It’s cold, well below freezing. You’re a few miles in and the weather is starting to roll in quick. 40-50mph freezing winds whip down the steep face of the mountain your hiking next to. You lose sight of your partner in front of you. Despite the seemingly brutal conditions you’re warm. The wind actually feels good. You’ve been working hard through the drifts. You stop, look at the swirling landscape around you and you’re overcome with pure joy, even though you know you can’t go on. You aren’t making it to your intended destination a mere 1.5 miles ahead. In that moment, you realize that you’ve arrived at the day’s destination. You are here. Winter hiking and snowshoeing is an incredibly rewarding experience, it reminds you of who you are.
Winter hiking and snowshoeing are definitely more difficult than hiking around on a perfect summer day. There’s a lot at play. For starters, the ground moves. One gust of strong wind can easily eliminate a trail, including the one behind you. There is a significant amount of sinking involved, even on snowshoes. And don’t forget about the avalanche danger (seriously, if you don’t know what you’re doing get proper training before heading into any avalanche prone area). The weather can kill if you aren’t prepared. I’m not trying to discourage anyone from getting out there and enjoying it, but I am saying that there is a little more planning, and a little more risk involved. For a comprehensive guide to winter hiking and snowshoeing I highly recommend the Trailmaiden.com post on the subject here. Instead of diving into how to do it, I want to touch on the mental reality of the sport.
In the past month, I’ve gone on three winter backcountry excursions. Of those three I have turned around exactly three times. To be completely honest it frustrated me. However, it reminded me of the real reason why I have such a passion for the outdoors.
Winter Hiking up Buffalo Mountain
It all started when I set out to summit Buffalo Mountain at the souther end of the Gore Range about a month back. I got to the parking area only to realize I didn’t have my hiking poles. I figured it would be no big deal – wrong my friend. Little did I know I would be hiking up substantial grades covered in 2-3″ of slick, wet snow. It’s like trying to walk up steep ramp with a polished wooden floor in socks. Traction wasn’t too helpful either, as the ultra wet snow caused my Microspikes to ball up terribly. It felt as if I was walking on poorly made platform shoes that grew in both height and weight with every step. My buddy Buttons and I managed to survive the slip and slide and reach the boulder fields. We made it part way through the boulder field when it turned into my first attempt up Mt. Guyot all over again – the dogs just weren’t having it. We made the call and turned around.
Oddly this felt like a failure to me – I didn’t summit. I immediately equated this to “I didn’t succeed.” This thought bothered me. Turning around wasn’t a tough choice, it made sense. No summit is worth the safety and welfare of yourself or others. It isn’t about getting to the top, that’s just the icing on the cupcake. It’s about having fun and challenging yourself. It’s about getting out into the wilderness and connecting with the vibrancy around you.
It’s Just fine to Turn Around
Winter hiking and snowshoeing connect you with yourself like nothing else can. The simple act of putting one foot in front of the other over difficult terrain forces you to come face to face with yourself. Winter amplifies this with the element of cold. Conditions are harsher. It’s more dynamic. Sure, you’d love to make it to your planned destination, but that isn’t always possible – winter reminds us of that.
Letting go of the destination is an important lesson. When you let go you live in the moment, instantly everything becomes more clear. You truly become a part of the environment around you, living it. You become part of that series of moments; fleeting, ever changing, and beautiful.
If you’re looking to get into winter activities in the backcountry, you should. And good for you, seriously. It takes some guts to put yourself into a less forgiving environment, but it’s worth it, always.
The Ultimate Lesson of the Backcountry
The backcountry has so much to teach us, no matter what time of year. So get out there. Let that 40mph freezing wind blow through your hair. Post hole up a steep grade, realize that’s a sucky way to travel, and turn around. Lose the trail and stomp around trying to find it only to end up retracing your steps and head back. It’s not failure, it’s the journey and everyone knows the journey is always worth more than the destination.
What are your experiences facing the challenges of winter hiking and snowshoeing? Have you ever felt the same way? Differently? I’d love to hear from you! Please comment below or reach out via one of my social media outlets.