(from the coming book, “Snow-Hiking and The Pacific Crest Trail“)
(c) 2019 Mountain Education, Inc.
- The Contest
- Know and respect your challenger (forces involved), current
- Solo, Pairs, Team Circle, The Train
- Seasonal Time Frame
- Secret Season to Big Snows of Fall
- Whitewater steeps
- Slowwater, meadows
- Hot Springs and Seeps
- Winter powder snow
- Spring, consolidated snow, pre-thaw
- Spring, consolidated snow, post-thaw
D. While still at home – Planning & Preparation
- Seasonal differences
- The Quandary post-thaw – Pass or Creek first?
- Topographic awarenesses
- Seasonal differences
- Escape plan
- Know your route (the big picture)
- Know the drainage (altitude, length, snowpack, flooding)
- Know your challenge (what you’re up against)
- Gear (tools that will help)
- Shoes, poles, traction aides, glasses
- You (research and practice)
- The Gauntlet vs the Triangle, group movement
- No Ropes
E. While on trail – Planning and Anticipation
- Daily timing
F. The Crossing
- Be Aware
- First sights and sounds
- S.T.O.P. (What to do when you first arrive creekside)
- The Search
- General Criteria
- Dry and safe
- Not far away, but safe
- If wet, shallow, soft, clear, slow, wide, flat, good run-out
- Able to find trail after
- Characteristics of the creek, straight vs. bend
- Boulder-hop (wet, dry, frozen, or snow-covered)
- Log walk (wet, dry, frozen, or snow-covered)
- Log scoot
- Depth and channels
- Speed, whitewater
- Bottom Smoothness
- Bottom Visibility
- Flat across
- No Bushes or logs
- Run-Out (waterfalls, whitewater, strainers)
- Changing Place
- Swim (All the above, plus)
- Current Test
- Adjusting for target destination
- General Criteria
- Crossing Prep
- Make a plan, choose a specific route, anticipate your moves
- Find and Avoid the Obstacles
- Minimize the Push
- A Balanced Plan
- The Triangle moves slowly
- Anticipate the problems
- Foot direction of movement, forces upon it, placement, tests
- Pole extraction, plants, tests
- The Unexpected
- Include recovery
- The cold and hypothermia
- A Sunny Place to dry off and boot up
- Readying the pack
- Sealing everything
- Securing everything; nothing swinging
- Prep for a quick recovery
- To belt or not to belt
- Readying you
- Your feet (shoes)
- Your poles (extension, tightness, straps)
- Your clothing (minimize wet clothing in a cold environment)
- Your eyes (polarized glasses)
- Your mind (still, listen, pray, trust)
- Make a plan, choose a specific route, anticipate your moves
- Doing It!
- Stepping in
- Get in position
- First Moves, one at a time, slowly
- Early adjustments before the current
- Test each foot and pole placement
- Haste is dangerous
- Stuck foot or pole
- Watch, Feel, Focus
- Balance, Balance, Balance!
- Dealing with the unexpected
- Extraction and Recovery
- Help others get across
- Find the Sun, Towel, and Re-dress
- Assess injuries, lost or damaged gear
G. Moving on
This particular wilderness education teaching is intended to prepare aspiring John Muir Trail (JMT) and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru hikers, as well as any other people heading into the High Sierra while there is still a lot of snow melting fast during the prolonged Thaw of 2019, to know what to do for safe creek crossings.
At this point in time, as it’s already mid-July, several northbound (NoBo) PCT thru hikers have dared the Sierra, either pre-Thaw or mid-Thaw (as in right now), and a few intrepid southbound (SoBo) JMT or Section hikers have wandered in and out, but the big summer crowds haven’t yet hit the high country.
In their minds, there are two main challenges, or unknowns, out there, steep snow and dangerous creek crossings, that they are rightfully concerned about. This teaching is to educate and reassure them and starts with the “Main Event,” the crossing, itself.
This material is excerpted from the coming book, “Snow-Hiking and The Pacific Crest Trail,“ so it is oriented to the NoBo PCT thru hiker’s needs. It is comprised of
- outline-conforming text, so you can quickly find and refer to subject matter later,
- pictures or video for context,
- Nuggets of applied trail wisdom,
- Activities (things I want you to do),
- Mountain Stories to make things real,
- “On the Trail” dialog to put you out there in real-time, and
- Nav Notes to teach you where to go.
F. The Crossing
Most creeks or rivers in the Sierra of any disconcerting size have a way of letting you know where they are! All you have to do is listen.
1A. Be Aware
First, none should catch you unaware! From the time you looked at your map the night before, studying to see where the main landmarks would be for the next day, to your cursory review over breakfast the next morning, you know all the ups and downs, grand vistas, and questionable slopes, but the main event, the creek crossings, are always the riskiest.
