Winter Hiking - it's not really about the gear.

Heading up the trail toward Hidden Canyon

Don’t go any further, you’ll die. Today’s quiz, hotshots, is what you would do if you heard this phrase on the trail. Would you turn around, or would you keep going? It’s also a statement that’s led me to pen this mini-diatribe. Before I go any further, I can already hear you asking, “Wait – what’s the situation? The terrain? The temperature? I can’t answer this question until I know these things.” Fair enough, let me give you the relevant background details: it was a partly cloudy day in Zion National Park. The cloud deck was resting at around 7,000 feet, and the ambient temperature at the Weeping Rock Trailhead (Information here) was around 20 degrees, although it could have been slightly colder as there were intermittent wind gusts of around 10 mph. For the last two days it had been snowing down to approximately 4,500 feet, but at the lower elevations there had been some melting and re-freezing. These were the conditions I found when I arrived at the trailhead one Sunday in mid-December of 2012 at around 7:30 a.m.

 It was my plan to head up to Hidden Canyon, or as far as I could get for a quick morning hike, before heading out with my group later in the day for other outdoors activities. In case you’ve never been to Zion, Hidden Canyon is one of the most popular hikes, and if you’re interested in it, I suggest you check out these links here, here, and here, as I’m not going to give you a trail report this time. It is worth noting, as I always do, that timing is essential for any hike in any National Park in terms of “how crowded” it will be. It is indisputable that Zion is one of the crown jewels of the National Park system, and this hike is a popular hike in the park; and as such, many people will assume they should not hike it, because they assume it will be busy. Now, if you visit Hidden Canyon in say, July, yes, there will be scads of people on the trail. But, if you go in late fall – or early winter as I did, you will experience what I experienced: 3 people on the trail – myself, and two others. As I always say about any hike, National Park or otherwise; whether it will be busy depends on when you do it, where you do it, and who you do it with. But I digress.

Almost at the Hidden Canyon turnoff - good snow coverage on the trail. Photo shot December 2012.

That Sunday was a perfect day, in my opinion for winter hiking. When I set out on the trail, I was the sole hiker present. Since I knew before leaving that: a) the trail would likely be empty; and b) I would be hiking alone, I had taken proper precautions before I had even gotten dressed, namely, I had let my group know where I was going, when I would be back, and as an added security measure, left a note in my car at the trailhead of the time I left, and my destination. As I headed up the initial section of the trail, I realized that I might not achieve my endgoal; Hidden Canyon proper. It was easy to reach this conclusion because even though it was a perfect winter hiking day, the trail was partially to completely covered with snow and ice from the base, with no other tracks present. This meant three things: a) I would have to find my route at a certain point; b) I would be breaking trail at a certain point; and c) the trail could be impassable due to snow/ice or other factors at a certain point. At that point, I realized my limitations, and I didn’t let it ruin my hike. In this respect, I had two things working in my favor: one, I had been to Hidden Canyon before. Two, as a veteran outdoorsman, I’ve learned to appreciate what is present, rather than obsessing over arriving at a certain specific destination.

 Switchbacks just after the Hidden Canyon turnoff. Shot taken December 2012.

Switchbacks just after the Hidden Canyon turnoff. Shot taken December 2012.

I reached the turnoff for Hidden Canyon after the switchbacks in short order, and from that point on, as my pictures demonstrate, there was pretty good coverage on the trail. Nevertheless, it wasn’t enough to stop me from following the route; and I made it out to a great view on the “exposed” section of the trail. Knowing the trail, I had mentally had some concerns about this section – as it has steep – and fatal drop-offs, if it was covered with snow or ice, it was not a good idea for me to proceed, as the rock would be extremely slick; and any fall would have a 99% of being fatal. But, the early sections were clear, so I edged along carefully. Just shy of the turnoff for the canyon, I came upon the obstacle pictured here – a section of sandstone covered with snow and ice, with a precipitous drop-off. I stopped, leaned against the wall, and looked at the obstacle. It was treacherous, because it was an area where the trail narrowed to a one-foot width. Moreover, anyone traversing it – even in good conditions, would have their center of gravity being pulled upon by the direction they were leaning – toward the drop-off.

  This is the "exposed" section I am discussing. 1-2 inches of snow/ice on sandstone; focus on the bump at the end, and you'll see my "problem area". Photo taken December 2012.

This is the "exposed" section I am discussing. 1-2 inches of snow/ice on sandstone; focus on the bump at the end, and you'll see my "problem area". Photo taken December 2012.

The conditions that day were not even good – at that point, it was snow/ice mixture, along with potential water that was on the fall slide. This mixture was, as far as I could tell, 1-2 inches in depth on top of the slick sandstone of Zion. There was no safe way to traverse it, even with an ice axe, or crampons, as it was not large enough for either of those tools to gain any sort of traction. It was a deadly obstacle. After looking at the obstacle, I looked at the drop off, and could tell that any fall would be either fatal; or near fatal at that time of year. I spent about ten minutes looking at it; and determined that it was not worth taking even three more steps toward the obstacle. My trip to Hidden Canyon was done. Just as I began to turn around to leave, after my ten minute rest/assessment of conditions, I ran into the other two hikers I saw that day.

