Early Season JMT Mountain Advanced Course!

7-day, JMT Thru-Hikers-Only:  Horseshoe Meadows to Kearsarge Pass TH


Section One: General Info

This special, early season mountain advanced course (ESMAC) is for John Muir Trail (JMT) Thru-hikers Only (JTO) who are planning on starting their thru hikes during the Sierra “early season” and want to get their steep snow skills training right on the southern JMT. This course runs from Horseshoe Meadows, up Mt. Whitney, north over the snowy wall called Forester Pass, and exits out Kearsarge Pass to the Onion Valley trailhead above Independence, Ca.. North-bound JMT hikers can go out to resupply, then return to continue north!


After reading this Full Course Description and our Policies, Terms, and Conditions, you’re ready to begin registering to attend your course!

Step One – Apply. Fill out the Course Application form online, indicate the ESMAC-JTO course, and select the course date that will preceed or coincide with your expected JMT start! After reviewing your application, we will start your enrollment for that date and let you know by email if we have any questions. Next…

Step Two – Deposit. After your application is accepted, a non-refundable deposit of $300 must be received 60 days before your course date to confirm your enrollment.

Step Three – Payment.  To finish registering for this wilderness skills course, the balance of $750 must be received by Mountain Education, Inc. 30 days before your course starts. PayPal works best.

More about our Admission and Refund Policies, click on the About/Administration tab.


$1050. (Covers all instruction before and during your skills trip).

2017 ESMAC Course Dates:

April 25 to May 1          May 3-9          May 11-17          May 19-25

June 3-9          June 11-17          June 19-25          June 27 to July 3

Section Two:  What to Bring


First, it is always best to bring full-sized, USGS 15-minute paper maps of a route, but since this trip is geared for the JMT thru-hiker, current or future, bring the appropriate parts of Section G & H of Halfmile’s PCT Maps or equivalent. Second, always bring a USFS map of the surrounding area so you’ll know where all the “bail-out” trails will take you 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 that bail-out trail’s road will take you, as well!

Halfmile’s PCT Map


Typically, the Sierra snowpack starts thawing out around May, maybe earlier, maybe later, depending 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 a May-June possibility, so be wise and prepared and plan on carrying your winter clothing on this trip, if the thaw hasn’t started yet. Contact your instructor for the current trail conditions! (See the SAC Gear List for details).


One big detail JMT thru hikers do not realize is that snow-hiking and high altitude pass climbing force you to go slower (about 1mph) and eat twice as much!  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 to run out of food days from a TH and you’ll be a happier camper if you can eat to your stomach’s content. Consider food that is high in fat and oils, too! Contact your instructor to find out how much snow is ahead! Also, bring a day’s worth of extra food in case we have to stay in our tents to weather a storm!


In addition to your normal hiking 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,*

* 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


This SAC starts with an overnight stay at the DeLaCour Ranch at the bottom of the Horseshoe Meadows Road, Lone Pine, CA, the night before the SAC course starts. If you can not do this, simply meet us at the DeLaCour Ranch at 0630 on the first day of the course.* Either way, contact the DeLaCour for overnight accommodations and/or a place to park your car while we are on-trail.

If the Horseshoe Meadow Road is open,* usually sometime after mid-May, you do not have to stay at the DeLaCour the night before, but you are certainly welcome to join us if you can! We will all carpool up to the trailhead in the morning. For those who can’t stay the night, simply meet us at the trailhead, time to be announced.

*Stay in contact with your trip instructor who will give you his contact info so you will be aware of last minute details and whether the road is open or not!

Delacour Ranch
Inyo Camping


At the end of the course in the Kearsarge Pass Trailhead, Onion Valley parking lot, we will catch a ride back to our cars, either at the DeLaCour or up in Horseshoe Meadow.


As is typical with all east-side sierra trails, the first few miles are usually up steep grades, so we suggest you acclimate at elevation the night before this course starts. You could stay with the group at the DeLaCour Ranch, but that wouldn’t really help much, so consider spending the night at the campground in Horseshoe Meadows, if the road is open!

How and what you will learn:

For each of the next 7 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.

Course Prep details:

1. We will be hiking on both dry trail and snow. Some of the “dry trail” at this time in the thaw will be very wet and look more like a creek than a trail. Make sure your boots are waterproof.

2. Some of our route will be on snow and over both flat and steep topography, so come with the required safety gear.

3. We might have some pretty deep and fast creek crossings to deal with, so bring the two required poles and creek crossing shoes.

4. We may be camping on snow, so bring a thick, insulated sleeping pad or two thinner ones.

5. When on snow, we will be teaching you all about following a trail you can’t see, so bring good topo maps, a compass, and a GPS for below-timberline navigation.

Section Four:  Course Itinerary


At the beginning of this day, before we leave our cars, there will be an equipment inspection to make sure you brought the right gear. Every skill requires the right tools. Without them, you are a danger to yourself and others and may be barred from attending the course. With them we will be able to teach you how to use them efficiently and competently to maintain your personal and group safety so you can have fun out on steep snow.

The objective of this day’s hike is to head up to Cottonwood Pass and on to Chicken Spring Lake where we will meet current-year PCT thru hikers who will be joining us (4.2 miles). We will start out on dry, sandy soil that climbs gently toward the pass. After a few miles, the trail begins to climb steeply on shaded switchbacks that will be covered in snow at some points. Once on snow, you will be taught ascent, descent, and traverse skills so you will be safe and balanced before our formal steep snow skills clinic tomorrow morning.


The morning of day-2, if the weather allows, we will hold our formal steep snow skills clinic. This will further reinforce your ascending, descending, and traversing skills to keep you from falling, 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 favorable to conduct this clinic at this time, it will be taught at the next available, safe, and appropriate time 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, then our departure from the PCT as we turn east, snow-hike over Kearsarge Pass, and steeply descend to the Onion Valley TH below. This day, each student will lead the group, picking their own path over-snow, a great lesson in leadership and independent planning.

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 responsibility. When he 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 questioned 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 will not be watched all the time.
  • 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.

Instructor’s Notes:

  •  It is very important that you are in “trail-shape” and ready to climb up Cottonwood Pass the first day. Please consider spending the night before the course in the Horseshoe Meadows campground to help get acclimated.
  • Please come with the required safety gear! To say that you couldn’t find an item or that it didn’t come in time so you substituted an inferior choice may result in your not being allowed to attend the course for safety reasons.
  • A GPS unit is priceless for below-timberline navigation over snow. We bring and use them constantly. If you can, bring one!


More Information

Snow Advanced Gear List
Gear Rentals
Apply Now!

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