A snowshoe climb to paradise

Filed in Expert Articles, Snowshoeing by on November 10, 2013

TWG_story_snshoe08imgThe alarm jolts you awake. It’s 4;30 in the morning, and you’ve been looking forward to this special day. You peer out the window to check the conditions. As you hoped, last nights snowstorm had blown through leaving four inches of fresh powder snow and a clear sky glistening with thousands of brilliant stars. Yes, it’s going to be a perfect day for the big snowshoe climb.

You pour yourself a steaming hot cup of coffee and relax looking over the topo map and size up today’s solo climb one last time. You’ve eyed up the beautiful remote summit now for the past two years, and since the first time you laid eyes on its dramatic shape, you saw yourself on its summit.

The destination lies in the heart of the Gore Range at nearly 13,000 feet elevation, an unnamed remote summit flanked by other rugged faraway precipices rising dramatically skyward as far as the eye can see. It’s going to take some serious effort to get there, however the best things in life often require serious effort.

You snarf down a couple quick bagels, a banana, and some juice to get fueled up. You already packed your pack, and made lunch the night before, its time to get to the trailhead for the sunrise start you had been dreaming of.

A quiet drive to the top of Vail Pass takes you to your starting elevation at 10, 500 feet. As you secure your snowshoe bindings, steam rises from your breath and you feel the nip of the cold in the tip of your nose, cheeks, and fingertips. Its just now starting to get light, there’s not a soul in sight, and the towering spruces are blanketed in fresh snow as you begin your trek in silence.

It’s a climb from the first steps, and there’s no path to follow. You start out at a steady pace, the snowshoes providing floatation and traction and poles providing extra power and balance. Snowshoeing is an all-body workout and within no time you are comfortably warm, and breathing deeply and relaxed amid snow-blanketed forest of pine, spruce, and fir.

As you meander through the tall trees, you spy some animal tracks ahead and work your way over to see whose company you are sharing. A quick assessment of the tracks reveals alternating left and right footprints spaced about a foot apart. The fluffy snow reveals few details of the tracks at first, but as the tracks passed underneath a large tree more detail is shown where the snow is only an inch deep on top of an old firm snow layer.

At first you’re thinking the tracks are probably from a coyote, but as you crouch down and examine the footprints carefully you notice two distinct characteristics. First of all the footprint is round overall. It is as wide as it is long. Coyote prints are oblong; they are longer than they are wide. Secondly, the prints lack claw marks. Cats have retractable claws, while canine tracks almost always show long blunt claws. You smile and look ahead as you realize you are sharing this peaceful scene with a bobcat.

Bobcats primarily hunt snowshoe hares, and a couple minutes up the mountainside you see the familiar pattern of hare tracks. It is always satisfying to see predator and prey tracks in the same vicinity. A reminder of how elements in nature remain in balance.

Feeling rather in balance yourself you take a couple of quick gulps of water and continue ascending. You now reach an opening in a meadow and can see the high ridge ahead. You’ve gained 300 feet in elevation so far, and the ridge is another 1,200 feet above. The steepest areas are just ahead and require steering clear of potential avalanche slopes. You cleverly utilize contours in the mountainscape to select a route that minimizes your exposure to avalanche danger. You work your way over some large snowdrifts to get to the base of the rib of the mountainside, upon which you will ascend between massive trunks of ancient Engelmann spruce.

Before entering the magical fairy-forest, you take a moment to catch your breath. You look up to the southeast just as the first glimmer of sunlight breaks the ridge. A blast of brilliant sunlight warms your face and light splashes across the magical landscape casting long shadows contrasted with bright white powder snow.

“Perfect timing”, you think to yourself as you double pole-plant and dig in to begin the steep ascent. The snow is drifted within the giant spruce grove and requires zig-zagging to negotiate the steep drift faces. Its tough going but you are up for the challenge and you steadily climb making good progress. After thirty minutes of intense workout the trees suddenly become small, and then you break out above treeline and eye up the ridge and some small rocky summits a hundred feet above. You traverse below a rock outcrop for protection and make you way to the ridge at 12,000 feet.

The view from the ridge is spectacular. You can see hundreds of summits, some as far as fifty miles away. There is a slight cool breeze, and the sun is beaming full strength. You glance northward where your summit awaits you rising high into the deep blue sky, two miles up the ridge.

On the eastern side of the ridge is a steep drop off, graced by an immense thirty-foot cornice of snow. The cornice forms throughout the winter as the dominant winds blow from the west and as a blowing snowflake passes over the ridge it is thrust downward in the wind current then swirled back upward and packed onto the giant snow drift. When traveling on the ridge in winter, shrubs and small trees indicate that you have solid ground under foot. Because cornices form over open air, it can be hazardous to get near a cornice edge, where the cornice could potentially break off.

As you begin making your way along the undulating ridge you are startled by what appears to be moving snowballs. A moment later you realize that there are two plump snowballs with black eyes looking up at you. You chuckle and say hello to the local residents. They are ptarmigans, a type of bird related closely to grouse. Ptarmigans are ground birds and have feathered legs and feet. The fluffy feet provide additional surface area in winter, and act as snowshoes to keep the ptarmigans afloat as they walk on the snow surface eating buds of shrubs.

Bidding the locals farewell you make your way up and down the undulating terrain, enjoying sliding down the faces of steep drifts.

After an hour of steady progress along the ridge you finally find yourself at the base of the final ascent. The air is thin and your heart rate is high, but you feel strong. Taking your time you climb higher, taking in the views as you catch your breath.

Large craggy rock outcrops jut up out of the snow as you near the summit. Weaving your way between the rocks you look down to see animal tracks. Surprised, the tracks are from a large animal and sink deeply into the snow pack. You look around in all directions but see nothing. Continuing climbing and following the tracks you finally find a print with clear detail of two fat toes. You huff and puff your way up the final pitch to the rocky summit. Wow! What an awesome view, so rugged, so remote, so pristine.

You pull out your binoculars and scan the surrounding summits. At first you see nothing, and then there they are. Perched majestically on a rocky summit about a quarter mile away are three pure-white mountain goats. They stand solidly staring out into the abyss. Only their long white fur moves in the breeze, a peaceful look in their eyes.

You lower your binoculars as you stand solidly on the rocky summit. Tiny stray snowflakes blow across your rosy cheeks in the cool breeze, as the sunlight warms your face. You close your eyes and hear only silence. Upon opening your eyes you gaze at the world below, all around you both far and near, and you radiate peace from the depths of your soul.

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