Snow Intermediate Course, PCT Section K, 7-Day, Full Course Description

If you want to start your hiking season earlier in the year while there is still snow covering the summer trails, take this course to learn how to apply your Snow Basics skills to transition to Snow-Hiking!

Section One:  General Info

The Snow Intermediate Course (SIC) allows you to apply your newly-acquired Snow Basics skills into a daily-moving routine typical of summer backpacking, just this time over both snow and dry trail! The route covers an entire section of the Pacific Crest Trail running south to north for 68 miles along the west side of California’s Lake Tahoe from Echo Summit, Highway 50, South Lake Tahoe to Donner Summit, Highway 80, Truckee, California.

We are out to have fun, wake up with the sun, hike by lakes and streams and over high passes, pass by sweet little lakes nestled in pine forests, walk along exposed, windy ridges overlooking the famous Rubicon Valley or Lake Tahoe, camp in quiet, secluded bends in the trail next to clear, cold, bubbling creeks, and go to bed after sunset after a day of good exercise, food, and clean mountain air! This is not a difficult hike, but one which will gradually allow you to practice what you know, causing you to feel stronger, more self-reliant and confident, then excited to expand your skill set to include higher and more challenging alpine terrain later on!

Dates for 2017:

  • May 23-29
  • June 10-16
  • July 1-7


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. Choose a date, then fill out the Course Application form online! After reviewing your application, we will sign you up for the course of your choice, if there is still room, and let you know by email. Next…

Step Two – Deposit. After your application is accepted, a non-refundable deposit of $400 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 $700 must be received by Mountain Education, Inc. 30 days before your course starts. PayPal works best.

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


$1100. (Covers all instruction before and during your skills trip).

Rules of the Trail:
Wilderness travel is exhilarating and beautiful, but can be hazardous. Therefore, each student must adhere to the following for individual and group safety concerns:

  • No unapproved fires.
  • No unapproved wandering.
  • Always tell someone where you are going and why whenever you leave (bathroom, water collection, etc.).
  • When traveling, everyone stays together and along a specifically designated route with your Instructors in front and/or in back of your group.
  • For your individual safety and that of your group, conduct yourself as directed by your  Instructor. Willful disrespect or insubordination to direction will result in immediate expulsion from the Course.
  • If any student is in need of assistance, say they are just too tired, need to adjust a pack or shoe, or get injured, it is everyone’s responsibility to lend a helping hand and/or notify the Instructor.

Mountain Education is not responsible for accident, injury, or death to students who will not take direction or adhere to the rules of individual and group safe conduct as taught preceding and during the Course.

Section Two: What to Bring

In General:
Come with all the food and equipment suggested here and in the SIC Gear List.

Note: Certain items that would be sufficient for an ultralight, summertime, dry-trail-only hike, like a tarp tent or trailrunners, are not allowed because of changeable spring weather and wet and snowy surface conditions without Instructor approval.

The SIC Gear List is for reference, but there are some gear requirements like clothing shells for rain or snow, a 3-season tent that will take a snow-load, sufficient insulation under your sleeping bag to keep you warm on snow, Kahtoola Hiking Crampons, a canister stove that you can use inside your tent, a Black Diamond Whippet Self-Arrest Pole, so let us know if you have any questions. If you do not have a lot of the equipment or clothing, we can rent to you the main items and you can layer-up the clothing from what you may have around the house (see Rentals).

Bring the detailed, 15-minute USGS Topographic maps of the trail (or an equivalent version in detail, color, and scope that covers the route (i.e., Harrison or Halfmile maps), a large-scale, USFS map of the area, and a California State Highway map as we will be spending a lot of time talking about navigation and emergency route selection.

