Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Backpacking in the mountains in winter

"Then come days of quite another kind. The winter clouds grow, and bloom, and shed their starry crystals on every leaf and rock, and all the colors vanish like a sunset"
-John Muir, "The Mountains of California"

Some of us are ocean people, some of us are desert people, and some of us are mountain people. For those of us that are mountain people, it's very hard in the winter when the snows start and realizing you may not be in the mountains for months at a time. For those of us that are willing to tolerate cold temperatures and snowy conditions we will NOT wait until next summer to be in the mountains, we can't. But backpacking in the snow is a big undertaking, there's lots to consider and because in the past year I've noticed a lot more people I know getting into backpacking in the mountains, I wanted to write a post about backpacking in the mountains in winter. There is no quiet I have ever known like the stark and stirring silence of the High Sierra under a blanket of snow on a windless day. It's an amazing experience we don't have access to in urban areas. When you can hear that kind of quiet, it just takes your breath away. I have never seen another backpacker on any backcountry winter trip I have done. Winter backpacking almost guarantees you opportunities for total solitude.

Kings Canyon Wilderness, Rae Lakes looking south, November 2014. Doesn't look like much snow but it was 2' in places and temperatures dropped to at least 12°. Some say this is the most popular place to go backpacking in the Sierra Nevadas, but since we went once snow was one the ground, there was no one else out there.

A lot of the same rules from summer backpacking apply but here are some more winter specific things I've learned when backpacking the mountains in winter:

Mileage- You must learn to swallow your pride in many ways when backpacking in winter. You just may not be able to do the kind of mileage you can do on dirt! Walking on snow by foot or snowshoe takes a lot more energy than walking on dirt. You will get tired more quickly and won't be able to go as far. I like going 10-15 miles a day in the summerfor personal trips, in winter the number of miles I'm comfortable with, depending on conditions can be as low as 5 miles. Skis are another story, a story I don't know much about so I can't give any good information on them. You also need to remember you won't have as much daylight to travel by.

Energy- Your body is working harder to go mileages you are used to. You are burning extra calories just to stay warm in the cold temperatures, plus it takes more energy to walk in the snow so you need a lot more calories. When I was out on my last trip in Kings Canyon a few weeks ago, we were eating two hot dinners a night. Bring more food! Burning calories is what keeps your body warm.

Gear- You need appropriate gear for the cold and snow. Rain gear (top and bottom), snow gaiters, waterproof boots, warm insulating layers, a sleeping bag and mat that are rated to appropriate temperatures, snow shoes, ice axe and a tent that is shaped in a way that sheds snow are the most important things. We don't have a "4 season tent" but our 3 season Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 is shaped in a way that it can shed snow and so we've made it work in the winter. It got us through a night of having a foot of snow dumped on us and the tent didn't cave at all, we didn't even know it has snowed until we opened the door. We only close the fly if it's snowing out, leaving the fly door open takes care of condensation issues we have in winter. And if it does snow and we have to close the fly and things get moist from condensation inside the tent....we just have to take the time to dry them in the sun the next day, it's just something we have to deal with sometimes. We have done some snow backpacking trips without snowshoes because we didn't think there was going to be snow. It's not fun. Sinking down a foot or more wastes a lot of energy and is really frustrating. From now on, when backpacking in the Sierras between the months of November and April/May I will always bring them...things could be snow free and then you get to a north facing aspect with a couple feet of snow! It's very important to also reserve layers to put on at camp. If you get to camp and you are already wearing everything you have and it's moist because you've been sweating, you will get cold very quickly. It's important to stay dry so you don't get cold and run the risk of hypothermia. Bring an ice axe. In the summer we are spoiled with level trails that sidehill steep slopes, it's amazing how different that same hill feels when it's covered in snow without a leveled trail...a hillside that you would never think twice about will feel very alarming when covered in snow and often dangerous. Get an ice axe and go practice self-arresting with it. It's a good idea to have crampons too, in case you come to a steep slope that is icey.

