Snow Advanced Course
6-day, NoBo PCT Thru-Hiker-Only (PTO): Chicken Spring Lake to Kearsarge Pass TH,
Section One: General Info
This SAC is for current-year, on-the-trail-already, NoBo PCT thru hikers who didn’t get their snow skills training before they left the Mexican Border and want to be taught as-they-go, just where they need it, from Cottonwood Pass, up Mt. Whitney, and over the snowy wall called Forester Pass. This course of shared knowledge and skills instruction starts at Chicken Spring Lake and ends at the Charlotte Lake/Kearsarge Pass junction.
After reading this Full Course Description and our Policies, Terms, and Conditions, you’re ready to begin registering to attend your course!
Step One – Fill out the Course Application form online and select the approximate date that will work with your expected north-bound schedule! After reviewing your application, we will sign you up for that date and let you know by email that you have been accepted. Next…
Step Two – Dates. Your date is flexible! Since we do not expect you to be able to adhere to a scheduled obligation while thru-hiking 751 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, this is how it works…. Once you complete your course registration by full payment in advance, your name will be placed on the SAC-PTO.6 Student Roster and we will expect to see you at Chicken Spring Lake at the beginning of one of the home-page-listed course dates we know will be running this season. So, you do not have to attend the course date you registered for!
If you are going slower than you expected through Southern California, just check the school’s homepage from somewhere with Internet Wi-Fi to see if we will be running a SAC-PTO after the date you originally desired, then let us know that you want to reschedule to the next course date! (You will receive a mobile number or email during pre-trip communications to use to keep us posted of these changes in your schedule).
Step Three – Deposit. After your application is accepted, a non-refundable deposit of $225 must be received 60 days before your course date to confirm your enrollment.
Step Four – Payment. To complete it, the balance of $675 must be received by Mountain Education, Inc. 30 days before your course starts. Since you will already be on-trail 30 days prior, you might want to complete your registration before you leave from Campo! Use the payment links we have on our Donations page. One button is for credit cards, the other is for PayPal.
- If you can’t make it to your course date, contact us to reschedule to one later (or earlier)! [All SAC-PTO course dates that are running for each thru-hiking season are published on the side of the Mountain Education homepage]
- If you can’t make it at all, give us 14 days notice to get a full refund, minus deposit!
- If there are not any dates running after the one you are registered to attend and you have to cancel, give us 14 days notice to get a full refund, minus deposit!
- If you don’t show up for any of the courses offered, there will be no refund.
More about our Admission Policies, click on the About/Administration tab.
Dates for 2017:
April 26 to May 1 May 4-9 May 12-17 May 20-25 June 4-9
$900. (Covers all instruction before and during your skills trip).
Section Two: What to Bring
First, since you’re already on-trail, bring Halfmile’s paper maps of the section. (If you are relying entirely on navigational apps, something we do not endorse as electronics fail in the cold or wet, Halfmile’s and Guthook’s work fine). Second, consider bringing an Inyo NF map of the surrounding area so you’ll know where all the “bail-out” trails go should you need to get out of the mountains fast. Third, make it a habit to have a State map with you, as well, because you’ll need to know where those bail-out trail’s roads will take you, as well!
Typically, the Sierra snowpack starts thawing out around mid-May, maybe earlier, maybe later, it depends on the year. Before then, the chance of a late-season, winter storm rolling in and dumping a foot or two of powder snow is fairly great, so plan on carrying your winter clothing on this trip, if the thaw hasn’t started yet. Contact your instructor prior to leaving your Kennedy Meadows resupply to find out! (See the SAC Gear List for details).
