Hikers beware: ice don’t care

If you like to hike and live somewhere with winter weather, eventually you’ll develop your own set of limits about what kind of conditions are JUST TOO BAD to hike in. For some people, falling snow is a deal-breaker. For others, certain temperatures are the cut-off. Even with perfect layering and good insulated gear, some days aren’t meant for outdoor activities. For me, ice draws the line.

Ice all over the ground, or ice covering the trees where I want to hike means “go home.”

It’s taken years of dumb decisions, narrowly-missed injuries and terrifying moments to drive home this outer limit for me. Over and over I had to learn that in the hard, cold months, a light dusting of snow is a slick hazard — covering up the frozen patches left behind from the last thaw/freeze. I had to scrape and scuff and slip to remember that what looks like snow may just be a rock-hard glaze of ice on top of the last snowfall. And to remember that a well-traveled trail in the woods turns to an ice chute when many boots press the snow flat during the day, then temperatures plummet overnight.

A few years back, one trail in particular kept calling for me. I planned a daytrip around a chance to spend a few hours climbing into that mature forest with springs along the trail. Finally at the trailhead, I pulled on my backpack and started toward the woods, only to find that a small footbridge on the trail was total ice. I held onto the railing, scooching my way across. Somewhere in my head, I convinced myself that in the dirt and leaves of the woods, the trail surface would be fine — just a little snow-covered, maybe crunchy. I forced myself up the icy trail for maybe 75 yards where it started to noticeably climb. Every other step just slipped. Even the snow on either side of the trail was coated in an inch of ice from a thaw/refreeze overnight. It was stupid to continue — stupid to have gone that far. Looking back down the way I came, I saw nothing in my future but a twisted knee. So I sat down and slid down the icy path, my butt so numb (even through insulated pants) that eventually I stopped feeling the rocks jab me as I worked my way down. Lesson learned.

More recently, an ice storm reminded me of the true danger of ice above. Not even on a hike this time, I found myself outdoors at just the wrong time as a storm moved through our area of West Virginia. A day’s worth of barely freezing rain turned dangerous as the temperature dropped just a few degrees, sending branches and entire trees crashing down near a friend’s house. While trying to move limbs off their roadway, the sound of fracturing wood and booming branches made it clear that there was nowhere safe outdoors. It was terrifying.

Despite the mesmerizing beauty of ice as it wraps around tree branches, dried blooms and berries, frozen weather makes me think more than twice about wandering the trails and woods.

Even after the ice disappears, storm damage remains. Two weeks after our most recent ice storm, I set out to hike on a warming day. The jeep trail to an overlook on Sleepy Creek Mountain was blocked over and over again by downed trees, thick branches, tangled limbs in giant clumps. Ice had delivered more destruction in a single day than wind and gravity had in years on that mountain. Pulling the smaller limbs to the side, and cutting some medium branches with a folding saw from my pack, I cleared a single track through some areas. In other places, we’ll be climbing over fallen trees for years to come.

The terrible beauty of an icy landscape is tempting to explore. But I’d rather be around for three other seasons, so icy days will have to keep their glistening secrets locked away in the distance. This hiker is going to turn around and go back home.

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