Navigation- You may not be able to go as deep into the mountains as you do in the summer. Try hiking along unplowed Forest Service roads, they are easy to follow. It's a great way to do a snow camping trip if you are not confident in your navigation, it may be less glamorous than a trail but it's better than being lost! No one should head into the backcountry in winter unless they feel outstanding about their navigation skills. You may not be able to see the trail and signs may be covered in snow so it's very important not to go out unless you are very good with your map, compass and topographical skills. When you're out there, keep your eyes peeled for cut logs (signs of trail maintenance) and blazes on trees (but keep in mind, trails get rerouted and blazes are always old and can still lead you astray) to help you stay on trail. The Tahoe area Sierra Club huts are a good destination if you are apprehensive about snow camping. Peter Grubb Hut is on a popular snow trail that tends to be very obvious and generally the trail is already broken. Ludlow Hut and Bradley huts both follow unplowed Forest Service roads so it's also easier to navigate to.

Access/Winter weather- This, to me, is the number one issue. You can go to the websites of the government land management agencies and they will say things like "our park backcountry is open year round" but the road to the trailhead you want isn't plowed adding up to 15+ miles to your trip. Often the only way to find out what roads are closed, and where they are locked is to contact the ranger district directly. It's also hard to get accurate information on snow levels. I check out this site that has links to web cameras of the Sierra Nevada and if you are as obsessed and in love with the Sierras as I am, you probably know where most of these cameras are without having to look at a map! Check on the Caltrans map to see what mountain passes are even open, if you need chains, plus there are more webcam here to look at as well. Use the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) snow map and select "snow depth" from the drop down menu to get a sense of snow depth but take it with a grain of salt, I have now gone on 3 backpacking trips where this map was showing 0" of snow and there ended up being 1-2' it seems this map calculates for south facing slopes which, because the sun arcs along the south horizon, are often snow free while the north facing slope just on the other side has a few feet. Wunderground has a great option where you can select "change station" (circled in red in screen shot below) and a map pops up with locations of weather stations (including personal ones! ) around the original town you searched. I used it to check the weather at Charlotte Lake (which is the white 12° marker in the middle of the screen shot below) which is 8+ miles into the backcountry and as you can see the temperatures there were very different from the weather stations in Independence the closest town (circled in yellow)....over 20° colder in the mountains...important information! 

NOAA also has a good way to select specific backcountry locations for weather. Go to and type in a location or zip somewhat near to where you will be hiking. Then scroll down until you see the topo map (circled in yellow in the screen shot below) and use that map to find where you are hiking, click the location on the map, and it will give you the weather station closest to that exact spot. It doesn't give personal weather stations like Weather Underground, but if you are just interested in the "official" weather stations, it's great!

One of the big lessons I have learned even with these excellent resources, you have to be willing to accept that snow depth in the backcountry is hard to nail down. I've found that an important part of backpacking the mountains in winter is willing to adapt...mostly willing to adapt to more snow than your sources told you!

Another access issue is water crossings. A crossing that is a hop skip and jump in the fall could be a death trap in the winter and spring. When looking at topo maps for trip ideas, look for places that have bridges or no water crossings so you aren't disappointed when you get to something and it's too dangerous to cross.

