By M.K. Gunn
As I sit writing this in mid-December, it is so dry that the light breeze blows dust along below the blue sky. The extended weather forecast does not call for precipitation. All over Southwest Colorado, skis are lying dormant, and snow tire studs are wearing down on dry pavement. People are going trail running, mountain biking and hiking at 11,000 feet. All but the most ill-informed out-of-towner knows that this is not normal.
Where are the winter sports?
ure, there is ice climbing, but, that’s not for everyone. Have you considered ice skating on high country lakes? Rarely have the conditions been so prime. With no snow and frigid nighttime temperatures, the mountain lakes are freezing up smoothly. It makes me want to run out and buy ice skates right now! Too bad I can’t just add blades to my ancient roller blades.
But before you head out and start practicing your triple Lutz, here are a few things to consider. The backcountry is unpredictable any time of year. There are freak storms, cold temperatures and myriad opportunities for human error. Heed the following advice and hopefully you won’t find yourself on thin ice!
How do you know if the ice is thin? For starters, avoid the inlets and outlets. The ice will be thinnest near flowing water. But how do you know how thick it is? Sure, you could huck some big rocks out there. However, there are more scientific ways. To educate myself on some of these finer points, I consulted those who know best – Wisconsinites, North Dakotans and Minnesotans.
According to the website http://dnr.wi.gov in Wisconsin, the answer is about as clear as a frozen lake. “There really is ... no such thing as 100 percent safe ice. You cannot judge the strength of ice by one factor like its appearance, age, thickness, temperature or whether the ice is covered with snow. Ice strength is based on a combination of several factors, and they can vary from water body to water body.”
The Minnesotans are a little more straightforward about it. The site www.dnr.state.mn.us recommends that no one walk on ice less than 4 inches thick. To test this, you could invest in a plethora of heavy, ice-specific tools, or you can just bring a cordless drill and a tape measure. “Using a cordless drill and a long, three-eighths inch bit, you can drill through 8 inches of ice in less than 30 seconds. ... After drilling a hole, measure ice thickness with a measure tape.” They recommend taking measurements every 150 feet. Of course, you have to go out onto the ice to take these measurements, so be careful!
If you fall through the ice, the North Dakotans at http://gf.nd.gov/ recommend these key survival practices: remain calm, move toward the direction from which you came, kick your feet like you are swimming and use ice picks to pull yourself onto the ice. If someone nearby has a rope, they can help you. Once back on the ice, remain on your stomach to distribute your weight across a larger area and slither back to shore.
Now that we have covered the safety precautions, where in Southwest Colorado’s mountains should you go skating? The higher, the better, as the higher lakes will have been exposed to colder temperatures and therefore the ice will be thicker and safer. As long as there is not much snow, the road to Andrew’s Lake is still open. That would be the easiest place to reach. If you are seeking a bit more solitude, consider hiking or biking to the following high mountain lakes.
Little Molas Lake: ½ mile
Spud Lake: 1 mileSilver Lake: 2 milesIce Lakes: 3.8 milesClear Lake: 4 milesCrater Lake: 5.5 milesObviously, check the weather before heading out, tell someone where you are going, and bring more warm clothes than you think you will need. Hand and toe warmers are also handy as well as a thermoses of hot beverages. You can also get directions and maps from the San Juan National Forest. Call the Durango office at 970-247-4874 or the Dolores office at 970-882-7296, or visit fs.usda.gov/sanjuan
And don’t forget your camera (#highcountryiceskating)! It could be years before you get this opportunity again.