 That's about a 15-25 foot fall, minimum. After that, it could be a continued fall for a long ways. This is the "Drop off" I am talking about. 

That's about a 15-25 foot fall, minimum. After that, it could be a continued fall for a long ways. This is the "Drop off" I am talking about. 

They were outfitted in brand new, high name brand gear. How do I know that? Well, they told me. But even if they hadn’t – I know. New gear is like new clothes. You can tell. I spoke with them for about ten minutes, and then we got to the point where they wanted to continue on. At first, I thought they were joking. Then I realized that they just didn’t appreciate or understand the risk at all. I was patient, I was polite; and I explained everything above, and explained that I knew what I was talking about as I had over twenty years of experience in the outdoors. The response I got? We’ve got the gear for it. To this I could only shake my head: no jacket; no boots; no pants; could prepare anyone for defying gravity. And if there is that type of gear – please, let me know, because I want it. At that point, I dropped the line at the top of this post – bluntly.

The response? They laughed. I told them again. They laughed again, and then looked pissed off at me. At that point, even though I felt there was more I could do, there really wasn’t. I mean, what could I do, a backcountry citizen’s arrest? (That’s supposed to be a joke!) I again warned them, and stepped back. Even though I didn’t want to watch them plunge to their deaths, I needed to know what was going to happen. The lead hiker took one step – and it was Lord of the Dance time. His feet shot out from under him, and then he was doing that inevitable quick jig of death to the edge when he seized his partner’s jacket desperately to prevent the fall. For about five seconds, it looked like he’d take him down with him too, before they crashed to the ground next to the edge. I stepped over a foot and pulled them a foot even further back. On the ground, the first was crying, and the second was in shock.

You may think that at that point, I felt vindicated; that I chastised the two of them, told them that “I was right”. If you do, you don’t know me. I felt relieved. I was glad that they were still alive, because even though they didn’t listen to me, I never would want to see anyone dead. I checked them over to make sure they could get out. Because of the near death experience, Hiker 1 had peed his pants. Hiker 2 was appropriately grossed out by this, so I knew he wasn’t mindless from shock. After a few words, I left them, headed down the trail and onward.

What I take from this experience is the following: I’m not totally and completely bothered that these two didn’t follow my advice. After all, I get it. In my over 20 years, there’s been times that I disregarded advice, and did things that make that slip-n-slide experience look like a cakewalk, and I’m still here. That’s the nature of the sport. Everyone makes mistakes; but the important thing is not to make a mistake that will kill you. Having said that, I think there’s room here to submit the following postulate: if someone on the trail tells you that they have massive, veteran experience in the outdoors, one should at least consider what they are saying, because there is a good chance they may be right. Also, do not be overly reliant on “the gear”. You know what, I love gear. I have some great gear that I’ve accumulated over a long time. Some of it is old; some new; most of it is a brand I like. I love my gear. But the difference between a novice, such as them, and a veteran as me is what we think of gear.

 Echo Canyon, where I ended up after the "incident". Not a bad view either. Photo taken December 2012.

Echo Canyon, where I ended up after the "incident". Not a bad view either. Photo taken December 2012.

Novices think that if they have the best gear, it will take care of them, and in certain cases, save them. Veterans know that it’s not what kind of gear you have; it’s knowing how to use the gear. To me, I love my gear. But gear is gear. It’s an inanimate object. It’s nothing without the knowledge of how to use it. Has my gear saved me? Yes. Do I trust it? Heck yeah, I trust my gear more than anything. But without me knowing when to put on that jacket; how to use that ice axe; and what terrain my boots can traverse, it’s worthless.

 So, what I have to say to all of you novices is this: if you want to be a winter hiker; or even more advanced, a winter mountaineer, you should know these following: 1) Know the conditions/know the limits; 2) Know your gear – but know what it does and how to use it; 3) Know your skill set; 4) Always be prepared; 5) Let people know where you are; 6) Listen to people when appropriate; and 7) Know when to turn around. The last is the most important, because in winter, the margin for error in the outdoors is less than at other times. It’s also important, because these features, peaks, whatnot, aren’t going anywhere – even if it’s the trip of a lifetime and you miss something, I’m sure you’ll find a way to return to see what you missed. Knowing that last part will keep you safe, and allow you to see – and adapt to what’s out there. For me, knowing when to turn around helped me – and others; and it allowed me to change my route to head into part of Echo Canyon instead, which as the pictures show, wasn’t a bad time in itself. Most of all, stay safe, and I’ll see you on the trail.