Early March, 2014 and it is still winter. Spring is nearing, but the land is still clad in snow. The deer and elk have a difficult time finding forage under the white blanket and were aspect and weather combine to create open patches of sagebrush, their sign is strong. Scat and tracks abound. I keep the dogs close, as I don’t want to unduly stress them more than their fat reserves can tolerate.
Specifically, it is March 11. Signal Peak is my kick-off hike of the year. It signals the time to switch from winter’s frolicking in the snow to trekking over the land. Well, that’s the ideal. There is enough snow clinging even to the rapidly melting south-facing slopes that I decide to strap my snowshoes to my pack. It proves to be a wise move. I walk along U.S. 50 east of Gunnison for a mile or so before turning north through the subdivision just past the cemetery were I access Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. The gate is already closed on the two-track to control erosion damage from motorized vehicles and protect nesting sage grouse. The grouse are hurting and nobody knows why. Everyone points fingers at one another, but the only real action has been to lock gates during mating and nesting seasons and ask the non-motorized public to wait until after nine in the morning to hike and bike. Out of respect, I wait until nine before beginning this hike.
After about a half a mile or so, the road leaves the sheltered valley and begins to climb towards the peak. I start weighing the pros and cons of this hike, one that I have done often at this time of year. At first, I think that I can just walk over the snow sans snowshoes, but I quickly begin to post-hole up to my calves and knees. It is strenuous to plod along like that for a hundred feet, not to mention mile after mile. I quickly come to my senses and strap on the snowshoes. That was one of the better decisions I have made, bringing and using them. The going is still slow, climbing up one ridge after another, but much better than knee-high crusted snow. The ‘shoes keep me afloat and I slowly but steadily climb.
Towards the summit, especially on the northern aspects, the snow loses its crust and even with snowshoes I sink deeply. The shepherds begin to flounder, having to leap through the deep snow. Leah gives up quickly and follows my tracks. She is a pampered pup and isn’t much for adversity, while Draco continues on ahead, bounding through the snow. The climb to the peak is arduous especially with the snow covering the sharp rocks. Any slip or miscalculation could cause severe injury. I take my time and finally reach the summit. Naturally, the wind is furious. I’m not sure in the dozen or so times I have visited this peak that it has ever been still. The summit visit is quick, and I plod down the east aspect about twenty feet to get into the lee where I have lunch and enjoy the vista.
Signal Peak isn’t very high sitting just above 9,000 feet. I suppose nine thousand is plenty high in some quarters, but the surrounding peaks top out over fourteen. What I like about this hike is that I can literally walk out my back door and climb the 1,300 feet to the summit. Also, Signal Peak provides a great view of the surrounding forks of the Gunnison Valley. A body can look down into Tomichi Creek as well up the main stem of the Gunnison River. The Ohio Creek Valley is also very visible. In the old days, a person in Tomichi Creek could have signaled another person on the peak who could then relay the message to a third body who otherwise would have been out of sight.
After a quick snack and some contemplation time, I rounded up the shepherds and began the trek home. Personally, I love to hike in loops. It isn’t always possible to do so, but I can on this hike. Instead of heading south down the gully I came up, I trek to the west and follow the high dividing ridge between the Gunnison River and Tomichi Creek. I am especially glad to have the snowshoes over this long two and a half miles of heavy snow. Had I been solely in my boots, I would have suffered greatly and probably caused some injury to my joints and tendons. Coming off the summit was a bid dodgy in the ‘shoes, but I again took my time and made it safe and sound, bypassing the worst of the sharp rocks obscured by snow.
Along the way, I spotted the herd of elk I thought my have been close by. They were not happy to see us, but didn’t panic and flee for which I was grateful. Once spotted I adjusted my course but slipping down the opposite slope from the elk relative to the high ridge I was following. This caused some difficulty in my travels, but when you consider that the elk are cold and munching sub-standard forage and that I have nothing more to do than hike a few miles before reaching the comfort and succor of my house, I didn’t mind the additional effort.
Finally, at the “old car” (a beat up relic from the 1950’s that is pockmarked with bullet holes and has had its roof caved in from the addition of heavy rocks) I followed a small side gully on the east side of the radio tower. At the “old car” I took off the snowshoes, after having trekked nearly five and half miles in them. In the past, I haven’t had the ‘shoes and have paid dearly for my transgression. Today, my trek was made better by their addition. The ease, comfort and smoothness of this hike makes me think that this upcoming hiking and trekking season will be one of my best ever.
Keep on hiking!