Dispatches
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Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022

Field Test

Monday, February 14th, 2022: Hikes, Holt, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

After solving part of my wet feet problem with a pair of waterproof boots, I finally had to take the next step and get gaiters. This is a no brainer for people in the Cascades or northern Rockies, but hard to swallow for someone living near the Mexican border!

The fact is, I’ve been researching gaiters – along with snowshoes – for years, ever since I started hiking the high mountains year-round. In my less ambitious earlier years, I simply turned back when the snow got too deep. But it’s not just snow that gets my feet wet – even a heavy dew during our summer monsoon can soak my pants and wick through my socks all the way to my toes.

Even with waterproof pants, the act of walking forces snow up between the pants and the boots to get the socks wet. Gaiters are the only solution. Having to accumulate so much gear drives me crazy – it accelerates the cycle of consumption and it all has to be cleaned and maintained regularly. But there’s no way I’m going to abandon those mountain hikes just because of weather. A big reason why I hike is to experience, and learn from, habitats and ecosystems in all conditions.

The snowshoe option remains off the table. It would be relevant for hiking fresh powder during or right after a storm, but most of my snow hiking comes later and involves a lot of elevation change, transitioning repeatedly between snow and bare ground. Most of the snow I encounter is patchy – covering trail distances from a few yards to a hundred, and either wet or frozen. It doesn’t make sense to carry snowshoes that I’d have to keep putting on and taking off a half dozen or more times per hike.

More and more, I’m turning to hunting suppliers for well-made outdoor gear. I still respect REI for being a co-op, but they simply don’t stock the best quality gear in many categories. After years of research I ordered a pair from Stone Glacier, a high end supplier in Montana that produces fancy seasonal catalogs similar to Patagonia featuring full-color stories on conservation.

The hike I chose to test them on is one of my old favorites, the trail which took me into our local wilderness for the very first time, three years ago. In many return visits I’d learned that the 9,500′ saddle at the high point of the trail accumulates knee-deep snow by January. I was hoping the gaiters would allow me to get past the deep snow and proceed down the other side for another two miles to a distant trail junction at a dramatic rock outcrop.

But the first thing I found is that the rogue trailworkers had mutilated this trail too – their recent work has butchered all my favorite nearby trails. Most of my pictures from today’s hike document the damage, but I won’t bore you with any of those.

Nature had more dramatic changes in store at the bottom of the canyon: more birds than I’ve encountered yet this winter, and an explosion of flies and gnats, which doesn’t bode well for our warm seasons. The day had started below freezing as usual, but midafternoon temperatures were forecast to approach 70, and the creek was already stranded with vibrant algae.

Another hiker I will call Bigfoot, along with his big-footed dog, had preceded me to the saddle. They’d been turned back by the knee-deep snow, but I wasn’t. I ended up grudgingly post-holing for another quarter mile, expecting to emerge from the deep stuff farther down the back side. But I was forgetting that the back side is a steep north slope, shaded in winter, holding snow until late spring. I couldn’t stomach any more post-holing.

On the way back to the saddle I stopped in a short bare stretch of trail to check inside the gaiters. Snow had driven up inside them and was packed against my pant cuffs all the way to the top of my boots, so I had to fine-tune the fit. Fortunately they’re adjustable enough that I was able to minimize the leakage going back. They did make my lower legs feel significantly hotter, but it was worth the trade-off to stay dry in the snow.

I’ve had cheap gaiters in the past – these are the real thing, tough and well-thought-out.

Despite all the habitat damage by the horsemen, and having to cut my hike short, I was feeling pretty good about the day as I started down from the crest. Unfortunately after the first half mile I developed severe pain in my left ankle. Damn, it seems I just can’t finish a hike anymore without ending up in pain! I couldn’t even figure out what was causing it – something about the fit of the new boots had triggered either inflammation or nerve pain around the back of my inside ankle bone, and walking downhill became unbearable. I tried lacing the boots lower, but that had no effect at all. I wedged a bandanna/handkerchief between the boot and the ankle, and that helped but kept working its way out. Finally I found an adhesive-backed felt pad in my pack that I applied directly over the ankle bone, and that enabled me to slowly limp the five miles and 3,700 vertical feet back down to the vehicle.

In the end I concluded that I’d simply tied the boots too tight on the way up. With their stiff soles, I’d felt my heels slipping on the steep climb, and kept lacing them tighter and tighter, which ultimately must’ve tweaked my ankle bone.

During the slow descent past vegetation hacked by the horsemen, I again pondered the irony of our “wilderness areas”. Aldo Leopold’s invention is popularly viewed as preserves of raw nature protected from human interference. But just like the Anasazi country of the Colorado Plateau or the Indian mounds of the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, these wilderness areas are actually cultural landscapes of our European legacy, with abundant colonial artifacts like mines, fences, corrals, and developed springs, modern trails maintained for the enjoyment of privileged white people, and wildlife wearing the radio collars of colonial scientists.

