Snow Hike "Photo Essay"

4/25/06 - I really enjoyed the challenging hike that I did a few times last year in the fall (see the Kifaru Express and Footwear2 pages), and wanted to try doing it in the winter. I asked 'Brando' if he wanted to do it, and he said 'Sure, sounds like fun'. However, bad weather conditions or prior commitments prevented us from going in the dead of winter (probably a good thing). We've had a lot of rain this season, and fresh snow would have made it quite treacherous, so I waited for a weekend where it hadn't snowed in a week or so to give it a chance to pack and harden. This relatively strenuous hike is approximately 7 miles round trip starting out at an elevation of about 6000' with the summit a little over 10,000'. The weather can change very quickly and be quite different at the summit than lower down.

Part of my motivation for these hikes is to try out different gear, of course, and see how it performs. Here's a list of some of the gear I brought along that's featured elsewhere on this site:

Brando wore his OrcInd PCU Level 5 pants and jacket which he bought just before Orc replaced them with the new MCU, and Merrell Sawtooth boots.

Starting out
My base layers were the Zensah tights and mock turtle neck. The weather was clear and sunny, with temperature in the low 50's - warm enough to hike wearing only the base layers and L5 pants. We actually worked up a sweat on this first leg of the hike and I put on the Zensah skull cap when I started sweating, to keep the sweat from running down into my eyes. The first part of the hike switch backed up the mountain in the trees. The view was spectacular, as we made our way above the low clouds. My Zensah base layers were very comfortable, and I didn't feel the need to vent the L5 pants with the side zippers. My compact digital camera took a hop, skip and tumble down a snow-covered slope when it slipped out of Brando's hand while I was handing it to him. Luckily it survived. I started holding onto the attached lanyard from that point on when passing it to Brando.
We took a short rest/snack break at 8200', then started out again - this time into the more open areas and deeper snow. The normal trail I usually take was completely hidden under a few feet of snow, making the terrain look very different from what I remembered. I knew the general direction we wanted to go, so we decided to forget trying to follow the trail and find our own way. The sun was bright and I switched out my Zensah skull cap with my HSGI cap to provide my eyes with a bit of shade. We had put on our jackets during our rest stop, and as we started exerting and getting hot again, removed them.

Starting out


Open areas

We're headed beyond that ridge

Rock rest stop

Time for Crampons
I had called the ranger station a few weeks before, and they had told me that crampons were required. They weren't kidding. Not owning a set, I did some research, and finally decided on a pair of Kahtoola steel KTS (Kahtoola Traction System). Kahtoola makes two versions - an aluminum version and a steel one. The aluminum ones are lighter, but I wanted more durability, as I knew we'd probably be walking on some rocks as well. The steel points are also sharper, which turned out to be very useful later on. The KTS has 10 1-inch points, which are a bit shorter than full-blown mountaineering crampons. The KTS are meant to be used for most general hiking in the snow/ice instead of technical mountaineering. I also purchased the SRS (Snow Release Skins), which are Hypalon (I think) cutouts that install under the crampons and prevent buildup of ice and snow under the boot. The KTS are fully adjustable to fit most shoes and boots securely, and I had no problems pre-adjusting them to fit my Hanwag Mtn Lights. The PCU L5 pants have stirrup loops in the cuffs and I made my own 550 cord straps to keep the pants cuffs from riding up and letting snow or water in the top of my boot.

As it got steeper, the snow made the going more difficult. We'd occasionally put a foot down and sink knee or thigh deep in the snow. In the shade, it was icy, and we then decided to break out the crampons. Since I had pre-adjusted all the straps on the KTS when I got them, installation was easy on the Hanwag boots. Two straps and that was it. Brando had bought a set of crampons the day before, just in case, and was glad he did as continuing would have been extremely difficult or next to impossible without them. The crampons made a huge difference with the additional traction. I'll never go without them in the snow and ice again. I didn't have to adjust my stride or gait, and they were practically unnoticeable except for the traction.

Kahtoola crampons

Putting on the crampons

Front strap

Back strap

Outside view


Brando installing crampons

Getting Colder
Since we had left the trail and were finding our own way, we sometimes decided on the most direct routes. Although the direct routes were a bit shorter, they were also steeper. I fell into my 'zombie zone of pain' - moving at a pace just below my anaerobic threshold. When the lactic acid started to build up in my thighs, I'd take a 10 second breather, which made a huge difference. Brando had forgotten to bring along his gloves, so his hands were in his pockets most of the hike. That made him look like he was taking a relaxed, nonchalant stroll in the park and this climb was effortless. Looking around while catching my breath was an instant reminder of why I love to be in the mountains - the view, the crispness of the air, and the absence of crowds. It was getting colder as we climbed, and the wind was now making its presence felt in small gusts. We donned our L5 jackets and switched our caps to fleece beanies, and continued in relative comfort.