Since snow-hiking is harder than dry-trail hiking and certainly consumes more of your day, thus expending a lot more calories than summer hiking, bring epic amounts of food. Now, you may not feel hungry for the first few days since your body draws upon its stored reserves first, but after about Day-4, you will begin to want to eat every few hours to keep going with a clear head! We understand that your food will be “heavy,” but it is dangerous, days from a TH, to run out of food and you’ll be a happier camper, anyway, if you can eat to your stomach’s content. Also, bring a day’s worth of extra food in case we have to stay in our tents to weather a storm! Expect to slow down to 1mph on snow and eat every two hours. Consider food that is high in fat and oils, too! Contact your instructor prior to leaving your Kennedy Meadows resupply to find out how much snow is ahead! (Scott, the owner of the General Store, should have a printed copy of our most recent Trail/Snow Conditions Report. Ask to see it!).
In addition to your Southern California gear, you must have the following safety equipment:
- Hiking boots. Read “Why Boots?” No lightweight, twist-able, low-topped, non-heeled shoe will be allowed,*
- a Black Diamond “Whippet” Self-Arrest Pole. No ice axes. (Black Diamond Pole),*
- a large snow basket on your other hiking pole. No small, summer baskets.*
- Kahtoola hiking crampons. Microspikes will not be allowed. (Kahtoola Crampons),*
- creek crossing shoes*, and
- polarized and UV-A/B protected, face-hugging sun glasses,*
* You are used to walking on a dry, flat trailbed. That will not be the case in the high sierra. Your connection to the snowy, crusty, icy, or irregularly sloped walking surface is crucial to your first line of defense in preventing falls. Ill-equipped students may be barred from attending the course.
In addition to the above, we strongly encourage you to bring the following:
- at least two sets of socks to keep your feet dry,
- a sufficiently insulated sleeping pad, so you can comfortably sleep on snow,
- a small foam pad, so you can sit on snow,
- a 3-season tent that is designed to take a snow-load or high wind (should we get a storm),
- a bear canister, per local wilderness regulations,
- a sleeping bag that will keep you warm in 15-degree temperatures (women especially),
- a canister stove, so you can cook inside your tent in bad weather,
- a water filtration plan, so you can filter water from snow-covered sources,
- warm mittens, a knit cap, and down booties!
Leave No Trace principles apply to the dry-trail sections of this course, so expect to bury toilet paper and carry out moist towelettes, while over-snow, expect to burn your TP and carry out your wet-wipes.
Mountain Education has a limited supply of gear it can rent to help you out. Please see our Gear Rentals.
Section Three: What to Prepare For
[If your SAC-PTO course is early in the season, expect snow from Cottonwood Pass on north. If you plan on attending later in the season, especially after the thaw starts in the Sierra, expect snow only on the steeper, higher slopes and on the north side of ridges and passes. Though we may have a few days of dry trail hiking to get to the snow, you will be glad you attended as these areas can be petty scary for the unprepared!]
You will meet Mountain Education’s Snow Skills Instructor and start your SAC course at Chicken Spring Lake just west of Cottonwood Pass on the morning of the first day. (He or she will have just come up from a resupply at the DeLaCour Ranch in Lone Pine via Cottonwood Pass from the Horseshoe Meadows trailhead).
For each of the next 6 days, you will hike slower to learn with your group as we stop often to discuss and point out various aspects of safe, over-snow, wilderness travel and teach specific snow skills to keep you Risk-Aware. The many details we will discuss or demonstrate are:
- How to find and follow a trail buried in the snow above timberline,
- Safe and Efficient Route Selection, independent of the trail,
- How to find “trail sign” in the woods to know where the trail is located,
- Personal Safety & Enjoyment = Wilderness Awareness,
- How to walk on snow without slipping, falling, postholing, or even getting wet,
- Ascent, Descent, and Traverse skills on steep snow,
- Self-Arrest, Glissading, Boot-Skiing, and Heel-Plunge techniques,
- How to find and get water from a lake or creek without falling in,
- Where and how to hike and camp on snow and still stay warm and dry,
- Topographical Navigation on volcanic, magnetic surfaces without a compass,
- Hypothermia, Frostbite, Exposure, Dehydration, Altitude Sickness, Trail Trauma/Illness, etc
- How to use Hiking-Crampons and a Whippet Self-Arrest Pole,
- Avalanche Awareness and Avoidance,
- How to make wise wilderness travel decisions in the middle of nowhere,
- Maintain the Rules of the Trail, and
- Emergency Communications, Search & Rescue, and Wilderness Medicine.