Also, it's important to keep tabs on weather before you go out to make sure you are not going out after a big storm or during one. Read up about avalanche safety, the most important thing to know is most avalanches especially in the Sierras happen 24-48 hours after heavy rapid snowfall (a foot or more). So don't go out after big storms, snow needs time to settle and bond before it's really safe to travel on. The vast majority of avalanches happen on slopes between 30-45°. Slopes steeper than that shed snow regularly so traveling on ridges (just be aware of cornices) and down in flat areas (but be wary of the terrain that comes out of flat areas as avalanches often empty down into topography like that) are generally your safest places. The easiest way to sort out slope percentage is to go to and print out a map ahead of time that has slope angle shading selected. Most avalanches are caused by wind shifting large amounts of snow on the lee side of slopes so be aware of windy conditions and areas. Listen for "womp"ing sounds of air pockets settling in snow that you are stepping on....a sign that the snow is not settled therefore not safe. Look for breaks in the snow where avalanches have happened before, this likely means this slope can only hold onto a certain amount of snow before releasing it as an avalanche. Be wary of dramatic temperature warming that can affect the snow conditions making it unstable. Know the aspects of the the northern hemisphere most north facing slopes are less stable mid-winter (because due to less sun exposure consolidation/stabilization of the snow pack takes longer than the south facing) while in the spring when the sun is out more and temperatures are on the rise, south facing slopes have more avalanche occurrences and tend to be the less stable option. Most US avalanche fatalities are people on snowmobiles. Over the last 10 years:
-across the US there have been about 2 to 3 dozen avalanche fatalities a year
-in California the average fatalities are 1-2 a year
-1 avalanche fatality in California has been a hiker
(statistics based on data from:

For you own safety and the sake of your Wilderness (proof of visitation make getting funding easier) be sure to make sure you have permits if need be, many Wilderness Areas still require them in winter.

Being able to be flexible is key to winter backpacking. You must be willing to do things like change your route or turn around if a water crossing is too dangerous/swollen from rain/snow or you see avalanche danger on your route, opt to cancel a trip when a recent storm has passed through and cut a trip short if a storm is coming in. There are more risks in the winter and it's very important to be able to swallow your pride and turn around or change plans to be safe.

Marble Mountains Wilderness, May 2014. This was a trip where the NOAA snow chart said there would be 0" and in places we found it to be 5' deep. In this photo I'm on the ridge west of Summit Lake, a good spot to check the map topography against a long distance view.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Designated sites in the backcountry

"Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, drink the wild air." -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Another thing I have come across here in Washington that is different from where I worked this summer in California is designated camp sites within Wilderness. There are a few areas in Indian Heaven Wilderness that are so highly visited, Wilderness management has decided to ask people to only camp in designated sites. At the trailhead there is information posted as well as little leaflets you can take telling you about this system:
Areas are sometimes visited so much that they get loved to death. This site designation system helps concentrate human impact on areas that are less sensitive (ie away from the lake shore) and already impacted to limit new impacts. It makes cleanup (less fire rings to knock down because folks use the ones at the sites!) and patrolling easier for the rangers because we know where to find people. Unlike the developed recreation sites (aka car camping sites) these sites in Wilderness are spread out and quite far from each other so you can still have that sense of solitude.

There are markers pointing you towards the site and markers at the sites themselves as well as some signs posted at areas where people have camped in the past that are not appropriate locations... so there's no question or confusion where you should be:

You don't sign up or have to pay for these sites, you just hike around and find one that is open and suits you!

Hiking in this area has really made me appreciate how easy it is to find a spot to camp in the eastern Sierra Nevada. The vegetation is so sparse and wide open, the easy to navigate granite is so inviting, that heading off trail to find a spot is generally a breeze. Here in the areas around the Columbia River Gorge, the vegetation is very dense and many of the trails are along steep hills where there's nowhere to camp. The red arrow in this photo shows where the trail is (photo is from Trapper Creek Wilderness, one of the Wilderness areas I have been patrolling here in Washington)....look at all that underbrush where in the world could you pitch a tent in terrain like that?!:

The idea of traveling off-trail here is daunting. I've noticed that places people set up camp in the backcountry here is often very close to the trail and obviously very well used....because there's just not as many places to easily camp here!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Gifford-Pinchot National Forest Wilderness permit system

“distance is not for the fearful, it's for the bold. It's for those who are willing to spend a lot of time alone in exchange for a little time with the one they love. It's for those who know a good thing when they see it, even if they don't see it nearly enough”― Meghan Daum

I got my seasonal lay off for my job at the end of September. Al's district isn't laying him off until the end of October (he started later than I did, we both end up having about a 5 month season) so I came up to the Columbia river gorge where he works until his season ends. While he's at work during the week, I have been volunteering with the local ranger district, doing many of the same things I did down in California but it's neat to see how things vary forest to forest and district to district.

