Continued from The Blackmare Trip That Wasn’t – Part 1

Even after eating a hot dinner, I felt cold. My legs refused to warm up despite all my layers. I still had some fried chicken and tortillas from our dinner at the trailhead the night before and I took them out of my pack pocket and told Ambrose that I was going to eat until I was warm.

I did eat until that food was gone, as well as a mouthful or two of the delicious combination of peanut butter and Nutella that Ambrose had mixed and packed into travel tubes for our trip. Then I slid down into my fully zipped sleeping bag and tightened the opening until only my nose and mouth were exposed to the cold.
I hate being in the sleeping bag like that. It makes me feel trapped, and I’m never able to release myself quickly enough when I want out. I fumble with the releases that keep the opening tight and the zipper always seems to stick when I most want to emerge. But the claustrophobia is worth it when I’m that cold, because it gets me warm.

When I was first visiting Idaho, my then-boyfriend took me up to an area not far from where I was that night. His friend had a horse camp that my boyfriend used to work in the summers. One night, I demanded to be driven home in the middle of the night, a two hour drive, because I couldn’t get and stay warm in a wood-framed tent with a stove.

A stove. With a fire in it.

There would be no driving home from Stump Lake in the middle of the night. I had to get warm or be miserable and get through the night cold.

It took hours, but I did warm up. I even fell asleep.

But I woke up around midnight with an awful feeling.

I had to pee.

It’s bad enough to have to go in the middle of the night when your tent isn’t surrounded by snow. It’s cold, and one of the few times I truly wish I was a guy.

I ate a snack as soon as I got back in my sleeping bag in order to help myself stop shivering. It snowed in the night, and our three-season tent was saturated with moisture and beginning to drip. When I got in and out of the tent, snow fell down from the tree against which my side of the tent was snugged. I had a hard time even mustering the energy to care that I was getting a little wetter and colder. The important thing was to get warm enough to fall asleep again, which thankfully did not take long.

I didn’t wake up until the sun was up, and for a little while we thought we would stay the day at Stump Lake while the sun worked its melting magic on the snow around us.

This tent was not meant to be used in the snow.

But after Ambrose made coffee and breakfast, it started snowing again. That was the last straw. We started packing our cold, wet equipment and prepared to leave.

I was surprised when Ambrose handed me the water bags to filter into our bladders, because they weren’t freezing cold. They were actually kind of warm. It turned out that getting to running water was such a pain that he had decided to melt snow instead. We could afford to use our stove fuel for that since our trip was being cut short by two whole days.

There’s something very depressing about putting on cold, damp clothing. I know that my body heat will warm it up eventually, but the cold is an unwelcome shock. Especially the sports bra. I was wearing my “new” one that I bought just after my last trip last year, so I still consider it new for hiking purposes. It worked very well for running, and was comfortable enough for backpacking that I didn’t think about it – which is exactly what I want out of a bra. But it was still cold. Everything was cold. Well, I did cheat a little bit and wear my smartwool long underwear shirt that I had slept in instead of changing to my hiking shirt. So that was still warm-ish from sleep.

I never like folding up the tent poles when it’s chilly, because the metal sucks all the heat out of my hands. This was worse. I had to fold them up wearing wet gloves on cold hands. And I had to take my gloves off to tie my boots.

I’ve written before about how when you’re out backpacking every little task becomes so much more complicated and difficult. At home, if you want water, then you run the faucet. Out there, you find a water source, filter or otherwise decontaminate it, and then drink it at whatever temperature it happens to be. But snow camping adds a whole other level to the difficulty.

I know now just the beginning of how difficult that can be. But I also know I can do it.

The snow tapered off as we began to hike back to the Needles Summit.

Ambrose takes a moment at the Needles Summit.

And, finally, there was an advantage to hiking through the snow. Sure, we couldn’t see the trail, but we could see our tracks.

At least… in some places we could.

Where we had hiked easily on top of the snow, our footprints had been partially obliterated by the snowfall of the night before, but where we had crashed through at the edges of snowbanks or post-holed in the middle of them, our prints were easy to see and follow.

I was leading the way for this section. I intended to lead the way all the way up to the saddle, so that Ambrose would have to take the lead for the downhill snow section to the lakes. Okay, not “have to” but “be more inclined to since I already led.”

I love hiking with my husband, but he does hike at a slower pace than I do. Normally, I will hike ahead of him and then wait at a designated point, but with the conditions we were experiencing, which I found terrifying at times, we stayed close. The bad part about that was that I wasn’t moving fast enough to really get warm. I hiked under conditions that have, in the past, had me pouring sweat, and I didn’t even get close to breaking a sweat. Ambrose was sweating, but I was not.

