|Snowshoeing||17.00 Miles||2 Days |
|2,880 ft AEG||35 LBS Pack|
||no linked trail guides|
Planning for most of my adventure runs, backpacking trips and hikes begins with a check of the trip reports on hikearizona.com. Typically I’m looking for reports on hikes in a general area during a specific season to identify what kind of conditions I’m going to be dealing with. When looking for trip reports in the months of December, January and February for trails in the area around Mount Baldy in East Central Arizona I came up empty handed. The few reports that I was able to find for November on the Mount Baldy Loop indicated that the trees had all changed and that dreary but passable weather was possible. My trip was being planned for late December and with no trip reports and little experience in the region I was unsure what conditions would be like in the mountains. I logged onto the Sunrise Ski Resort website to check snow conditions and found that the slopes already had a base of 15 inches, but this told me little about the trails on the southern slopes of those mountains. The only way I would learn would be to make the trip.
On December 17th I made the drive from from Gilbert through Globe, the Salt River Canyon, ShowLow, Pinetop-Lakeside and eventually to the West Baldy Trailhead on the AZ 273. Conditions had deteriorated after leaving Pinetop with temperatures around freezing and snow flurries in the air. The AZ 273 wasn’t holding any snow, but the hills, meadows and mountains to the East and West were blanketed in thick snow. There are no tire tracks turning onto the snowy road leading to the trailhead. I brave the snow in my AWD Chevy Trax and find a parking spot shielded from snow by a large pine. After parking I walk up the kiosk to discover a few sets of footprints leading down the trail. I decide that the only way that I’ll understand what the conditions are is to go check it out. So I throw on my runners and a pair of shorts, my running watch and a long sleeve running shirt.
I’m impressed by the distance down the trail the footprints made it. Tracing the footprints I ran into the Mount Baldy Wilderness, past the Mount Baldy Crossover Trail intersection and on into deeper snow. The footprints abruptly stopped and turned around about three miles down the trail. I continued forging my own path through the snow until I grew weary of post-holing in knee deep drifts. When following the previous hiker’s path I was able to use their icy footpath to my advantage, skipping across their steps. Breaking my own trail increased the difficulty of forward progress substantially. I didn’t have the appropriate footwear for such an endeavor and turned back to the car after forging only an additional quarter mile.
I’m a runner, climber, backpacker and fairweather alpinist. I’ve climbed numerous 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado and I’ve run Rim to Rim to Rim. I’m in pretty good shape and have a fair amount of experience outdoors. What I have absolutely no experience with is snowshoes or any other snow related activity. I’m an Arizona “Valley of the Sun” native and I have never ventured outside for much sport or recreation in winter climates. Prior to this hike I was ignorant of the difficulty of moving through snowy terrain.
And So It Begins
My goal for this trip was to run/hike/backpack the Mt. Baldy loop. After having driven up from the valley I wasn’t going to give up on my goal just because of a little snow. I headed back into town on a mission to acquire some snowshoes. After calling the first 4 closest ski shops and the Sunrise Ski Resort I was referred to Skiers Edge Ski Shop in Show Low for snowshoe rentals. They hooked me up with half price rental snowshoes for what I figured would be a two day expedition on the trail. They were staffed up for the holiday rush but everyone was very friendly and got me on my way quickly. The only disconcerting part of the experience was the hushed tones saying “no one ever rents these things, people like to go up the mountain the easy way on the lifts”. I was given the opportunity to select from three sizes of snowshoes, all with similar bindings but different deck widths. Not having any prior experience and having entirely too much pride to ask for assistance with my selection I chose the “medium” sized snowshoes, not knowing what the advantages or disadvantages of each variety of available snowshoe might offer.
After renting my snowshoes I drove back out into the wilderness to make camp for the night. I plodded around camp for about half an hour to get used to these weird snow floatation devices. I used them to flatten out a spot on the ground for my tent and work a small path in the fresh snow from my tent to the car. The bindings are easy enough to get the hang of and other than a few awkward moments where the floppy heels of the shoes get in my way I think I have a pretty good handle on snowshoeing.
The next morning I woke with the sun and began my foray into snowshoeing. From the recon run the day prior I knew what to expect for the first few miles of the trail. I knew that there were trodden paths through the first few miles. I knew the snow beyond that point would be anywhere from 9 to 15 inches deep based on the Snow Reports I had read. The bitter cold overnight temperatures yielded 5 inches of fresh powder to start the day of my trek. The forecast for the next two days was unseasonably warm with sunny skies. I was expecting good weather on the mountain but tough, fresh snow conditions.