The biggest difference here is the permit system. In the Hoover Wilderness where I worked, you need a permit only for overnight travel, here in Gifford-Pinchot National Forest you need it even for day use in their Wilderness areas. They track their Wilderness use very closely and use the permit system to apply for grant money. Also, instead of going to the ranger station to get a permit (what we have people do for the Hoover Wilderness), here you just self issue at the trailhead. That's very user-friendly which I like. Since my district has seasonal quotas on trailheads, we can't do this. We regulate how many people enter our more popular trailheads during the busy season to ensure a degree of solitude...Wilderness areas that are less visited don't need to do this.

Here's the box at the trailhead in Indian Heaven Wilderness, you open it and there are blank permits inside. (Love that routed lettering inside the box!) 

The permits are carbon paper, the top white copy gets left in the box and the bottom manila paper portion is the user's. The idea is to use the little elastic strap to put it on your pack. It's a bit wet up here right now for this to work but I have come across a couple people who did in fact strap it to their pack.

I come in and unlock this bar and slide it out, lift up the little board, and collect the filled out permits! I love these little boxes, such a lovely simple design...perfectly in line with the Wilderness state of mind.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Virginia Lakes trailhead sign 9/27/14

"Oil the saw, sharpen axes,
Learn the names of all the peaks you see and which is highest-
there are hundreds-
Learn by hear the drainages between
Go find a shallow pool of snowmelt on a good day, bathe in the lukewarm water."
-Gary Snyder

We got help from Friends of the Inyo who brought up all the supplies for the project...thanks!! The project was to dissemble a trailhead sign board and put up a new one. The old sign board was down in an area you can't see from the parking lot which makes for a confusing trailhead. As it turned out, the sign posts were also rotted so that when we tried to dig them out the just broke apart. So we were putting a new signboard up in a visible location with new wood. It was an amazing day to be out in the field as the first snow of the year had happened the night before and it continued to snow the entire day as we's pretty magical to have the privilege to witness that first snow in the mountains.

So first thing's first, we had to take down the old sign:

We laid it out on the ground to take some measurements to use as a template for the new sign. We kept the salvageable parts of this signboard to put up next season at a trailhead that doesn't have a nice big display like this.

Now for the new parts! We had to trace and cut out new boards:

and sand everything:

Friends of the Inyo had come with the title boards already stenciled. They were then routed out to create that lovely debossed/engraved lettering. Here's Chip routing the "HOOVER WILDERNESS" letters:
You may be wondering "What are these power tools doing in Vick's Wilderness blog!" And the answer is that we were neither working in, nor was this sign within the Wilderness boundary. The boundary is about half a mile up trail.

Once we had all the pieces cut to the correct sizes we sealed them to protect them from the elements.....they got a linseed oil or water sealant finish. In the winter the boards (except for the posts) are taken down so they don't get destroyed in winter weather. Some other forests go around wrapping all their wood signs in tarps for the winter.

We then start digging the holes for the posts. These holes were about 3' deep and came to be after hitting many rocks. Some of the rocks we hit were removed but a few forced us to slightly move our hole forward or back, redigging the hole. I got to use a new tool today, the post-hole digger! In the photo below Matt (on the right) has it. You put it into your hole and pull the handles away from each other to get a scoop or dirt and you pull it out and push the handles back together to dump the dirt somewhere.

We sunk the posts into the ground and filled them in making sure they were level and about the same height:

Then gouges were sawed and chiseled out for the cross boards to sit in:

Then we drilled holes for everything and bolted it together. Had to make sure things were level so we marked with pencil where the boards needed to be drilled first...

Look at this funny drill with forward grip! I'd never seen a forward grip like that before but the bit on this drill was so long and to get through the 6" of wood it definitely helped to get the force needed to make it through.

