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Snow Mistake

Monday, January 16th, 2023: Hikes, Pinos Altos Range, Southwest New Mexico.

2023 was not starting well for me, with severe back pain leading to continuous headache, so that I’d had to skip some of my regular hikes. But meds had made this Saturday fairly pleasant, and by Sunday morning both back pain and headache were manageable. I hadn’t expected to be ready for a hike, but my body was desperate for exercise.

The weather forecast was confusing. A National Weather Service warning for the entire region predicted dangerous winds up to 70 mph, with fallen trees and property damage. And here I was with my neighbor’s 80 foot tall elm overhanging my house. But that forecast was for the whole of our topographically complex region, and local forecasts only predicted gusts up to 40 mph, peaking in late afternoon. Plus rain beginning before noon and turning to snow in the evening.

Somewhat befuddled by the lingering effects of pain and meds, I procrastinated for a while, eventually settling on a short hike near town. It was one of the steepest, and would take me onto the crest at 9,000 feet, where I should have expected at least foot-deep snow. But most other hikes would involve mud, which I figured would be even worse.

How long would I be gone? Would I return to find my house destroyed by a fallen tree? I moved the vulnerable stuff to the opposite end, just in case, and hit the road.

It was already snowing lightly. In my reduced mental state, I’d forgotten that temperatures in the narrow, dark canyon around the trailhead were always much lower than in town, despite being only a few hundred feet higher. There was snow and ice on the mountain road and deep snow even on the south slopes above. I made a snap decision to take the ridge trail instead of the peak trail, since the peak trail is one of my regular midweek hikes. In my confused state, I was forgetting that the ridge trail traverses a steep north slope that holds some of the deepest snow in our region until spring.

So it was another gaiter day. I encountered up to 6 inches on the lower part of the climb, but that was doable. A big man had been up the trail before me, and subsequent melting and freezing had left a crust and solidified his tracks, followed by a couple more inches of powder, so it was the worst possible surface to walk on. He’d also had an older crust to walk on, so some of his tracks were near the surface, while others were deep holes where he’d sunk in. And the new powder made it impossible for me to anticipate whether my next step would land on hard crust or sink into a deep hole. I literally lurched and stumbled up the mountain and across the north slope, where the snow was now up to 14 inches deep.

I tried to go slow to minimize the impact on my headache, but I could feel it coming gradually back. It was still pretty minimal compared to other sensations, like cold face, fingers, and toes, so I kept going, determined to go at least as far as the previous hiker.

The day’s storm hadn’t actually made it here yet, but the wind was rising and the dark storm clouds were racing out of the west and over my head. What the hell was I doing up here?

This is a trail that used to be one of my favorites, but became totally overgrown and virtually impassable after a 2021 wildfire that burned around the entire ridge. I used to take it to the stock pond at the end of the ridge, a little over 6 miles one-way, with about 2,500′ of accumulated elevation gain. I didn’t expect to get nearly that far today, and the way things were going, I would be lucky to get to the first milestone, a rocky shoulder about 2-1/2 miles in.

But I did reach the shoulder, after 2-1/2 hours of slogging and stumbling through deep snow. The previous hiker’s tracks continued past that point, but I’d lost my competitive drive. And as I turned back, the storm hit the north side of the ridge, and on my return, I faced gale force wind driving snow in my face. The snow turned into a blizzard by the time I began my final descent. And something weird started happening to my boots.

There were patches with little or no snow on the descent, and whenever I walked over one of them, a ball of snow and pine needles developed under the arch of each boot. I stopped to knock them off on rocks, but as soon as I resumed walking, the snowball returned. I eventually found it was easier to keep walking (awkwardly) on the snowballs, because they would fall off by themselves when I hit the next patch of deep snow.

These snowballs got worse the farther down I got, because the snow gradually became thinner and I had to cross longer stretches of bare ground. I had to grab a stick before getting in the vehicle, so I could poke off the final snowballs before swinging my feet inside. That’s when I discovered a kernel of solid ice balled up on the synthetic cords that secure the gaiters to my boots.

I hit heavy rain as I approached town, but the tree and my house were still standing. And we never actually got high winds in town – the most we got was a gentle breeze. Fortunately my headache was manageable, and I took another muscle relaxer along with the maximum dose of acetaminophen to help me sleep.

Online forums showed that the gaiter snowball is a familiar phenomenon. I’d worn these gaiters in snow over a dozen times so far and had never encountered it – apparently conditions have to be just right, with light snow over wet, unfrozen ground. Others have succeeded in preventing the snowball by coating their straps with oil or wax.

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