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The Sierras: Considerations for a High Snow Year

Posted on February 21 2019

Has all this snow got you thinking about what the Sierra is going to be like? Are you planning on hiking through or bouncing up to north to NorCal or maybe Oregon? Here’s what I would do!

Reaching Kennedy Meadows in…..

Early to Mid-May

If I was reaching Kennedy Meadows in early to mid-May I’d stay the course. This means I wouldn’t be looking at taking a long break from the trail. Instead, I’d take a couple days off in Tehachapi or catch the bus to Ridgecrest at Walker Pass and rest up. Both towns have large grocery stores, restaurants, and motels. Ridgecrest is probably a little less expensive and has a Wal-Mart. Leave there feeling refreshed and ready for some hard work.

Enjoy your rest days with your buddy or buddies. Going into the Sierra in the early part of the season alone is a terrible idea. Find someone that you respect and communicate well with. In the event you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation in the mountains it’s important you can communicate that to your buddy and that you both respect each other’s boundaries. You don’t want to be pushed into doing something your gut tells you is a bad idea. Strong communication and respect go a long way in a situation like that which hopefully doesn’t arise.

Take a good look at your gear and determine if you need another warm layer or increased insulation in your sleep system. For the early hikers, I’d most likely be carrying my crampons and ice axe. Some of the steep slopes up to the passes will only have mediocre steps kicked into them if at all. Bring paper maps not just of the trail but of the whole Sierra. For safety you should know all the possible bailout points. You should check the weather from Kennedy Meadows all the way to Mammoth. Be sure there are no storms coming in. If there’s a storm forecasted I’d sit tight and wait for it to pass or maybe hike up to Trail Pass and exit down through Horseshoe Meadows to Lone Pine.

Because conditions change in the mountains quickly during the spring I’d be sure I was prepared for “the worst” - walking north for a week and then needing to backtrack a day or 4 to get myself to an exit if I found the conditions too risky to continue northbound. Everyone should carry extra food in the Sierra. Thru-hikers are notoriously ravenous by the time they reach the mountains. For early season thru-hikers, I’d carry at least 2-3 extra days of food to be completely safe.

The advantages of going in early are snow bridges, unrivaled beauty, and solitude. Most of the creeks will likely have strong snow bridges. Where there aren’t snow bridges there are usually large downed trees you can walk over but you’ll have to take your time to walk up the creek and find a crossing sometimes. With enough patience though you’ll find a good crossing.

The disadvantages of going in early are the low nighttime temperatures, the need to get up super early to make as many miles as possible before the sun melts the snow and you begin post holing, and the unknown. If your group is one of the first, you’ll surely be kicking more steps, working harder to located the downed trees for crossing over creeks, and there won’t be other people there that might help to bail you out of a bad decision.   

 Muir Pass Sierra Nevada Mountains Snowy PCT

Muir Pass, June 19, 2016

 

Late May - Mid June in the Sierra

This is the most popular time and potentially a very tough time to enter the Sierra. Here’s the deal. The snow will have already begun melting. At first the snow melt is slow and then just like a snowball coming down the mountain, the melt-off gains momentum. Let me explain it this way. The temperature during the day even when the SIerra is blanketed in snow is often pleasant this time of year. It can actually feel very hot because of the intensity of the sun. In May, the sun goes down, the temperature drops, the melt-ff slows down, the high creek waters retreat; then in the morning, the sun comes up, the temperature rises, the melt-off increases, the creek waters rise, and the cycle continues. This creates windows of opportunity for hiking each day. Sometime in the early early morning when creeks are low until a few hours after sunrise when post-holing sets in and creeks become too dangerous to cross.   

A dedicated thru-hiker can take full advantage of these windows. You wake up early, often around 3am and get moving. You hike what you can and then take in the views and enjoy the company for the remaining hours. Bring a deck of cards, a good book, and your patience. Early on you might be able to long a few more miles in the evening but with the early wake-up call it’s often challenging to take advantage of both evening and morning hiking. As you move into June the evening hiking opportunity fades as the snow is still too soft and the creeks are too high to make much progress.

At some point, most likely around mid-June if it’s a high snow year, melt-off is at its peak. The temperatures are not reaching freezing at night which means the rate of melf-off doesn’t slow much even at night. This keeps some of the largest creeks running dangerously high. DO NOT FORD SWIFT RUNNING CREEKS!!! PCT thru-hikers have drowned doing this! Many have narrowly escaped drowning. The PCTA has a VERY GOOD article about water crossing safety and techniques. If you will be entering the Sierra during this time, I highly recommend you read that article. I would be sure everyone in my group had read the article so that everyone is familiar with the risks, risk reduction options, and water crossing techniques.