It's done! Look how awesome it turned out! These boards get posted with a trail map, fire regulations and other rules and regulations of the area.

Thanks again to Friends of the Inyo! This was such a fun project. Thanks to Matt Losse for the photos too!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

end of season trail work projects

"Writing is like the life of a glacier; one eternal grind." 
-John Muir

I feel like I say this every post, but I haven't been so good at updating this. That's what this post's quote is referring to. The end of the 2014 season has come and gone and with it a lot of things in life that required my attention that were not this blog.

Towards the end of the season, one of the gals from the trail crew, Cavi, left early to start school. About a month later another member, Phil, left for another position in Sequioa National Forest as a trail crew leader. That knocked our trail crew down to two people. Since the crew was small and the post-Labor Day slow-down that happens in the Sierras in full effect, our boss said the rangers could go out with the trail crew and help them with their projects. It was a great way to end the season. I am very grateful that my co-workers are so personable and easy to live and work with and it was wonderful to get to spend the last few weeks of the season on trail with them. It was also great to have a change of pace in the work. The trail work I do as a solo-patroling ranger is pretty've seen it.....mostly brushing and lopping out the trail corridor and cleaning drainage dips in the trail. To go out and do bigger projects with other people who I could learn new things from about trail maintenance was very cool.

We cleared the trails of rocks and other debris like encroaching plants:

and roots:
We do this to keep people on the trail more which creates less impact on the surrounding environment. When there's bushes and things growing into the trail people tend to walk a bit off the trail which can cause various problems one of them being trail braiding.

I don't have a good "before" photo of this trailbraiding but you can imagine what it looked like when you see the "after" photo....basically a trail right next to a trail. In this case it wasn't from folks feeling pushed away from the trail because of vegetation but was probably because the trail was muddy in the spring or perhaps the trail was hard to see in the early season when there's still snow which created a second trail parallel to the original. We opted to cover up the lower trail to keep people a wee bit further from the riparian area which is generally more sensitive to impact. Also because of the way things erode (gravity), trails over time tend to shift downslope, so if we had decided to keep the lower trail open, eventually it would probably creep closer and closer to the water. This diagram from the Forest Service Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook illustrates trail creep it pretty well:

To close the lower trail we dug it up, aerating the soil on the trail we were closing to hopefully encourage plants to grow back in and cover it up. We also put duff and logs in to make it unappealing to hike and as well as having things to hopefully decompose into and enrich the soil again with the hopes to promote the grass and willows to grow in on their own. Here's Kelsey and I working on closing down the trail:

and here's what it looks like after we aerated it and added all the stuff onto the trial we were closing:

Another issue we worked on in a few different areas was trail trenching. Ever been hiking and the trail turns into a big trench and you're walking a foot below the ground surface? It's the worst right? Hopefully your friendly neighborhood trailcrew is there to help out. In these first 2 photos, not only did we have the trenching to consider but also the fact that the trail was gaining elevation. That means we had to put in some steps to hold in the material we were filling the trench with. Here's Kelsey using the pulaski to dig out a hole for one of the steps. The downward force of folks stepping on these rocks steps makes it important to pin them in to keep them more secure and from blowing out over time. In this photo we have already installed the pinner rocks that will help hold the main step in. You can see the main rock for the step there on the right.

Once the step and pinner rocks are in we fill in all the airspace around these big rocks with smaller rocks and than smash them into smaller smaller rocks. Then, the trench also needs to be filled with rock. Here's Kelsey doing just that with the single-jack....this small rock fill is called rock crush or just "crush."

Same concept different area. This area was flat so we didn't need any rock steps to retain the crush. We just filled it in with lots of rocks, smashed them into smaller rocks, and then filled that in with sand and dirt:

Now what should happen is, the water that runs down the trail and over time creates this sort of trenching will now run under the trail through the rock crush we laid in for it. Here's a diagram from the Forest Service Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook:

Pretty much all these photos were taken by Matthew Losse, thanks Matt!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act

“In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
― Walking by Henry David Thoreau

Today is the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act! If it weren't for this act we would probably have roads through every beautiful natural place right now. After the depression area Work Projects Administration developed tons of new roads and trails, came the post-WWII area of driving and recreating. It then became apparent that our desire to build and develop into pristine areas need to be harnessed.

