance and tripping.
           The snow base for the entire winter of 2017 was sixty-three inches deep, and six inches of new snow had fallen the previous day. Our guide commented, “This is the most snow I’ve seen up here in the park since I moved here thirty-five years ago. It will be a muddy mess during the thaw, and that will last all the way through June.”

           He made sure we had the proper clothing before we put on the snowshoes. With single-digit temperatures, he wanted to make sure we wore several lightweight layers to trap the air and keep the body warm. I had learned long ago from the bike-riding days that the proper clothes, along with drinks and snacks were essential for a comfortable day. I made sure that everything was tucked, zipped and snapped to my satisfaction before we started. My head was covered with a balaclava, ski goggles and a hood. The only exposed skin was my nose for breathing.
All of the clothes and gear used (snowshoes and poles not shown)

          The snowflakes continued to drift down through the trees around Bear Lake as we began our hike on an unmarked trail towards Nymph Lake. Immediately I felt I had been transported to some other world as the snow-covered Engelmann spruce towered above us, cutting off part of the daylight which existed during the snowfall. We moved up the trail like slow-paced gnomes. Whoosh! An overloaded branch dropped an avalanche of snow down onto the trail. The guide remarked, “It’s kinda fun to watch as long as it doesn’t hit us!”
Heavy snow on the spruce trees
          While we stopped to rest, he showed us bobcat tracks and porcupine claw marks on the tree trunks. “Porcupines are slow tree-climbers, so every now and then I’ll spy one rustling up in the branches.”

          Up the trail we went, learning to move the left foot with the right pole, and the right foot with the left pole. We arrived at Nymph Lake and walked out onto the snowy, frozen surface. Our guide explained that in the fall, thousands of toads burrow in the mud to try to keep warm, but they all eventually freeze and their hearts stop beating. Miraculously, they revive themselves to make noise again in the spring.
Standing on frozen Nymph Lake
          The snow continued to collect on our hats and packs, and the massive peaks were not visible because of the cloud cover.
          The next day we hiked without a guide. Snow was swirling off the peaks and the trees. In the valleys, the wind speed was 30 mph with gusts up to 50 mph. We selected a trail at a lower elevation in the forest, and were amazed at how calm it was among the firs, spruces and aspens. The sun cast long shadows through the aspen groves and we spied giant boulders coated with snow and ice. I sensed the streams would be overflowing and noisy in the spring. The quiet enveloped us. I heard myself breathing as I continued to put one foot ahead of the other. An occasional gust of wind broke the silence, causing snow to swirl in the sunlight while the tops of the tall spruce trees swayed violently.
Watercolor impression of the
hike through the aspen groves
          The final day was sunny and windy, but we were able to see Hallett’s Peak and its rocky neighbors above Bear Lake. Long’s Peak, to the southeast, stood higher than the others. As flatlanders we talked about how nice it would be to have a view of the peaks every day during the sunrise.   
          Our destination was Bierstadt Lake, about two miles from Bear Lake. The gusts kept us cold at the beginning, but once we crested a ridge and hiked down into the forest, we were comfortable again. We noticed other hikers with all types of skis and snowshoes.
          I had not anticipated how difficult it was to take photos in the cold, windy environment. Many things worked against success, including batteries that didn’t want to provide power when they got too cold. Polarized lenses on the goggles and double gloves prevented me from easily snapping the camera button. Fortunately, we weren’t in a hurry, and I was able to take the time to warm the batteries, pull off the gloves and raise the goggles. It was a lengthy process, and the fingers got cold each time the outer gloves were removed. I snapped only about one-third the photos that I normally would have taken in a warm environment.
          We arrived at the Bierstadt Lake perimeter trail, but the lake was a half-mile down the trail, hidden by the forest. After a vote, we decided to return to Bear Lake to make sure we had enough energy to finish the hike. Before we started, I cleared the snow from the trunk of a fallen tree to create a frozen bench for us to take a break and have a snack. The temperature was about 25 degrees and it was the first time in three days I was able to vent and unzip part of the coat to keep from overheating. The breaks were nice and were part of our unhurried pace.
          Hiking in the cold, snowy woods at high altitude is not something everyone would enjoy, but I liked the focus on the trail, moving forward, one step at a time, listening to the silence, and wondering what it would be like to live somewhere in a cabin in the woods, with the peaks towering above.
Hiking partners Brandon Henry and Richard Henry