Today the Mountain Won!
By Norm Vance
There is neither heaven nor earth,
I have maintained snow trails in the Pagosa Country area for over a dozen years. I’ve done snowmobile trails, sled dog tracks and cross country lanes. I had pause today to consider an article on how snow trails work.
The pause was when I had thrown myself and my super sized snowmobile at a hundred foot length of trail for about two hours without making any real progress. Those two hours were spent shoveling snow trying to make a four foot wide, level strip, on an otherwise 45 degree snow bank AND shoveling snow to get my machine unstuck. It was all shoveling – and at 11,000 feet elevation – and I was forced to “pause” to let my lungs catch up. Did I mention there was white-out blizzard going on I couldn’t see. This is when I sat beside the machine and pondered on how snow trails work. I thought it might be interesting for snow trail users to gain some insight into this tricky business…
Snow trails can be made by a single cross country skier or snowshoer up to my size of machine. Then there are the big snow grooming machines like the Trailblazer Snowmobile Club and Wolf Creek Ski Area use. They are the size of a large truck and make smooth and wide groomed trails.
The only factor that makes a snow trail is that the same path is used over and over as newer layers of snow falls. This compresses the snow and each subsequent pass mashes new snow and builds an ever thicker and higher trail level. It becomes a wall of packed snow enveloped in softer snow. The wall is a few feet wide and miles long, crossing vast open spaces, up and down river valleys and switching back and forth up mountain slopes. Think the Great Wall of China made of ice and buried in snow.
If you drive off the wall you are going down. On good snow, if you have enough floatation, speed and luck you might keep going, if not you’re stuck. If the machine is stuck it must be dug out and then you stomp down and pack a path back up to the hardened trail, much like the “on ramp” of a freeway.
As a pure volunteer/random act of kindness effort I am riding the Lobo Overlook Road/Trail at the summit of Wolf Creek Pass. With several years of low snow this trail at the top of the divide has become super popular with all types of snow users. A special taskforce was formed just to deal with this increased use of the area and this year there are often Forest Service volunteers in the plowed parking lot counting people, doing quick surveys and trying to stay warm.
In summer the road runs straight and level out of the parking area for a few hundred yards before it begins gaining elevation. This winter the wall/trail starts about 12 to 15 feet above the parking lot and gets deeper as the trail goes up! On the top is a three story building that is less than one story above snow level.
Certainly this is not a groomed trail, officially or in its best condition but I am riding it to knock down the new snow, as best as I can, and making an effort to take out the damage that my fellow snowmobilers do to the trail.
Most of the snowmobile use is snowboarders taking turns pulling each other to the top. New snowmobiles are so powerful that when they accelerate hard they dig a deep trench 16 plus inches wide and many feet long. This is exacerbated when pulling a boarder or two up a steep trail. On top of that they tend to wallow around in the snow making off camber stretches of packed snow. These trenches and wallows are difficult and potentially dangerous for cross country skiers to navigate. I drive a Super Wide Track Skandic which is considered the HumVee of snowmobiles. Its track is 24inches wide and I sometimes pull a small sled like drag that bites into the snow a bit. I am able to fill and smooth over the trenches and wallows after a few passes.
So, that is what a snow trail is all about. Its not rocket science but it is good exercise and a good feeling for me, knowing people are using this great trail safely and enjoying one of the most stunning views on the planet.
The mountain won today but not forever.
For more information see “The Playground at The Top of The World.”