I stopped briefly to think about whether I should turn around.  I was checking the winter snowshoe trail for which I am responsible and wondered if I had bitten off more trail than I could chew—or snowshoe.  I hike Tait’s Trail in the Cascades in fall and snowshoe it in winter. It is like two different trails, and the past 2 years I have only taken the more heavily traveled part of the loop that goes close to the cliff overlooking the Rosary Lakes below.  I was therefore less familiar with the inner loop, which is where I was, and thought the whole loop was a mile, when in fact it was 2.1, an error I should not have made.

Not surprisingly, where I was on the GPS showed considerable distance left to get to the overlook where I wanted to have lunch.  The wet snow was 18 inches deep (45 cm), and I had already traveled over 4 miles (6.5 km) and climbed 1300 feet (390 m).  The last mile and a half (2.5 km) I had been breaking trail. I still had to get back to the car; turning back now would be a little easier walking in my own tracks and going downhill.  But the distance wasn’t going to be much less. My legs were fatigued, and I was a little winded, expected, but not quite to this extent. I was 6000 feet (1800 m) above where I had awoken.

I decided to trudge on, now aware that caution lights were flickering in my mind, saying “you aren’t in trouble…yet,” the verb trudge being appropriate to the lift, step, drop, lift, step, drop I was doing, for 50 steps, maybe 75, but definitely not 100, before I took a breather. The trail was easy enough to follow, but rest of the loop was likely untracked.  I made a snap decision to go cross country, to cross a chord of the circle, mostly because I had done it in autumn when I had been on the trail wanting to mark a log blocking the trail to be cut out.  Then, a quarter of a mile cross-country was no big deal and saved some time. I even saw a few elk.  Today, it would be more difficult, but it would still save maybe 3/8 of a mile.

The cross-country route was slow, but flat, there weren’t many trees, and I found the trail on the other side easily with a welcome set of old ski tracks, not packed snow, but requiring less work. Fifteen minutes later, I was seated on a snowy log eating lunch, immediately putting my rain top back on because I knew I would rapidly cool.  I felt old, like I didn’t have it the way I used to. This was one difficult snowshoe.

When the ski area is closed, it is possible to go up the lowest trail (looking here) and get directly to Tait’s. In an emergency, coming back down from Tait’s through the ski area saves a good deal of time, and it is possible to slide as well.

But, when I thought about it a little more, I had been lulled into a sense of being in better shape on my first two snowshoes out this winter. Both were just over 10 miles (16 km), a distance I hadn’t done for the first three years I snowshoed and thought a difficult goal in itself.  This year, I did those two 10 miles+ without difficulty.  The second had a lot of climbing, and I still did well.  But there was a catch: in both, the trail was broken, and that makes a huge difference on snowshoes or skis. A single set of tracks in which to walk is a great help. 

The third time out, I did almost eleven miles, but I had to climb in unbroken snow to Maiden Peak Shelter, a trudge as well, again at altitude, and half way back, I was ready for the end three miles before I got there. Unbroken trail requires more time and wisely fewer miles, and the reason I hadn’t done long snowshoes the first couple of years were that the trails were often unbroken. Twice in one year, I was breaking trail in 2-3 feet of snow, and it was exhausting.  In addition, today I was taking time checking diamond markers, placing new ones, and moving others up on the trees.  That required gloves off, using a hammer, nails, and getting the diamond properly placed.  It was more work.

I had hoped to do the larger loop from Tait’s around to and back down around the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), to Rosary Lakes and Willamette Pass, about ten miles total.  I know the way, and I also knew that I did not have the strength to do it. I needed to get back down, slowly if necessary, but now. I finished lunch and started heading back towards the Tie Trail that led directly to the PCT. I had just started down the Tie Trail when I noticed I no longer had the hammer I was using to pound in the nails. Somewhere in that five hundred yard stretch after lunch, it had fallen out. I was carrying a back pack and a small tool pack which the hammer was easily accessible to me, but also easily able to fall out.  I stopped, looked uphill at a possible “short cut” through the woods to where it might have been, looked at the deep snow, and decided to leave it. Downhill in my recent tracks was far easier, I had already dealt with the diamonds, and while the PCT to the trailhead was still long, it was straightforward. I reached the car in mid-afternoon, after about nine miles (14 km).  

A week later, I went back to do the other part of the loop, in the opposite direction. It had not snowed and was warmer; the snow was firmer, I could stand on it without sinking, and there were more tracks.  I reached the main climb that goes to Maiden Shelter, Tait’s and the ski area, started pulling diamond markers out of trees and placing them higher. The snow was “fast,” I was carrying a mallet and diamonds, pliers in my pocket to pull out nails, so that replacing diamonds was a rest break as well as work.  While I got to the same lunch spot at the same time, I was not nearly as tired. I had only had to break trail over a couple hundred yards, and it was not as difficult as the prior week. 

After lunch, I started to head on an angle away from the cliffs gradually towards the trail that still had my faint tracks.  Then I changed my mind and headed directly to the trail. There in the middle was the hammer I had lost, frozen into the snow. It would have been a long walk back up to find it the week before. I took the same route down the Tie Trail, now covered by large clumps of snow which had fallen off the trees. I was glad I hadn’t gone up this way; coming down was far easier. I felt fine, if appropriately tired when I got to the car, after ten miles. Tait’s is done for this year, unless I decide to lead a snowshoe there.  I have a few places next fall where I may add some more diamonds.

I will take better care of the hammer.

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