Story and photos by Thomas Cleary
I have been walking all day across the top of the snow, this time on skis. The sky is brilliant blue, and the snow surface consists of a few inches of light powder on top of a firm old snow surface. During the night, in places where cold air had made the moisture condense out and freeze into surface hoar, feathery crystals had grown as big as my pinky nail and now glint in the sun like a million tiny mirrors. As I move within the absolute stillness of the landscape, the disturbed frost tinkles with the sound of a trembling crystal chandelier. As I break trail, the tips of my skis slice through the snow like side-by-side dolphins alternately bounding through glassy waters, leaving a wake of broken snow.
While I produce my own tracks, I see many other tracks on the fresh surface, fox or coyote, squirrel or ermine, even an actual ptarmigan at the end of a short furrowed track between the skeletons of willows. But the track I examine now is different. Most tracks show the last frame of a video clip that had recorded the travel of an animal over several minutes, but this track is the snapshot of an instant. A bird had dropped out of that blue sky, perhaps to snatch a hardy bug or windblown seed, then flapped away, leaving a bodyprint and the brushstrokes of its wingtips across a canvas of snow.
Traveling in winter, even for a few hours, can yield experiences rarely found on summer trails. In addition to animal tracks, there tend to be fewer human travelers and winter hikes often provide a deeper experience of quiet and solitude. With trails covered by snow, every path is a “road less traveled” and the feeling of adventure and exploration is dramatically increased. I find that winter hikes refine my senses, for instance, I am more in tune with my body, monitoring my temperature to avoid sweating that could later lead to chills and I am vigilant about rewarming at the first sign of cold by hiking faster or adding layers. I am more in tune with my visual environment, both to follow the gap in the trees that indicates the trail and because the contrast between the dark pines and the brilliant snow urges my eyes to any glint of color or motion. I am more in tune with smells and tastes since cold air holds less odor-carrying moisture (plus my nose is frozen!) making my trail mix or PBJ a taste explosion. Likewise, in the sound-deadened snowscape, the flap of wings, the tinkling of snow, even my own breathing, stand out.
The challenges of winter travel are not as great as you might think. Dress in layers of clothes, non-cotton if possible, and adjust for temperature control often. Bring lots of warm, non-caffeinated, non-alcohol beverages in your waterbottle, and lots of high fat snacks such as nuts. Wear gaiters that cover your lower leg and keep snow from getting in the top of your boots. In shallow or on old, consolidated snow, boots are enough; in fresh or soft snow use snowshoes or skis to help distribute your weight. Travel with others. Bring more than you think you will need as a safety buffer. Scale back you destinations until you build up your winter experience and stamina. As a mater of fact, even your own backyard may look very foreign under a fresh blanket of snow. More of the white stuff will soon fly in Crestone and, hopefully, you too will (again?) feel your pulse surge in anticipation of the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and feelings of a winter snowscape.
Another easy option for those wanting to travel farther than their backyard are backcountry yurts and huts. I have skied to some of these cabins with infants less than 1 month old, pregnant moms, and grandpas and grandmas. They are stocked with wood and propane, outfitted with beds and kitchens, and some even have saunas and musical instruments! All you need to bring is a sleeping bag, personal clothes and gear, and food! Websites and reservation packets include suggested gear lists. Lodgings vary from 3 beds to over 20, with costs starting around $25 per person or exclusive use for as little as $65 a night. See the table for backcounty huts around the state.
An impression in the snow recording a bird taking flight.
The closest and easiest hut to reach for us in the northern SLV is the Lost Wonder Hut, west of Salida, near the town of Garfield; www.lostwonderhut.com, 719-539-2096. A 2.6 mile walk with about 1200 feet of elevation gain, on snowshoes, skis, or even boots depending on trail conditions, will bring you to the cabin that sleeps up to 12. Cost is $100 for a weekday half cabin (4 person) rental to share with another 4 person group, $200 for a weekday exclusive (whole cabin) rental, or $300 for a weekend night exclusive rental.
In the southern SLV are 3 more cabins. The first is Pass Creek Yurt, located SE of Wolf Creek Pass; www.wolfcreekbackcountry.com. This yurt, a large, round, insulated, tent-like structure, sleeps 6 and is accessed by a 6-mile, 1000-vertical-foot ski or snowshoe route. The other two are the Lime Creek Yurt and the Fisher Mountain Hut, located near Creede; both are managed by www.CreedeMountainHuts.com. The yurt has 4 beds plus a floor pad and rents for $100 exclusive. The hut sleeps 9 and rents for $125. The approach to either the hut or the yurt is about 5 miles and 1500 feet elevation gain; the distance between the two is 5 miles, creating a great multi-night loop opportunity.
Whether an afternoon in the backyard, exploring tracks on a trail above Crestone, or visiting one of the huts or yurts around the state, the winter landscape is truly a wonderland when experienced tactilely. Go for a walk, borrow some snowshoes, learn to ski, or just bundle up and sit out on a frozen log!