Wishing I’d Brought the Snowshoes

By the end of January we hadn’t had any snowfall in southern New Mexico for a few weeks and it was beginning to look like my dreams of snowshoeing wouldn’t be coming true any time soon. That being said, I thought the lack of recent snowfall would make for a good opportunity to hike one of the taller mountains – the 10,000 foot Hillsboro Peak – in the Gila National Forest. Because yes, it hosts a fire tower.

Despite 90% of the trail crossing the burn scar from the 2013 Silver Fire, this is one of my favorite hikes in the region, and probably my favorite of all the trails I’ve done in the Gila area. The torched, defoliated landscape is itself dramatic but the revelation of the rippled topography and the unveiling of the craggy peaks from the once-present shroud of forest is truly a marvel. Spiny skeletons of tree trunks cling to the steep drainages all along the trail and boulders are laid bare at the ridges and crests.

The route to Hillsboro Peak follows a segment of the Black Range Crest Trail which does exactly that – traces the crest of the Black (Mountain) Range. As such, dramatic views down canyons are plentiful, even more so because of the unobstructed sightlines. Much of the trail is in full sun due to the lack of vegetation but as Gail and I rounded the first of the north-facing slopes I was surprised at the snowfall (now iced over) clinging to the trail 3 weeks after the last precipitation. Having gained less than 700 feet of 2,000+ feet I knew this was an unfavorable indicator for the state of the north-facing trail just below 10,000 feet but I stayed hopeful as we pressed on through the incarcerated terrain toward the peak. I was even cautiously optimistic approaching the last half mile but it was then disaster struck.

Seemingly out of nowhere (though it was of course just as we rounded the dark side near the top of the peak) huge snowdrifts began accumulating on the trail, first barely knee high but steadily deepening as the route became more exposed. Knowing that this section would only be a quarter mile or less I convinced Gail to continue on as the snowpack increased in depth. As the snow became hip deep – and I was actively cursing my neglect in bringing my showshoes – I took over breaking trail with Abbs dutifully leap-frogging behind me in the my tracks. Though more than 12 years old at this point she showed some serious game on this hike, willing to sink into my postholes below eye level before bounding out. She soon figured it would be better to place her feet on virgin snow and not sink in, but on the occasions where it was inevitable she was totally game in following me across the drifts despite the uncertainty. Honestly, my dog is my role model.

Unfortunately, soon after taking over the trail-breaking position I sank in up to my ribs – and then most of the way my chest; the photo Gail took was in the midst of me working my way out of the sink. Because of the depth of the snow here I wasn’t able to capture any of this since a) my phone was in my (buried) pants pocket and b) I was trying to execrate myself from a chest deep drift but anyway it was then that we decided to turn around, despite being less than 300 vertical feet below the peak.

Once we’d retreated to snow-free terrain we all took a breather with Abbs actually doing a full lay down in the tall grass beneath the shadow of Hillsboro Peak. Though we re-affirmed that continuing to the top would have been a terrible idea in snow drifts over 4 feet we had a collective moment of mourning here while admiring the striking canyons below, agreeing we’d return to these rugged blue hills and get to the top. But despite the difficulty and the near-miss on achieving our objective it was a good day.