Nothing like hiking in the snow and soaking up the beauty of winter. It’s one of my favorite times to go backpacking. Last year, I went up into the GSMNP in January with 12 inches of snow up by Newton Bald. I couldn’t even find the fire ring. With no leaves on the tree’s, I was able to watch a beautiful sunset and sunrise.
However, large, late-lingering snowfields that obscure portions of the trail are a possible hazard in winter. In the early morning, such snowfields can be frozen ice-hard, and be just as slippery. Even mountaineers equipped with ice axes, which supposedly give them the ability to stop a slip while snow climbing, have often discovered at great cost how easy it is to slip, fail to catch themselves, and immediately accelerate out-of-control on steep snow. Usually snowfields that obscure trails will have a deep, rutted path pounded into them by hikers who cross after the snow softens in the midday sun. Following the beaten path can be safe at any time. Danger arises, however, when unwary hikers venture off the path onto steep snow when the snow is frozen hard.
When the snow softens towards midday, a snowfield can present an additional hazard. Very often the edges of the snowfield, and even the center, can be undercut by melting, particularly if water is flowing underneath. It’s easy to break through the thin remaining bridge of snow and drop abruptly a foot or more to the rocky ground underneath, endangering your knees and ankles. Tread lightly, particularly near the edge of the snowfield and in low-lying areas where you suspect a stream may be flowing underneath.
After the snow melts, steep mountain slopes present a different hazard: rock fall. In regions where the rock is naturally rotten, rock fall frequently occurs spontaneously, particularly during a hard rain or when the sun melts the frost holding shattered cliffs and gully walls together. A bigger threat, even in regions where the rock is basically sound, is hikers dislodging stones that then tumble onto hikers below them. In loose terrain, hikers should never travel with one person directly above another. If a gully is too narrow to permit side-by-side travel, one person should move at a time, with the others waiting in a safe place.
Experts say one the best times to hike in winter snow is late winter, around March. Specifically in the Northern regions. National Parks such as Yellowstone, and Glacier Park offer great winter snowshoeing. By March, the snow is more compact, and has more layers.