Snowshoeing February 3, 2011

Snowslide near Redpine Lake - photo: Zach Schwing

This is a bit of a departure from my recent posts on the desert and drier climates. As the title suggests, I went snowshoeing on Thursday February 3. One of the great luxuries I have discovered here in Salt Lake City, in comparison to my native city of Denver, is that one can look at the clock at 10am and still decide to get a full hike in since the close side of the Wasatch mountains is just 20 minutes away. One precaution: one should check the avalanche conditions with the Utah Avalanche Center. The conditions on February 3 were moderate, but the center did warn that there was the possibility of wind-blown drifts above about 9,000 feet. Since by definition, snowshoeing is a little less intense than backcountry skiing or knuckle-dragging (snowboarding) the risk to me personally is probably even less.

I chose to hike to hike Redpine Lake since I had not been up Little Cottonwood Canyon in about three weeks. The Redpine and Whitepine trails are ideal for mid-week hiking since they tend to become very crowded – as all of trails near Salt Lake City. I do not like the lower portion of this trail at all in summer or in winter. It is close to the road, so you can still hear the highway traffic until it drops into the drainage leading to the lake. The trail is also beaten into superhighway form and in winter the snow is hardpacked to a trail about 4 feet wide. On this day, at least, there was absolutely no one on the trail. The 10-15 cars in the parking lot belied the lack of anyone on the trail.

Redpine Lake drainage - photo: Zach SchwingOnce I traversed the hillside and got into the upper gulch, the trail wore down to the tracks of one or skiers and snowshoers. In fact, at one point I lost the ‘official’ trail completely and found myself in a windblown pine grove. Since I am fairly familiar with the terrain in this area, I quickly re-found the track – this is actually the beauty of winter navigation. With so much snow, one can easily crosscut the terrain as long you remain conscious of the hazards – namely avalanches.

Once I got the the lake I was rewarded with a spectacular view of windblown peaks bathed in full sun. I sat and had my lunch and enjoyed the local entertainment. There is something almost magical about watching the wind blow snow off the ridges. It is as if the rock of the mountains themselves is breathing; filling a high altitude blue sky with spun-up delicate crystals. Like most things in mountains, there is paradox here: these same delicate whisps flowing off the ridges and peaks push themselves into impossible and dangerous drifts fundamentally transforming each particle so that as a group they become a macro-hazard.

Deception looms everywhere in the wilderness. It is perhaps this fact that makes many people reticent to venture too far into the wilderness in any season. But winter brings snow and snow is an absurd morphological phenomenon – subtle changes in surface and air temperatures and the interaction between the two as well as sunlight and relative shade cause amazing changes in snow. Wind, as shown here, is another factor. Snow in mass quantities is really just fast geology. It follows similar rules as rock and sediments. It experiences deformation under pressure, it abrades with friction, it liquifies, solidifies or evaporates with temperature.

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