In the Crown of the Continent ecosystem, if you wait for the snow to melt before hiking you will be waiting a long time. Better to deploy some of the following tips, get out early, and enjoy the solitude and occasional excessive challenge which come with postholing through spring snow. The first, or Sun Tzu, rule of postholing is to avoid postholing, and the best way to do that short of staying home is to pay very close attention to the various factors which influence snow accumulation, melt off, and consistency. Do this well most of the time, bring the proper equipment and attitude, and spring postholing will not be too much of a burden. As shown above, sun exposure is the most obvious factor. In the northern hemisphere, south facing slopes will melt off much faster than north facing ones. This is particularly relevant in early spring, when sunny days are often not especially warm. Big variations, like the top photo, are easy to see and accommodate, but smaller ones like that pictured in the second photo can be equally as relevant. The slope in this photo actually faces south-southeast, probably the ideal aspect for fast melting, but is at a higher elevation and under mature timber cover. In this case the small gulleys (left side) are a bit cooler and more shaded than the ridges (right), and thus the later melt considerably faster. Field experience and satellite photographs will give you a good eye for which routes are least likely to hold snow. Eventually you will have to walk across snow, at which point the second major rule of postholing comes into play: cheat. Do everything you can to pick the most solid line available. In the photo above, this logging road has seen winter snowmachine traffic, the trail being just barely visible. Compacted snow from machine or human traffic will melt slower than untraveled snow, eventually leaving a raised and more consolidated area upon which travel is usually better. Balancing along a nordic ski rail is not easy, but it is often better than the alternative. The corollary to cheating is to have the right equipment, Trekking poles are essential, and snow baskets often a worthwhile investment. If you are concerned about really awful snow conditions, night above freezing and rainy, overcast days being a particularly noxious combination, do not hesitate to bring snowshoes. Of course, the worst postholing is when you have skis or snowshoes and are still breaking in past your knees, as was the case above, when it rained the previous night at 8000′ in Wyoming’s Thorofare and stayed chilly and overcast all day. When this happens be patient, don’t do anything hasty, and think of how much worse it would be without the ‘shoes. Snowshoes usually are the ticket for spring trips, especially the ones with a fairly aggressive steel crampon. While the snow may start out mushy, inevitably you’ll get a clear day with a cold night and hard freeze, and you’ll want good grip on steeper slopes. Some trips under these conditions may require crampons. Lastly, pay attention to the snow and try to read its mind, as to what it will do and what is underneath it. This photo shows a classic mistake on my part, made late on a tiring day. I neglected to notice the buried sappling, which facilitates air pockets under the uniform surface snow, making perfect foot traps. I got caught in this one, but it wasn’t too bad. Bigger ones can easily be ankle breakers. When you’re stuck in a long stretch of postholing, rushing through it is the worst thing short of giving up and waiting for rescue. Steady, deliberate, sustainable movement is the fastest way. Remember to eat and drink, make every step the best you can, and laugh at your mistakes. No matter how slow you go, all such things will eventually come to and end. In addition to snowshoes, a few other gear notes are in order. I generally do not wear waterproof shoes in spring, because there are generally enough tall stream crossings that getting wet is inevitable. I’ve written a bunch about my preferred system, with this being the most recent version. Occasionally my feet get cold, but overall it works well and I have not substantially altered it over the previous four years. There’s a certain satisfaction to being out in miserable conditions and making them work well, but the main reward of spring hiking in the mountains is that you probably won’t see anyone else. You’ll likely be the first human the animals have seen for months. Places which are busy come summer are quiet, lonely, and slow. Adverse travel conditions aside, it’s an exceptionally tranquil time to be out and about.
Spring postholing, in style
2 responses to “Spring postholing, in style”
“No matter how slow you go, all such things will eventually come to and end”.
This reminds me of something Jörgen Johansson said to me, when we got stuck trying to climb out of a ravine on skis: “Everything had an end, Joe. Except sausages. They have two” :)