Section Four: Course Itinerary
Remember, we move over-snow slowly to avoid injury and spend time teaching what you need to know and do. This may be a big change from the daily mileage you’ve gotten used to from Mexico on up the trail. Believe us, do not go fast through the snow-covered Sierra! It is too beautiful and dangerous a place to be hasty. Pick up your speed again whenever on dry-trail and keep an eye on your schedule so you get to Canada before mid-September (to avoid getting caught on-trail when the new powder snow arrives!)
On the evening before day-1, after we meet, pitch our tents, and maybe have dinner,
On the morning of day-1, you will meet your instructor and classmates, hear how the course will be taught, go through a gear inspection, and do a little paperwork. After packing up your camp, if the weather allows, we will teach you your steep snow skills (ascending, descending, and traversing) to prevent slip and falls, then how to self-arrest to stop them. This will be a quick clinic requiring full waterproof shells, top and bottom (rain pants may do, but they must be durable as sitting or sliding on crusty snow or ice may tear them), gloves, glasses, gaiters and a sense of humor! If it is decided that conditions are not favorable to conduct this clinic at this time, it will be taught at the next available, safe, and appropriate time and location during the trip.
This day we enter Sequoia National Park just west of Chicken Spring Lake near a little lake at 11,200, descend briefly to go across or around Siberian Outpost, then drop into Rock Creek where we will camp for the night (10.1 miles). For fun, go to the Mountain Education You Tube Channel to watch videos 4.132, 133, 134, and our second long-distance Navigational tutorial, 4.138. Most of this day is about Macro & Micro Navigation and learning to stay hydrated and fueled amidst tremendous exposure of sun and wind on snow.
Begins with a creek crossing of normally benign (pre-thaw) Rock Creek (YouTube 5.149). Now, since we are beneath the treeline, on snow, and can’t see the high landmarks needed for accurate visual topographic navigation, we will have to remember the route north from our views yesterday. Today, we will climb out of Rock Creek, teaching you that you do not have to be on the trail to follow it, traverse near the eastern, avalanched side of Mt. Guyot to summit Guyot Pass, cross Guyot Flat with its incredible view westward toward the Triple Divide, and drop into famous lower Crabtree Meadow where we will intersect with a John Muir Trail alternate. We will have lunch there, basking in the sun on large, hot slabs of granite after making our first creek wade. After lunch, we will head up Whitney Creek a few more miles to establish our Whitney climb basecamp near Guitar Lake (11,500).
Today is a day off from northward progress, but it is when we climb Mt. Whitney! It begins with a lesson on route selection choices up to Trail Crest (13,500) that includes a practical, on-the-hill assessment of the safety of the route, the weather, and each individual hiker’s abilities. Those who do not want to make the journey to the top do not have to and can enjoy the zero day in camp. If the route or weather are deemed unsafe, we will enjoy the day off and otherwise explore the high alpine environment.
We will cut our own switchbacks up to Trail Crest, ascending nearly 2,000 feet up an exposed, snow-covered wall of granite slabs and boulders, look down onto the town of Lone Pine, nearly 9,000 feet below us, then turn north and follow the ridge up another 1,500 feet to the summit. There we marvel at the view, sign the trail register, explore the old stone observatory built in 1909 by the Smithsonian Institute, try to stay warm, eat and drink as much as we can, take lots of pictures, then begin our 3500-foot descent. This climb takes a bit out of everyone, so when we get back to our basecamp, we eat dinner and call it “quits” for the night!
