Whether we have another “light” winter or finally get a serious dumpage of snow that the western states so badly need, somewhere along the trail you will bump into snow. Since Mountain Education is most concerned with your safety and pleasure out there, I wanted to offer up some advice that may help you with your planning and preparations.
These comments are based on NoBo trip departures close to the ADZPCTKO making for finish dates by mid-September before the powder snow stops you in your tracks. SoBo snow advice is at the end.
You probably will not have any significant snow in SoCal to worry about with the possible exception of Fuller Ridge on the north side of San Jacinto peak. If you have any there, it will probably be freeze-thawed to the point where it will be largely ice. Go around the patches or carry and use Kahtoola Microspikes or Hiking Crampons for your safety. Remember, any slip-and-fall can lead to a sudden acceleration or tumble down the hill into whatever is there, a tree, boulder, or creek. Consider learning how to “self-arrest” these slides before you start your hikes so you don’t get hurt.
You will probably arrive in Kennedy Meadows (KM) around the mid-June mark and not see any snow until the Forester Pass area. Southern aspects of the mountains may even be free of snow, but the northern aspects and in the trees above 11,000 may still have patches or lengthy “fields” to walk over. The snow may not be hard enough to walk on in the mornings, if the “thaw” has already started, so be careful with your speed as pushing off on your toes may cause you to slip and fall. Be especially aware of steep traverses and stay in the steps of those in front of you for balance and a flatter “trail.” You may also have “suncups” to deal with so consider walking on their rims rather than stepping from hole-bottom to hole-bottom as they can be very soft at the bottom and cause you to further “posthole.” You will probably have snow on all the high passes, but only within the area of the pass itself.
Beware of the creek crossings during the Thaw since the snow melt happens relatively quickly (within a month or so) causing the creeks to turn into roaring whitewater rapids. Remember, you do not have to cross them where the summer trail does! Search the creek bank uphill for as far as it takes to find either narrower boulder-hops across tributaries, flatter, smoother, wider, and shallower crossings that are safer to wade across, or dry logs or rocks to walk across on. Use your poles for balance, go slow, keep your shoes on for traction and foot protection, and consider waiting for morning to cross when water volumes are lower and slower. The crossings are especially fierce the longer the creek drainage above you, so once you get north of Yosemite and onto the ridges or into the shorter drainages, the crossings will get easier.
San Jacinto and the San Bernardinos may have snow. Realize that it doesn’t take much snow to make your going slower and slipperier. If the snow is hard in the mornings, it may also be really icy due to daily freeze-thaw cycles, so test your weight on it before committing because you do not want to posthole through an icy crust (just cuts up your legs). Again, consider Microspikes or Hiking Crampons so you maintain traction and fear slip-and-falls less.
Your going will be a bit safer and easier if you are further back in the “pack” as you will be walking in a “trough” in the snow made by everyone else ahead of you. Don’t trust that whoever made the trough knew where they were going. Always and constantly confirm that you are either on the trail or at least near it, knowing where it is and where you are going. This is especially tough in the trees where you can’t navigate by distant, visible landmarks (which you will enjoy once you get to the above-timberline sierra).
You will probably hit snowline around 10,000 feet north of KM. Depending on whether the Thaw has started, snow surface conditions will probably be hard in the mornings following freezing nights making for easier travel on its surface. You will have a brief period every morning where the surface transitions from crusty to soft, then softer, then you’ll be postholing after mid-morning. Get over your passes while the snow is still hard and down their northern backsides to dirt before you start postholing! Postholing is exhausting, time consuming, and rough on the spine, hips, and knees, not to mention the skin of the legs! Suncups will get deeper and the creeks will get faster as the thaw continues.
The safest thing you can do is to proceed slowly, always being on the look-out for the trail and any hazardous surface and sub-surface risks, and maintain your balance and traction at all times. Know what a slippery slope looks like in advance of it so you can have your ice axe in hand to self-arrest should you fall. Better yet, use a Self-Arrest Pole instead of one of your dry-trail hiking sticks for any places where you might encounter snow on a steep traverse. Same creek crossing advice.
Since there is no difference between walking on deep, consolidated, springtime snow and its shallow versions later in the thaw, our advice is the same. Thus, you can see why it makes no difference when you enter the sierra, if you know there is still snow ahead as long as it is settled, hard, and consolidated. Do not be concerned about this. You walk on (not through) consolidated snow the same way, whether it is 2 feet thick or 20, just carefully! It will slow you from 20 miles per day to 12 and take you all day to do it (if you’re on snow all day). It will burn twice as many calories as walking on dry-trail, so bring twice the food, then some more!