Second, creek crossings differ from each other in a myriad of ways, the biggest being their width and volume of water, both factors of the length of waterway upstream. The more miles of creek above you, the wider the creek might be and the more snow will be melting into it making for a greater volume of water. So, if you see on your topo map one long creek snaking up into the surrounding mountains above your trail crossing point, look for a flat meadow crossing nearby. It’ll be safer!
1B. First sights and sounds
Wherever water is running, the earth is eroding, so most all creeks and rivers can be anticipated at the bottom of a canyon or drainage you want to enter or cross.
For the northbound (NoBo) Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru hiker new to the Sierra, creek crossings become real once you enter Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park just west of Cottonwood Pass (36.45382, -118.21534) and its feeder trailhead, Horseshoe Meadows out of Lone Pine, CA. Your first few creeks to assess will be Rock, Whitney, Wallace, Wright, and Tyndall, all before you get to Forester Pass.
For the sake of my next point, I want you all to open two things on your computer,
- your favorite topo map application (like Topozone.com) and
- Google Earth.
In Google Earth, enter the Latitude/Longitude coordinates, above, for Cottonwood Pass, in their white search bar in the upper left of the page, to arrive in the Sierra.
In Topozone.com, put Cottonwood Pass, CA in their search bar, then scroll down through the suggestions to “Cottonwood Pass, Inyo National Forest” and click the link.
Now, let’s paint the bigger picture of what you’re doing as a NoBo PCT thru,
- Two days ago, you traversed the steep and snowy north side of Trail Peak as you followed the PCT north from the Mexican border. You just discovered that there’s always more snow on the north sides of things, like ridges and peaks, than on their south sides!
- It is early May after a “normal” winter and there are no footprints in the snow to follow.
- As if following a trail buried in snow wasn’t rough enough, you have no clue how to walk on snow, much less go across steep slopes and it scares the heck out of you!
- Thankfully, the next day at Chicken Spring Lake (CSL) you started a 3-day Snow Advanced Course, taught by Ned Tibbits of Mountain Education, Inc., and learned all about everything snow and creek related (you even did The Gauntlet scenario)!
- You spent this first day of class learning safe ascent, descent, traverse, and self-arrest skills on steep snow next to the frozen lake followed by a clinic in over-snow navigation, and ending with Ned telling mountain stories during dinner with ten of your newest trail family.
- Today is day-2 of the class and you’ve left CSL as a group, traversed 4 miles across the western slopes of Cirque Peak, dove across the massively snow-covered Siberian Outpost (SO), and are standing as a group in the trees at 36.48807, -118.21534.
[Nugget: in Google Earth, enter the new coordinates, above, to see where you are now. However, as you follow the PCT in Topozone from CSL and around SO, you suddenly find that the summer trail on the map doesn’t come anywhere near the lat/long in Google Earth.
The lesson is that, over snow, you can choose a route that is more direct, easier, and safer for the surface conditions and contours you have to deal with than the summer version, which is designed to account for the topography of dry ground for stock animals.
You have the freedom to choose and make your own trail to get to the same destination the summer trail does. You don’t get lost because your map or GPS always shows you where you are relative to the trail!
“Ok, everybody! Come a little closer to me so I don’t have to yell what I have to teach.”
“We are facing north and over-looking the Rock Creek drainage that runs east-west about six or seven miles from its headwaters up there near Mt. Whitney [Ned is pointing with his pole] to right below us. This will be your first creek crossing and we will look at it in detail this evening after we set up camp.”
“What I want you to do right now is listen. What do you hear?”
In general, big, steep creek drainages make lots of noise while little or flat ones are pretty quiet. As you approach an anticipated creek and stand on its rim, listen for its song and note how loud and steady it is. If it is really broken, like an orchestra tuning up, it is probably full of steep pitches and big boulders throwing the water into a frothy mess. If it is quieter and steady, it probably has flatter and calmer stretches that are better for safe crossings.
[NAV Note: since you left SO, you descended to the northwest (NW) on a long traverse in and out of meadows, keeping your uphill point of reference to your right while heading straight for Guyot Pass, the saddle to the right of Mt. Guyot in front of you and across the RC drainage.
At your feet and below you from the creek listening point, there is a bowl that drains to your left (west) and down to RC, meeting it below the summer crossing with the PCT. You don’t want to go that way. That high-flow, narrow crossing point isn’t the best during the thaw.
Since the safest place to cross any creek is in a shallow, flat meadow, and the safest time to do so is in the morning, you want to spend the night above the summer crossing at 36.49586, -118.32892 (which is right below the nearby Wilderness Ranger Station at 36.49526, -118.32654.
So, from the listening point, go due north to 36.49064, -11832493, traversing the top of this little treed bowl and coming out on another forested ridge.
Cut an edging heel-plunge down into the little drainage going NW until you come out at a meadow at 36.49411, -11832715.
