Mountain Education Resources
Concern 1: Navigation Over Snow
This is not intended as an exhaustive effort on a subject that can only be fully understood through on-snow practice, but, rather, as a word of advice, direction, and caution. How you chose to hike your hike is your responsibility and reward. There is a huge and beautiful world out there for you to discover – just do so safely and with wisdom, so you’ll have fun and be able to return to do it again!
The most important skill you can have while backpacking over snow, whether by skis, snowshoes, or boots only, is your awareness of your surroundings. From the time you leave your car at the trailhead, be aware of where the meadows, lakes, streams, ridges, and valleys are supposed to be, when you should start to see each, and what the topography should look like from there. If you know where you are amidst the mountains, streams, and forests, you are not lost, even if you are only near the trail.
To keep this simple, lets imagine a typical PCT scenario, something you may go through when you’re out there. This is going to be an exercise where, with our prompting, here, we hope you will practice “seeing” the trail 3-dimensionally from the lines and colors on a 1-dimensional paper map. If you can learn to “see” the trail ahead from studying the topo, you’ll know what to expect to see as you walk along and be able to stop yourself when you don’t, before you get lost or waste time being temporarily misplaced.
Pull out your topos of the John Muir Trail, say the area from Chicken Spring Lake and Cottonwood Pass to Glen Pass, the Kearsarge Lakes area. I’m going to describe where the trail goes from a purely topographic point of view. We call this Visual Route Referencing, the art of being able to see where you’re going.
The trail goes across the mouth of the Chicken Spring Lake bowl and gains elevation up the ridge on the west side as it continues on WNW. As you crest that little ridge, you should be able to see Siberian Pass ahead, on another ridge running roughly west and Big Whitney Meadow directly south of it (try to locate the three creek drainages that run down from that ridge). According to the topo, which you should either have in your head or have handy enough to be able to look at it frequently, the trail stays at tree-line (note the end of the green on the topo) and stays level. You should be able to see that you will briefly go into another bowl on the right before you crest Siberian Pass’s ridge, about a half mile east and above the Pass itself.
Now, depending upon the snow cover, you may elect to descend a little and follow Siberian Creek on down to Rock Creek or stay at your elevation and traverse north and NNE into and out of the bowl at the headwaters of Siberian and onto the broad, minor ridge that runs west to Rock Creek. Remember, south and west-facing slopes melt out faster than the rest, so the ridge walk might be rockier than the creek route. Make your choice with the information you gather from the Siberian Pass vantage point.
As you descend into the Rock Creek drainage from Siberian Outpost, your next landmark will be Mount Guyot to the NW. Its the big one with the avalanche chutes on the south side. Spot the pass you want to be heading through on its east ridge and the two creek drainages you’ll have to cross to get there (Perrin and Guyot). You’ll need to remember what you saw, their topography, because, when you get down into the trees along Rock Creek (any creek will be like this), you may not be able to see any landmarks to know how far west to follow Rock Creek.
Keeping an eye on Guyot, ascend from Rock Creek up its N wall on a traversing climb through the trees toward the Peak. When the ground starts to level out, you’ll turn right and begin heading north into a minor bowl SE of the peak and directly south of the little saddle the trail goes through. Remember, Guyot is your current Route Reference from which to locate the saddle.
When you pass through it, stay level as you head north to Crabtree Meadow. You’ll zoom through a little flat spot called Guyot Flat and continue your level traverse northward in and out of another creek and meadow (note the break in the tree cover on the map) before you slide over a broad ridge above Crabtree (which will be to your right as you’re looking down to Whitney Creek through the trees).
Note, before you continue, upon looking north from this ridge, you are descending into a 3-way creek valley, one dropping to the west, another climbing to the east, and the JMT drainage climbing to the NE. To your left or west is the deep Kern River Canyon. From this vantage point at about 10,800, you want to spot your next landmarks north of you. Straight ahead will be a minor, un-named peak marked, 12,758, that has a little saddle to its left on a short ridge with a minor bump on its west end. On the right side of this “gun-sight” and in the distance, you should be able to spot Tawny Point at 12,332. That’s where you’re going.
So, descend into the west end of the Crabtree Meadow area and climb out on a NW traverse through the trees. When the climb crests and descends gradually north to Sandy Meadow, you’ll have a good view of the next little saddle the trail goes through. There are two creeklets that go up the ridge toward the saddle. From Sandy, follow the ridge between the two northward to the saddle.
On snow, always travel on the flats or the ridges to avoid avalanche-prone slopes. During the Spring snow consolidation, there is little worry of classic avalanches, rather snow-sluffs or slab avalanches, primarily, if that. The slopes that may slide will be those between 25 and 45 degrees. Keep in mind that your traversing tracks across such open slopes may be enough of a trigger to release such slides. Therefore, climb and descend above timberline straight up and down or gain a ridge that will take you where you want to go. Also, don’t camp in or at the bottom of chutes in which the trees don’t have any branches on their uphill side (signs of past avalanches). Camp on the flats, on ridges, or on peaks where the sun will hit you in the morning.
