What is rotten snow?

Reality often astonishes theory. -Tom Magliozzi, Car Talk

There are certain emails, discussions, or question that seem to come up every year like clockwork.

Among them…

  • It is April and I am on spring break. I really want to do the Four Pass loop. Should I really wait until July?
  • I want to do a really inexpensive long distance hike. I plan on foraging for all my food, never showering and somehow invalidate the laws of thermodynamics and eat less than 2000 calories per day. Can you validate this plan for me?

And, of course, my personal favorite:

  • I plan on hiking The Colorado Trail in early June. I’m a tough hombre/peace loving hippie in no rush/love postholing and will be
    getting snowhoes. I have the will, the way and the grit. I will hike through the Rockies in snow. Because I’m a tough hombre/peace
    loving hippie in no rush.

Er, yeah…

First, depending on the snow dumps, June in the Rockies can be treacherous in some areas. Avalanche dangers are a real concern.

And while low angle skiing in consolidated snow can be awesome, the longer trails don’t necessarily go through these wonderfully consolidated areas. The consolidated areas are more conducive for backcountry skiing in the late spring. And, frankly, many three-season backpackers don’t have the snow skills to navigate this type of terrain safely.

Skiing below Mt. Toll in June.

But there is something less dramatic and not terribly dangerous, really (at least immediately).  But something very exhausting: Rotten snow.

What is rotten snow?

Rotten snow” is simply the leftover snow from the previous winter that is in the process of melting. Typically found in the trees or just at treeline. Tends to be coarse and full of particles. Often icy in spots. Very wet in others. Sloppy, too.

Lost Creek Wilderness in June 2015.

This type of snow is loose, slushy and does not support weight well.

Come to think of it, happens in winter if you take your skis off, too!

You will posthole (sink into the snow). The snow pack will collapse underneath your feet at times, too.  EDIT: And, as Jim B. reminded me,  as a “bonus” your feet WILL get wet.

And if you are dumb enough to wear shorts, your legs will get scraped up as well… 🙂

Even with skis or snowshoes, this type of travel is not efficient. And, there is always the lurking avalanche danger sometimes found with this type of snow.

The occasional walk through a pile of this type of snow is merely annoying .Doing it for many hours or days a time? Exhausting, slow going and not fun. Interspersed with this snow travel is the having to take on and off the snowshoes. Further slowing the overall travel time. Navigation in the trees can be difficult as well.

Old Bridle Path, New Hampshire in 2006.

Some people thrive on this challenge.

But traveling through “rotten snow” (as opposed to consolidated snow) is not enjoyable for most people. There are people who  proclaim loudly that traveling through the Colorado snow pack in early June “ain’t no thing“. They are also typically the ones with the least experience in these type of conditions.

Consolidated snow above treeline. We purposely waited until a little later in the season to do this route as walking through the trees in rotten snow is awful.

So that is the definition of rotten snow:  An unstable, wet and sloppy mess that is slow going.

And something that is generally best avoided for long term travel.

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8 years ago

Are you trying to suggest that experience might be more important than head knowledge?

James Bullard
James Bullard
8 years ago

You neglected to mention that when you posthole through rotten snow there is often water underneath from melting so you end up with wet feet besides. I “discovered” that pleasure the first year I maintained a lean-to (AKA shelter) in the Adirondacks. In my overenthusiasm, I headed over Lake Arnold Pass (wearing shorts) only find myself sinking to my crotch in places while my feet ended up in the runoff stream of melting snow underneath. Rotten snow can hang around in the mountains, especially on the North side, well into June.