Avy Concerns


This winter summiting has been a challenge. I feel I’ve had to turn back more than I ever have, maybe more than all the other times I’ve been hiking combined.  It hurts to turn back.  It’s a pain that’s both mental and physical, and a decision I don’t make lightly.  Or often.

Today’s trip was doomed from the start: I’d only had 2 hours of sleep, I didn’t much care to eat breakfast, and I was both emotionally and physically exhausted from a week of little sleep and lots of problem solving.  I decided to head out anyway because when it comes to winter hiking I still don’t know what I don’t know and I need to be on the ground experiencing the conditions as often as possible so I can learn and fail fast for future summiting success.

On the drive in I noticed there had been an avalanche recently that had caused quite a bit of damage. Avy danger is serious and real this year people!


There was no parking at the trailhead because it was covered in snow, so I continued driving and found a turnout about three tenths of a mile away and considered this close enough. Since this is near a winter road closure I didn’t see another vehicle the entire morning.  I set out and hiked in the middle of the road back to the trailhead and immediately put on my snowshoes.

The snow here was deep. I’d say about 6 feet or so.  My instructions said to follow a service road, and luckily I could tell where it was.   I could also tell no one had been on this trail in quite a while.  I’m guessing it’s been months.


And then suddenly I couldn’t find the road, or a trail, or signs of either. I knew I was supposed to follow the stream, but here the snow really started to pile up and falling into the stream became a genuine danger.  In places the snow was about 10 feet deep and very soft.  It was still dark as I was postholing up to my waist at 5:30am and all I could think was how messy this hike would be on my way out.  It wasn’t going to be pretty.  As I trekked further into Echo Canyon the snow got thicker and any sign of a trail was nonexistent.

I made it about a mile into the canyon and as the sun started to rise I noticed I was in an area very similar to the one I’d see avalanche about half a mile away: The slope was the same, the angle was the same, and it was loaded with snow. That did it.  I decided to turn back.  I didn’t like the wet slab conditions, avalanche danger, or intense early morning postholing I’d encountered.

I was bummed, but considered this the right call. And then it hit me:  I was about 5 miles away from La Plata!  I knew that trail very well:  I’d just make it back to my truck, drive to the La Plata trailhead, and hike until I felt like turning back.  I knew at this point a summit wasn’t going to happen today, no matter where I hiked, but at least I could get in some elevation gain, right?

OK, on to plan B. There weren’t any other vehicles in the La Plata parking lot, despite it now being 6:30am.  It looked like it was going to be a quiet day on the mountain for me.



I started along the closed 2WD road and saw the utility truck that was there back in January is still in its same place, accompanied by more snow.


There was a ton of snow on the trail but there was a well packed trench through the trees


I followed the trench over the creek


And continued up the slope, intending to make it to treeline and then turn back. Maybe I’d get a good look at the headwall to see how much snow it had?  I was in a bit of a sour mood because I knew there was no way I was getting in a summit today.  I wasn’t too fond of the conditions on this side of the mountain either:  there was a ton of snow and none of it looked too stable. However, I also knew it wasn’t in a prior avalanche path.  Still… crispy snow on steep slopes isn’t a good thing.

I was tired, I was hungry, I was lethargic, and now I was hearing voices coming from above me on the trail. I stopped, making sure I wasn’t hallucinating.  There hadn’t been any other vehicles in the parking lot, but I was definitely hearing man and woman talking to each other from above me on the slope.  Maybe they’d parked somewhere else and skinned up?  In any event, with the snow conditions the way they were I did not want to hike below other people for fear of them starting an avalanche above me.  I immediately turned around and headed back to my truck.

This day had gone from disappointing to worse. So I tried to keep my mind positive:  What had I learned today?  How had today been worth getting up at 2am, driving for 3 hours, and turning around twice within the span of the next 2 hours?

Well, I saw firsthand the powerful force that is an avalanche. The snow had destroyed trees that were 3 feet around, breaking them like matchsticks.  I needed the reminder avalanche danger is no joke.  I also learned that just because a trailhead is accessible doesn’t mean the trail is climbable.  Another lesson learned:  I need more sleep before attempting a hike, and even though I’m not hungry in the morning, I need to force myself to eat before hitting the trail:  Low blood sugar makes me grumpy.

On the way out I took some pictures of the stream and just enjoyed being out in nature without being cold.


I made it back to my car around 8am and looked at my tracker: 4.81 miles and 1514’ in elevation gain.  Boy, was that disappointing!  I decided to call it a day, drive back home, and get some sleep.

Author: Laura M Clark

Laura has summited over 500 peaks above 13,000' solo, including being the first woman to solo summit all of the Colorado 14ers, as well as the centennials. After each hike, she writes trip reports for each one and publishes them on her blog, which is read by fans all over the world. Author of Wild Wanderer: Summiting Colorado’s 200 Highest Peaks, which is available to purchase on Amazon.

3 thoughts on “Avy Concerns”

  1. Stop beating yourself up on what you consider failures.Your perfect in all that You do. You make right choices even at the expense of sleepless times and less food. I would that those were a priority in your daily agenda,but no one knows better than the person knows themselves. What You know I would stake my life on from all that I have read of Your previous writings and photos.I have learned so much from Your experiences ,good and trying.I don’t think I have ever met a more determined young Lady in all my life as You Miss Wild Wanderer.Your wisdom far exceeds Your youthful age. I’m glad You made it home safely to hike those perilous mountains at Your own liking.
    Thank You Miss Laura.


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