Winter Hiking in Chicago Lakes, Part One
by Fletcher McDonald
I grab the door handle and push. The wind catches it as soon as it opens, flinging wide and filling the cab of the truck with cold air. There’s a bitter chill, this early and this high in the mountains, a wind that renders my fleece pullover seemingly non-existent. The heat is drained from my body in an instant. The cold saps the strength from my muscles and chills me down to the bone.
“Damn,” I say, my teeth chattering, “It’s cold.” I can see my breath in the air.
Hiking in the late fall or early winter is not without challenges; these range from safety and environmental concerns but are all related to the weather and changing temperatures.
Planning becomes more important. You should always let someone know where you’re hiking in case an accident happens; this is of paramount importance in cold weather, when twisting an ankle or breaking a leg can have more severe consequences because of the severity of exposure to the elements. Hydration and having good amounts of food can be important because cold weather hikes can take longer and be more strenuous.
Temperature and wind chill are two major factors that will affect you during any hike. In Colorado, with the high elevation and low humidity, it can be below freezing in the early morning and then rise to the cozy mid-sixties. This complicates hiking; you have to dress for two different seasons and a range of temperatures, and the best way to do this is to dress in layers. You can take off a windbreaker, you can take off a long-sleeve shirt or a thermal layer. A heavy winter jacket, however, is both heavy to carry, and leaves you either too hot or too cold when the temperatures have risen but aren’t at their peak.
The trail winds along the edge of Echo lake. The wind is at my back and finds no bare skin to savage and steal heat from. Snow covers the trail, and I stomp through small, snow-covered puddles of water, my boots crunching the thin ice covering them into bits. The lake is frozen over, likely with the same thin ice, and particles of snow whip across the surface, propelled by winds descending from the nearby mountains.
The path is well-maintained, paved here, and easy to make out. To the right is the forest, bushes and trees; after a short while, the path turns, winding through forest and over rocks, navigating us downward into the valley where Chicago Creek still flowed. I move quickly on the wide trail, following a snow-laden switchback and a pair of footprints that disappear down a fork.
Traveling on snow-covered terrain has its own challenges. The consistency of the snow can affect travel; new, fresh powder can coat flat rocks creating the illusion of a solid, stable surface. Stepping on the same rock, light snow can create a near frictionless, very slippery surface.
In other places, like glacial basins filled with large rock fields, snow will coat the surfaces of the rocks and gather in the gaps in between. This creates the illusion of a stable, traversable surface; it may look to the naked eye similar to a typical rocky and snow-covered meadow in the Colorado mountains. However, stepping on the snow that has come to rest in the gaps between large rocks can send you plummeting downwards, possibly twisting an ankle or worse as you land on a hard surface.
Later in the season, when the top layer of snow has melted during the day then refrozen at night, and when this process has repeated for day after day, snow fields may have a hard and dense layer of snow and ice on top of large amounts of snow. This can support heavy weight reliably and see you traverse giant snowfields as surely as any other field. At least up to a point; crossing this threshold will see you plunge near waist deep in snow; called “postholing” because the hole resembles one you would dig for a fencepost. The effect is similar as above in a rock field but with only a snowy impact instead of a hard, rocky one.
The snow in front of me is a foot high and untouched, but despite this, the trail is clear as day. I trailblaze and quickly, dropping bootprint after bootprint into the snow for others to follow. Chicago Creek is in front of me, and I pass it on a log bridge. Then we start heading uphill.
“I told you the first part was easy,” says Jason. I’ve known Jason for nearly ten years; he’s done much of his own hiking and traveling. When I suggested hiking, he suggested this trail.
I can see each breath in the cold air as I exhale heavily and rapidly. Even so we travel quickly. Fast, even footfalls precede me, dampened by the sound of the snow. Where it is deep, I slow down, each foot checking for solid purchase before I transfer my weight.
Proper breathing is important at both altitude and in the cold. In Colorado, again having low humidity and high elevation, paced and measured breathing, in through your nose and out through your mouth, will serve you well and keep you from fatiguing quickly.
In the cold, this is twice as important. Inhaling through your nose allows the air going into your lungs to heat up; physically, the nose actually has anatomical structures called turbinates (or nasal conchae), that warm and humidify the air going into your lungs. Now, whether or not you believe in evolution, they’re there for a purpose, so that the air going into your lungs isn’t dry or cold. Cold air going into your lungs will drop your body temperature as well, creating a number of problems.
Temperature regulation has a few different aspects. Wearing layers is great way to regulate your temperature within certain ranges. Ideally, you’ll be warm enough that you don’t feel the cold but aren’t sweating; sweat will wick into your layers and may freeze, actually making you colder. Sweating will also slightly dehydrate you.
We pass from the trail to a road to the trail, dense forest giving way to fields of burnt and fallen timber. In any old forest, there are dead trees, here and there in between the living, but here it is the opposite. This area was hit by a forest fire years ago, and drifts of snow rest against fallen pines stripped of bark and branches. Tall pines stand yards apart from one another, new and rapid growth not yet bent by the wind, fed by the ash remnant of the fire and decomposing forest.
There is less wind in the valley, and the scarcity of tree cover and warming weather leads me to take off a layer, the fleece pull-over that earlier did very little to mitigate the wind. The sun is out and the temperature has risen, and I only have a base- and mid-layer on now. I put on a pair of sunglasses to protect my eyes against the glare, and we keep moving.
Idaho Springs Reservoir is to our left, and we carry on, talking about old times and fishing. It’s an easy hike from here.
Where: Chicago Lakes in Echo Lake Park.
When: Start early, and wear extra layers. Start late, and deal with harsh sunlight. Distance: 8.7 miles, round trip.
Bring: Layers. An extra layer in case of bad weather. Insulated boots and long socks. Extra food, extra water. Sunglasses*.
*Sunlight can reflect off of snow and cause snow blindness, so wear sunglasses when it is bright out.
Chicago Lakes Trail. (2018, October 09). Retrieved from https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/colorado/chicago-lakes-trail
Photokeratitis. (2018, September 17). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photokeratitis