The trail had a fresh dusting of snow – as if it needed more!

My speed was enough to, eventually, warm and dry my gloves – at least until the next time I had to get them wet by using my hands to keep myself from sliding down the ridge in the snow.

The Needles Summit wasn’t difficult to reach, but once we passed it, I was determined to stay on the trail rather than follow our tracks. Our tracks would lead us out of our way, because we had gotten lost rather well the day before. Staying on the trail should get us to the saddle the quickest.


The weather showed no intentions of clearing. 

I found the tree with a flag tied in its branches that I had been looking for. I photographed it last year, and I wasn’t sure if it would be buried or not, but it wasn’t, quite. That lifted my spirits a little bit. I was still trying to contain myself and not panic at that point. I had never been in the mountains with so much snow before, trying to traverse snow and the rocks lying beneath it. The sky was cloudy, but the snow had let up for the moment.

The flag tree buried in snow.

The flag tree last summer, no snow in sight. 

We actually hadn’t wandered off the trail as much as I thought we had. Following our tracks was the better option more often than not as we crossed the newly snow covered path from the summit to the saddle. We came upon a spine of rock blocking the way in front of us, and I thought that I remembered that as the sign it was time to climb up the steep switchbacks. By looking nearly straight up, I could see a gap between walls of rock that I thought was the saddle. I wasn’t certain, but I was almost sure that we wouldn’t pass the spine of rock.

So we headed up. First we tried switchbacking through snowbanks, but the problem with that was that there were rocks very close under the surface of the snow, which made navigating what looked like a pure white expanse extremely difficult. We climbed up a section half on snow and half up a steep pitch next to a pile of exposed rocks. Ambrose led the way, and when he reached the next flat spot, he had some great news – a
clear trail marker.

I was right!

Going up!

We eschewed the switchbacks at that point to scramble up areas that were less snowy, using trees, standing and fallen, to help pull ourselves up. I led, once we were certain that we were going the right way. It was a much needed boost for my morale to know that I had been right about turning to go up. And we would be taking a break once we reached the saddle.

It wasn’t much of a break. There were no dry places to sit, and the wind near the saddle was fast and cold. We kept going after a snack. Ambrose led the way down the seemingly endless snow.

As we lost elevation, the snow became more melty – at least on the surface. It was still deep enough to support our weight over a stream crossing or two. Ambrose had a few falls, but nothing that caused injury, just inconvenience. Getting up on melty snow is not easy, especially when you’ve got a pack on your back. And the pack has a wet tent inside. And you’re cold!

Why yes, it did snow again.

I learned from some of his mistakes navigating the transition between snow bank and dirt, or high snow bank and low snow bank. After he had an inadvertent fall down the snow, I sat on the edge and slid intentionally.
It was still a little scary. I mean, it’s a really fast slide and you have to stop yourself with your feet or you just keep going. One time I did keep going until my pack hit dirt and slowed me down.

We planned to eat lunch at our lakes again, but the landscape prevented us from finding the turn off. Instead of backtracking once we realized we had passed them, we decided to eat lunch at the next running water we spotted.

Ambrose led the way over the deep snow.

Which we did, even though the running water was snow melt that wasn’t more than 3 inches deep. I dug a section of the dirt a little deeper so we could get water with our cookpot to pour into our filter bags. Ambrose used one of our “pre-filters” which keeps gunk out of filters to pour water into the cookpot that lacked (most of) the bits of dirt and gunk the cookpot picked up in the “stream.”

The weather did clear enough to allow some views.

I cooked our lunch, a Mountain House chicken ala king. We usually like to let the dehydrated meals soak before cooking, but that wasn’t so much a concern at that moment. We were both too hungry and cold to care about anything beyond getting hot food. I got the water to a boil and then covered it with a baggie, since we were using the cookpot top to collect water.

That food disappeared so fast. We didn’t even have to blow on the food to cool it; just grab a spork-ful and lift it over the rim of the pot. The wind cooled it all too quickly from there.

Our tracks were easier to follow in the lower elevations.

After lunch, we kept on trekking down. It wouldn’t be long before we got below the point where snow completely covered the landscape. I was so excited!

I shouldn’t have been.

Even though we broke out of the snow locked area, there were still plenty of snow banks covering the trail. In some ways, it was worse than the snow locked section, because we had to ascend and descend each new snowbank, or take a detour around it. Any way you sliced it, the hike took more out of me than any hike I’d ever done.

The snow was still there! But there was less of it…

And then it started to rain.

Not a hard rain, just a steady drizzle that slicked the melting snow and made me think about the fact that I didn’t have a pack cover with every step.

But I didn’t wish the rain would turn to snow.

I’d gotten my fill of snow.

