The plan was simple.
Hike as far as we could towards the Blackmare No Trail turn off from the Gold Fork trailhead. Spend the night either at Stump Lake, to go on to Blackmare in the morning, or at Blackmare, if our speed was adequate to get us to the trail before dark.
This plan didn’t survive its engagement with the snow.
Though it started off well enough. . .
We drove up on Thursday night. The plan was for me to take Friday and Monday off of work so we could make a long weekend out of it. We made it to the Gold Fork trailhead well before sunset and set up the car camping tent. We had brought our down blanket from home so we wouldn’t have to unpack sleeping bags, and in the 50 degree weather, it worked quite well. I had a new sleeping pad, a Thermarest Neoair that weighs less than a pound. Its warmth rating is less than my old pad, but I thought I could handle it. The weather has been warmer, and I’ve been sleeping warmer as well.
What could possibly go wrong?
The night was good. We slept well and left camp around 6am after taking down the car camping tent and parking the car away from the main camping area. Since we weren’t planning on spending another night there, it would be rude to claim the area for the entire time that we’d be gone.
|The Gold Fork Trailhead – no snow in sight.|
The air was cool, and we both wore our lightweight raincoats and gloves as we started down the familiar trail. Ambrose and I agreed that I could go at my faster pace and meet him at what we call Shit Creek, because the crossing would be difficult with how swollen the other streams we’d seen this year. I didn’t go as fast as I could, but I went faster than Ambrose. Until I reached Nail Creek.
|This stream dries up later in the summer.|
In late summer, that creek is usually shallow enough to ford without thought, but what I saw before me was deep and wide. I thought about going back for my sandals to do a crossing, and I decided to wait for Ambrose. He didn’t keep me waiting long, and reminded me of the log crossing just a short way downstream. We crossed on the log and I went off again.
When the trail grew steep, I unzipped my jacket to vent, but did not think to take it off. It was actually colder than it had been earlier according to the altimeter/barometer, dropping down to the low 40s.
|Forgotten Creek seems to flow from underneath the roots of a large tree.|
I moved on past Forgotten Creek without waiting for Ambrose, since an old tree’s roots bridge the small stream just upstream of the trail. Not long after crossing it, I saw the first hint of what was to come.
A pile of snow alongside the trail.
|The snow near Shit Creek covered the trail, but didn’t conceal it.|
Just before Shit Creek, snow covered the trail. I wasn’t worried at that point. There’s been snow leading up to that crossing before, and I knew that would likely mean some snow higher up. But I wasn’t worried. I didn’t think there would be that much snow. Mounds covering the trail maybe, and a few sections of having to find the trail.
Nothing to worry about, right?
|Yes, we crossed this swollen stream on those two wet logs.|
I waited for Ambrose. The water was high enough that the two log crossing was wet on the far bank. In the past, we’ve walked across the logs, but this time, we sat on them and scooted. Ambrose opted for a side-saddle position, keeping both of his legs upstream where there was a rock he could use to help push himself across at the halfway point. I put one leg on either side of the pair of logs and scooted that way. Straddling two logs of differing sizes is more difficult than scooting across a single log, and the water was high enough that my boots would touch the water and get jerked by the current. Not to mention the wet part of the log was cold and slick. But we made it across and agreed to meet again at the fire camp, a section of the trail that is still quite burned out and consists mostly of rocks and sand.
I zipped on up the steep hill that I once called never-ending, but that now seems not so bad. It is still steep, and challenging in part because of the loose rock composing the dirt of the trail, but I am in much better shape to climb it than I used to be. I reached the top and stopped to take care of a call of nature. I thought for sure that Ambrose would catch up to me while I stopped, but he didn’t come into sight until after I had completed my business and started hiking away.
|More snow layered over the trail.|
Of course, I hiked away as quickly as I could. I wasn’t about to let him catch me, even when mounds of snow began appearing on the trail. It wasn’t like the snow was obscuring the trail at that point. It was just a little awkward to get through, especially when my boot punched through a soft crust and I found myself knee deep in a pile of snow.
