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Hikers are losing their shoes in Colorado's high country, requiring rescues

Summit County Rescue Group says slushy spring snow is snatching hiking boots, leaving hikers stranded
Posted at 4:09 PM, Apr 17, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-17 18:09:15-04

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. — Coloradans know that springtime in the Rockies means a little bit of everything: cold, sunshine, snow and warm temperatures.

"I think a lot of people are eager to get out there and enjoy the outdoors," said Aaron Parmet, a rescuer with Summit County Rescue Group (SCRG).

After a busy winter season, SCRG has started responding to several calls they've never heard before.

"I don't think I have ever had to say to the public before that people are losing their shoes on Quandary Peak," said Anna DeBattiste.

Shoeless hikers have prompted three different rescues off of Quandry Peak in less than a week.

"On Tuesday, we responded to a call for someone who had lost a shoe on Quandary, then found it, but was postholing up to her chest and didn't have snow shoes. So we needed to rescue her. Then on Wednesday, we had a hiker who lost his shoe and never found it. So we needed to rescue him. Then on Thursday, we had a group of three--one of them lost a shoe and never found it, and we had to rescue them," said DeBattiste.

Postholing is when you sink into deep, dense snow that is very difficult and sometimes impossible to get yourself out of.

"These folks were up above treeline, and up above treeline is where it's very common in the winter for folks to get off trail. The wind wipes out the tracks above treeline. Now you're not sure exactly where the trail is," explained DeBattiste.

Hikers are losing their shoes in Colorado's high country, requiring rescues

When you're off trail, it can be easy to find yourself stepping in several feet deep snow, and if that snow is slushy, you might not get your shoe back.

The rescues this week took roughly three hours each to bring the barefoot hikers down.

The spring temperature whiplash lately is partially to blame.

"Some areas are well packed down and other areas where it has been a warm day but overnight, it got cold and that froze that upper layer of snow. That upper layer of snow may be supportive allowing people to get off trail fairly easily, but that thin layer may be underlined by completely unsupportive snow. When it warms up during the day, and that [top] layer softens up, instead of sinking in [a little] you can go all the way in," explained Parmet.

It's something people can avoid with the right equipment. SCRG suggests waiting to hike peaks until the snow has melted more. If you do head out, use snowshoes to keep you above the snow, although with slushy spring snow, they say you could still posthole and get stuck.

The best option they suggest is to wear skis that will keep you above the snow.

"If you don't have the right tool, there's always a road or a trail that's melted out, there's always somewhere to go. That isn't necessarily off trail or up a peak where you need to be more prepared," said Parmet.

SCRG also recommends checking the weather for when you start, while you'll be hiking, and when you'll be heading back. If you're heading into the backcountry you should absolutely be checking the avalanche forecast for the area. Those resources and more can be found here.