An interesting thing about west coast winters is that they usually don’t track very far south. SoCal does get snow, but not in the volumes you will see north of Kennedy Meadows, once you enter the Sierra. Expect to see areas of snow across the peaks of San Jacinto, the San Bernardinos, and San Gabriels to about two feet of depth. It will most likely be consolidated and hard in the mornings, so consider bringing some form of traction aide like Microspikes.
You will probably hit snowline around 9,500 north of KM while still in the trees before you get half-way to Trail Pass. As long as the Thaw hasn’t started (the nights are still freezing and the daytime air temps are still cool), your going will be easy and faster on the harder snow. Once the Thaw starts, you’ll be postholing and slipping sooner and the creek crossings will cause delays.
Go slow, balanced, and stay in the trough on the steep traverses. It is best to know how to deal with steep ascents/descents before you get there. The steep traverses are even more scary, especially the crossing of Forester’s chute and some of the descents into the creeks from Crabtree to Tyndall. After these “training areas” (this is where Mountain Education teaches a lot of PCT thru hikers what they need to do to stay safe on snow during their hikes), the especially nasty descent off Glen will be safer for you.
- It is not wise to count on someone else teaching you what to do once you hit snow because they may not be there when you suddenly discover snow for the next mile. Sure, you’ll learn as you go, but the school-of-hard-knocks may get the better of you, so be careful and stay balanced. We all fall, just know how to minimize the damage and self-arrest. Remember, you can’t self-arrest if you don’t have the tool in your hand when you slip-and-fall! Consider the Black Diamond “Whippet” self-arrest pole!
“Sierra Entry Date:”
The idea is to hike on dry-trail as much as possible while thru-hiking from Mexico to Canada. Your choices to accomplish this are either to leave during the “ideal” window around the Kickoff (Jardine established), encounter “some” snow through the sierra, then continue on, leave “late” after that date and hurry to get to Canada before the powder snow flies and you have to wallow through it, or leave “early,” have more snow and go slower. When you decide to enter the sierra realm will be based on your style of hiking, the amount of time you have overall, and your snow skills. By the time you reach KM, everyone is strong enough to carry the requisite safety and cold weather gear to proceed, so don’t worry about weight. Your body adjusts.
There are some advantages to entering “early,” however. You can decide what you want to do. If you enter before the Thaw starts, you may have enough snow present to:
- make your own route up the passes that is more direct and easier than following the summer trail,
- glissade straight down most of the passes in whole or at least in part, which is a gas (!),
utilize safe snow bridges to get over the creeks, which are barely moving anyway, without getting wet,
- snow-camp anywhere you want, even on the passes, since water is everywhere (melt the snow),
- walk all day without postholing because the air temp doesn’t get too hot, and
heel-plunge down the steep stuff without postholing and maybe even boot-ski it, if you are good enough!
Do not try to snow-hike the north cascades while snow still covers the trail! The ridges and valleys are fine, but the traverses are very steep where the only thing flat is the trail width itself. If you should slip and fall, you will hit a tree below you or go over a cliff. This happens every spring in the northern half of Washington every year and you don’t want it to ruin your trip, so start on or after July 4th after a “normal winter.” Plan to be past the sierra by Halloween to avoid early season powder snow. Make sure you have reliable communications so you can call for rescue, if needed.
All this is intended as “snow advice,” since Mountain Education spends so much time teaching in it. If you want to get your requisite snow skills, consider taking one of our skills courses, like Snow Basics (SBC) before you leave the Mexican border. If you don’t have time for one of them, we do offer a Snow Advanced Course (SAC) that is PCT Thru-Hiker Specific right where you first hit steep snow, from Cottonwood Pass, over Forester Pass, and out Kearsarge Pass for 5 days! Obviously, this is taught right on the PCT, right when thru hikers should be there, if they want to go slow and get to Canada before the powder snow flies, and in the first of the worst snow conditions they’ll find burying the trail. Convenient, timely, and affordable. In 1974 when I did the PCT, I wish that I had this type of training and that’s why we offer it now!
Mountain Education, Inc. is a non-profit, public charity, 501(c)(3)(3) incorporation that has been teaching wilderness users how to be safe out there since 1982. We are on the web at www.mountaineducation.org and on Facebook under Mountain Education. We offer snow training courses in SoCal, Tahoe, the Sisters in Oregon, and on Stevens Pass in Washington.
I hope this little bit of information helped open your eyes to what’s ahead of you and how to prepare for it. You are embarking on the journey of a lifetime that will change your lives as long as you can keep going. Be Careful, go slow (especially at first, then speed up if you want as your body allows), stay aware of your surroundings, recognize risk and prepare for it, eat and drink more than you think you’ll need, and marvel every day that you are so blessed to have the opportunity to live this “trail life!” You will come out the other end a different and wiser person!