We met at 9 AM the Underhill Center commuter lot on the corner of Pleasant Valley Road and Stevensville Road, consolidated into two cars, drove up to the winter parking area on the state park road, and got started hiking about 9:20 AM. The day started out quite sunny and warm (for February), and the road and lower trail were very packed, so snowshoes weren’t needed to start. But we all wore them anyway and they became essential later.
We followed well established snowshoe tracks up to the summit, but those tracks didn’t always follow the Sunset Ridge Trail. The snow became quite deep, and as a result some familiar features became hard to see. In particular, the dip just before the right turn at the base of the West Chin was almost filled level with snow, so the folks at the head of the group (we were a little spread out at this point) followed tracks pretty much up the West Chin before realizing it. But given the depth of snow, we weren’t having an impact on the summit vegetation. Clouds had also come in and lowered over the summit as we climbed, so visibility was at most about 50 feet at the top, but there was very little wind. We saw many alpine skiers there who had hiked up from the top of the gondola, including a couple young boys in t-shirts (it was warm, but not that warm).
The obscuring of features by snow was even more pronounced as we headed south along the summit ridge, and we almost missed the Sunset Ridge / Long Trail junction, as the usual “notch” leading to the Sunset Ridge trail was filled with snow and the sign at the junction was probably about 10 feet beneath our snowshoes. When we reached this point we had a discussion about whether to continue along the ridge as planned, or head down. The visibility had improved a little by this point, but the concern was that if it got worse again it could be easy to get lost on the broad summit ridge. But as we were discussing we saw breaks of sun shining down onto the ridge, and decided to continue.
The sun came out as we were traversing the unbroken ridge, and in many ways the traverse was easier than usual, as it was a pretty smooth surface until we got close to the antennas. But at this point the trees started surfacing, along with “spruce traps” (which occur when deep snow hides a cavity between buried branches – see more here). These continued all the way to the CCC road. As perhaps the heaviest person on the trip with relatively small MSR Denali snowshoes (should have brought those snowshoe tail extension!) David seemed to find more of them than anyone else.
Clouds started to came in again as we reached the trail from the maintenance road to the forehead (which was completely unbroken and very hard to find). On the forehead we met some skiers who had skinned up part of Maple Ridge, but we were duly warned that their tracks didn’t necessarily go where we wanted to, and they were right. Fortunately both Chuck and Darryl had GPS tracks of the trail, and combined with very occasional sightings of blue blazes we got down to the CCC road with little difficulty. From there, rather than climbing back up the CCC road, we opted to go down the well packed lower Teardrop ski trail to the road. We reached the cars at about 4:20, for a total trip time of about 7 hours.
Trip leader: David Hathaway, with Darryl Smith, Robynn Albert, Chuck Bond, Judy Bond, Phil Hazen