It was a cold clear morning. I had a cup of coffee when I awoke at 5:15 and another on the drive from Manchester to Crawford Notch. The night before was a late night, and, despite my desire to get to bed early, between the broken heating pipe that flooded the basement, the Haute Route slide show and info meeting, and the last minute pulling together of clothing and gear for the 9 below morning that lay ahead of me today, I had gotten little rest. Nonetheless, here I was, hiking up the Crawford Path, making my way towards the Mitzpah Cutoff. When we got to the cutoff, it was time for a quick snack, a drink of water and for me to go off the trail and relieve myself of all that coffee.
Despite knowing the potential for what was about to happen, I was caught by surprise when my next to last step found me falling through the snow into a chest deep hole; I was in a spruce trap. Spruce traps happen when snow has fallen and collected on the branches of a spruce tree, but not sifted its way down through to the space underneath the branches. As more snow falls, the little snow bridge that the spruce branch created continues to get covered and what is left is a large void beneath the branches and the surface of the snow. Most often we find these traps next to spruce trees that project up through the snow, but sometimes small trees end up buried in their entirety with significant pockets of air beneath them. This is what happened in my situation this last weekend when I went off the trail.
The easiest way to keep from falling into a spruce trap is to avoid them to begin with. Keep your travel path away from the trunks of spruce trees, especially those with dense low benches that might indicate more buried branches below. Sometimes this is not possible, and sometimes, the trees are completely buried. In this case, if you can’t avoid them, one should learn how to escape from a hole before one finds themself stuck in one. Once in a trap, one cannot just boost oneself out of the hole because the unconsolidated snow on the sides of the hole provides little purchase and one's hands just sink into the fluff. Trying to do such can often push more snow into the hole on top of your trapped feet, which may make escape that much more difficult.
Usually, one can lean over and roll through the edge of the hole, thus compacting the snow to the immediate side; giving you purchase to then pull your feet from the pit. If this doesn’t work, and you still cannot get purchase, try putting something on the snow and rolling on that. If you are carrying snowshoes, they work well for this, if not, a pack, your hiking poles, anything else you can find that will help to distribute your weight across the snow might do the trick.
If you cannot roll your way out of a spruce trap, start digging your way out by moving the snow with your arms and hands. Dig in the downhill direction, and once you have made significant progress, try rolling into the trench you have begun to dig out and then lifting your feet. Once out, roll back towards the trail until you are sure it is safe to stand up.
Sometimes where the snow is particularly deep, people fall head first into a spruce trap. This can be particularly dangerous and difficult to escape. First, don’t panic; panicking and thrashing about can often force you further down a large hole. Instead, take stock of what has happened and where you are. Where is the tree? Locate where the branches meet the tree and, grabbing the branch as close to the trunk as possible, push yourself back up the way you came, using the branch for leverage. Do this slowly and deliberately. If you try to push yourself from the end of the branch, the branch can bend, the hole can expand, and you can go further in. This is difficult to do because visibility will be difficult, but use touch to assist you. The larger the diameter of the branch, the closer it is to the trunk and the more purchase you will have.
If you are hiking as a group and one of you has fallen head-first into a large spruce trap, the first person to assist should immediately grab the feet of the victim, and should not let go no matter what. They should then call the rest of the party over and continue to hold the feet while the others try to free the victim by digging them out.
Another kind of mishap we sometimes see in the winter is injury from post-holing. Post-holing happens most often in the Spring when the ground begins to warm and the snow erodes from beneath the surface, leaving what we call rotten snow, but it can happen in the dead of winter as well. As one steps on the surface of the snow, their leg falls through the crust and then goes down into a hole. While moving, this sudden collapse of the ground you thought you were securely stepping on, can lead to knee and other leg injuries.
Again, as with the spruce traps, the best way to avoid injury from post-holing is to avoid post-holing all together. Wearing snowshoes will keep you from post-holing on even the most rotten of rotten snow. Snow shoes spread out your weight and compress the snow evenly all around your foot, giving you a platform to support your body. To avoid making holes that other hikers might fall into later, responsible winter hikers wear snowshoes where there is a posthole possibility.
If the trail conditions catch you by surprise, and you find yourself with bare boots in an area with post-holing potential, walk with your feet shoulder-width apart, stay back from the edges where others may have already postholed, and keep your poles always active. Should your foot break through the crust, having a good pole plant may help you to pull your foot up quickly before you go too deep, and may end up preventing an injury.
This last weekend, as we continued up the Mitzpah Cutoff towards Jackson, we were following the tracks of a single hiker who had broken the fresh snow before us. About 1/4 of the way up the trail the footsteps veered to the right and I said aloud that it didn’t look like he was on the trail. I went up about 50 feet and the footsteps led into ever thickening scrub and it was obvious that the hiker before us was in fact off the trail. I returned to the group and we then proceeded up the proper trail, leaving the footprints behind us.
It is easy to get lost in the winter; the snow is deep and sometimes covers blazes on the trees, swales and drifts can obscure the trail, and rime ice can sometimes cover the outside bark of trees along an entire side, hiding whatever blazes may be beneath the ice. Sometimes, even the most intrepid hiker can get off the trail.
Some tricks that can help are things that help you find the trail in any area where marking is not readily apparent, regardless of the season. First, trails generally have a consistently wider opening in the woods than the surrounding topography. Particularly in the winter with snow, the ground level is often depressed from the immediate area along a trail and if you look for that depression, both directly in front of you and twenty or so feet ahead in the direction you think the trail should be, you will often see the trail ahead of you. If you cannot see the blazes on the trees, sometimes you can try turning around and looking the opposite direction. Trails are blazed in both directions and while the blazes in your direction may be obscured by snow or ice, the opposite direction may be clear and easy to spot.
If you do feel as though you are lost, check a GPS that is using a good database. Keep in mind that GPSs that are using the old USGS topo information can be off by hundreds of feet sometimes and that ends up being a huge distance in the middle of the woods in winter. Be sure to use some of the newer trail data that is available. A good source is the GPSFileDepot website where you can download data from a lot of different gps datasources. My Trails, is one of my favorite sources for good, accurate, trail and POI data. Of course, it should go without saying that even if you know exactly the trails you intend to take, you should always carry a map with you regardless because you just never know what may happen or where your travels may take you. If, despite your best efforts, you do get lost, double back and follow your tracks to a point where you were not lost, rather than pressing on to see if you can get un-lost. Lost winter hikers don’t get un-lost, they get frozen.
Deep spruce traps are very uncommon, but if you are hiking up in Baxter or other norther areas of our region, they do happen and you need to be prepared. Post-holing is more common and causes more injuries than spruce traps each year, but the numbers are still relatively low. It is unclear how many people get lost for a while in the woods. Most, make their way out eventually, but occasionally some do not. Winter hazards do exist, and the few I have mentioned here today are not meant to be an exhaustive list, but having a bit of knowledge and knowing how to avoid them, can certainly make your winter adventures that much more safe and enjoyable. Now get out and enjoy the beautiful winter landscape; it is gorgeous out there.