As we finally can enjoy the snow, which we so rightly deserve, it’s a good time to remember a few practical tips to keep us safe in this all beautiful white stuff.
Hopefully, you’ve already figured out that taking a winter hike in the high country takes a bit more planning than a summer-day hike. You already know to bring the right gear and check your weather forecasts, so I won’t belabor those points. (Not sure? Check past articles.)
Here’s a couple of tips about the worst winter offenders to help keep you safe:
Melt and freeze: Get to know the relationship between snow and ice. Just because you crossed that slope in the bright midday sun does not mean that it will be traversable in the late afternoon.
The day with sun vs. the night and shade creates a melting and freezing cycle, which can turn friendly white powder into something slick and deadly in a matter of hours.
As soon as that snow is no longer exposed to direct sunlight, watch out. That also goes for crossing from open to tree-covered trails — any area of shade is a potential skating rink in the right conditions.
Stay awake and aware: A little bit of ice is nothing to scoff at. But it becomes especially dangerous on the steep slopes of the high country, where an ice chute can turn you into a human pinball, and not in a good way.
I have lost experienced hiker friends to ice. Please do not underestimate it.
Choose your trails wisely: Don’t assume that lovely summer hikes are going to be just as much of a pleasure in the winter. Some trails are seasonal for a reason.
Going to the Tahquitz Peak Lookout? Why not take South Ridge instead of hiking across the steep icy north face of the peak?
That nasty icy section above the bowl has led to multiple rescues, severe injuries and even fatalities. Just because you have hiked it a thousand times (in the summer) does not mean it is a safe trail in the winter.
Consider levels of exposure to the sun, recent weather conditions and elevation (amongst many other things) in making your choice of trail.
Turn back: If you encounter conditions beyond your experience, it’s not worth it to push it. Most of the time you will probably squeak by, but don’t let that make you get cavalier.
When the time comes, the cost can be far too high. I remember one ranger patrol on Ramona Trail — an easy hike made deceptively dangerous by a river of ice that had formed on the trail.
If you don’t have the experience to safely traverse the whole range of trail conditions — get your butt out of there.
Navigation skills: Fresh snow leaves a lovely white blanket across the land, but this white blanket obscures every single detail of the trail that once seemed so familiar.
Don’t just head out on a wing and a prayer (“I’m a local and I don’t need a map.”). Make sure to bring a topo map and the navigation skills to appropriately use it. (A hiking partner always helps, too.) And don’t just assume you can always just track your self back; new snowfall can cover up your shoe prints in a matter of minutes.
Now that I’ve been a Scrooge about all your wonderful winter plans, I want to encourage you to get out there and enjoy, just do so with forethought and safety. Happy hiking.