The effort required to advance one snowshoed foot in front of the other when encumbered by the full weight of my backpacking gear was unexpected. I am not an ultralight backpacker, my stuff needs to be affordable so it weighs a little extra. Without water and food my gear weighs in around 20 lbs. Add water, food, extra clothes, beer and batteries and I’m easily hauling 30 to 35 lbs. The recon run had taken me an hour to get three and a quarter miles. Achieving the same distance with the added gear and the encumbrance of snowshoes took two and a half hours. Each step in the snowshoes was compounded in its difficulty by the added weight of the gear. The fresh powder sinks under each weighted step. Every amount of effort applied toward forward progress is drained of at least some efficiency by the crumbling layers of snow under foot.
After the three mile mark the trail changes. The first three miles of this trail are barely a warm up for the exertions required to accomplish these uphill climbs. Three miles in and you’ve only gained 500 vertical feet from the trailhead. The next four miles includes 1600 feet of climbing. There are a number of switchbacks in the trail leading through tangles of dead fallen trees and thick old growth fir trees covered in thick pillows of snow. The trail transitions in and out of thick thigh deep snow. Another two miles and I was pushing up the now shaded eastern slopes of the range towards the saddle. At six miles in with only 500 feet of climbing remaining to the summit my progress had slowed considerably. I thought about making camp before the summit. In the shade temperatures were dropping and I knew that it would only get colder. I decided against it though. My “plan” committed me to camping on the downhill side of the summit saddle, on the East Baldy Trail and my arrogance wouldn’t let me deviate.
I pushed through the next mile and 500 feet of climbing. Diligent observation of my surroundings was required to monitor the faint signs of trail. The trail was of course entirely obscured by snow. The trail is not well blazed above the snow. I found the best way to identify the trail was to search for the exposed clean chainsaw cuts of stumps, limbs and tree trunks that lined the trail. There are deceitful game trails that may easily cause you to wander off the main path as it tunnels its way through the narrow alleys made up of thick snow covered firs.
The “summit” is a nondescript saddle that stops about 350 feet short of the true Baldy summit which lies on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. I skipped the true summit out of respect for the tribe, unsure if I could have made the additional climb anyway.
It was 4:10 PM as I unceremoniously continued past the summit saddle and down the East Baldy Trail. With little light and much fatigue I began the descent. I wanted to get as far down as I could for a number of reasons: Timber for a fire, less snow, less wind. There were some obstacles in my path down the mountain. The East Baldy Trail does not descend from the saddle as fast as the West. The East Baldy Trail descends on the Northeast face of the range for the first several miles. The snow on this part of the mountain is deep, loose and dry. Every step sinks deeply into the powder and requires hauling my now frozen pants, shoes and snowshoes.
The wind is howling as I cross through burned areas and areas of deadfall. I start shivering as each step moves me further, but not far enough, down the mountain. I pass through stands of widowmakers as the wind begins blowing furiously. I find the meadow with the downed plane and spot some aluminum scraps but don’t stop to investigate or even glance around for more. The wind is unrelenting as I progress as fast as I can down the mountain. I’m shivering uncontrollably and looking for a safe place to bivy, still hoping to light a fire and dry myself out but rapidly running out of light. The temperature is dropping fast.
Through a burned area and into some trees I find a possible respite from the wind and a place to pitch a tent. I’m at 10,900 feet and a little less than a mile down trail from the East/West intersection. It’s 5:10 PM when I start when I start building a camp by stomping a 10 x 10 area of snow sandwiched between large snow laden fir trees. With snowshoes still on I scamper around in the snow setting up my tent. I don’t have snow stakes, just aluminium pegs. My hands aren’t working and the stakes don’t stick. I dig foot deep holes in the snow, jam the stakes into them and get no purchase. I look around me for a solution but any assistance, be it a branch or a rock, is obscured by feet of snow. I do my best, piling mounds of snow on top of the stakes at the corners of my tent. 6 stakes are required for my non-freestanding tent. I said 6 little prayers as I put the tent poles in and fastened the rainfly.
I threw my snow covered backpack into the tent and immediately start trying to remove the my wet layers. Snowshoe bindings are designed for this and are the easiest of my layers to remove. I accidentally step off the left snowshoe onto the snow and immediately sink knee deep, even in the area that I have stomped down in the snowshoes. My shoes are frozen solid with gobs of icy snow crystals caked to the shoelaces. I don’t even try to untie them, just fight and manage to slip them off. My two pairs of wool socks are frozen. Removing them is painful. They are frozen together and ice cubes have formed between and under my toes. They won’t be separated until well into the next day when they receive the magic touch of my car’s heater. My pants are frozen to the thigh. They literally stand up on their own and I struggle mightily to get them off. The pile of frozen clothes and shoes sits in the vestibule of my tent as I focus on warming myself.