This past winter, I actually wished for a blizzard. I missed the heavy snows that would fall in the Chicagoland area where I grew up every now and then. I thought it would be fun to have some deep snow to play in. And I think it would have been, when I would have been able to play and then go inside to warm up with a hot shower. Instead, I got my wish for winter weather when it was almost summer. And it really was enough. I’m done with snow for now.

Not done with snow yet…

We got a respite from the snow when we ascended from the forest area to the burned out section. But I was burned out by that point. I was in the lead again, and we agreed I could speed my way to the fire camp. But I didn’t want to leave Ambrose too far behind, because I still felt shaken. So I ranged ahead and kept him mostly in sight.

Then I lost the trail and wandered off to the left of where it went. A few minutes after that, Ambrose called a break. He said that he knew I needed it because I was “wandering off in Nebuchadnezzar land.” We weren’t supposed to break until the fire camp, so I pouted a bit, but he was right. I had been expending far more energy than I realized for the past 24 hours.

We did take another short break once we reached the fire camp. Then we headed back down and found… more snow.

And still more snow…

Less snow than what we had just come through, but I had already had enough. I wanted to be done with the hike more than anything. Even though back at the car I’d just have more work to do before I could collapse.

And more…

Ambrose thought that Shit Creek would be running even higher than it had the day before. I thought it would be lower, because the hottest part of the day is around 3pm. After that, the upper reaches would be re-freezing and the snow melt flows should slow. He thought it would be faster later because more snow would have melted by evening.

Still there, but I can see trail!

When we reached Shit Creek, I was pretty sure I was right, because the section of the log crossing that had been wet was now dry. But I was too tired to brag about it. Ambrose side-slid across the logs and then I came over. I alternated between sit-scooting and grab-crawling. Sit-scooting involved using my hands to push my body up as my legs straddle the logs and scooting my butt forward. This technique put my feet down and I got a little panicky when they brushed the water and got swept by the current. That’s when I switched to grab-crawling, which starts in the same straddle position but involves leaning forward to grab the log with my arms and haul myself along. The advantage of that technique was keeping my feet up, but it also made my pack overbalance. Hence the alternating…

Shit Creek was running lower.

Ambrose was okay with me going on from there to the car without waiting for him, but I was planning on fording the next deep creek because it would be faster than taking the log. And because I wanted to experience what would happen when I got water in my waterproof boots. So I kept him in sight for the next segment of the hike, on which I bid farewell and good riddance to the last of the snow.

Ambrose side slid across the logs – and yes, there’s still snow back there.

I went a little faster than I intended to on the last big uphill section, so I ended up waiting several minutes at the Nail Creek crossing. I amused myself by taking pictures of a bumblebee.

Nail Creek was fordable, as long as I was okay with getting water in my boots. 

I let Ambrose cross the creek first, so I could see where the deep spots were, and even change my mind if I thought it was too deep for me to cross without getting my pack wet. The creek widened where the trail crossed it, which made it both slower and deeper than up or down stream. I told Ambrose to angle more upstream, but he went just about straight across and then waited for me to cross.

I have to admit that even though the water was quite cold, and hit just above my knees, it felt pretty good on my tired feet.

Now, I’ve done this crossing as a ford before, but that was while wearing boots that were not waterproof. So once I crossed, the water ran out and I started to get dry.

Not so with these boots. After the first few steps squeezed out what would flow over my boots, I had a residual puddle of cool water inside my boots, sloshing with each step. It was both pleasant, because it felt like a little hydromassage with each step, and disconcerting, because my feet insisted they were unstable, but my boots gripped the dirt without any problems.

After that crossing, I headed off to the car, Terminator-style. My Terminator mode of hiking is single-focused, inexorable, unstoppable and, of course, it has its own theme song.

I beat Ambrose back to the car by about 17 minutes. In that time, I managed to move the car from near the road to inside the camping area, take off my boots in favor of sandals, change clothes and get about ¾ of the way through erecting the tent.

That was a slight disappointment, because I really wanted it to be up when he came. But I didn’t have a lot of room for emotion at that point. I did what I needed to do to get myself laying down inside that tent. Ambrose cooked dinner, for which I was quite grateful. I had completely run out of useful energy.

In the tent that night, where just two nights ago I had slept easily under only a down comforter, I had to huddle in my sleeping bag and under the comforter in order to get warm.

But I’d made it. It wasn’t the trip we had planned. I wasn’t really prepared to face the challenges of snow and cold. And yet, I did it. Unprepared, unplanned, underdressed, I backpacked through the snow in the mountains.

I didn’t panic. I got through it.

And I think I’d do it again… with the proper equipment.

There’s a bumblebee!

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