I put my gaiters on, but the gaiters that I had were not really meant for boots. I bought them for trail running, but they were all I had, so I tried to use them. With my thick socks on, they were way too tight, causing immediate pain in my calves. So I undid the top snap, which still left them snugly wrapped around my leg to just above my boot.
As I approached the trail junction where I would turn on to the Needles pack trail, the snow gradually disappeared. I had to detour around a huge treefall to get to the fire camp, but since that area lacks brush, it wasn’t a big deal to walk around it. I moved past the saddle to try and hide from the wind before sitting on the ground and eating a snack while I waited for Ambrose to catch up.
|The trail required a small detour around this huge tree.|
He became a little alarmed when he couldn’t see me right away, but I came into view before he could get really worried. Based on the snow, he wanted me to stay close instead of zipping off. I thought about proposing that I would stop if the snow became prominent, but I didn’t feel like an argument would be fun.
So I didn’t say anything and kept him in sight as I hiked.
It wasn’t that much of an effort to stay close, because he would catch up as I stopped to take pictures. I was cold, but the snack had helped, and Ambrose and I were going to stop and make some coffee when we next ran into running water. There’s nothing like a hot, sweet drink to lift the spirits on a backpacking trip.
Although, the fact that the next running water we came upon was in a swampy section in the middle of a burned area, with very little protection from the wind, detracted a bit from the blissful sweetness of the latte mix. It was still good to get a break, and to wrap my cold hands around a bottle of warmth. Getting the pack off my back for a spell also gave me a burst of energy that kept my spirits up all the way to the return to the woods.
We descended into the the living forest and soon came upon more and more piles of snow. At first, there were just mounds above the trail and to the sides of it. Then the mounds got larger. Soon the snow was more predominant than the dirt. Snow melt streams flowed underneath sections of the snow-covered trail, making the crossings deceptively treacherous.
|The snow begins to encroach.|
At a steep uphill section that followed the Gold Fork River, the snow became less prominent again, but my relief at that respite was short-lived. Once we hit the top of that section, snow was everywhere.
|Ambrose on the snow.|
I’m not sure why we never talked about going back. I think we both felt that we knew the trail well enough to keep going despite the snow, and that we both had this hope that it would get better. There might also have been a hint of macho behavior. We wanted to prove to ourselves that we could handle this. Snow travel is a lot harder than travel on dirt. It’s like walking in sand, only sand doesn’t usually have random sinkholes.
|The Gold Fork was in full spate – and periodically covered in snow.|
You can be walking along on the snow, taking care with your steps, and still find yourself crashing through what turned out to be a thin crust of snow above a hole. At one point, I sank nearly to my hip. I had to find stable footing and lift myself, and my pack, up and out.
We followed the trail by keeping an eye out for blazes on trees. Trees tend to have a well around them where snow doesn’t accumulate. This allowed us to see the blazes on trunks, even if we sometimes had to get very close to the tree to see the blaze down in the well.
|Most fallen trees were under the snow rather than lying on top of it.|
In some ways, the snow did ease our travel. There’s no need to detour around brush or small trees, and when there is a steep uphill section, you can carve out stairs with kick-steps. It’s great exercise.
We made it to our alpine lakes for lunch. Not a word about turning back, even when we got a little lost after lunch finding the trail again. The sky kept threatening rain, and I told it I would prefer snow, because I had neglected to bring a pack cover (something I didn’t want to admit to Ambrose).
|The clouds were dark and the trail was covered.|
We lost our way a few more times on the way to the saddle below the Needles. At one point, Ambrose wanted to follow the trail the deer had left. I was against that course. Eventually, we did find the trail by working together, taking turns to explore avenues that we thought were correct.
|Tree wells could conceal blazes.|
As we approached the saddle, I was telling myself that there was no way I would go down the steep switchback if it were covered in snow. I had a hard enough time doing that section when it was bare and dry, and I would dig in my heels if it were wet and covered.
