Mike and I went for a walk in the backyard, and things did not go to plan.
Relative to the past two, record setting winters the snow and cold have evolved differently over the past few months. Above 6500′ snow is about average, or a bit above, for at least a few hours in every direction. Below that snow is very low, or just not there, due to the many warm and sunny days. For us, that meant that the first three hours of our walk could as easily have been in October, until we crossed that elevation line and over a couple hundred vertical functionally switched seasons.
As is often the case, winter complicated things. Trail breaking and navigation were both more time consuming than expected, and even after chopping a big chunk off our route we arrived at one of the few likely camps (sheltered trees, running water) right at dark. The plan had been to spend the first night low, and the second in a forest service cabin. I was thus a bit undergunned in the sleeping bag department, where bivying at 6600′ was concerned. Fortunately some clouds rolled in after midnight, so I slept well enough with one 3am wake to rewarm my hot water bottle.
The next day, we continued to have a first trip of the winter, which is to say, get a bit behind schedule, then make navigational errors which further compounded things.
We also got to experience the extraordinary things you only see out walking in winter: melt patterns and degrees of windcrust changing aspect to aspect, old growth fir bedangled with moss standing stark above sculpted powder, the lives of animals laid bare in their tracks, vole to hare to deer to moose. We marveled at mule deer electing to stay high, seemingly with the intention of spending the winter on one sub-knoll, in an island of deep, with just enough immature willows. We spooked a grouse, who flew just far enough and alighted just so, bringing our eyes to the bulls bedded across the canyon.
By that time we were well and truly late, and had an easy choice between pushing the route forward through off trail questions, likely in the dark, and a cool down road walk back to the start, the truck, and a short drive to the bar.
An easy choice. Some times the winds aren’t with you, and some times ego and hindsight are not good enough reasons to push through that headwind. It’s the luxury of proximity; with trailheads 40 minutes away we can come back next week or next month, and next year, and pick apart our dizzyingly varied backyard. It is a bigger place than most, though smaller than many, and the trails are often hard to follow, and most importantly the place cuts from rolling wooded canyons to impossible-seeming limestone crags in a most abrupt fashion. The exact combination of scale, ruggedness, mystery, and convenience to maximize the imagination, no matter the season.