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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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