The outdoor diary of a writer, photographer, and wilderness wanderer
Twice into Hell…
BACK IN EARLY APRIL, and again last weekend, I snowshoed into a spacious mountain bowl, the fabulously, poetically but often inaccurately named Hell’s Hole.
Of course, it wasn’t hellish for me in any way – although some people might have considered it to be! For one thing, travel on both occasions was truly, truly gruelling. For another, the weather had its moments – for example, erupting into a lightning storm just as I reached my chosen campsite during the second trip, forcing me to set up my tent in an almost-blizzard. And thirdly, the slow travel and challenging snow conditions added real commitment to the walk and increased the remoteness in a way that some folk might find unsettling… as I would have once found it, too.
But, as it turned out, ALL these hellish aspects only improved the outings. Hard travel and solitude and the wild conditions added value to each step, to each second. They increased the worth of the ridiculous activity that is snow-wallowing. And they amplified the beauty. The harder-won a destination is – truly the more it means.
Adversity, difficulties, setbacks, discomforts are NOT necessarily negative attributes. At least, they don’t have to be. They can be gifts, too.
The first trip into Hell’s Hole took place on April 6th, the morning after a modest overnight snowfall, eight or so inches. I arrived at the trailhead parking area fairly early in the morning, reached back into the car for my winter boots… and had an ‘Oh Crap’ moment. I hadn’t packed them. I could picture them perfectly, waiting beside the front door back at home, right where I’d placed them so that I wouldn’t forget them. I had to laugh!
Still, there I was, and the weather was delightful. Fresh snow, sparkling frost, and a throbbing-blue sky. The day was simply too wonderlandish to bail just because I didn’t have insulated boots. That would be lame…
Happily, I had my running shoes with me, and I’d worn them in snow many times – although not, it must be said, for an entire day in the snow! Improvising, I pulled plastic trash bags over my socks, laced up the shoes, added a second set of trash bags over the shoes, then gaiters, then snowshoes, and figured I’d see how it went. If my feet started getting too cold I’d turn back.
Happily, all went well. My feet stayed ‘warm enough’… and dry… ‘enough’, and the lower-level aspen woods were pristine, worth minor discomforts. Breaking trail, alone, in this… was no hardship.
Progress was easy at first. The fresh snow, although untracked, lay atop a firm previously packed trail. After a while, right before the climbing began, I reached a favourite spot in winter: ‘The Cyclops Rock’. It looked fairly pleased with itself!
Once I got going into the climb and a mile or so from the trailhead the snow grew deeper, the trail more difficult to follow, and progress far, far harder. I wasn’t camping on this occasion, so didn’t have a weighty load on my back pushing me into the snow, but I still sank knee-deep often, even on snowshoes. The effort expended to win each step was equivalent to ten on a snow-free trail. Actually – no, I shouldn’t compare summer hiking with winter wallowing! The effort difference between breaking trail in unconsolidated winter snow and traipsing merrily along a dry summer path makes them entirely different activities. World’s apart!
But, of course, the rewards were clear to see…
Four hours of vigorous exercise finally revealed the crags of Gray Wolf Mountain, rising ahead above the pines. From here, thirty minutes in summer gets one to Hells Hole. I’d been struggling a little, but the sight was reassuring. I felt as though I were nearly there. Well… I attempted to reassure myself that I was nearly there. ‘Just keep putting one foot before the other’, I told myself. ‘You’ll get there eventually!’
From their skipping tracks, the snowshoe hares were clearly having an easier time of it. The benefits of being light. Oh, and of having big feet!
The final push didn’t take half an hour – it took another two! Gruelling is the word, but then again, gruelling is too short of a word! It doesn’t accurately illustrate the immense effort, or the way time seemed to slow – if not stop – and neither does it hint at the frisson of doubt I felt over the route I was following. I’d long ago lost the ‘official’ trail. Choosing my own path was the only way to do it. And I was confident that I could do it; get ‘there’, then back again. Okay, not completely confident. I didn’t know for ‘certain’ that I could. I didn’t know for certain that nothing would go wrong. I was out here with a day pack after all. In running shoes. The snow lay four feet deep. The winter night would be brutally cold. The very real awareness of all this prompted a great sense of commitment. Hell’s Hole only lies four miles from the trailhead. But miles mean nothing in winter. NOTHING! On this day and in these conditions Hell’s Hole lay over six hours from the trailhead. It had become a far wilder and remoter place.
But from plugging away, from taking it step by labourious step, from believing, from stubborn slow-paced determination, and above all from taking care not to create any situations, I eventually reached my destination… and on a sparkling winter-wonderland day like this the wild mountain bowl was worth every calorie I’d burnt. The effort had created a destination greater than it had ever been on easier previous visits. It had become a prize worth earning.
