As I’ve spent more time in Colorado and gained more knowledge and confidence in my winter hiking abilities, I’ve begun to push myself harder. I’ve tackled longer and more challenging hikes, and been rewarded with gorgeous snow-covered views and relative solitude. But I’ve also established some limits on just how much I’m willing to challenge myself. More than any other, this hike is the one that showed me what my limits are.
Last March, on the last day of winter, my friend Savannah and I had the (terrible, as it turns out) idea to hike to Helms Lake in the snow. Bluebird days at frozen alpine lakes are one of my absolute favorite things about winter, and Helms was a good candidate given the low avalanche danger of the terrain. Both of us had done this hike before so we knew what to expect and were familiar with the area. It was a beautiful day; warm, sunny, fairly calm. But it ended up being substantially more challenging of an excursion than either of us ever could have anticipated.
The first 2.5 miles (4 km) of the trail were already broken and didn’t require snowshoes. We followed the path through the pine trees, aspens, and into the willows, a fairly gentle but steady ascent. I’d seen moose in the willows on my previous hike… and indeed, we saw eight of them here this time around. Two were concealed in a stand of pine trees, much too close for comfort, and we startled each other when Savannah and I came around the bend. Fortunately they hustled away from us, but it still scared the crap out of me. Turns out I have a little bit of moose PTSD after last summer’s debacle.
Beyond this point it was time for snowshoes, and by about the 3 mile (4.8 km) mark the trail was covered with an untouched layer of snow. But it wasn’t too deep… at first. It wasn’t until we reached the meadow at the 4 mile (6.4 km) mark that we encountered our first challenge: the trail was no longer obvious. Using our GPS apps we located it as best we could. But the snow was deep and soft, and it took us nearly 20 minutes to make our way across the meadow.
We were almost to the trees on the other side when I sunk in up to my hips. Savannah turned around to see why I’d just shrieked… and sunk in up to her waist. As I attempted to climb out of the snow, my snowshoe came off. It was only then that I realized I was standing in the creek. Turns out our GPS was slightly off and we’d ended up on top of it instead of next to it. Fortunately it wasn’t flowing, but it was deep, cold, and slushy – and my snowshoe was firmly trapped in it.
It was awkward and ungraceful and I had to straddle the creek, bend forward, and stick my hand into 6 inches (15 cm) of freezing cold water, but I did manage to retrieve my snowshoe. And somehow, my boots and gators kept my feet relatively dry (although, as it turned out, this was the limit of what my boots could tolerate, and by the end of the day after so many more hours in the snow, my socks were drenched). So we pressed on. Our rationale was that since most of the rest of the hike was in the trees the snow would be in better condition, as it had been up to this point.
Unfortunately that wasn’t entirely the case. In most places it wasn’t too bad. Where the snow had been windblown, it was crustier and we didn’t sink in very far. But in more protected areas the snow was a soft fluffy mess. It was a postholing nightmare. I don’t think I can adequately describe how challenging and frustrating it was to keep sinking in up to our thighs and having to pull ourselves out. But at this point we were so close and had worked so hard that – despite our exhaustion and frustration – we didn’t want to turn back. We were so close.
Lest this make us sound determined to the point of carelessness, I should note that we were keeping an eye on the time and we’d set a deadline for ourselves: if we didn’t reach the lake by about 2:15pm we would turn around to ensure we were off the trail before sunset. It took us over two hours to complete these final snowy 2 miles (3.2 km) to the lake, and there was quite a lot of yelling and cursing involved (at the snow, not at each other!). But at 2:19pm the lake finally came into view.
I wish we’d had more time to spend at the lake. But we knew we needed to head back, so we ate a snack and took some photos and then began retracing our steps. The snow was still a soft fluffy mess in places, but at least we didn’t have to break trail this time. Unlike the 6.5 hours it took us to reach the lake, it only took about 3 to get back to the car. I spent most of the descent just focusing on putting one foot in front of the other. I was at that point of sheer exhaustion where if I stopped, I wouldn’t start up again.
This trail actually continues another couple miles up and around to Abyss Lake, which I’d really like to visit one day. The plan is to backpack up to Helms Lake in the fall, pitch our tent among the changing leaves, and day hike up to Abyss Lake. But after this experience, I think it might be a while before I find the motivation to hike this trail again.
This hike absolutely pushed both of us to our limits. I can definitively say that neither of us would have made it if we weren’t together to share the burden of breaking trail… and the frustration of so much postholing. I love a good challenge, but for me the effort-to-reward ratio needs to be balanced. On this hike, it was not. It was way too much work for a reward that we were hardly able to enjoy. I was completely exhausted, and I woke the next morning with an extremely sore hip flexor that proceeded to bother me for the next few days.
I am proud of us. I can’t believe we made it. As we were out there, plowing our way through the snow, we didn’t think we would.
But I will also never do this hike – or another one like it – in the winter ever again.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: Burning Bear Trailhead is located along the southern half of the Guanella Pass Scenic Byway; in winter, you can only access it from the Grant side of the byway
- Fees and passes: none, but this is a wilderness area so you should register at the trailhead kiosk so the Forest Service can track trail usage
- Hiking: 12.1 miles (19.4 km), 2315 feet (705 m) of elevation gain round-trip to Helms Lake
- Where to stay: in winter, camping options in this area are very limited, but this is easily done as a day hike from Denver
- Other: in case my postholing/moose-startling saga hasn’t already deterred you, I’ll just reiterate how exceptionally challenging this hike is in the winter. If you decide to give it a shot, be prepared to spend an entire day alone in the mountains in the winter… and to turn around if necessary