A Note about snow in the Backcountry:
SNOW IN JULY: (Smith Creek Trail #29)
I had been on the phone with the local ranger station a number of times before this trip, and they talked about the snowpack possibly still being too deep to use the trail. I found that I did not fully understand this until I experienced it for myself. First, I was imagining light, fluffy snow which my horses would have no problem plowing through. Second, I was dubious as to whether there really could be enough snow in late July to truly keep us from using the trail. I truly did not understand what it was we would find.
First, there are large areas where all the snow is melted. Most of the patches of snow are not huge and one might think we could have found our way around them. However, here I was again misjudging the reality of the trail. We were able to walk the horses off the trail and around the first couple patches of snow, with some difficulty. But my horses are sure-footed, confident and up for anything. However, eventually the trail became a narrow ledge on the side of a hill and we came to a snow in an area where it was not possible for the horses to step off the trail and find their way around. The trail was too steep and the surrounding woods too dense for horses to pass anywhere but on the established trail, no matter how sure footed and up for anything they were. We either had to go through the snow or turn back.
We didn't give up easily and at first elected for the horses to go through the snow. As I mentioned, this is not fluffy new snow - this is the dregs of a long winter, packed deeply on the trail. Most of it was so hard packed that the horses could actually walk on top of it without breaking through. The problem with this, however, is that there are unseen patches in snow like this, where the snow is beginning to melt from underneath, and it will not hold the horses. In these areas, the horses will suddenly break through, crashing down two feet or more with one leg. This is a very good way for a horse to break a leg, and not in any way a safe situation for horses.
We tried to scout ahead for a while, thinking that if we tested the snow and got the horses just a little bit further, we would reach a low enough altitude that there would no longer be any snow to contend with. However two things put a stop to this. First, we realized we could not truly test the snow for potential break-through areas, and it was going to endanger our horses no matter how careful we tried to be. Second, we reached a patch of snow that was so hard and on such a steep part of the trail that we realized the horses would be in danger of sliding right off the mountain if they tried to pass that stretch. At that point, we turned around and revised our plans on where to spend the rest of this trip. It ended up being a great trip and we didn't regret the change in plans at all.