Last updated: July 28, 2016
What does the term “snow hazard” mean? This is a frequently asked question when reading the trail status for Gunsight Pass and Ahern Drift on the Northern Highline these days. It’s late July for crying out loud! How can there still be snow on the trail? I’m Ranger Carol and I’m going to use a recent experience from another permit ranger to help answer that question.
On July 21, 2016, Backcountry Permit Ranger Lora decided she needed up-to-date information on the snow hazards lingering on Gunsight Pass to pass along to backpackers. What she found might surprise some backpackers who haven’t seen snow in months. She counted 4 snow crossings all classifying as snow hazards.
So back to the distinction between snow and snow hazards…Flat snow is not usually considered a hazard. Granted anyone can step out onto flat or low-angled snow, slip and break a wrist or ankle. This happens all the time right outside of homes, schools and businesses in towns that have ice and snow in the winter. This type of snow can definitely lead to injury. BUT if you slip and fall, you are not going to slide down a slippery slope down a cliff face and suffer serious injury or even death.
THAT is what we call a snow hazard. These crossings are at a high angle and if you slipped the consequences could be disastrous. This is what Lora found…four of them. If you slipped and fell, you would want an ice axe to self-arrest with to save your life or save yourself from that serious injury. To keep yourself from slipping, crampons are also recommended. It’s not good enough to just carry this equipment (ice axe and crampons), but you need to know how to use them, be used to them, be confident in them and your ability to use them.
People ask us about how deep the snow is, how hard the snow is…The depth isn’t hazardous; it’s the high angle that makes it hazardous. And about the “hardness” of the snow…that all depends on weather and frequently time of day. A lot of hikers find softer snow easier to cross. It is easier to cross if you have experience crossing steep-angled snowfields. You can self-arrest a lot easier and get better footholds. Hard packed snow is slippery and is hard to dig into, particularly when it’s at a steep angle. Often when the sun heats up the snow in the afternoon, the snow is softer. But if the weather is bad, the snow may not become soft all day. If it is raining, the snow can become even more treacherous. And make no mistake, you can still slip and slide in soft snow.
That day (the 21st of July) that Lora explored hazardous snow crossings was beautiful. Blue sky letting the sun actually hit that North-facing slope…and still she encountered two parties that decided the snow was too much for them. They did the smart thing when they felt unsafe. They turned around and went back. If you’re from Florida like me and you’ve never crossed snow, let alone steep angled snow ending in a cliff, understand your limitations and return home uninjured and alive.