Snow-Hiking = Fun?
How is snow-hiking through mush and crossing dangerous creeks during the “bumper seasons” or time of the Sierra Thaw ever to be considered “Fun?”
After describing, this morning, in a Facebook post about the nasty, frustrating, and often dangerous environmental conditions of snow and creek flows found during the Sierra Thaw, a friend of mine asked,
“Where does “enjoyment” come into the experience of hiking in these conditions? I’m being genuine here, because the scenario seems more fraught with danger and anxiety than any enjoyment.”
The “bumper seasons” of Spring and Fall in the Sierra Nevada present to the casual summer hiker added environmental conditions that are risky and threatening, indeed, and you’d think, “Why the hell would I ever want to go backpacking then?” Concerns of below-freezing ambient temperatures, deep snow, potentially deadly creek crossing, and no visible trail in the Spring or little water and powder snowfall in the Fall, should cause the inexperienced sufficient alarm to stay away – unless you’re prepared for these conditions with general mountaineering skills and wise judgement.
Snow-hiking during the Thaw in the Sierra is an other-worldly experience, as everything around you is liquifying, melting, settling, consolidating, and moving. Snow is melting and moving downhill very slowly, so much water is running out of the snowpack that it fills the trails and cascades over everything in its path on its way to the nearest creek, trees are emerging from being bent over in their wintery tombs and attempting to stand upright, again, birds are returning to the mountains and flying about, exclaiming their excitement at being there, again, and the local, hibernating marmots are dancing about looking for food.
The Sierra under snow is a magical place because of all this change happening before your very eyes. To take it all in is the delight of being there, but you have to adhere to one big rule, the environment dictates what you can do and not you! All of the above evolving conditions affect how you might safely move over snow or where you can navigate to. You are on a completely different planet and must abide by its rules and disciplines or suffer from your lack of understanding, poor judgement, and hasty skills.
Summertime conditions of high-traction, dry surfaces to walk on, signposts and mileage markers directing your way, and ideal weather, allow you to stride with confidence, know where you are all the time, and accomplish ambitious mileage goals, but not so in the slippery world of snow.
When you’re constantly pushing to get somewhere in these trying conditions, compared to easy, summer hiking, you lose the enjoyment of the moment, because it is felt between your steps, as you notice, survey, consider, and pause to think.
So, to enjoy being out there amongst the challenges of snow and creek, first, you have to have the talent and experience to face it with confidence, care, and safety, and second, you have to see it all as a wonderful opportunity to dance on the mountaintops of those challenges, overcoming as you go.
The focus of your presence, there, has to be taken off “getting more miles” and re-oriented to moving wisely and safely according to the understood hazards that your inner “radar” is picking up.
As in a conversation with a friend that you haven’t seen in a long while, where it goes from this topic to that quickly, digs in and moves slowly where needed, then picks up and skims where able, so, too, must the wilderness traveller take their time to listen, observe, assess, adjust, all before moving on.
You don’t go into the challenges of generalized mountaineering over snow and through whitewater creek crossings during the bumper seasons expecting progress to be like “summer.”
Everything from intake to output must “flow,” like watching the observations and movements of a Tai Chi Master, for out there, you are not the Captain and Commander of your destiny, able to do anything and go anywhere you want. The constantly changing environment of moving water in its various forms (snow, rain, creeks, etc.) tells you what you can do or not.
If you elect to move slowly through it, taking it all in, there is tremendous pleasure derived just from being able to do so and be there! Plus, the snowy views rarely seen are killer…