On this day, complete solitude was perhaps the greatest treasure. But there were other treasures, and among them were the ancient and hardy inhabitants of this wild mountain bowl: majestic bristlecone pines.
I lingered in Hell’s Hole for an hour, savouring and recouping, but eventually turned about and headed away. At least I had a broken trail to follow this time! Gruelling, however, remains the word for the return trip… but happily not as gruelling.
But neither was the wallow back down a summer-like stroll! But I made it… and with mostly dry and mostly warm feet. Well, with unfrozen feet anyway!
Fast forward to May, and my camp on May 12th. It gave an enticing view into Hell’s Hole and it got me considering a return. It was spring now, right? The snow was thawing fast…
Gloriously, when I returned to the trailhead a week later, on May 20th, and began walking, I discovered that it really was spring. Finally! After months and months and miles and miles of high-country outings in deep-deep snow, the lower-level trails were finally seeing the light of day. I knew that snow lay ahead, and that Hell’s Hole itself would still be white and buried, but walking on an actual trail again felt like an incredible gift.
For the first ninety minutes I made swift progress. The snow patches were few and quickly crossed. This time, there was even a trail – deep posthole-footsteps that others had left for me. But at close to 11,000-feet the fun finally began. The snow deepened. The broken trail ended. And once again I had to make my own way. But at least I had boots on my feet this time!
To my surprise – but not delight – it turned out that the sodden granular spring snow was even worse and even less supportive than winter snow. Gruelling was the word, yet again…
Even with snowshoes, I was sinking deep…
But at least it was obvious which way the trail went… (sarcasm!)
Despite the punishing effort I felt hugely grateful. Grateful for being where I was. And for having a working body that I could put to use in such an odd way. And for having the freedom to head into the forest, to wander alone into nature, to wander into a place of such wonder…
Oh, and perhaps most of all, I felt grateful that the weather forecast had got it so wrong! Rain and snow were supposed to have fallen on me throughout the hike in, from trailhead to camp. Happily it held off for pretty much the entire hike… but, of course, the break the weather gods granted me couldn’t last! Inevitably, as I neared Hell’s Hole, the skies darkened behind me, the rumbles of an approaching storm grew louder, and it soon felt like a race against time. Would I get the tent up and all my gear unpacked while the day was dry? The tent I had with me pitched inner first. Setting it up in a deluge isn’t ideal! The race to camp reminded me of childhood, back when I used to camp in the back garden in suburban Pinner. There, I often played a game when pitching the tent. I often imagined I was doing it with a storm barrelling in. It added spice and wildness to the manicured back garden!
Back then, in that childish game, I always managed to set up camp before the imaginary storm hit. But on this occasion, I emphatically didn’t! I reached Hell’s Hole, beelined swiftly for my pre-chosen spot near the majestic bristlecones… but then jumped as lightning flashed and thunder CRACK’ed simultaneously. I cowered as hail and then heavy wet snow began, then made a prompt decision to retreat to a lower and more sheltered spot on the forest’s edge. I threw up the tent, hands suffering in the snow and cold, poles and pegs not quite behaving, and not ‘quite’ managing to keep everything dry. Finally, I added a tarp over the tent’s entrance to make cooking dinner easier… and moved in.
Honestly, it didn’t feel like the second half of May!
The storm eventually passed and I went for a leisurely evening ramble while I could, suspecting that the weather wasn’t yet done. These striking willows caught my eye!
I continued on into ‘Fell’…
…to visit the majestic old bristlecones, both fallen and still living.
Until another storm rumbled in, which prompted another hasty retreat. But I was happy now, with camp set up and solitude and beauty my blanket. And by the standards I’d grown used to, the May night wasn’t cold. Funny what one can grow used to!
The greatest rewards came after dawn… a sparkling wintry wilderness, a place I had entirely to myself.
After breakfast, I left camp to enjoy the location… and to especially savour the bristlecones that make this place so special.
Later, back at camp, the day was warming, the fresh snow was thawing off the willows and cascading off the pines. Reluctantly, but in gratitude (and after more loitering), I packed up camp and bimbled on my way…
Singing as I went! Even a broken snowshoe strap couldn’t dent the happiness. (I had wire packed for just such an eventuality. It was half expected. ALL my gear is old and on the verge of breaking!) Even finally running into two young hikers couldn’t dent it, either. They were following my snowshoe trail, but without snowshoes. They were sinking thigh deep, wrecking my tracks and my easy return hike… but their determination to reach Hell’s Hole was admirable!
After a final look back to Gray Wolf Mountain I turned downhill… and the gruelling travel resumed!
Later, it was a joy to reach snowline again. Or, ‘Earth line’ perhaps! The sweet-scented soft but supportive earth. I’d greatly enjoyed my two winter trips into Hell’s Hole, but I’ll be honest: won’t be back now until it really is spring! I might have had my fill of snowshoeing. Well, for the time being…