Cross the meadow and go through some trees into another meadow at 36.49522, -118.32800.
Proceed through the trees to the NW to the meadow at 36.49595, -118.32895. Pitch with deadman anchors, get water from any of the little creeks nearby, and settle in!]
I first heard this acronym during my days with Search & Rescue and it means,
Sadly, I see a lot of hikers in a hurry these days. It seems their lives are busy and they bring that intensity with them into the wilderness. Thankfully, after a few weeks of constant immersion in trail life, that begins to dissipate, their senses come alive again, and they begin to move in rhythm to the slower cadence of their natural surroundings.
When people have “a lot going on inside,” they don’t hear so well. They have too many thoughts running around in their heads such that they couldn’t hear their hearts nor spirit if they had to. Haste kicks in, if they feel pressured to, for example, catch up with their group or schedule, a lack of experience leads to bad judgement, and costly mistakes are made far from help.
So, when you first confront any wilderness challenge, be it a creek or steep snowfield, stop yourself and listen! Mistakes are made by people not taking the time to think things through. When in wilderness, slow your jets down, drop the pack, and take a minute or more to consider the situation and the options before you.
[Nugget: There’s probably only a few times in the wild where you have to respond reflexively when certain conditions or situations suddenly present themselves and one is whenever there’s a threat to life or limb.
Of all the possible threats out in the wild, creek crossings have become one of the most deadly to hikers, primarily to the little, lightweight, and hasty. So, stop when you get to a creek!]
When you first arrive at a creek, walk up to it with your pack still on and take a good look at it, across, up, and down, then find a nice place nearby to drop your pack and take a break, get some food and water, and pull out your map to think about your choices.
“Alright. Let’s drop our packs here and take a break for a moment or two! I want each of you to pull out your topo map of the area, find this creek and the trail crossing on the map, and look for likely flat areas nearby, like meadows, where we can search for a safe place to cross. So, get something to eat and drink, go to the bathroom, and we’ll talk about how and where we can look.”
“Ned, how do I know on the map where the flat places are along the creek?”
“Where the contour lines are far apart.”
“How about where the meadows are?”
“Areas of green on the map have trees, so meadows will be white.”
“Are you saying that we can’t cross a creek where it’s steep or in trees?”
“No, not at all, as trees sometimes fall across creeks and make for great dry crossings, so we will look for one through the trees on our way to the meadow. But if we can’t find a dry way to cross this thing, the safest wet crossing will be where it is flat and wide in meadows.”
Prepare to take a short “day hike” up and down alongside the creek without your pack. Expect to go up to a mile in both directions looking first for dry, safe routes across, then the best wet wade across.
You will be looking for, in general:
- Stable, wide, dry, branchless logs spanning the creek or connecting parts.
- Narrow tributaries that can be jumped across.
- Large, dry rocks, boulders, or bushes you can use to hop from one to the next to get across without getting wet.
- Wide, flat, shallow, and smooth-bottomed areas of the actual creek where you can wade across.
For most crossings, I can find something suitable for a safe, dry crossing within a quarter-mile, usually upstream, but not always. A lot more on this later!
After you’ve decided on your point of crossing, make a detailed plan on how you’re going to do it, considering, in general, details like,
- The skills, abilities, and size of everyone involved,
- The different methods you can choose from to help you cross safely,
- Whether group practice needs to be done before getting in the water,
- How the obstacles or hazards will be avoided, or
- Whether you should or even need to cross at all.
- More on all this later, too.
It is easy to get scared, confused, forgetful, and hasty when suddenly confronted with a fearful unknown! So, when you find yourself in such a situation or faced with a new challenge, stop, clear your fears for a moment by doing something familiar, like resting and eating, then take a closer look while listening to your spirit, that still, small voice within that usually knows best.
When you get to any creek, you’re obviously going to take a good look at it, find the trail on the other side, evaluate several factors about crossing there for personal safety in light of your ability, and ultimately decide whether crossing there, where the summer trail does, is the best place.
One of the biggest mistakes hikers make when it comes to creek crossings is regarding where to cross. Many believe they have to cross where the summer trail does and to do otherwise is going to get them lost, killed, or something bad.
- Most backpackers have a limited knowledge of their surroundings and only know the “trail corridor,” or the general, narrow route of the trail.
- Most rely heavily on guidebooks and strip maps to show them where to go.
- Haste in planning and preparation has not given them enough time to know the details about the greater environment around their route in advance.
- They presume that, should they need help, other people will be there to help them.
- They believe that big, paper topographic maps, which cover more area and show more detail, are both heavy and bulky and are best left at home or not taken at all.
- Most feel that if they are not on the trail, they are lost, so exploring up and down the creek bank is out of the question.
- All because they don’t know nor see their environment past the trail’s edge.