As with the previous group, I recommend bringing extra food. You may not be able to make all the miles you planned. You may need to backtrack or bail out a side trail. It’s always better to be prepared! Bring lots of sunblock and don’t forget to apply it under your chin and on the bridge of your nose. Hikers often forget about the sun’s reflection off the snow.

Because this timeframe is very challenging many of you will be tempted to skip the Sierra. Here’s some lessons I’ve learned personally and from talking with many other PCT hikers.

 

Late May - Mid June Waiting Out the Snow Melt

Being in the mountains with high water certainly is NOT my recommendation and neither is skipping up to northern California and Oregon. Here’s why. While Northern California looks tempting because it’s overall much lower elevation than the Sierra, it actually holds onto that snow into June. And in this rolling hill tree covered terrain navigation is one issue. You can’t find the trail to even hike on it. If you do then you’ll encounter the second issue: steep climbs up onto ridge tops and down through ravines that are sketchy when covered with snow and ice. There are also some steep drop-offs in the Trinity Alps area and around Mount Shasta. You might think you’re in the clear once you get through the Sierra but NorCal still has quite a bit of mountainous terrain that isn’t welcoming to hikers until sometime in June.

Then there’s Oregon. There might be a few miles from the Oregon border up towards Ashland that are passable as there are some sprinkled in NorCal but Crater Lake is only a little over 100 miles from the California/Oregon border. It’s at an elevation of 8000+ feet/ 2450+ meters. They get an average of 43.5 ft/13.25 m of snow every year and report that the snow often doesn’t fully melt off until August and sometimes not at all. Of course this doesn’t mean the trail will be snow covered until then but it gives you an idea of the serious snowpack in the area. In 2017 numerous thru-hikers turned around in this section and went back to Ashland after slipping down embankments.

The secret I’m trying to let you in on is to save your dollars and your time and avoid the lure of trying to find someplace else on the PCT suitable for hiking if the Sierra isn’t panning out at the moment. It’s likely a fruitless search! You’ll figure out that trying to bounce around on the PCT can quickly become expensive and not worth the effort.

In 2017 some hikers pitched in and rented cars. Great local-ish destinations include Trona Pinnacles, Mono Lake, the hot springs along Hwy 395, Alabama Hills, and Death Valley. You could also visit Sequoia, Zion, and Grand Canyon National Parks. Of course there’s always trail angeling for your fellow hikers too ;-)

Usually once the melt-off really gets going it lasts 7-10 days. You can easily incorporate extra time in SoCal to take up some of these days. You can also sign up for our newsletter (sign up at the bottom of the homepage or send email to info@2footadventures.com) we will be sending out if this snow turns PCT 2019 into a high snow year. This will keep you informed of trail conditions. I do my best to scour the great hiking community and bring hiker’s experiences as well as local reports together for each section, combine them all, and send them out to you on the trail. This saves your valuable town time for resting, resupplying, and catching up with loved ones at home.  

 

Late June and Onward

By late June the waters are subsiding. The snow is melting although there are still plenty of patches on the passes and north sides of the mountains. The Sierra flowers are in bloom. The valleys are lush green and the mosquitos are in full force. The trail traffic is picking up as JMTers head out and summer backpackers make their way into the backcountry. The Sierras are alive and thankfully, you are too!

 

Conclusion

The single most important part of your PCT thru-hike is to stay safe! No matter what I say, your partner says, or your trail family says, take a few minutes to yourself and listen to your gut. Do you want to give the Sierra Nevada Mountains a go? If so, are you ready? Do you and your group have the gear and skills to match the season you are entering? Think it over really well before you set off from Kennedy Meadows. While Search & Rescue teams exists, we hate to see them being utilized, especially for ill-prepared hikers/backpackers.

If you’re going in really early be super prepared with snow travel gear and extra food. If going in during peak season, expect short hiking windows during early morning hours and eventually daily high creek crossing which could be dangerous. Late June, all should be back close to normal but the mosquitos will be a force to be reckoned with.

It’s still early and no one knows how this winter will end. No one knows how much snow will be left come late May and June. But we will do our best to keep you informed as that time approaches. Also know that you will hear lots of things on your thru-hike and if it’s a high snow year, there will be plenty of fear-mongering going around. We absolutely won’t be one of those. We pride ourselves on providing you information that’s as up-to-date and as accurate as possible so you can make the best decisions for you on your thru-hike.

Hike Happy and Be Safe!

Pillsbury

 

 

 

1 comment

  • James WilderHancock: February 22, 2019

    Awesome article with great advice. Gotta admit, the snow has me a wee bit freaked. We’ll get through it though.

    Loving your blog! Thanks so much for all you do.
    - Trail Ninja on YouTube

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