Snow crust proves tempting in Steamboat |

Snow crust proves tempting in Steamboat

Hikers, snowshoers find themselves stuck as top layer softens

Zach Fridell

Skier Jennifer Campbell leaves the cross-country trails at Lake Catamount Monday morning. Catamount has posted signs around the lake warning skiers that crust skiing is not permitted on the lake.

— The pristine snow looks tempting for early morning hikers and snowshoers, but local emergency responders say that as the snow gets softer in the afternoon, it can pose a risk greater than most people expect.

On Thursday, Routt County Search and Rescue volunteers rescued by helicopter two snowshoers who had become mired in deep snow after the "crust" of the snow had broken. "Crusting," or snowshoeing or skiing on top of the hard top layer of snow that melts during the day and freezes at night, can be fun, but it also is prone to deteriorating as the day goes on.

Rescuer Kristia Check-Hill was on the mission Thursday when two marathon runners, in good physical shape, became dehydrated and tired after breaking through the top layer during a snowshoe hike near Strawberry Park Hot Springs.

"It was a very sunny, warm afternoon, and the ridge they were on, I don't know what exactly the ambient temperature was, but it felt pretty warm," Check-Hill said.

Check-Hill was the rescuer in charge of leaving the hovering helicopter and walking down an embankment to bring the men back up to safety.

"As I started to walk away from the aircraft and I started to get away from the lip, I just sunk down," she said.

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"It was from my crotch to my knees (deep), and just breaking through every single step," she said. "That's what they had been doing, from talking to them, for several hours. That's why they got so darn exhausted."

Skiing on crust

The crust is a good surface on which to cross-country ski, but at Catamount Ranch and Club, skiers are warned that crust skiing on the Lake Catamount is prohibited.

Club outfitter Kevin Ko­­pischke said this is the prime time of year for crust skiing, but it's also variable day by day based on how cold it gets the night before.

"Typically it's better in the morning … but it's all relative to how cold the nighttime temps got the night before," he said.

With the past few nights getting as low as 10 or 15 degrees, he said the crust skiing is lasting longer into the day, but it's still soggy by the afternoon when the sun is out.

"If somebody came out in the afternoon and they didn't know better, they'd say the crust skiing sucked," he said.

The skiing at Catamount is open until April 1, with skiing for $18 per day, and Kopischke said the crust often lasts longer than that in most areas.

Snowshoers and hikers are not allowed at Catamount, he said. For all other areas, Check-Hill recommended that people take more water and food than they think they'll need. She said the two hikers Thursday had some food and water but used it all before rescuers arrived in mid-afternoon.

"The biggest thing was they didn't have enough food and water with them," she said. "It's the old Rocky Mountain dreaded, 'I'm just going to go out for a couple hours,' and it doesn't end up being a couple hours."

Backcountry necessities

If you’re going out to the backcountry, be sure you’re prepared. Routt County Search and Rescue veteran and spokesman Darrel Levingston suggests the following kit:

■ 1. Waterproof/windproof matches and lighter.

■ 2. Various fire starters: Vaseline soaked cotton balls, hand sanitizer, liquid gel.

■ 3. Small folding saw.

■ 4. Map and compass, and (optionally) a GPS device.

■ 5. Basic first aid kit (including antiseptic wipes, 2” x 2” sterile pads, medical tape, Benadryl tablets).

■ 6. Water bottle and water purification tablets or water filter system.

■ 7. Two reflective emergency blankets or reflective tarps.

■ 8. Energy bars, trail mix, power gels, cacao packets.

■ 9. Tin cup with insulated handle for warming snow or water.

■ 10. Warm hat and gloves, wool socks, fleece vest, rain coat and pants.

■ 11. Multi-tool (Leatherman type), duct tape (small amount), 15’-20’ lightweight rope.

■ 12. Headlamp with extra batteries.

■ 13. Sunscreen.

■ 14. Two days’ supply of essential prescribed medications.

■ 15. Cell phone (keep this close to your body to keep the battery warm).

Always tell someone where you are going and when you’ll return and/or leave an itinerary on the front seat of your car.

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