Looking down on the clouds

Phew - this is steep

Where we'd come from

Where we're going

Are we there yet?
We took a few moments to rest on an outcropping of rocks and much energy bars. When Brando sat down, I noticed that the L5 suit blended very well into the rocks so I snapped the pic below. The 'Alpha Green' colour is actually a light-medium gray - very neutral, and not too 'military looking'. Actually worked well against the rocks. The new MCU from OrcInd is made of a different fabric than the Epic used in their PCU line, which they no longer offer. From my initial impression and my limited experience with the MCU so far, I feel that the new fabric is at least equivalent in performance and characteristics to the Epic material. Brando was also impressed with the performance of the PCU items he was using and wide range of temperatures he was comfortable in. This particular mountain has two peaks within 100' of each other in elevation. Because we had left the trail, it was also a bit confusing as to where the main peak was, as we couldn't see past ridges. So, we just made our way to the tallest point we could see. This turned out to be the slightly lower peak. This one is much less traveled, and I've often wanted to go there on my hikes, but since it's out of the way, no one is usually game on adding distance to the hike.

Rest stop

Blending in

Almost to the top


Twin Peaks
When we got to the summit of the first peak, we unshouldered our packs and took a much needed rest. The view was spectacular - we were looking down on an ocean of clouds. Looking back towards the way we had come up, we could see a cloud bank start to move in. It wouldn't be sunny for much longer. It was very windy, and we sought a bit of shelter behind some rocks. Even while I wolfed down my MRE while Brando looked on in disgust (it was Meatloaf and gravy), the sun would be interrupted by the clouds moving rapidly overhead. I had brought along my Level 3 pullover to wear under my MCU jacket just in case, but hadn't needed it. Seeing that the weather was about to change for the worse, I decided to try out the TADgear stealth hoodie instead of just adding the L3 under my MCU jacket. Bear in mind that I still had my Zensah mock as my base layer. I also donned the Zensah neck gaiter, which I pulled over my mouth. The second peak was about a quarter mile away, and we'd have to climb it to rejoin the trail down, so we made our way towards it.

Looking out over the clouds

TADgear soft shell

Shitty weather and a Scare
As we summited the higher peak, the cloud bank finally engulfed us and visibility was reduced to about 30-40 yards. The the wind was blowing HARD. Temperature was around freezing and probably in the low 20s with wind chill. Brando's hands were cold and he was reluctant to take them out of his pockets, but I coaxed him into giving me 'thumbs up' for a pic. As we made our way down, we picked up the trail, which runs along a ridge - first follwing the side of the mountain, then later right on the top. The trail was alternating loose rock (as seen below), snow, and mud. This was my least favourite part of the hike as we couldn't enjoy the view, and the conditions were pretty miserable. Even so, our garments performed admirably well, and I was actually quite comfortable, given the circumstances. The Sawfly glasses also helped keep the wind out of my eyes somewhat, and the Zensah gaiter kept my nose warm.
There's one part of the trail that is tricky, even during the summer when it's sunny and dry. It crosses a rock slide area that's steep, and drops off. There are large rocks on each side of the smaller, loose stuff, but how solid they are is unknown. The trail is usually a foot and a half wide here, and scares my wife every time we've been up there. When we rounded the corner, I saw that the trail had disappeared. It had slid away. Crap, I thought, this would require some care. I took one step gingerly on the rock and it gave way. I started sliding on my chest, as the loose rocks slid beneath me, towards a chute. Where it went, I didn't know, but I couldn't see past the edge. Things were not going well and that they could end up getting very serious. As I reached out to grab what I thought were solid rocks, and have them start sliding with me or break off in my hands, I had the brief thought that I could probably be dead or at least badly injured if I went off a cliff or bounced my way down off the rocks. The fingertips of my lightweight knit gloves completely wore through in my attempts to gain a hand hold. I managed to roll over on to my side to see where I was going and tried to aim my boot, hoping it'd catch on to the solid rocks I was heading towards. I saw a place to aim my boot, stuck it out, and my crampon caught. I grabbed a hand hold and waited until the rest of the rocks had stopped sliding. In the meantime, I'd lost one of my trekking poles, but the other was still attached to my wrist. Shaken, I took a few moments to sit back, removed the pole, and stick it through my pack shoulder strap to get it out of my hand as I knew I'd need both to climb back up. Brando yelled from above 'Are you ok?' and I replied 'Yeah, I'm allright'. I could imagine his sigh of relief. (Later he told me that he had been thinking 'Shit - he's going to break his leg or something and I'll have to carry him all the way back.') I asked him 'Can you see my other pole?' and he looked for it, but couldn't see it. I decided to forget the lousy pole and figure out how I was going to get back up to the trail.
I had slid down about 30 feet and could see where I needed to get back to, where the trail continued. I saw a route comprised of what looked outcroppings of solid rock amongst the loose stuff. My instinct was to get back to safety as fast as possible, but if what I thought was a solid hand or foothold gave way, I'd be in even more trouble so I said to myself 'there's no rush - take your time'. I started to make my way up and across the slide area, trying to stick to what appeared to be solid rock. I tentatively tested each hold to see if it'd break off. Sometimes the piece of rock broke loose, and that didn't do much to comfort me. I tried to make sure I had 3 limbs on something solid at any given time before making a move with one. The Kahtoola crampons let me place my boots on the nooks and crannies of the jagged rocks and gave me the foothold my boots would not have otherwise gotten. Thankfully, I made it up to the other side of the trail, where Brando had been able to get to.
Needless to say, I was in no mood for taking any more photos after that, so these below are the last ones I took before the slide. I wish I'd taken photos of the rest of the way down as it was pretty freaky. The trail literally runs along the top of a ridge which is normally narrow when dry, but the snow had built up on top of it in a peak, making it even narrower. How packed it was, we didn't know. If it had been soft, I'm not sure if we could have negotiated it. It was about a foot or two across at times, with extremely steep snow-covered dropoffs on either side and the wind was strong. Nothing to hold onto if you fell - just a long slide down the mountain. We just put our boots in other footprints, hoping that the snow wouldn't collapse under our weight. No wonder all the hiking guides recommended against this taking this route in winter.

