Marolt: The wisdom of switchbacks and skiing early
May 31, 2017
In the early 1970s, I saw little value in switchbacks. Cowboys and miners knew their value, but backpackers were mostly clueless. That was back when hiking really took off as a means for people to get way out into the wilderness, to swim naked in mountain lakes or work on deep, dark base tans without shirts on.
My parents were not into that sort of backcountry experience but they did like a good picnic, campfires and the feeling of getting to an out of the way place in the woods, so they introduced us to hiking despite the potential evils in the form of bare skin in the national forests.
My first awareness of switchbacks happened on Buckskin Pass on the trail to Snowmass Lake. Before that exposure, the switchbacks I'd been on were mostly camouflaged by the trees they meandered through.
It is a monstrous sight looking at it from the bottom standing on tired legs. It's all above timberline and one can see the entire trail from the tip of your toes to the top of the mountain. It's an amazing zig-zag of a path crisscrossing the steep slope that tires the eyes to follow upward. It looks like about 5 miles of trail to ascend what a bird could cover with a quarter mile of flying.
The first impression on the young and hyper-energetic, is that the switchbacks were built the way they are to aid the weak in climbing the steep. They are a crutch; a concession to the flatlander who otherwise would not belong in this rugged place.
And so, it was a big surprise to me, at least, to see signs then at the bottom of the pass that warned hikers not to "cut the switchbacks." I was sharp enough to figure out that "cutting" actually meant connecting the dots of where the trail switched direction on either side of the slope. By doing so, I figured you could basically avoid the boring back and forth slog to the top dictated by the trail designers and go straight up instead.
Recommended Stories For You
And so my brothers and I did. The immediate lesson was that it was, as hypothesized, faster than following the trail. The second lesson, which we learned when everyone else arrived a few minutes later, was that the rule-followers were not nearly as tired as we were. So, we reasoned, the switchbacks were simply and energy saver "recommended" by those warning signs.
I'm sure my parents stressed the error of our thinking, but what 12-year-old believes his parents about anything except at what time dinner will be served? However, the true purpose of switchbacks was soon reinforced by our public school teachers in the visionary outdoor education program they designed for us, which still serves its invaluable purpose for local school kids today. Who could have guessed that the crazy trail design was to prevent erosion and the degradation of the wilderness?
These days only the utterly ignorant cut switchbacks. Their purpose is well known and damage from years-ago abuse is evident. Thank goodness for wilderness ethics. It's all about preservation for the next guy.
That brings us to today. I skied Independence Pass over the weekend and the number of people climbing ridges to ski down was astonishing. Thirty years ago we had that playground to ourselves and folks thought we were weird to work so hard to ski into June and, sometimes, July. Now, it's a carnival fueled by FOMO (fear of missing out).
It's a great growth spurt for the spirit of exploration. It's so popular that a new ethic needs to be considered. We climbed up for two runs and both slopes were marred by deep, frozen trenches carved out by skis cutting through slush. Somebody had been there the day before very late in the afternoon.
There are two problems with this; the first more serious than cutting switchbacks and the second only as irritating. The big issue is that avalanches occur this time of year in the late afternoons when the snowpack becomes more like water and is drawn downhill. The esthetic issue is that trench-like ski tracks in slush in the wild do not get groomed away every night. They ruin the slope for the rest of the spring for everyone else.
Switching back to ethics: If you can't be on the snow before it thaws by mid-morning in the backcountry, it is safer for you and better for everyone else if you go to the Hickory House for pancakes instead.
Roger Marolt knows there is plenty of snow out there for everyone and there is no sense in ruining any of it. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.