Snow Advanced Course,
12-day, Kennedy Meadows to Kearsarge Pass TH
Section One: General Info
This is the ideal course for people preparing to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail next year and want to learn how to deal with its high altitude, steeper-pitched, snow-covered trail during their scheduled passage in May, June, or July of 2018!
This SAC starts in Kennedy Meadows (south) in Sequoia National Forest, usually around mid-April, and uses the first four days to Cottonwood Pass and the Horseshoe Meadows Trailhead (TH) to get us in “trail-shape,” incorporates a re-supply practice in Lone Pine, then hits the snow-covered trail for 6 more days from Chicken Spring Lake, up Mt. Whitney, over Forester Pass, and out Kearsarge Pass to the Onion Valley TH west of Independence, CA.
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 and insert the date below. 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 $450 must be received 60 days before your course date to confirm your enrollment.
Step Three – Payment. To finish registering for your wilderness skills course, the balance of $1350 must be received by Mountain Education, Inc. 30 days before your course starts. Use the payment links we have on our Donations page. One button is for credit cards, the other is for PayPal.
More about our Admission and Refund Policies, click on the About/Administration tab.
Date for 2017:
April 20 to May 1
$1800. (Covers all instruction before and during your skills trip).
Section Two: What to Bring
It is always best to bring full USGS 15-minute paper maps of a route, but since this trip is geared for the future PCT hiker, bring the appropriate parts of Section G & H of Halfmile’s PCT Maps. Also, 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. Thirdly, 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, too!
Typically, the Sierra snowpack starts thawing out around mid-May sometime, maybe earlier, maybe later, it depends on the year. Meanwhile, the chance of a late-season, winter storm rolling in and dumping a foot or two of powder snow is fairly good, so plan on carrying your winter clothing on this trip. (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!
Since this is, in essence, a Thru-Hiking Prep course, you must come equipped with the following safety equipment requirements:
- Hiking boots. Please read “Why Boots” in our school library (under the Resources tab). 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 sock sets for keeping your feet dry,
- a sufficiently insulated sleeping pad(s), 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 and wind load (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 tiny and 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 or carry out 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
[Since this course is typically offered very early in the season, often in April, expect to start snow-hiking as early as Olancha Peak (day-2) and on most elevations above 9,000 feet. Below that expect dry trail and minor creek crossings]
We will be caravanning together to the Kennedy Meadows (KM) Trailhead (TH) from the Reno, Nevada area. If you can’t meet us in Reno, then let us know where along Highway 395 you can on the drive-down morning the day before the SAC course starts. We will be leaving one of our cars at the northern terminus, the Onion Valley trailhead, dropping our food resupply buckets off at the DeLaCour Ranch, catching a bit of dinner in Lone Pine, then driving on down to the Kennedy Meadows Campground for the night.
If you can’t meet us along the way, we’ll meet you at the KM campground the night before the course start date! Make sure you have sent or placed your resupply bucket at the DeLaCour Ranch before you drive to Kennedy Meadows.
Students from sea-level should consider staying the night before the trip at elevation to acclimate. You might chose to stay in either the campground at Onion Valley or Kennedy Meadows.
After this course is done (typically about 2:00pm on the last day), we will drive back down to the KM campground parking lot to retrieve our cars, say “good-bye” to each other, and drive home or stay in Lone Pine for the night.
Section Four: Course Itinerary
Prepare us physically for the challenges of snow-hiking ahead. People don’t realize what is physically required to walk on snow, stay balanced, yet always be ready for a sudden fall or posthole event. Unless a student is already “trail-strong,” we require these few days of acclimating and on-trail strength training under load to get us ready for what’s ahead.
During these four days, we will gradually climb in elevation from Kennedy Meadows (6,150 feet) to Cottonwood Pass (11,160) along the west side of the southern sierra escarpment. Some of this route winds across huge, open meadows where sheep and cows graze in the summer, up narrow creek drainages where old Indian paths used to cross the mountains, and along high, exposed ridges with awesome views down 6,000 feet into the Owens valley below to the east.
Is largely dry, so we’ll have to learn how to carry enough water to last the day. We will be walking near, then through an old forest fire that shows us how delicate, yet resilient, the wilderness really is. Our first night is in the vicinity of Monache Meadows, 11 miles.
We will climb more earnestly from 7800 feet to almost 10,600 on the western slopes of Olancha Peak to find nice campsites near an old spring and horse corral at the top. We will be rewarded with tremendous views to the south and west this day as we climb up Cow Creek.