They may know what they’re doing,
“I’m thru hiking the John Muir Trail from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney!”
and they may know where they want to end up each day,
“I’m planning on spending the night at Wallace Creek,”
and they might, even, know a few landmarks or trail junctions along the way,
“Yeah, I’ve got another mile to go; it’s past Wright Creek, right?”
but they feel very anxious when leaving the security of a known trail to freely explore up or down the creek’s banks more than a hundred yards to look for a safe place to cross. If you can’t see the trail, you’re lost, right?
So, with limited understanding of where they are, they tether themselves to the 18-inch wide trail and would rather risk their lives crossing where the summer trail does, which may be unsafe during the floods of Thaw, than leave the trail to cross somewhere safer.
“Besides, how do I find the trail after I cross the creek?”
NAV Maxim: You do not have to cross the creek where the summer trail does!]
The solution is easy, know your environment, its shapes and contours and what it commonly does (this is the beginning of the wilderness relationship). That’s why you’re out there, right?
But this takes effort and time.
Go to your computers and find the western crossing of Evolution Creek (EC) as first seen by SoBo JMT thru hikers:
- Google Earth: 37.19564, -11878171 (zoom into an eye altitude of about 10,000 feet. “Eye Altitude” is listed in the bottom, right corner)
- Topozone: https://www.topozone.com/california/fresno-ca/valley/evolution-valley/
- Find the western crossing of EC on the topographic (topo) map. Compare it to what you see at the /Google Earth (GE) coordinates, above.
- How many named meadows exist in Evolution Valley (EV)?
- How many tributaries feed into EC?
- Which tributary is the longest, Darwin Bench, McGee Canyon, or Evolution Basin?
- Are there any dangers, like waterfalls, downstream from EV?
- What prominent landmark rises above the eastern end of EV?
- What landmark exists at the end of the Evolution Basin drainage?
- How many times does the summer trail cross EC?
- Is there any way to avoid crossing this creek this far down the drainage?
- Can you not cross and follow the creek on the south side?
Do not read on until you’ve armed yourself with this knowledge!
- Do I have a choice in crossing this creek?
- According to the map, can I avoid this crossing entirely?
- If all the upstream tributaries are short, getting across each would be relatively easy compared to crossing the sum of all of them.
- Can I leave the trail, walk where there is no trail, and explore for a safer crossing I’m more skilled at doing and not get lost?
- Would it be impractical to not cross EC at its summer crossing (if you see it flowing high and fast) and to follow it east along its southern banks, across McGee Creek at 37.17735, -118.72164, to finally cross at the base of the switchbacks at 37.17924, -118.72289?
You have the freedom in mountain life to follow the path most travelled or to explore wherever your skill level will take you!
“On the Trail”
“Alright, you guys. We’ve finally arrived at the western end of Evolution Valley and our first crossing of Evolution Creek. You’ve looked at the creek, stopped to check your maps for an available flat crossing point, and have gotten something to eat. So, what are your thoughts? What should we do?”
- “On our way up here from Goddard Canyon, I saw huge cascades and waterfalls right below us!”
- “The map, Ned, says there is a large meadow right through the trees over there. Maybe we should look at that as a possible alternative to crossing here?”
- “Well, about all I can say is I don’t like the speed, width, depth, and slippery bottom I see here! I vote we look elsewhere.”
“Very good! So, if I hear you correctly, this crossing point doesn’t look safe and within your skill levels and we should look for a better one. Ok, now, what are our priorities in finding a good place to cross?”
- “Avoid crossing at all, if possible.”
- “Find a dry route across where we don’t have to get wet or change clothes.”
- “If I have to get wet, can it at least be shallow, because I’m short and have short legs?”
- “To avoid this crossing, we’ll have to hike cross-country along the creek’s southern edge, dodging bushes, going around fallen logs, and scrambling over rocks and granite fields, crossing smaller creeks along the way, which may not have dry crossings of their own, so we may get wet, anyway…”
- “Yeah, but that will be fun, exploring for a better way out there!”
- “At least they’ll be smaller creeks and I won’t drown in the process!”
“Yes, exploration is one of the joys found in off-trail wilderness travel, but I’m just saying and putting in context, here, that it will have its uncomfortable moments and to be aware of that. We won’t be simply swinging our feet on a nice, flat trail. We’ll have to be constantly assessing where we are and how we want to get to where we want to go.”
- “I vote crossing here is nuts. The creek is too deep, the current is too strong, and those cascades right below us scare the hell out of me. I’m game to look for a dry crossing point, first!”
- “This is great! You guys are thinking great! So, as we walk up the creek, since down is out of the question, due to the cascades and waterfalls below us, what are we looking for…rather, what constitutes a viable dry crossing place?”
- “I’ve seen logs that have fallen across creeks! I could try walking across on one!
- “I’ve noticed big boulders in creeks close enough together that maybe I could hop across the creek from one to another!”
