Most people hang up their hiking boots at first snowfall, but the truth is, hiking is a four-season sport. In fact, many hikers favor hiking in winter because of the way the snow covers all the crevasses and bumps in the rocks. Personally, I prefer winter hiking if the path is packed down and I can use my microspikes, but I am not a fan of breaking trail in snowshoes. My current hiking goal is to complete all 48 4,000 footers, but some hikers attempt to complete the peaks in each of the four seasons, or even go as far as to complete the “grid,” hiking each peak in every month of the year! Whether you’re working to complete these multi-season goals, love the winter weather, or just trying something different from what you’re used to, there are many new safety components to consider when hiking in the winter.
A few years back, my dad and I attempted the Tripyramids in the winter. Soft December flurries swirled around in the air and dainty snowflakes collected in my eyelashes. It seems like a perfect day for a hike, I thought as my breath fogged up in front of my face. We began the hike making first tracks in our snowshoes up the trail. Like I said earlier, breaking trail is not my favorite. Each step I took, my snowshoe sunk into the heavy, wet snow and I had to drag it out. I was cold, but felt like I was suffocating while panting in my under-armor turtleneck. Shedding and replenishing layers, my body heat rose and fell with each stop I took. Eventually, we came to a tall uphill. Ice cascaded down the trail like a frozen river. Bubbles of ice puffed up and the voluminous texture looked like hundreds of forming icicles fused. Shocked, I didn’t know what to do. We switched out our snowshoes for the microspikes we carried, wishing for crampons. With my thin cotton glove, I clutched an icy knob, but my hand immediately slipped off. And so, the struggle began. My dad heaved my legs up from behind, and I pulled his hand up and over each icy ledge. Every time I looked down the slope, I saw myself slipping and plummeting head first down the chutes. My hands were numb and freezing from sticking them in the snow and clinging to ice. Losing my footing, I constantly fell down the ice, losing more terrain than I was gaining. Shoving cold hands down my snow pants to hold onto my burning thighs, I grimaced when cold stung through my body. We had made slim progress and there was no knowing how much farther we had to go. I had pushed myself to claw my way up this mountain, but our only option soon became the act of turning back. Though I yearned to conquer the Tripyramids, we had to be smart and prioritize safety. We were not properly prepared for the conditions and lacked heavy crampons. Sometimes the best decisions made on a hiking trail turn out to be knowing when to turn around.
Though winter hiking can have some frightening components, the season can also reveal a beautiful side. A while back, I was hiking Mt. Pierce. We had summited and were taking a lunch break within the shelter of the trees before heading back down. Quickly, we noticed a small gray bird peering down at us from a nearby branch. I peeled off a small piece of my bagel and threw it down onto the snow. Almost immediately, the bird was pecking the crumbs in the snow. Before I knew it, this bird was swooping down to pull bagel from the tips of my gloves. Soaring through the chilly air, this bird was a winter majesty. Happy with our interaction, we packed up and began heading down the trail. About a mile later, I stopped to quickly pull a granola bar out of my bag. Perched on a tree before my eyes, the very same bird cocked its head. Laughing, I continued down the trail, looking back and spotting my bird friend with me every step of the way. This bird followed us for almost the entire way down the mountain, swooping in and out of sight and hiding in branches. As we reached the parking lot, I peered back at the mountain and said goodbye to Pierce, my name for our new-found friend.
The same year, I was hiking over the top of Mt. Pierce as part of a ridgeline hike to bag some other nearby peaks. And sure enough, as I was stopping to snack on some Cheez-its, Pierce, my bird friend, flew right over. He enjoyed my new treat as he pecked them out of my mittens. How do I know this is the same bird? For one, he was the same type of bird and looked very similar to my previous friend. He also was very fat compared to the other birds of his kind that I spotted. He was probably so fat because of his aggression for food, a trait that I did not notice in any other birds I happened upon. Just like before, my old friend followed me off the peak and down the trail for quite a while. Could this be the same bird, Pierce, that I had met before on this very peak? We may never know. But I do believe that it was Pierce, returning to say hello once again.
Winter beauty in its animals, scenery, and peacefulness is almost magical, but it does come with a dangerous side. For those who are interested in the experience of winter hiking, I have some tips to consider.
- Always be prepared! Yes, I may be stealing this one from the Girl Scouts, but it is very important to be prepared for anything that nature can throw at you! When I was hiking the Tripyramids, I should have brought a heavy pair of crampons and a pair of thick, non-cotton winter gloves. Even if it weighs your pack down, it is worth it if it protects your safety or helps you get to the peak!
- Bring warm layers and understand how to layer properly. While you might be tempted to wear a huge ski jacket with a sweatshirt underneath, you will get very hot after a few minutes of trekking. The worst is to get hot and sweat because as soon as you slow down, your sweat will freeze onto your skin. There’s nothing worse than being covered by a layer of ice on a winter day! Bring multiple layers, beginning thin and increasing in thickness, so you can adjust your layering to fit your temperature. Stay away from cotton. Use wool, fleece and synthetic fabrics. Try using just a waterproof shell as a top layer. If you need to lose some heat quickly, take off hats and gloves. I also recommend wearing an ear-warmer headband to keep your thin ears from freezing while letting your head breathe. And pack extra wool socks in your pack.
- If you are planning on sleeping overnight on the mountain, bring as many layers as you can and a sleeping bag with a hood rated for zero-degree weather. I also recommend asking your hiking buddy to sleep in the same or in close-by sleeping bags to share body-heat. The huts are great for staying in during the winter because they aren’t nearly as expensive or popular in the off season. My dad and I stayed in Carter Dome hut last winter, and since the bunk rooms are not connected to the main building with the fireplace, we were shivering all night. Even though I was layered up, I couldn’t fall asleep in my sleeping bag because I was so cold. I was afraid to shift positions because I would turn onto some new portion of bed that was not yet heated by my body.
- Bring a wind-breaker! Windchill can be much more painful than just cold temperatures, especially when above the tree line. Whether it’s laced with stinging snow or slipping under the layers you carefully tucked in, wind can quickly lower your body temperature and lead to frostbite and hypothermia. The same day that I witnessed the beautiful winter creature on Mt. Pierce, I was pulling myself into a ball behind a rock as my dad searched for his lost crampon. As the wind burned my cheeks and pushed me over, I laid down on the icy rock, trying to slip below the wind. However, above the tree line, even with my windbreaker, the only option to avoid the relentless wind is to return to the shelter of trees as fast as possible.
- Know when to turn around. Although bagging peaks is high on my priority list, my life comes first. Safety is always important, especially with the added danger of ice, cold temperatures, wind, falling icicles and snow, and many more winter-special dangers.
Although winter hiking comes with its plusses and minuses, I highly recommend the experience. There truly does seem to be some sort of magic in the mountaintop flurries and distant white pinnacles.