I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, "Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.
Lewis Carroll, "Through the Looking-Glass"
I recently returned from a beautiful five-day trip in the Sierra where we experienced the full spectrum of weather. From lightning, thunder, snow and rain to sunny blue skies, Mother Nature tried her hardest to give us a beautiful beat down. Our itinerary consisted of a three-day trek to Charlotte Lake via Kearsage Pass from Onion Valley and back followed by a one-day trek up Mount Langley via New Army Pass from Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead. We followed the weather closely, so we were very prepared in terms of gear and trail safety, we were thrown a few curve balls (lightning storms on the pass and fighting off frostbite while packing away gear). At night temperatures dipped into the low teens and we woke up most mornings to a beautiful winter wonderland. Both of my friends hiked their very first 14-er, I saw some fall foliage and experienced the first snow of the season, we picked up a crew of PCT thru-hikers and drove them into Lone Pine, and we picked up a solo JMT hiker and drove him to LAX from Lone Pine. I love chatting with thru-hikers and listening to their amazing experiences! This trip, although challenging, was a win for all of us.
As we approach the winter outdoor season, it is important to understand that Mother Nature can and will take your life. Yes, the snow is pretty and can be fun, but it can also kill you. Each winter there are at least 2,000 rescues in North America and at least 100 lives lost because experienced hikers are unprepared. Summer hiking is not winter hiking; there is a whole different skill set needed in the winter that has nothing to do with your summer hiking ability. The gear list also differs. Depending on where you are going, you will most likely need a helmet, an ice axe, crampons/microspikes, and snowshoes, and you will need to know how to use them. Each winter I take a mountaineering course so I can practice my skill set and build on what I have already learned (same goes for skiing). I truly believe that if you do not practice this skill set on a regular basis in the winter, then you should not be out in the elements attempting a summit.
Shoulder seasons are my favorite seasons to explore the outdoors, but in my opinion, they are also most dangerous seasons because the temperatures are low but not frigid, there is enough snow on the ground to get you into trouble, and the weather can and will change on a dime. Hikers love getting on the trails as soon as they hear about the first snowfall, which can be a recipe for disaster. Strong winds and low visibility can make navigating difficult, ice-thaw conditions can lead to injuries, and low temperatures without the proper gear can lead to frostbite and hypothermia. True, you probably do not have to worry about avalanches and post holing during the shoulder seasons, but there are still plenty of reasons why you need to be cautious and should brush up on your mountaineering skills. Shoulder seasons should be treated as the middle of winter, regardless of the forecast.
Microspikes are best worn on fairly level hiking trails covered with packed snow or ice. They provide that little bit of extra traction that you need when your boot treads stop giving you good grips. A car analogy is useful here: Regular boots are like winter snow tires with a more aggressive tread, but when they start sliding, you put on tire chains to get more grip. However, wearing microspikes means added weight on your feet, which can wear you out prematurely on a long hike. It is often possible to defer putting them on with better footwork, especially on packed snow. For example, if you splay your feet out and walk like a duck uphill, you can coax a little more traction out of your boots. While microspikes are marvelous winter traction aids, they do have their limits when you start to tackle higher angle slopes covered in ice. That’s when you want to switch to longer and sharper winter traction aid called mountaineering crampons.
Mountaineering crampons are best worn on higher angle ice, ice-covered rock, or mixed ice and bare rock when you need a deeper bite and more solid footing to climb a slope. The chains and spikes on microspikes have too much “give” in them and are too short to penetrate deeply into ice when you need to hold your full body weight. True mountaineering crampons attach to a very specific snow boot and do not fit a regular hiking boot.
Snowshoes have two functions: They provide flotation so you don’t sink as deeply into powdery or deep snow, which helps conserve your energy, and prevents post-holing, and they also have integrated crampons on their undersides that help provide traction on ice or packed snow and can be used instead of crampons in certain lower angle situations.
Additional winter mountaineering gear:
REI offers a bunch of mountaineering classes and adventure trips. They offer two levels of mountaineering skill classes up Mount Baldy in the winter, and they also offer a great adventure trip with mountaineering lessons on Mount Shasta. Check out their website for all the details. Depending on the location, these classes and adventures can range from $100 to $800, but the price is well worth it.
Sierra Mountain Center offers lessons in mountaineering and backpacking out of Bishop. This is a great company, and since the Eastern Sierras are guaranteed snow in the winter, this is a safer alternative than Mount Baldy in terms of cancellations due to lack of snow.
Shasta Mountain Guides offer a multitude of multi-day trips up Mount Shasta for all levels of hikers. Many of these climbs also include mountain school where instructors teach mountaineering skills for individuals of all levels.
If you are preparing a trip out into the backcountry where you will be adventuring into snow and ice, make sure to read the local mountain forecasts and compare multiple weather reports. My favorite sites are Mountain Forecast and NOAA. You can search mountain ranges and tailor your elevation to see precipitation levels, temperatures, thunderstorm probabilities and wind speeds.
Are roads accessible? Most roads from the valley floor up to the trailhead are not plowed and therefore are not accessible after major storms. Always call the ranger station to check on road conditions and check with CalTrans to see if chains are required on major roads. Make sure you know how to use chains correctly. I personally do not enjoy putting on chains, and therefore I do not travel on roads when chains are required.
Hypothermia is a decrease in the core body temperature to a level where normal muscular and cerebral functions are impaired. Hypothermia can happen regardless of temperature; for example, it can happen below freezing, at 40 degrees, at 60 degrees or any temperature below 98.6 degrees depending on the conditions and your peripheral circulation. Poor food intake, dehydration, cold temperatures, wet conditions, wind, and improper clothing and equipment can all lead to hypothermia. When I am hiking in elevation and in cold temperature, I always eat calories regardless, even if I am not hungry. If your body is calorie deficient, your core temperature will drop (same thing that happens during scuba diving). Alcohol intake can also lead to hypothermia because alcohol leads to vasodilation (dilation of your blood vessels), which creates blood flow away from your core.
Signs and symptoms of hypothermia
Watch for the "-umbles." Stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles show changes in motor coordination and levels of consciousness.
Treating hypothermia in the backcountry
Frostbite occurs when extremely cold temperatures cause skin tissue to freeze. To preserve itself, the body stops circulating blood to these “disposable” parts. Ice crystals form, blood vessels clot, and tissue death ensues. Frostbite usually affects body parts exposed to the elements or parts prone to losing temperature faster like the nose, fingers, ears, and cheeks. But frostbite can occur even when wearing boots and gloves.
Frostnip is an early indicator of danger. The skin can be pale or red, feeling “prickly” or numb. You may feel a burning sensation as warm blood flows back into nipped skin. Fortunately, the damage isn’t permanent at this stage. (This most recently happened to me while breaking down my tent in freezing conditions at Charlotte Lake).
Superficial frostbite will turn frostnipped skin pale, cold, and numb. Fluids in the skin freeze. The tissue may feel warm but be cold to the touch. Rewarming will cause stinging, burning, swelling, and may lead to blisters.
Severe frostbite affects the deep subcutaneous tissues below the skin. The skin will be numb, and joints may no longer move. The skin might be hard and waxy-looking. Black, hard skin indicates tissue death. Blisters will occur after rewarming.
How to avoid frostbite