Into the sleeping bag I go after throwing on some thermal tights and thick wool socks. I scramble through my backpack and add my down puffy sweater. The uncontrollable shivering keeps up as the wind howls and snow drops from the branches of the surrounding trees on to my haphazardly pitched tent. My head is throbbing. My feet are edging back and forth between fire and ice as they begin to thaw. I can wiggle my toes but they are numb. Nausea begins to set in as I lay there shivering. I know that at 11,000 feet I’m very likely experiencing some mild altitude sickness. Aside from getting down the mountain the next best thing for me would be getting some warm liquids and food into my body to power my overnight recovery. The desire to puke prevents me from taking action to that end though. I wretch once in the snow outside my tent, knowing that there is nothing to throw up. I hold it back with a few sneezes. I wait for the nausea to pass as over the course of the next half hour the shivering subsides.
Eventually I find energy to drink water and prepare some food to eat. I eat one of the cliff bars I have planned for tomorrow after carefully and slowly ating a Harmony House dehydrated meal. The tent was still a serious concern as the wind continued to blow snow from the surrounding trees onto the rainfly. I use my jetboil to melt some snow for more water, I’m out at this point.
Overnight I wake to pee 5 times. I don’t know if the altitude has something to do with it but it was a lot of pee. I captured it all in a refuse bag and dumped it away from the trail the following morning. Overnight my cell phone battery died. At the end of the day my GPS had issued a low battery warning. I had made it to safety for the night. My tent pitch would hold and I would warm further as I slept. I was pretty convinced that I hadn’t lost any toes to frostbite and that I would survive. The following day would bring its own challenges though.
Coming Down Off the Mountain
There was no sunshine as I began to pack up my gear around 8:00 AM the next day on the Northern slopes of the ridge between Mount Baldy and Mount Thomas. My clothes from the day before still frozen solid I had no choice but to descend in my insulated thermal tights and my last dry pair of socks. I thawed my shoes over the flame of the jetboil in order to untie them and loosen them enough to get them back on my feet. I put them on, still wet, and harnessed myself into the snowshoes. My gear all assembled and loaded onto my back I began the descent through the thick snow-lined corridors of the East Baldy Trail. The descent follows vaguely discernable paths through meadows where the trails blazes are indiscernible amongst the downed and damaged trees. The snow obscures all obvious signs of the trail in some parts of the descent and I have to power up my failing GPS receiver to review the route on the map.
As I work my way down from 10,000 feet the East Baldy Trail is finally blessed by some morning light and reveals some of the most spectacular views of the expansive snow covered meadows and distant scenery. A tangle of paths woven by all manner of wildlife crisscross the meadows. I identified bobcat, coyote, Elk, Deer, Rabbit, Squirrel and a few small rodents like mice or shrews. I was particularly entertained throughout the two days of my hike by the tracks of squirrels and rabbits darting from tree to log and down into their snow covered hidey-holes.
Finally I reach the sign for the Mount Baldy Crossover Trail. I let out an audible groan and expletive declaration at the “3.5” miles remaining to get me back to the West Baldy Trail. I form an internal debate over the distance and convince myself that I’ve won the argument against the sign and that there is no way there’s 3.5 miles to go. The crossover trail passes through 4 valleys, each with a northern slope buried in deep shaded, fluffy snow. At the base of each Northern slope is an expansive meadow with a snow covered drainage. Often the destination on the other side of the meadow is unknown and I have to power up the GPS to take a bearing on the appropriate direction to forge across the snowy plain. My snowshoed shuffle intertwines with a tangled mess of elk tracks that intersect, follow and diverge from the trail. Navigation is something of a challenge as the path isn’t at all obvious at times.
Walking across the snow covered meadows that I viewed from some of the higher elevations is satisfying. 4 valleys later finds me at the crossing of the West fork of the little Colorado River. I find the narrow bridge and safely get across to rejoin the West Baldy Trail. The snowshoe tracks I laid down the previous day enable me to increase cadence and get back to my car exhausted, dehydrated, again frozen stiff but alive and entirely satisfied.
Being dominated by the environment in which I choose to have an adventure is a common occurrence for me. I’ve been obliterated by desert heat while backpacking throughout Arizona. I have been waterlogged for days in wet canyons. I’ve achieved nominally great heights and been battered by a lack of acclimatization at over 14000 feet before. On this trip I was completely owned by the snow and cold. It was an entirely new experience for me on never before used equipment and in surrounds I had never imagined could be so beautiful. Revisiting this place in the summer months will bring another opportunity for me to experience something new and I’m excited for that adventure too.