“Mud season,” the nearly sacred term dances on everyone’s lips as spring break ski visits die down, temperatures climb, and resort towns start to clear out.
Aside from the occasional three foot storm, trails begin to thaw and the infamous mud overtakes valleys and passes. As we put our thickest layers into storage and switch to our backcountry set ups, refreshing ourselves on etiquette and safety while updating our gear can chase away the winter blues and prep us for spring in the mountains.
When prepping for a backpacking trip in the shoulder season, prepare for three seasons with the idea that anything could happen. On a week long July backpacking trip in the Never Summer Wilderness area in Colorado, temperatures ranged from 75 to 25, and we were hailed on, dusted with snow, and soggy from a rare three days of continuous rain. Between April and June, the chances of these varying conditions are high, and I always prep with layer after layer. As usual, continue to remember Leave No Trace principles regardless of weather conditions, but also be sure to brush up on lightning protocol. NOLS has a great document outlining lightning safety guidelines in the backcountry that lists safe places to retreat and first aid in the event of a direct or ground strike.
Snow and mud might obscure the trail so look for faint signs of human or animal markings, cairns, or tags around trees, and remember to bring a map of the wilderness area and a compass. Even in a blinding, spring storm, a compass can guide you, at the very least, in the direction of a road or service point. Springtime runoff can significantly raise stream levels and make crossings more difficult. For deep, swift moving water, grab a large stick that can help you wade and be a stabilizing point against the current and angle upstream. Assess your crossing point: wider swaths tend to be slower moving and sections of straight stream are more gentle. Don’t cross above fallen trees or branches that could potentially trap you beneath the stream. Undo the straps of your pack so that you can drop it quickly in the event of getting swept away and try to avoid soaking your pants which could result in hypothermia on the other side.
When backpacking in the mud season, be aware of the transitioning season for wildlife. While moose are most active in the fall during their “rutting,” or mating period, many of the babies are born during the months of May and June, and mothers will be much more aggressive to protect her calves. If you come across an aggressive moose, back away slowly and find the nearest tree to hide behind. In some areas in the spring, bears will begin to re-emerge from hibernation and start searching for food. Spring bears tend to head for damp areas along creeks or south facing slopes to feed on fresh grass, wildflowers, and plant roots. Bears generally tend to avoid humans but, in the mud season, it may be difficult to avoid as they search for the same sources of water that backpackers do. If at a distance, take a detour and continue on. If up close and personal, identify yourself in a calm voice and back away slowly. You can refresh up on tactics for aggressive bears here.
Few things say spring like the propensity of wildflowers across the range from wet snowmelt. Wildflowers serve a larger ecological role than just a pleasurable view: picking a wildflower could damage the entire area. Wildflowers are crucial for the development of pollinators and mirco-animals that depend on the seed and nectar for food sources. Picking too many wildflowers in one area can potentially destroy the growth of the patch. Stop and smell the roses but let them stay where they are for others along the trail to enjoy.
Trail running in the mud season is always an adventure. I’ve gone out for a quick spring jog along the front range only to be greeted with knee deep snow and, another, I’ve slogged through mud so thick it crept up my calves and my feet felt like anvils. But, at least I was running outside.
While running, stick to rocks whenever possible but commit to the water and the muck when necessary. Running along the drier sides of the trail is always tempting, but this will lead to loosening soil and quickening erosion. Embrace the fun and mess of trail running and commit to the messy middle. Trail running shoes with strong lugs will help you propel through the mud without getting weighed down.
As running season starts up, refresh yourself on the etiquette of the trail. Check whether the wilderness area you’re headed into has a policy on dogs and if they need to be leashed. Some communities, like Boulder, allow for dogs to be unleashed only if they have a “Voice and Sight” tag, meaning that you can consistently keep control of your dogs with voice and sight commands while on trail. Remember LNT and pack out any waste you may accumulate on your run with wrappers or bottles. Much like backpacking, be prepared and plan out tactics for running into animals on the trail. When it comes to snakes, allow a wide berth if possible and slowly step to the side. Finally, remember to share the trail. Be aware of other runners and cyclists on a single track and try to step to the side onto a rock to avoid trail damage.
Spring Ascents and Backcountry Riding
April to June are prime months for skiing larger peaks. In Colorado, skiing season on the 14ers can last up until July, and mud season can be the perfect time to transition from resort riding to that low-angle hike-to couloir that you’ve been eying.
Remember: if it’s snow, it can slide. If you’re going out, get out and down before the warmest part of the day. Avalanche danger in fair spring weather is usually lowest during the night and early morning hours when the snow refreezes. Late morning and afternoon snow can create wet, loose avalanches on east and southwest slopes with the morning sunshine and then west and southwest slopes in the afternoon. Wet slab avalanches can occur when warm days are followed by cloud covers and higher overnight temps.
While avy danger is lower in freeze-thaw cycles, a couple inches of fresh snow on current snow pack can create dangerous conditions. If you’ve lived out west, you’ve experienced the freak snow storms that can deposit several inches within an hour in March, April, May, and even June. Fresh snow doesn’t bond well with crusted over snow, and warm temperatures post-storm can strengthen the slide possibilities. Be sure to always check above you – springtime cornices are susceptible and glide cracks can release entire snowpacks.
As always, go with a partner and have a plan. Even the smallest slides that bury you a few inches can be fatal. Bring your beacon, shovel, and probe, and assess the entire snowpack, whether it’s the low grade below you or the higher grade above. If you’re using smaller, spring snowpacks to get into the backcountry for the first time, be sure to check out Bruce Tremper’s “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain” and take an AIARE 1 course with Backcountry Babes.
For early spring ascents, whether you’re dropping the couloir or not, bring picks and crampons in the event of unpassable terrain. In spring, I’ve found that crampons can often be used over snowshoes, making for much quicker, unencumbered travel. Refresh yourself on self-arrest techniques: while the goal is not to fall, always be prepared to stop yourself on steep pitches. There are plenty of great “how-to” videos out there, and you can practice on low angle slopes to get the form down. Finally, in spring ascents, there’s the dreaded post-holing. One minute, you’re traipsing lightly across a patch of snow and then, the next, you’re sunk up to your knees. Even in July at the top of Mt. Quandary, after happily announcing to my partner that I had avoided post-holing, I quickly sunk up to my thigh and spent the rest of the hike with a frigid right leg. While post-holing is often unavoidable, remember to tread lightly on the snow and follow your partner’s steps. With bigger summits, if you start and end early, you’ll end up avoiding the knee-deep slog all together.