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Shadows in the Snow

Monday, February 21st, 2022: Chiricahuas, Hikes, Southeast Arizona.

Still excited about my new boots and gaiters, I was looking for more snow this Sunday. If you’re only wearing boots, there’s definitely a limit to the depth of snow you can move through. I’ve skied and snowshoed over snow in the Sierra Nevada that was fifteen feet deep. But historically, my part of the Southwest has never seen the snow depths people a little farther north have to deal with. And with climate change, our annual accumulation at the highest elevations now seems to be two feet or less. Knee deep is bearable for short distances.

Before getting the new gear, I’d been avoiding one of my favorite trails in winter, because it goes through the bottom of a narrow, shady canyon that collects deep snow, stays cold, and holds snow and ice from winter into spring. From that canyon bottom, the trail climbs to the 9,300′ crest, where I was hoping to continue up a 9,700′ peak, depending on how much snow I found. This would be a revelation – for the past three years I’d completely given up on those elevations in the winter.

The range I was headed for averages a thousand feet lower than our mountains at home, and based on the forecast I expected temperatures into the seventies on sunny stretches of the hike. In fact, I wondered how much snow would even be left this long after the New Year’s storm, even with the light snowfall we had during the past week. Most people outside our region would be surprised simply to see snowy mountains 40 miles from the Mexican border – unaware that the mountains of Mexico itself get plenty of snow.

Approaching from the northeast, I could still see snow on north slopes above 8,000′. I had the choice of driving up the rough 4WD road to the trailhead, or walking it, and I chose to walk in order to prolong my hike with more distance and elevation. What I wasn’t sure about was being able to reach the peak in the time I had – on my last visit I’d remarked at how strangely long it takes to reach the crest, probably because parts of the climb are really steep, and the passage through the shady canyon is just plain slow.

In my first view of the upper slopes I was excited to see that the waterfall was still frozen. Snow was patchy below, as expected – I was surprised to find patches even below 6,000′. And even before the waterfall, at 7,800′, I faced long traverses in calf-deep snow.

Last week’s storm had dropped a couple of inches here, so there were clear tracks of a couple who had hiked to the waterfall overlook with two dogs, probably two or three days ago. Beyond that, the trail switchbacks across a vertiginous slope to reach the saddle at the mouth of the hanging canyon. I put on my gaiters before proceeding. That slope bore knee-deep snow with the much older tracks of a single male hiker. He had cut corners in a couple of places where the slope was just too steep to be safe with this much snow.

I’d taken off my sweater shortly after starting the hike, and made it this far in just my shirt. Considering how much snow there was on this steep north slope, I was surprised to see the first butterfly of the season.

From the saddle, the trail traverses at a gentle grade across a forested, mostly snow-free south-facing slope down into the hanging canyon that feeds the waterfall. Just before reaching the deep snow of the canyon bottom, I saw the first lizard of 2022 dashing under rocks beside the trail.

As expected, the snow in the canyon bottom was up to two feet deep, but I could hear the creek running underneath it. I pulled my sweater back on. It was impossible to tell where was solid ground and where was running water, but I’d been here enough to generally remember – until at one step my boot sank more than knee deep.

I mostly followed the tracks of the hiker who’d preceded me weeks ago. His tracks had been smoothed over by last week’s dusting, but I could tell he was using trekking poles, especially to traverse the steepest, least stable slopes. I wondered how far he’d gone.

As expected, it seemed to take forever to get through that canyon bottom, but it was a beautiful place to be stuck in.

The other hiker’s tracks continued up through the old-growth forest with its patchy snow and past the Forest Service cabin below the crest. But the tracks ended just before the trail junction at the crest. A howling wind comes over that saddle – it’s always crisscrossed with recent blowdown – and the snow at the junction was both knee-deep and trackless, although it had melted and refrozen enough to have a hard crust.

It was late enough now that I knew I wouldn’t make it to the peak. But I had enough time to go another mile at least, so I proceeded north toward the saddle below the peak, where the snow appeared patchy – I could see the trail in the opposite direction traversed more deep snow.

It was an easy, fairly level trail until about a third of a mile before the saddle, when I again entered deep snow.

The wind at the saddle, which faces southwest, was fierce! I gazed wistfully at the peak above – it was only a half mile and a few hundred vertical feet away, but if I took the time to climb it I would probably miss the burrito and beer at the cafe and end up starving as well as tired on the two-hour drive home.

I definitely enjoyed the return hike more than the climb up! I was torn between rushing and taking it easy, but mostly I took it easy and enjoyed the beautiful snowy canyon and the exquisite frozen waterfall.

In fact, despite a slower than usual pace, I reached the vehicle 45 minutes before closing time, allowing me to obey the speed limit on the narrow, winding road out of the mountains. It wasn’t until after dinner, on my way up the lonely highway toward the interstate, that I fell prey to a sheriff’s deputy hiding on the dark roadside. I had to endure 15 minutes of apocalyptically flashing lights to find out he was only giving me a warning.

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Protected: Trail Work & Conditions in SW NM & SE AZ

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