Begins with an easy traverse across Olancha Peak’s western flank to an incredible overlook where we will teach our first long-distance Navigational Clinic (YouTube, Mountain Education, PCT Sierra NoBo, 2.041) while enjoying the high, snow-clad, Sierra peaks we see ahead. Next, we drop down to Gomez Meadow, saunter through the tall pines around Big Dry Meadow, and camp for the night at the base of Death Canyon. to our camp for the night at First Corral Springs. This day we may begin learning how to safely walk over patches of snow found on northern ridge aspects and in the shade. We will teach you how to use your shoes for edge control on traverses, plunge-stepping on the descent, and boot-skiing for fun!
Also begins with a somewhat grueling 1,000-foot climb up out of Death Canyon to its summit “windows” looking east where, if we’re lucky, the US Air Force likes to entertain us! From there, we gently ascend and descend in and out of meadows and trans-sierra creek drainages before making our last climb out of Diaz Creek to Mulkey Pass and our final drop into Horseshoe Meadows. Since we are above 10,000 feet for most of this day, it is not unusual for the trail to be completely buried beneath several feet of snow. Should this be the case, we will begin teaching Micro-Navigation and snow-hiking skills.
This night we stay at the DeLaCour Ranch, take a much-needed Zero Day to resupply, clean up self and laundry, eat a meal or two in Lone Pine, spend a second night at the DeLaCour, then depart in the morning for Cottonwood Pass and our next 6 days of snow adventure!
Is a much-needed Zero Day at the DeLaCour Ranch!
The DeLaCour Ranch is a lavender farm situated on a historic property with a year-round creek. The owners have two tent cabins and one little house they rent out to hikers, fishermen, and equestrians before or after they take their trips into the Sierra. It is strategically located 9 miles out of Lone Pine at the base of the switchbacks up to Horseshoe Meadow. Perfect for our visit! For accommodation reservations, please contact them as soon as you can!
If you are planning on thru hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, you’ll need to learn how to do the logistics of an in-town resupply. That is why this time at the DeLaCour is included in this snow skills course. A “Zero Day” gives you the opportunity to clean out and re-stock your pack, clean your self, gear, and laundry, enjoy several large meals in town (if you can), and gloriously sleep in a real bed for two nights!
Now that we are “trail-strong,” we will be better able to maintain our balance and safe movement on snow using our boots, poles, and hiking crampons, as needed. Most of this route during early, pre-thaw, season will be snow-covered and steep, especially on the north sides of things, to include descents into creek crossings, the climb up Whitney, and the descent down the back side of Forester Pass. Once the thaw starts, the creeks rise, snow bridges disappear, snowlines recedes to higher, steeper altitudes, postholing becomes a real and present danger, and flowers and mosquitoes start to appear down low.
Day-9 we will assess and cut our own switchbacks up Mt. Whitney from Guitar Lake! Early in the season, this route may be too hazardous to do and the weather may be too nasty, but you will learn how to assess it for safety and wisdom. The trip to the top will involve most of the day, so we will basecamp at Guitar Lake the night before and after. The view is incredible as Whitney is the tallest peak in the continental United States!
Throughout this second half of this SAC, there will be daily, repeated clinics on navigation, safe route selection, snow hiking techniques, creek crossing choices, camping on snow, staying warm and dry, weather observations and predicting storms, snow bridge assessment, getting water safely, wilderness medical concerns, emergency communications and routes out, daily strategies and trail logistics, hidden hazards, and sanitation.
This is a pretty easy day going only 4.2 miles from Horseshoe Meadows (10,000), up and over Cottonwood Pass (11,160), and across to Chicken Spring Lake (11,250) where we may have other north-bound PCT thru hikers join us to learn their snow skills, too. Depending on the winter, this steep but short route is often snow-covered, so where we first run into snow, we will include a quick clinic on ascent and self-arrest techniques. If Chicken Spring Lake is still frozen, we will show you how to dig into a lake to get water without falling in!
This day we enter Sequoia National Park just west of Chicken Spring Lake and not far from a little tarn at 11,200, descend briefly into Siberian Outpost, traverse its long meadow and flat expanse or follow the trail and go around, then descend 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, snow travel skills, and learning to stay hydrated and fueled amidst 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.
- Pre-trip group communications via email will help prepare you for the details of the course.
- If you are joining the Full Course via Horseshoe Meadows for the 6-day SAC, you will be leaving your car at that Trailhead or the DeLaCour and will be dropped off there after the SAC is over to retrieve your car.
- For the sake of the DeLaCour Ranch, each student needs to contact them individually before the SAC course begins to reserve a camping space or cabin for our two resupply nights there.
- Start with 5 days of food for the first 4-day trail section. Your resupply bucket to be left at the DeLaCour should have 8 days of food for that 7-day section. Include yet another day of food to cover the zero at the DeLaCour. We will be going into town to do laundry and eat, but it may not be for all meals that day.
- Pre-SAC email communication will arrange which cars are placed at the Onion Valley TH and which will go to Kennedy Meadows.
- 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.