- “Aren’t the feeder creeks to this big one smaller and narrower to where we, maybe, could just step across each as we go up the valley?”
- “Hey, I’ve seen combinations of all that in one crossing that might work! What about using above-water bushes and high mounds of grass to hop across on?”
What you just read is a good example of thinking outside the guidebook, beyond the trail, and into your environment around you as shown on a topographic map to find a safe way across or around a nasty creek crossing.
First, the ideal alternate creek crossing should be,
- Not a far walk away, so you can find the trail after, but be safe.
- A dry route within everyone’s abilities.
- If wet, also within everyone’s abilities.
- If far, the route back to the trail is attainable by all.
- A dry crossing everyone in my group can safely do!
Not getting wet and cold and the whole process taking quite a while to do is always the first option.
A. Dry crossings are comprised of:
- A balanced (with two poles making a triangular base) walk down the length of a fallen, dry, branchless log,
- A butt-scoot down the same,
- A hiking-crampon-assisted walk across a wet, icy, snow-covered, or otherwise slippery above water object or series of objects,
- A balanced (with two poles making a triangular base) and often circuitous walking or hopping route across a creek on stable rocks whose tops are dry and above water,
- The same, but if icy, wet, or snow-covered, using hiking-crampons for traction,
- Short leaps over narrow creeklet tributaries from grassy, sandy, or rocky banks to the other, and even more creative routing from
- Bushes and above-water mounds to other rocks, logs, brambles, and dry passages you can link together.
- Groupings of logs stuck to each other or leveraged in rocks offer a chance of predictable stability for walking on, but you have to test them first. When utilizing such a scenario, have your poles extended to reach the creek bottom or onto something like a big boulder that won’t move in order to control where your upper body is going while the log bounces with each step.
- Test all surfaces you stand on for stability and traction.
- Assume every wet surface is a slippery surface.
- Always maintain three points of contact with stable objects as you move.
- Extend your poles to near maximum length to broaden your base.
- Test all pole plants for strength and predictable security.
- Do not bend over, moving your center of gravity ahead of you.
- Take your time; you don’t need a fall!
- Plan your entire route before you take your first step.
- Secure all items in and on your pack so they don’t move or fall off.
- Always remember where the trail is, so after the crossing, you can find it.]
B. Wet Crossings should be considered based on the following criteria:
- Creek Depth or Volume:
- Have you ever gone to the beach and stood in the waves as they hit you?
- Do you remember how each nearly knocked you off your feet?
- Do you remember realizing that, if you turned your body sideways to the waves, minimizing the amount of your body being hit by the water, you could reduce the amount of “push” by the wave and remain standing after the wave hit you?
- Backpacks add to the width of your body when you’re turned sideways to the current, so, ideally, you don’t want to cross through water deep enough to push your pack, too.
- The deeper the moving water, the more it will push you downstream!
- Water can, also, float the body, so the deeper you are in it, the lighter you are and less able to maintain traction with the creek bottom!]
- Creek Channels:
Deeper channels exist in most creeks, so look for them when planning your route from the creekbank.
- In a straight section of creek, the channel may be in the middle or not at all.
- In a bend of the creek, the channel will be along the outside edge of the curve, where the current has to turn.
- You don’t want to be surprised when, halfway across, you find that the water gets both deeper and faster or the route becomes more awkward to climb out of!]
Increased width means more time spent immersed in potentially freezing water and more opportunities for difficult or hazardous moves. They are usually found,
- Lower in elevation, after numerous other tributaries have added in their volumes and
- In flat areas like meadows with undefined creek banks or during the Sierra Thaw’s springtime flooding events.
- Wide usually means shallower water with less “push” and a smooth creek bottom, so no large rocks to work your way through, potentially getting your feet stuck or tripping and falling. Wide, shallow, and smooth are your friends!]
- Creek Speed:
The faster the water is moving, the more “push” it has against your body.
- Water moves faster with gravity, so the steeper the slope, the faster it will be flowing.
- The faster it moves, the deeper it cuts, the more it erodes the soils, leaving boulders, and the narrower will be its path.
Go back to your topo map of the western crossing of Evolution Creek. (The link is above). Note:
- Blue lines are creeks.
- Brown lines are contour lines.
- The closer together the contour lines, the steeper the terrain.
- The contour lines are closer together to the west of the summer creek crossing where the trail had to switchback (so it didn’t get too steep for travel) and the creek fell down steeper topography making cascades and waterfalls.
- The contour lines are farther apart to the east of the summer creek crossing indicating flatter topography where the creek can’t flow fast and has to meander to follow low spots while travelling downhill.
- Green shading tells you where the trees are.
- White shading tells you where the treeless meadows are.
- If you’re looking for a dry log crossing, it will be in the green areas. If you’re looking for a flat, shallow, wide, slow-moving, and smooth-bottomed wet crossing, it will be in the white areas (for the most part)!