From the saddle and BM10,964 you should see Tawny Point straight ahead. That’s where you’re going. You descend NNE over a small ridge on your way down to Wallace Creek. A lot of snow lingers in here, so it could be deep. If you’re doing this in the afternoon, you may want to use your snowshoes to save you from the injuries of post-holing. Wallace Creek has always been a nasty Spring crossing, so drop your packs when you get there and scout a few hundred meters in either direction for the safest crossing. North of Wallace, after climbing once again through the trees on a western traverse up to the Wright Creek drainage’s broad bowl, you’re going to start leaving timberline as you head toward the left side of Tawny Point. You’ll want to keep an eye out for the flat spot on the broad ridge on your left, just below the Point which is Bighorn Plateau.
From the Plateau, drop gradually, at first, as you head north, then level out along the west side of Tawny. Your landmarks from Tawny are two, straight ahead of you, Diamond Mesa on the right of the drainage you’re looking up and Caltech Peak on its left. In the center and maybe a little to the right, closer to Diamond Mesa, but way in the back of the drainage, will be the notch of Forester Pass in the headwall. That is where you’re going next.
Before you climb into this drainage, which you should do while the snow is still hard (you don’t want to post-hole all the way up this one!), you’ll need to cross Tyndall Creek (another nasty one). Scout it like before. (You’ll get good at this). From Tyndall, head straight for Forester and camp near the lakes at its base. As you leave the creek, keep the uphill slope on your left side as you traverse past the last trees heading NNE toward Diamond Mesa’s left side. Follow the lowest ground or easiest route up along the open creeks toward the lakes west or left sides to camp not far from the base of the Pass.
Forester’s south wall looks more intimidating than it really is. Notice that Forester is the lower, more western, notch of the two in the headwall before you. In the morning, head straight up it, heading for the right side of the vertical chute near the top. Just below the Pass, you’ll cross the chute from right to left, carefully cutting foot platforms and plunging your axe handles in with your uphill hand as deep as possible for firm anchors with each step. Take your time. This will be one of your most technical and harrowing experiences of the trail, but you will make it easily. Cross one at a time. Celebrate on top! It is tempting to follow the trail, who’s edge-rocks may be melting out as time goes by. If it is easier, by all means do so, but always be very careful and ready to self-arrest any fall immediately as the slope is steep.
From Forester on North, descend before the snow gets too soft, bearing your traverse to the left across the snowfields to the ridge and follow it down. At its end, switchback hard right toward lake 12,248. You do not need to go as far as the lake, itself, only chose a safe route downhill and down drainage to the Center Basin junction area. Keep Center Peak’s slope on your right side as you enter the trees. Keep descending along Kearsarge Pinnacles’ west side. There is no need to cross Bubbs Creek.
When you’re still high above Vidette Meadow, look NW to the gap in the canyon sidewall where Bullfrog Lake’s outflow descends. There is no need to drop to Vidette and then climb back up in elevation when you can create a flat traverse on the 9,800 or 10,000 contour line to intercept “Bullfrog creek.” You can follow this creek to Bullfrog Lake and out over Kearsarge Pass for a resupply, or from the lake on up to Glen, or follow the trail’s route to the west at that interception to the “Little Bullfrog Lakes'” creek crossing up the other drainage.
From the Bullfrog Lake-Charlotte Lake saddle there is another wall in front of you. If you could see through the trees, Charlotte Lake is to the west, below you. From the saddle west of Bullfrog Lake, begin a gradual climb NNW along the flank of Mt. Rixford’s western arm and up into the bowl that appears to your ascending right side. As you enter this high bowl and out of the trees, at the canyon’s end, on the left side, will be another high bowl at the base of Glen Pass, the notch in the wall above. This is another south-facing climb that is best taken in the morning while the snow is hard. Whenever you make the final push-over and reach the knife-edge Pass, make sure you’re off the top and plunging on down before the snow gets too soft. This is a steep descent that you’ll want to do straight or in tight switchbacks down. Post-holing here would be dangerous. There may be a rock-hop route to your right, along and down the west flank of Mt. Rixford’s western arm. Sixty Lakes Basin is on your left as you enjoy the view north, Rae Lakes is at your feet, and Painted Lady and Diamond Peak are on you right. This is one of the most beautiful views of the whole Sierra. Enjoy!
Through this type of trail route description, you’ll notice words like slope, traverse, landmark, notch and the like. What I want you to realize is that it is not necessary to follow the trail, only know where it is, where you are relative to it and your surroundings, and where you’re going by using visual references, peaks, passes, valleys, direction of slope, treelines, lakes, and creeks (and their bends) to find your way on snow.