White caps. Literally caps of white cover the trail in front of us. As we ascend the mountain, they rise higher into points of white. It’s funny, because I am reminded of a different place and time staring at those peaked shapes whipped up by the wind. The winter of 2002-2003, and my one and only winter I spent in New England on Cape Cod.
Normally the Cape received ample amounts of moisture during winter, but more commonly in the form of rain, not snow. The sub-freezing temperatures that winter produced not rain, but copious amounts of snow. Being a mountain person, I had never experienced a winter at the beach. I would stroll the beach walking through a foot of snow or more, watching the Nor’easters rolling in off the ocean, whipping the waves ever taller, grayer and colder. But it wasn’t just the water that got whipped into furious crests, but also the snow on the beach. Huge drifts formed on the beach, piled into dramatic points here and there.
Fast forward to today on Berthoud Pass in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Yet another incredibly windy place, but the winds don’t roll off the ocean, but rather off the crests of the mountains at altitudes of 12,000 feet and more. As soon as we move above timberline, the drifts block our path, getting deeper and demser.
The winds had compacted that snow into stiff cement-like stuff — no fluffy powder here. And making your way through this is no bargain. For powder snow, you know that “Champagne Powder” that Steamboat advertises, a good pair of snowshoes will serve you well. But here, that was another matter.
At some points, the snow is so dense, I can walk right on top. But go another two feet, and suddenly my feet disappear a foot down into the massive drift of snow, causing “postholing.” Postholing is pretty much what it sounds like. Each leg is the “post” and sinks into the snow as a post would be driven into the earth.
As you might guess, postholing is not particularly fun. It takes an inordinate amount of energy to walk when postholing up to a foot or more and also throws you off balance. Today I find it really frustrating, because I never knew with each step I take whether I would stay on top of the wind-driven crust or break through.
I’m not the only one frustrated — Simon, our retriever is having similar problems. At one point, he sprawls with belly sinking into the snow and all four legs splayed in opposite directions. Shawnee starts barking and gets in his face to “herd” him out of the snow. Simon really doesn’t like this and they get into a little skirmish that lasts about 5-10 seconds.
We are in the in-between season — not enough snow to truly snowshoe or cross-country ski as the drifts of snow are mixed in with entire sections of trail scoured bare to the dirt. So, hiking it is through the caps of white. Despite the challenge of it, the views we get along the way make it all worth it. Those beautiful spires and peaks of the Rockies that fill my heart with joy…