- Steep sections of creeks can be crossed by logs or rock-hops, but, if you have to get into the water, these areas are not the safest place.]
“Whitewater” is water with lots of air in it and gained, usually, by being thrown up into the air after bouncing off boulders during its tumultuous descent down a steep hillside. As a policy, try to avoid whitewater crossings, but if you can’t, here is some practical advice to help you out with this nemesis:
- Typically, water will hit a boulder and go in all directions, up and over, as well as around both sides.
- Flow volumes around such boulders change constantly and impulse in waves which you may not see, but you will feel battering your legs unevenly while you’re downstream. One split-second you’re being pushed right, then left, hit softly, then hard.
- Because of this uneven battering against the body in whitewater crossings, it is exhausting to maintain your balance while crossing facing the current, as all of your control is done with your arms (as you must lean into the impulsing waves and constantly correct your balance).
- Crossing while facing across the creek, with the narrow side of your body being hit by the fluctuating currents, minimizes the “push” of these impulses of water.
- You won’t be able to see your feet, so each foot placement will be accomplished by feel as you slide each foot forward, one at a time, along the uneven and rocky creek bottom, “hunting and seeking” for a good place to land.
- Moving feet forward, toes or narrow end first, is far easier to fit through and between rocks and boulders you can’t see under the fast-moving water than trying to slide them sideways, broadside first. Thus, facing the opposite bank works best in fast moving water, whether whitewater or clear.
- In whitewater, far more so than in slower flatwater, whenever you pick up any appendage, whether a pole or foot, it will be instantly moved and pushed downstream.
- That is why you shuffle your feet forward, maintaining at least some contact with the ground, and take your poles completely out of the water and stab them back in where you want them to go, sometimes many times, until you find a solid connection with the creek bottom you know won’t slip or move when you do.
- A broadened, triangular stance on extended poles is all the more important when you can’t see where your feet are going and the push is great and irregular.
- Footwear is critical for protection against cuts, scrapes, and punctures from unseen abrasive rocks and sticks stuck in the creek bottom.
- Pole snow baskets should be replaced with their screw-on summer versions so they don’t get stuck between rocks and pulled off.]
Slowwater and flatwater usually erode less soil, so will have fewer rocks and boulders, clearer water, so you can see where you’re going, and a softer bottom, so your feet won’t get hurt in the crossing.
- Again, look for flat topography, where the blue line of the creek is less straight and more serpentine, the brown contour lines are further apart, and the shading on the paper map is white and not green (Yes, you can find flat spots in a forest, so this color clue is not a requirement!).
- Bottom Visibility:
It’s always better to see something that can hurt you or block your path, in order to avoid it, than to not and cross by feel! Search for flatwater or smoothwater devoid of objects that will disturb the current and make it less clear.
- Flat Creek Bottoms:
The less excitement you can have while crossing through a creek, the better!
- Flat is predictable,
- Something on which you can easily maintain your balance,
- You can typically see your foot placements,
- You don’t have to maneuver around or over something like a boulder or log,
- And you don’t have a channel to drop into before climbing back out.
- Entry and Exit points:
Entry points should be a simple and gradual ramp into the water.
Occasionally, you might have to deal with a slight scramble down a rocky embankment, a short vertical drop, a thrashing through bushes, or stairs cut in snow to get down to the water. Anything more dramatic than that can result in a fall into the creek and being swept away before you even get started.
Exits should be easy walk-outs, ideally, so plan to aim for them, but could involve rock scrambles, bush-thrashes, and short climb-outs. Always nearby your exit should be a nice
It’s highly likely that you will be wet and cold after your stroll through the creek, so your crossing point selection criteria should always include a close, sunny, and somewhat flat place to dry out and change clothes, as needed.
If there is snow on the other side of the creek, it is much better if the changing place is on dry ground! This necessity may influence where you cross.
If it is raining and cold and you are freezing from your crossing, you may want to consider an emergency pitch of your tent in order to warm up inside your sleeping bag over a hot meal! This weather condition may definitely influence where you cross as you’ll need a flat spot big enough for your tent on the other side.
No creek crossing is considered safe until you evaluate where you will be swept to should you fall! Within several hundred yards downstream, look for,
- Waterfalls and Cascades, like those below the western crossing of Evolution Creek, eliminate any potential crossing point! Do not get into any creek immediately above any waterfall or steep cascade.
- Whitewater rapids will toss you around, but if can float on your back (without your pack), feet-first, while traveling downstream with your head up to see where the rocks are, you can bounce off the rocks with your feet while swimming to the bank.
- Logs, branches, or bushes in, across, or overhanging the water are called “Strainers” and have the potential to catch you or your clothing as you float under them and trap you underwater. Never cross any creek that has enough volume and speed to carry you downstream if strainers are present below!
- No exits: vertical walls that rise up from the water’s edge do not let you get out of the water.