President Lyndon B. Johnson after signing the act: "If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it."

There are TONS of folks enjoying Wilderness regularly that aren't even aware what is actually means. An area designated as a Wilderness Area (simplified to not take into account exceptions that often take place because, like a lot of laws, there are loopholes):
-prohibits motor/mechanized use (including but limited to: aircraft, motor boats, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, strollers, wheelbarrows, hang-gliders, chainsaws, power tools)
-is without permanent improvements no building or development allowed, no new mining claims, no commercial logging etc.

So if you like places without roads and like Wilderness! Wilderness Areas are managed by a variety of different agencies: National Parks, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service. So for example where I work, all of our district is Forest Service land but only a small portion within that Forest Service land is protected as Wilderness. About 5% of the land in the US is protected as Wilderness in over 700 different Wilderness Areas.

These are places not only where we can go to enjoy undeveloped environments, but places that are essential to protecting the clean air and water we need and perhaps most importantly, places where we can let ecosystems live out their processes. I am very very grateful for it and really excited to have gotten to work in one of the original areas designated under 1964 act.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

sign installation

"But love of the wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need - if only we had eyes to see."
-Edward Abbey

I didn't know how big the holes in the sign were so I brought a few different bolts, screws and bits. I put the draw knife in the photo because it is another very fun tool I used for the first time this summer which we use to cut bark off a log. You hold the handles and pull the blade towards you which peels the bark away, it's really fun and satisfying! Conner and Cara had already debarked the tree I was going to use and they did it with a shovel so no draw knife was needed for this project.

 Here is the old sign...hardware was missing and the signs were just laying on the ground.

 Here's the log Conner and Cara had felled and debarked for the post, it's pretty tall.

You can kind of tell from this photo that Cara and Conner had already scored in spaces for the signs so they sit better on the post and point the correct ways. I put a bit in the auger that matched the holes in the sign and bored some holes into the post. This was really fun, what a great tool that auger put pressure on the doorknob looking part and then spin the handle-crank with the other hand to drill a hole.

There's a hole!

Once I had my holes in there I could screw the signs on. Conner told me later that it's not too hard to screw the screws in by hand, using the auger to bore holes wasn't completely necessary. But because I hadn't had a chance to use this tool and I wasn't sure if I would be using the bolts or screws I put the holes in. 

I put some nails in the bottom to hopefully make it stay in the ground even better. I used a rock as my hammer since the weight of the auger and hardware was already a good amount and I didn't want to carry something extra. 

I dug a hole (2 feet deep) and then filled it in with rocks and then with dirt, and then put more rocks on top.

 the old sign situation

 dug a hole...

 put the post in and filled the hole with rocks...

 then dirt...

then put more rocks on top and around the post!


Here's a diagram from the Forest Service Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook illustrating what I did:

The Wilderness Act states Wilderness Areas are places that have "opportunities for primitive recreation" and are also undeveloped and in 'contrast to those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape"

From a Forest Service Document about Wilderness policy: "We minimize the presence of modern artifacts of civilization, such as signs, bridges, structures, and technology; large groups; unnecessary managerial presence; and conflicting uses that tend to interfere with one’s free and independent response to nature."

In the Hoover Wilderness, we only have wood signs. We opt for the natural material and do not put milage on the signs to keep things more wild. Different Wilderness Areas interpret the Act differently, the sign in this photo is in Yosemite where they use metal signs and put milage on the signs. Yosemite is also the 3rd largest Wilderness Area in California (Death Valley and Sequoia Kings-Canyon are the largest) and have a lot more visitation which is likely one of the reasons they use won't have to be maintained much once installed.