I reached the top ahead of Ambrose. I had kick-stepped stairs in the snow for him, but it was still hard work for him to get up them and sometimes widen them for his larger boots. The first section of the switchback was clear and I was elated.
|Look, ma! No snow!|
We stopped for a snack in the lee of some rocks, and then started down the switchback. It quickly disappointed me by revealing yet more mounds of snow. I proposed going off trail rather than trying to navigate the snow that was thinly covering rocks. Ambrose agreed, because we knew that the trail basically traversed the ridgeline from the saddle to Needles Summit.
|Ambrose hikes up to the saddle.|
We lost the trail. Found it. Lost it.
It began to snow. Then harder. Hard enough that I asked Ambrose what we would do if it became a whiteout.
|Small pellets of snow – a picture taken before my morale fell too low to take pictures.|
We saw an approachable saddle and went to the top of it to have a look and make sure it wasn’t the Needles Summit. We were pretty sure that it wasn’t, because the terrain didn’t look right, but with all the snow, none of the terrain looked quite right. We looked down into a valley where we should have been able to see Blackmare Lake.
We saw snow. A tempest of swirling, blizzarding snow.
Now that I’m safe, warm and dry, I wish I had taken a picture. At the time, I felt demoralized. I was holding a sense of panic down tightly. I felt as if taking a picture would take that storm with me. I could not bring myself to do it.
So you’ll have to take my word for it. The only thing to be seen was white snow and dark clouds. We kept traversing.
Sections of the trail would look familiar, but there were not enough blazes to guarantee that we were actually on it. I was scared that one of us would slip and fall down the ridge. I thought about how I would climb up from a slide down. Unless I broke something. . . I couldn’t carry Ambrose if he got hurt. I didn’t think he could carry me far.
I took care as a remedy against panic. Careful steps, finding the trail and making my way. I followed Ambrose when I ran low on energy and I led when I could.
When we reached the Needles Summit, I kissed the sign and insisted that Ambrose take a picture of me with it.
|We made it to the Needles Summit without mishap. And with cold. Lots of cold.|
Then I led the way down to Stump Lake.
It took us 12 hours to travel less than 6.5 miles.
Well, maybe a bit more than 6.5 miles with the getting lost detours. . . but that’s still a snail’s hiking pace.
The fire pit where we usually camped was completely covered in snow. We managed to find a flat-ish spot not covered in snow that was just large enough for the tent.
I began to pitch the tent. I got the poles backwards and looked over at Ambrose. He was just standing there, watching me, and I was irritated.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Watching you,” he said.
I huffed and dug out the cooking kit. I asked him, as politely as I could manage, to start working on dinner. Then I turned the poles around and got the tent up. I tossed our sleeping pads, sleeping bags, spare clothes and food into the tent. With the weather being the way it was, we weren’t worried about bears or critters.
I changed into dry socks, long underwear and answered a call of nature while Ambrose cooked. He took a break to change into his own dry socks and clothes. I crawled into my sleeping bag and tried to get warm, but it wasn’t easy.
|Stump Lake, covered in snow.|
My legs and feet felt icy, even deep in my down sleeping bag. After we ate dinner, Ambrose suggested that I put my rain pants on. I ended up wearing long underwear pants, rain pants, boot socks, long underwear shirt, rain coat, balaclava, gloves and sun hat with the rain coat hood pulled snugly around my face.
Ambrose snuggled in next to me, and we had The Talk.
What would we do tomorrow? Our four day trip was no longer the trip we had planned. There was no way we would make it to Blackmare on an unmaintained trail that we had never hiked before. Ambrose suggested turning back the next morning. I suggested waiting to see what the next day was like. If it were sunny and nice, then we could hang out at Stump Lake and get dry, maybe spend another night and then head back. If it were nasty, then we could high tail it back to the car as fast as possible.