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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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