Crunch! My snowshoes broke through a hard crust and sank about seven inches. I tentatively took another step and the same. I knew this was going to be another outdoor flummox. Stubbornly, I slogged ahead.
It was mid-January and I completely misjudged the depth of snow in South Fork Valley, about 15 miles northeast of Anchorage, Alaska.
Since snow at the time was as rare in the area as meaningful action in U.S. Congress, I figured I would take my 28-inch long MSR snowshoes instead of my 31-inch Tubbs. Wrong! Departing the packed down, icy trail and heading cross country, I immediately began sinking into snow that surprisingly, was sometimes 15 inches deep.
Snowshoeing isn’t for everyone, but I find that sometimes it can offer a change of pace from skiing. I rarely see people wearing long snowshoes, such as the wooden, 48-inchers that I keep at the ready in my garage. It almost seems like it’s acceptable to sink in the snow as much as 8 inches, which I call “post-holing with snowshoes.”
But with stubbornness that often outweighs my lack of tolerance for discomfort, I pressed onward. Had I gone back home and retrieved those old-school wooden snowshoes that are 10 inches wide (at their widest point), I’d barely have broken the crust.
Trial and error: Much of my learning in the outdoors has come from making miscalculations and mistakes. Luckily, none of them have been life threatening – except the time I tried to float down a river in a one-person raft with the chamber on one side entirely deflated. But that’s another story.
Just as airplane pilots acquire weather information on their destinations, outdoor recreationists need to gather as much intel on their specific destination, especially in winter. A lot of time if I’m headed north, I’ll call a commercial lodge that’s in the area and ask about conditions. Or if I’m headed south to the Kenai Peninsula, I might telephone one of the park rangers with Chugach National Forest.
With weather forecasts, I compare data with Weather Underground and the National Weather Service. In my estimation, the former always seems to be a bit more optimistic than the latter. With our proximity to the Gulf of Alaska and the vagaries of its changing patterns, both agencies seem to have some difficulty in providing accurate forecasts. But I think they’ve improved dramatically from 10 years ago.
The old “sticking your head out the door” to judge the weather just doesn’t fly. There are even subtle differences between weather in adjacent valleys, with some drier because of high mountains that create a rain shadow effect.
Dialing in the gear: But fully preparing, of course, requires the right gear. I’ve left my face mask, or balaclava, at home many times because the wind wasn’t blowing when I left the house, and wind wasn’t in the forecast. A nearly frostbitten nose on several occasions has convinced me to just leave the balaclava in my pack during winter outings.
In colder weather, which we haven’t had much of this winter, one needs to keep water bottles from freezing by using a neoprene insulated holder. On a long hike/snowshoe trip several winters ago I developed severe leg cramps from dehydration because my water bottles froze and I couldn’t drink.
Dialing in our clothing and food comes with experience, and I’m no longer too proud to avoid using chemical warmers for keeping extremities warm. I’ve noticed that many people have become fans of traction aids, such as Kahtoola Micro Spikes.
Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) and Satellite Messengers as well as Satellite Telephones are certainly worth looking into for folks who plan to get far off the beaten track. (Here's a good article from REI on this topic).
As I’ve said many times before, the best tool available when heading outdoors is common sense. When you’re post-holing in the snow and progressing less than a quarter of a mile in more than an hour, (and it goes without saying, not having much fun), judge your time accordingly, cognizant of the daylight. Perhaps carry a headlamp. Or, do the amazingly smart thing that is often very hard to do: Turn around.
Accepting that you don’t always reach your objective and turning around is one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned.
Frank E. Baker is a lifetime Alaskan and freelance writer who lives in Eagle River, Alaska, about 15 miles northeast of Anchorage.