Returning the 4 miles back down to the PCT/JMT, we continue our journey north, up and out of Whitney Creek to Sandy Meadow, through a low saddle, and steeply down through trees on a snowy (early season), northern aspect to teach our first whitewater crossing at Wallace Creek. Drying out on the other side, we’ll enjoy our lunch, hopefully in the sun, then climb up the ridge between Wallace and Wright creeks to a terrific overview where we often take a group picture. After a few steps, we arrive at our second whitewater crossing at Wright Creek, put on our creek crossing shoes to do it, change shoes back to our hiking boots on the other side, and wander amidst wind-torn pines up to famous Bighorn Plateau (11,400) and its incredible 360-degree views. It is a windy place, however, so we may just hurry along and make a descending traverse beneath Tawny Point to cross our third whitewater creek, Tyndall Creek and find a killer campsite for the night on the other side.
This day is all about navigating up, down, and across creek drainages where we utilize our distant views from the ridges, remembering them to find our way when down below timberline in the creeks, and about creek crossings, which may or may not be flowing high and wild because of a thawing snowpack. On colder visits, we will take advantage of the presence of snow bridges across these creeks, affording us dry and easy crossings (extensive clinic on assessing snow bridges). We discover, also, that in the warm afternoons, the snowpack may get ridiculously soft, meaning we will be learning how to recognize and avoid postholing conditions and the sub-surface hidden hazards that exist within the snowpack which can lead to injuries and fatigue.
This day we start very early (0500-0600) to both utilize the cold, hard morning snow for easy walking and to get up and over 13,200-foot Forester Pass before the snow softens and we start postholing on the northern descent! The obvious lesson of this day is the ascent and descent of Forester Pass (13,200) under springtime, consolidated snow. Extensive clinics on ascent, descent, and traversing techniques, to include self-arrest, glissading, and risk recognition will happen, again, at the base of the climb. Make sure your cameras are working because this is one awesome day! After a glorious slide down the north side of Forester, we make a long traversing descent on and off snow past Center Basin Junction (10,500) and down picturesque Bubbs Creek to Vidette Meadow and our camp. This is our last night together, so it is not uncommon for us to enjoy a large campfire here to celebrate all we’ve learned!
Having mastered our above & below timberline navigational skills to the point where we don’t even worry any more about being right on the trail all the time, we begin this day early with an abrupt but quick climb up and out of Bubbs Creek to the Charlotte Lake/Kearsarge Pass junction where this course ends and we part ways. Those who need to go out for resupply will turn east and hike over Kearsarge and down to the Onion Valley trailhead. Those who wish to continue on will turn north and head up toward Glen Pass following the PCT/JMT to Rae Lakes and on to Pinchot Pass.
Rules of the Trail:
- Everyone stays within sight of each other while hiking on or off the snow.
- Whenever we leave a location, we do so together. No one goes ahead unless permitted to do so by the instructor.
- Your instructor takes the lead when hiking unless delegated to a student for a navigational learning opportunity. When your instructor stops, it is to teach the group something and students are expected to gather around.
- Food, water, and potty breaks will be nearly hourly. If you need one, let your instructor know.
- In the evenings you will be debriefed on the lessons of the day and briefed about the navigational landmarks and learning objectives for the next day. You will be expected to remember these and may be questioned about them periodically during each day’s walk.
- Expect to depart from camp at about 0600 and arrive around 1600 (4 or 5 pm).
- Everyone camps within talking distance of each other, especially in bad weather.
- Once a skill is demonstrated and individually taught, you will be expected to practice it at will, asking questions or for assistance as needed. What you do as you apply your new skills thereafter will not be constantly watched.
- Everyone pays attention to and helps meet each others needs all the time,
- No one goes anywhere alone without telling their Course Instructor,
- Willful disobedience of or insubordination to the directives of the Course Instructor will be grounds for immediate expulsion from the Course, no matter where we are.
- Team Communication and Safety are Paramount.
- A GPS unit is priceless for below-timberline navigation over snow. We bring and use them constantly. If you can, bring one!
- Certain safety equipment is required for this course. If you don’t come with them, you may be excluded from attending.