‘A trend that needs to get nipped in the bud’: Postholing hikers are losing the trail — and sometimes their shoes — on Quandary
One of Colorado’s most popular 14ers, Quandary Peak, has kept Summit County Rescue Group especially busy this week as recent warm weather has led conditions to change 'rapidly and drastically'
Late Thursday night, Summit County Rescue Group volunteers were called to Quandary Peak to rescue three out-of-state hikers.
One of them was postholing — sinking into the snow past the knees, to the point where it becomes difficult to move — so deep they lost a shoe, according to Summit County Rescue Group member and spokesperson Anna DeBattiste.
But that hiker’s shoe won’t be the only footwear to be found when spring eventually melts the snow atop the most-commonly climbed 14er in Colorado, DeBattiste said. Just a day earlier, a rescue team responded when another hiker on Quandary lost a shoe, she said.
After a lull in calls following a busy Spring Break season, warming weather has led to soft, slushy snow that has the all-volunteer rescue group responding to an increased number of calls for unprepared and postholing hikers.
“This is a trend that needs to get nipped in the bud,” DeBattiste said, noting the group has received seven calls since Monday, most involving hikers unsuspecting of the recent warmup in temperatures.
Before dawn Thursday morning, Summit County Rescue Group also saved four lost and postholing men who missed the bus and attempted to cut through the old Dillon Reservoir area from Frisco to Silverthorne, DeBattiste said. And, on Tuesday, a team helped a couple down from Quandary after they found themselves postholing up to their chests.
“None of these folks had snowshoes,” DeBattiste said. “One of the groups reported they had them in their car but did not think they needed them.”
While Quandary is often listed online as one of the state’s easiest 14ers, that does not mean it is an easy hike, especially in the winter, DeBattiste said. Unsuspecting hikers often lose the trail and resort to following the fall line — the most direct downhill slope — into deep snow, where they begin postholing, and can find themselves among potential avalanche terrain, she said.
“The snow may be bombproof in the morning, but that doesn’t mean it will stay that way all day,” DeBattiste said.
Aaron Parmet, an EMT and nurse who has been a member of Summit County Rescue Group for nearly 20 years, noted that right now Summit County is “going through our biggest thaw of the season and our first real extended thaw of the season.”
Although it is not yet spring in the county’s higher elevations, like Quandary Peak, the warmer weather — as well as perhaps not needing to take a shuttle or pay to park at the 14er’s trailhead this time of year — has brought more people outside, Parmet said. But the snowpack is in a state right now where conditions can change “rapidly and drastically,” he said.
“It can be very deceiving because it can feel rock hard while the frozen layer is only a few inches thick,” Parmet said. “So you can go from hiking on top to postholing in less than an hour as it warms up.”
Even if it is 50 degrees out, for someone who is postholing in cold, wet snow, the threat of frostbite and hypothermia can be real this time of year, Parmet said. Especially, he said, if a postholing hiker making slow progress through the snow finds themselves out too late.
“You can still get hypothermia if you get to the point where your travel is so slow because your energy is being sapped,” Parmet said. “Suddenly, a 50-degree day turns into a 15-degree night, and you can get frostbite.”
Sometimes, Parmet said, unprepared hikers can get so cold and wet in these slushy conditions that they can’t feel their feet and may lose a shoe without even realizing it, increasing the risk of frostbite.
Snowshoes are necessary for anyone traveling in the backcountry this time of year, he said, and it is advisable to start early in the morning to avoid the worst of the warming snow — perhaps even as early as 2 a.m., for those who are attempting to summit Quandary.
“You have to be prepared for the full range of conditions and pay attention to what the forecasts are for the rest of the day,” Parmet said. “The biggest thing you’ve got to do is get down before it gets too warm and have the right snow travel equipment.”
With these conditions, DeBattiste added, it is possible to posthole even while wearing snowshoes. So more experienced adventurers with the proper training should perhaps consider skis instead, she said. Hikers should also check the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website (Avalanche.state.co.us) for avalanche forecasts before leaving.
- Navigation — Map, compass and GPS system
- Signaling — Whistle, mirror, cell phone, surveyor tape
- Light source (two) — Headlamp, flashlight, extra batteries
- Nourishment — Water and high-energy food
- Shelter — Lightweight waterproof tarp, bivvy sack, parachute cord
- Fire building — Matches, fire starter, heat tabs, knife, saw
- Personal protection — Medications, first-aid kit, sunscreen, dark glasses, bug repellent
- Weather protection — Extra clothes, rain gear, hat, gloves, heavy duty plastic bag
- Winter add-ons — Beacon, probe, shovel
- Rules to always follow — Never go alone, tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to return, stay on the trail, stay where you are when waiting for rescue, know how to use equipment
As always, Summit County Rescue Group recommends carrying the 10 Essentials, and anyone heading into avalanche terrain should carry an avalanche transceiver, shovel, probe and travel with a partner, DeBattiste said.
“If the temperatures continue to be warm into the weekend, boy we would love to warn people every which way,” she said.
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