- Snow Bridges across the stream that you could get trapped under. (More on snow bridges later).
11. Solo Crossing through Challenges like bushes, branches, logs, and the unexpected:
So, you’ve walked the creek up and down and come to the conclusion that the best place to wade across has some complications.
Finding waterfalls below and whitewater above, you continue to look higher, only to find avalanche-snapped logs, bushy islands, and overhanging branches complicating your crossing choices.
You settle on one and stand on the bank considering a route, how you’ll start, where you’ll go, the obstacles present, and the maneuvers you’ll have to make to get around everything.
The reality is in the details and they go like this:
- Entry and exit points are nice sandy ramps, from what you can see around a big bush in the middle of the crossing on an island of dead logs.
- First few steps in the shallow current are composed of careful foot plants between narrowing rock spaces with extended pole plants at ten and two o’clock.
- The creek bottom suddenly falls off into a channel full of whitewater torrent due to exposed boulders upstream and you feel only uneven, rocky surfaces to slide your feet through.
- Immediately after blindly feeling your ways across this first narrow stretch of channel-surprise, there is an island on your right with a huge, scraggly bush growing out over the creek. You can’t get onto the island (best choice) because an old, grizzly grey log is barring the way, so you must negotiate the bush while still in, now calmer, mid-thigh, swirling waters.
- Committing yourself to this plan, you take your right and upstream pole and strap it to your left and downstream wrist so it will hang off that arm, freeing the right hand to grab the first, thick branch in front of you.
- Being a little more careful about both your hand and foot placements, you use your downstream pole and next bush-grab to create a balance triangle helping you to move forward somewhat gracefully. Since branches move, you’re especially careful controlling your balance.
- Once on the other side of the bush-island, you find yourself facing an even deeper whitewater channel with an unknown, but presumably irregular, bottom. Looking further, you can see that the opposite side of the creek is maybe only six steps away with two of those in the channel and three toward an ascending ramp out. However, there are huge and long eroded tree roots barring your route to the sandy exit you saw earlier. You realize that you’ll have to reach the roots first, then take a step or two downstream around them to reach your exit ramp out.
- Before letting go of the bush, you carefully reposition your free pole into your right hand, re-plant the left pole, and let go of the bush. At this point, you can no longer feel your legs or feet, they are so cold.
- You focus in and relocate both poles forward, one at a time, placing the downstream one short (not too far ahead) at ten-o’clock (Move-1) and the other further out at two-o’clock (Move-2). Feeling happy with their placement and your balance, you move your downstream foot into the channel and feel that it is ramped down and rocky with basketball-sized rocks to wedge into.
- Finding a good spot where the left foot is bordered on the downstream side by one rock and blocked by another at your toes, you load it, find that it is solid (Move-3), and move your upper body forward onto your poles, unweighting your right foot.
- Keeping your balance centered on your poles and left foot, you shuffle your right foot forward to find it hit something that seems shaped like a two-inch root. Unexpected surprises make you pause and reassess.
- Remaining balanced and happy, you search with your right foot for a way around the root, find it, and slide forward to discover a nice wedge between two rocks in the whitewater current. It feels solid, so you stand on it, like it, and consider your next move (that was Move-4).
- Your left hand, the short pole plant, is now at nine-o’clock to your left hip, so it has to advance next (you don’t want it to become behind you). Leaning into the current a bit, you pull that pole out of the water and stab it back in at ten-o’clock, again, somewhat ahead of the right pole’s location. First stab hit a big rock and bounced off. Again, a surprise like this doesn’t throw you off. You immediately assess your balance, keep it, and pull the pole back out for a second attempt.
- You stab in upstream of the boulder and find a viable wedge in which to place it. You load it, test it, and it slides in deeper. This isn’t the time to get particularly picky about a possible stuck summer basket, but you consider what it will take to pull it out. Move-5.
- Move-6 is your trailing left foot, so you lift that ever so much to slide over the basketball it was toed into and forward into the middle of the channel’s froth. Water is kicking up onto your right hip, but its push isn’t getting the better of your ability to control your balance. You find a good spot to toe-in between two big rocks, load it, and the wedge feels good.
- Move-7 is the right pole to make the next triangle of balance followed by Move-8 of the right foot, again. You are now out of the channel and facing those exposed and eroded, gnarly-looking dead tree roots (the tree above them on the bank of the creek was snapped off by an avalanche long ago and is only 4-5 feet tall). Another big bush is to the right of the roots, so you have to go downstream and around them to the left.
- Move-9 is of the left pole and is placed as far out as you can reach to nine-o’clock in front of the roots. Move-10 is actually a double-move as you first have to grab a root with your right hand while turning your upper body to the left to face downstream. Your balance is between your left pole, now at 10-o’clock, your right hand’s firm grasp on the root, and your feet.
