Julie Endres, an experienced member of The Mountaineers who has bagged peaks from Adams to Baker, is a snowshoeing pro.
Swish, swish, crunch, crunch, she goes like a gazelle on nimble legs, flying through snow steep and serene, pausing only to take in vast mountain vistas on a ridge near Stevens Pass.
But … oh … no, whoops … shlumpth!
That is the sound of Endres plunging into a tree well.
Now up to her waist in snow with her snowshoes buried and likely caught in errant tree branches, she is simply stuck.
Like quicksand, snow collapses onto her legs, and the harder she tries to get out the faster she sinks and falters in a hole that’s who-knows-how deep.
Mountaineers Larry Ingalls and Hal Watrous approach as Endres twists and turns and tries to cross her trekking poles in front of her for leverage.
“Don’t come in here with me, Larry,” Endres cautions as Ingalls moves closer, slips and almost falls in too.
Soon with help from Watrous and some coordination with Ingalls, Endres escapes and brushes off, highlighting why the prudent Mountaineers recommend groups of three or more on snowshoeing expeditions.
Such wells – concealed weak spots or covered holes in the snow caused by melting and freezing around objects such as trees and rocks – are just one of the challenges of off-trail snowshoeing.
It happens to the best of the Mountaineers.
Of course, this is the backcountry, where there are avalanches, winter storms, dicey snow bridges and maybe even wild animals to cross your path.
But there are also some very good things, indeed: Clear skies of striking cobalt, snow-capped evergreens, unexpectedly warm slopes and impossibly idyllic views of white peaks are everywhere.
There are days – like this one Endres adventured through – that you can’t believe you’re not just paging through an idealistic guidebook.
And, fortunately, you can avoid tree wells if you stay on groomed pathways or steer clear of tight spots between trees when you go off the trail.
You can check avalanche reports and you can venture out with friends who know what they’re doing.
Still sound too intimidating?
Fear not. Everett’s local branch of experienced Mountaineers is offing an introductory course in snowshoeing, starting Jan. 10.
Offered only once a year, the course includes two lectures and an all-day field trip to give newcomers a chance to see what’s involved in a Mountaineers snowshoeing trip.
“Right now this is just great, to be able to go out in this good snow and good weather,” Watrous said, adding that snowpack conditions have been stable so far this year. “With snowshoes and snow, you can go a lot of places where you couldn’t go in the summer.”
Class participants will learn what to wear, what backcountry essentials to carry, what types of snowshoes work best, and how to avoid avalanche conditions and tree wells.
Graduates of the class can go on trips with the Everett Mountaineers as well as other Mountaineer branches. The Everett group will also offer a class in alpine scrambling this winter.
Snowshoeing to many newcomers is liberation.
Though many hikers despondently put their wilderness desires away when Labor Day arrives, it doesn’t have to be that way, said Ingalls, who hikes, climbs and scrambles all year long.
“It’s so much fun out there in the wintertime,” Ingalls said. “It’s a different world.”
And snowshoeing isn’t just freedom from your butt-worn position in front of the TV. It’s freedom within the wilderness, too. Hikers who would normally need to stay on the dusty trail during dry times can explore just about any area without damaging native vegetation and wildflowers, thanks to the snow cover.
Ridges or pathways that would normally be too weedy or thorny to bushwhack become approachable, if not passable.
“I like to be able to go right over the top of objects like boulders,” Watrous said, adding that snowshoeing is an ideal crossover training activity for hikers. “You can exert yourself tremendously when you’re going through two feet of powder.”
Plus, there’s the incentive of perfect panoramas on sunny days like this one.
“Wow. Look how blue it is over in Eastern Washington,” said Endres, after hiking up a ridge to Skyline Lake.
Stuart. Hinman. Daniel. Thunder. Bull’s Tooth.
They’re all peaks these Mountaineers can spot.
“We’re drooling here,” said Watrous, standing nearby. “We’re drooling over the peaks.”
Days like these make it clear that the Northwest snowshoeing season – blessed with a big dump of snow in November – is in full swing.
Of course, it’s not always perfect.
Wind and whiteout conditions can make snowshoeing less idyllic, and when the freezing level is too high, rain can dampen things considerably, making the snow unstable and too soft.
On those days, “even with snowshoes, you’re sinking in up to your hips,” Endres said.
Good days, however, are worth it, said LaVerne Krieger of Mount Vernon, who was on a snowshoeing trip with the Everett Parks and Recreation Department on the same day as the Mountaineers’ outing.
Taking up cross-country skiing and snowshoeing changed her life.
When it’s rainy in the lowlands, Krieger can escape to higher elevations to catch some rays and get some fresh air and exercise.
“It’s one of the funnest things I’ve ever done,” Krieger said. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve come up here and found sunshine. I used to hate winter.”
Despite some of the challenges and risks, Watrous hopes more people will try snowshoeing, which has become one of the fastest-growing winter sports in the country.
“With a little bit of knowledge,” Watrous said, “you can do so much.”
Reporter Sarah Jackson: 425-339-3037 or firstname.lastname@example.org.