Clouds rolling in

Reluctant thumbs up

The good parts of the trail looked like this

Can't even stand up straight

Ice on branches

Back down to the car
Thankfully, we completed the hike along the ridge without incident, and then we had another mile or so back down. You know that feeling when you get back to your car after a hike? That little bit of familiarity that's like a little piece of home that gives you comfort? Boy, were we glad to get back down to it. We were both tired and famished, but had a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. When we got back into town, we rewarded ourselves with a kick-ass meal - thanks Brando. We'd earned it.

Sum up/Lessons learned
Other than a few cuts and bruises from my rock slide, I was fine. The L5 pants were unscathed - I was very surprised. I had expected to see a few rips or abrasions on it, since I had been cut on my shins through the fabric (possible from my crampons), but there were none. The 550 cord stirrups which I connected to the loops at the bottom of my PCU L5 pants then routed under my boots worked very well. They kept the cuffs from riding up past the tops of my boots and prevented any water or snow from entering. The MCU pants don't have those loops, so I asked them to add them back in for such circumstances. In overall performance characteristics, I think the MCU L5 is pretty much identical to the PCU L5 items. Brando was happy with his PCU suit - he was able to make the entire hike without any insulating garments underneath. The MCU and PCU items were windproof, as far as we could tell, as was the TADgear stealth hoodie. Other than some dust on the hoodie, it survived my slide on sharp rocks without a mark.
My lightweight knit gloves were now fingerless gloves from getting cut on rocks that I tried to grab as I slid past. Next time I might wear something more durable.
The Zensah base layers performed extremely well. Absorbed sweat when I was too hot, and kept me warm when it was cold. I was never uncomfortable during the hike from overheating or cold. They're stretchy and unrestrictive and probably my top choice in base layers I have now.
I believe having the Kahtoola crampons on saved me from what could have been certain injury or death. Without them, I don't know if my boot would have caught the rock and stopped my slide, nor would I have been able to climb back up without greater difficulty. They also made this hike possible - without them and the traction on snow and ice they provided, I wouldn't have attempted to continue past a certain point. The crampons never loosened up and stayed stable on the boots. The steel crampons WILL rust, though. I noticed bits of rust forming where the coating had worn off. I washed them in fresh water and gave them a thin coat of WD40 the next day. Kahtoola recommends drying them with a towel as soon as possible after use.
The Kifaru Express carried everything well as expected - I noticed the weight on my back, but not the pack.
Again, the Hanwag Mtn Lights performed admirably. My feet were warm and dry - not a drop of water soaked through to my socks. The Lathrop and Sons foot bed continued to keep them comfortable - I can truthfully say that my feet didn't concern me once during the entire hike. No foot fatigue or aches whatsoever.
Brando and I were downing energy gels every so often. I find that they help keep me going until I get some solid food in me. Convenient and easy to use. Kind of like super-concentrated Gatorade. I kept mine in a prototype EMDOM 'baby-shingle' on my Express waistbelt.
I stupidly forgot to bring sunscreen and I've a nice racoon-eye face burn. The hat didn't help much with sunlight reflected off the snow. Hurts when I smile now. Ouch.

My wife and I went up again, and of course we stuck to the trail. I took a couple of pics of where I had my slide. In the pic on the left, you can see a hiker coming round the bend at the top (for scale), and how narrow the trail is at this point and all that loose rock just waiting to slide down. When Brando and I were up there, the trail was obliterated in points, as it was covered in snow. The pic on the right shows the chute where I slid down to, and the rock which on the right where I was able to stick my foot out and catch. I had to climb back up on the rocks to the left of it. None of the surrounding terrain was visible during our snow hike, and all I saw beyond the chute was fog with no idea where it went. Can't wait to do it again this winter.

Place I slipped

Where I was headed


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