The snowfall in the Colorado mountains this past winter of 2018/2019 ranks in the top five seasons since records have been kept.
The snow up high kept falling even into May and June, especially above 10,000 feet. For mountain hikers and climbers, that means either a late start to the hiking season or being prepared and trained for snow routes.
When Independence Pass opens for traffic in late May, I like to hike from the parking lot right at the top of the Pass up several mountains within easy reach. That begins acclimatization for even higher mountains later in the season.
On June 29th, only a few days before July 4th, I figured that the area would be mostly clear and therefore OK for hiking since it is so exposed to the sun. Dogs love it up there as it is wide open, with plenty of smells and places to run. I brought one of Emme’s great-granddaughters along, a 4-year old Australian terrier named Harlow. She’s a Grand Champion on the show circuit and an enthusiastic hiker.
We drove the 20 miles up the narrow road from Aspen to the Independence Pass parking lot. The Pass, at 12,085 feet, is the second highest road that crosses the Continental Divide. The hike I had done so often in the years with Emme was right on the Divide, and that is what I intended for my hike with Harlow.
At first, I thought we had it made. There was still snow in patches, but there was also plenty of uncovered tundra. Being above tree line (about 11,800 feet in the Rockies) the views opened up magnificently.
But then bigger snow patches appeared as we got further into the hike. It was hard to know how deep the snow was at first. Since it was still early enough in the morning, we were able to walk on top of the snow. It had a hard crust from the prior evening’s cold temperatures at that elevation.
The further we hiked the snowier it got. The sun was out in full force and we had a beautiful Colorado “blue-sky” day. Of course, that meant the sun was working on the snow, and the top crust began to soften.
Harlow was romping around, having no trouble with the soft snow. She has four legs and weighs about 18 pounds.
I, on the other hand, have only two legs and weigh 175 pounds. Suddenly I sank knee-deep into the snow, which is called “post-holing.” It is not fun and is certainly a lot of work to move forward. But I saw some high-ground dirt patches up ahead and I made for them.
Once Harlow and I got to clear ground, I realized that conditions were only going to get worse as the sun continued to soften the snow. There was no way of knowing just how deep the snow was that we had just traversed, and further on it would be deeper still.
I figured it made sense not to push forward. Despite all my warnings to others about proper equipment for a hike (see Equipment List), I had less in my pack than usual as this was typically an easy hike I’d done many times.
Harlow and I turned around to head back the way we came. I hunted around for hardened patches where others might have hiked and packed the snow down. The next thing I knew I dropped through the snow like a rock, up to my mid-chest. It was a bizarre feeling. My first instinct was to turn around to see how Harlow was doing.
Her feet were spinning in the snow like flywheels – she was swimming in the soft snow! Her legs were buried but dog paddling, and she was using her body like a flotation device.
It wasn’t so easy for me. Normal post-holing entails lifting your leg high enough to clear the top of the snow, then leaning forward and jamming it in forward so you can free your rear foot. It is tiring but OK as long as fitness and altitude aren’t problems. That kind of exertion can get someone in trouble anywhere above even 9 or 10 thousand feet, and we were at 12,500 feet. Thankfully, I had done months of uphill hiking earlier this year, so I had plenty of strength left to cope.
Even with my exercise and training, the situation was worrying. There are plenty of stories of skiers falling into deep snow near a tree, called a tree-well, and not being able to find enough purchase to dig out. Here we were in wide-open spaces but sinking deep nonetheless. As I typically do in predicaments, I took stock, regulated my breathing, made sure Harlow was OK, and thought about the best way to get out.
I decided to try Harlow’s strategy. I stowed my poles, put on my water-resistant outer jacket and gloves, and started swimming forward in the soft snow. I’m sure it was a bizarre sight, especially because there was no way to see how deep the snow was!
There are no photos of that because Harlow wasn’t into using a camera and no one else was around. The two of us “swam” until we got to shallower snow where we could post-hole and then hike the rest of the way.
Not much further down we ran across a lovely sight – three girls properly equipped with skis and skins up-hilling with no problem, anticipating a soft-snow downhill run. I wondered how they would do further up: would they sink, or would the skis keep them afloat? They didn’t exactly have a lot of layers to protect them from the snow if they did sink.
As we neared the parking lot, we navigated one more shallow snow patch to make it back to safety.