Crampons and Ice Axes in the Spring Sierra

Mountain Education Resources
Crampons and Ice Axes in the Spring Sierra

OK. Lets cover this one:

As you know, we spend all winter and spring on the backcountry snow in the Sierra from Tahoe to Mt. Whitney conducting our Snow Course classes. We’ve been doing this since 1981.

Sierra snow is different from Divide Snow is different from Appalachian snow/ice. However, when the pack starts consolidating (melting, compressing, sticking together) in the warmth of the hot, Spring sunshine, Sierra snow turns into, what we affectionately refer to as, “Sierra Cement.”

This is what you’ll experience out there in May and June:

Morning: The top few inches of the daily, melting pack will be hard enough in the morning to walk on freely with out any traction devices other than the lug soles you have on your boots. If you’re hiking thru the Sierra in trail runners that have a relatively flat traction deck (no heel vertical edge), they may slip on the surface crusty snow. There is very little “ice” like on the AT. Some spots may have a shinny surface you can see, but you can usually walk around it or kick steps through it (like in Forester’s chute).

The safety skill, here, is your ability to spot those areas before you’re on top of them and your ability to keep your ankles from rolling (or your ability to kick flat steps for each footfall) when you’re traversing hard side slopes.

Hard suncups can be especially tricky when in soft shoes as you have to walk on the narrow edges between them, slide down their bowls to the bottom, or step from bottom to bottom, an agonizingly fatiguing ordeal.

Mid-morning: As the snow becomes exposed to the sun, it’s surface will soften dramatically and hold your boot well on the flats. As your slope changes, the soft stuff on top will slide on what remains of the harder stuff underneath making for a pretty hazardous walking surface. Just make sure each footfall is well “rooted” in the pack before pushing off to the next. On morning climbs and descents in this snow condition, you may want to pick a vertical route for control.

Midday: Depending on your exposure, you may start “post-holing” about this time of day. Your footsteps will break through the harder crust of the surface into the wet, “airy” pack below. These plunges can be mere inches or feet deep, even up to your groin where the only way out is to roll over. If you are on a climb or descent, this process can be very dangerous to your skin, knees, and back because of the sudden, jarring one-legged fall. Get your climbs done before this point in the day. If the crust is still composed of hard crystals, your skin can get pretty cut up as you fall through with each step. Be careful with downhill plunge-stepping. Keep your weight back and anticipate the plunge. If you are caught off-guard and your weight begins to fall downhill ahead of your legs, which are now up to their knees in the pack, you may hinge forward at the waist, torque your knee, and fall down slope out of control to the rocks below. Learn how to avoid this situation or self-arrest techniques to save your life.

Mid-afternoon; The snow pack is soup. It has become so warm that you will wish you had snowshoes to maintain a semblance of forward progress. The afternoon will be spent slogging through the stuff and burning so many calories that you will be eating for four. No Joke! At least with snowshoes you will make some miles.

So, crampons are not needed. Other traction devices only ball up and, for the most part, are just carried. We do not recommend them as they give you a false sense of security, usually do not work well in the Sierra snow, and do not attach well to the foot, even roll off on traverses in certain
conditions.

For the thru hiker, we do not recommend ice axes, either. We love the design of the Black Diamond Whippet self-arrest pole. There are other similar nylon designs, as well. Most thru hikers do not anticipate where a fall might occur and do not have their axes in hand when they need them. The self-arrest pole idea solves that problem-and some can be converted back to a basic hiking stick by changing the handle. There aren’t any passes along the PCT that require ice axe anchors when climbing straight up or on steep side traverses that one self-arrest pole in one hand and a regular, un-strapped hiking pole in the other will not suffice.

Practice. Practice. Practice in the conditions through which you expect to travel before you have that big pack on and can’t risk a fall. Get trained in self-arrest techniques and snow navigation skills. Walking on the snow sounds simple, but tip it on an angle and give it a try.

It’s all up to you. Be prepared. Take your time. Plan for less miles and more calories in the snow. Beware of sun exposure, hypo/hyperthermia, dehydration, snow blindness, and sunburn.

If you have any further questions about snow travel, camping, and thru-hiker climbing techniques, feel free to contact us.

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