- You do a quick assessment of your balance and future moves and are happy with where you are at the moment.
- Left foot and right foot follow, along with a quick repositioning of the right hand onto another root and you’ve caught up with your left pole plant.
- At this point, you’ve got two easy moves remaining around the last root and to the sandy ramp exit out. Left pole plant moves first, always to be your “push-back” anchor against the current, downstream and left foot is second, to give the left arm a break, right hand grabs the last root, and right foot swings around that root for the score (onto the exit ramp)!
That detailed and lengthy description about how you move through difficulties was necessary to show you the required attention and focus needed to successfully negotiate unforeseen obstacles while prioritizing and maintaining your balance constantly. I hope you didn’t get lost in it.
You can watch someone move across a creek and have no clue what is going on with the feet, subsequent balance adjustments, and thoughts regarding moving forward, one pole and foot placement at a time.
This was a difficult and awkward crossing, but with attention to details, you can come out the other side to bask in the sun (hopefully) and warm back up!
- Solo crossings can negotiate all we’ve talked about to now.
- Pairs need to add in how they’re going to deal with or go around obstacles like boulders, channels, bushes, or logs without awkwardly moving sideways as they cross facing the other bank. This method may need shallow water and a smooth bottom. Only two poles are used.
- Fully interlocked (arms around waists with hands holding belts) triangular or circular groups need to realize that somebody may be going sideways or backwards either all the time or whenever negotiating any obstacle above or under the water. This method may need shallow water, a smooth bottom, a little more room, and may take longer. No poles are used.
- “The Train,” (the only method I mention where you face into the current) requires a longer stretch of obstacle-free creek, a wide entry and exit, preliminary dry-ground practice with obstacles while linked, accurate team member placement, and stellar communication. This method may be able to handle deeper water, but expect major delays as each member of the team deals with side-stepping over rocks and boulders typical to a Sierra stream. Only the upstream member uses two poles.
- More on Methods for Creek Crossing later!
13. Things to avoid during the crossing:
- Hikers are tempted to utilize logs or other presumably solid and predictable structures (meaning they shouldn’t move) that are half in or slightly above the water for balance control while wading through creeks. They think they can hang onto it, on either its upstream or downstream sides, for security.
Don’t! No way. No how. Just don’t!
- Logs can move when tugged on and you’ll fall.
- If you’re on its upstream side, you can get pinned under it and drown.
- If you’re on its downstream side, rocks may be in your path that will either force you away from or in toward the log, throwing you too distant for critical balance control or off balance trying to stand practically under it, and down you go.
If a log is too unstable to walk on, it’s too unreliable for balance control!
- Aerial Ropes across the creek to “assist” your crossing.
- Ropes move, so are not a reliable source of balance control. One hand on the rope and another on a pole does not a tripod make. Just don’t!
- A rope around your waist that is connected by another length of rope to the aerial line via a sliding carabiner freeing your hands to use two poles for triangular balance control, yet have the aerial line as back-up should you fall, is another drowning waiting to happen. As soon as you fall and go under, the current sweeps you to the length of the rope and holds you under. Nice try, but don’t, again!
- Aerial lines can be used to safely ferry gear across suspended on carabiners, but you have to have somebody on the other side, a carabiner, and two lengths of rope twice the width of the creek (for removal later). Utilizing this technique, people can cross creeks over hip-deep without getting their packs wet or risk their packs being pushed by the current and knocking them over.
Wet crossing summary:
Ideal locations for a wet crossing should have,
- Water that is slow, shallow, and clear,
- A Creek that is flat, straight, and smooth-bottomed,
- A Route that is free of boulders, logs, and bushes, and
- A Downstream that is devoid of strainers, snow bridges, waterfalls, and cascades (nasty things that will surely kill you should you end up there).
C. Swimming across a creek too deep to walk through:
For all intents and purposes of this discussion regarding High Sierra creek crossings that JMT or PCT hikers may encounter between 8,000 feet in elevation and 12,000 feet, since there are none requiring swimming (the off-trail crossing of the San Juaquin River at the Muir Trail Ranch is below 8,000 feet), I will only bullet-point the main things to keep in mind.
- You can float your pack on your inflatable sleeping mattress across the river.
- You can take the time to rig an aerial line across, but this will take the above-mentioned gear and three swims across the river.
- You’ll need a long stretch of straight river and smooth water (no obstacles or whitewater).
- You have to be able to completely waterproof or seal all your gear.
- You need to be a good judge of current changes, as observed during planning, so you can anticipate how far down the river you’ll an exit.
- Your exit point may be far downstream and potentially out of sight of your entry point, so you’ll have to select it while crossing. (You can try to pre-select one before you get in the water, but be prepared to overshoot it and need another!)
- Where you exit needs either to be on a viable route out of or along the river or able to get you there within your skill level.
- Plan for extended time on the other side drying out and warming up.