USGS Store:  [California] Echo Lake, Pyramid Peak, Emerald Bay, Rockbound Valley, Homewood, Tahoe City, Granite Chief, Norden
Halfmile’s PCT Maps: California Section K (free, online download)
National Forest Map Store
El Dorado National Forest  
Tahoe National Forest

Do not bring black and white maps or photo-copies of the topos as we will teach you how to recognize the color-referenced creeks, lakes and treelines which will aid in navigation, especially over-snow. Likewise, do not bring your maps on a smartphone—you need to see many miles ahead in order to plot a course.

Come with two quarts of water per person to start as snow-hiking makes you very thirsty! Have some snacks readily accessible in an outside pocket of your pack for the morning’s hike. You will not need a bear canister for your food.

**Important Snow-specific Additions/Changes to the Summer Mentality**


  • Bring additional layers for the cold (i.e.: long-johns, down parka*, wind shell, gloves or mittens, balaclava, extra socks, down booties*, etc.), a hat with brim/visor for the sun, and an extra bandana for your neck and another for tent spills.
  • You will practice falling and sliding on snow and ice, so do not bring fragile external shells.
  • Bring a decent set of gloves and consider an inner liner and outer mitten combination.
  • Tall gaiters are a must, especially if one leg suddenly falls into the snowpack (“postholing”).

*This is especially important for those who get cold easily and/or the weather becomes nasty.

Bring enough food and fuel for an extra day. Bring larger servings of food (you will be getting lots of exercise!) that are high in calorie and fat content. (Note:  Some students will not feel “hiker-hunger” for 4 or more days, but when internal calorie stores are depleted, you’ll want that extra food!)


  • Kahtoola Hiking Crampons,
  • Black Diamond “Whippet” Self-Arrest Pole* and a cam-locked pole with snow basket,
  • Thick, insulated air mattress or two summer-thickness foam pads (for snow-camping),
  • Dark glasses that are UVA + B protected, polarized, and fit closely to your face,
  • Sunscreen,
  • Skin lotion (for dry skin),
  • “chapstick” or lip balm,
  • Boots**, medium to heavy weight, that will work with hiking crampons,
  • Snow-stable stove and pot set (do not bring alcohol stoves as you may have to cook within your tent in a bad storm),
  • A 3-season tent that won’t collapse under a snow or high wind load (poles that cross at the top and enough of them so that the roof’s fabric panels are small). (see Rentals).

*  If you do not want to buy a Whippet and have an ice axe already, the axe should be long enough to reach from your down-stretched arm to the ground and be certified. (See Rentals).

** Please read our detailed expose on “Why Boots?” in the school Library.

Toilet paper buried in the snow will resurface in the spring, so either plan to pack it out or burn it upon use. “Wet Wipes” are priceless, too, so consider bringing a package, but plan on packing those out. Therefore, include an empty ziplock bag with your toiletries for this garbage.

Mountain Education rents certain pieces of equipment which it has tested and endorses at the following rates:

  • Ice Axes: $10/day
  • MSR Lightning Ascent Snow Shoes: $20/day
  • Mountain Hardwear 4-season, 1 or 2-man, EV-2 tent: $45/day
  • Mountain Hardwear 4-season, 3-man, Trango 3 tent: $50/day,
  • Life-link Shovels: $10/day
  • Black Diamond “Whippet” Self-Arrest Pole: $10/day

REI and similar Outdoor Retail stores sometime rent sleeping bags, poles, stoves, and sleeping pads, to name a few. Check your local store for availability.

  • South Lake Tahoe:  There are a few stores in the Lake Tahoe area that can provide some of these, Lake of the Sky Outfitters (530-541-1027) and Tahoe Sports Ltd. (530-542-4000). Please call ahead.

Section Three: What to Prepare for

Transportation Details:
We will meet at 8:00am on the morning of the first day in the parking lot of the Donner Summit Sno-Park and summer trailhead. It is located on the south side of Highway 80 at the Castle Peak exit on Donner Summit. Take the exit off Highway 80 and turn south. At the “Tee intersection,” where the Boreal Ski Area is on your right, turn left, drive past the Boreal Inn on the frontage road, and continue on to the parking lot turn-around one mile west of the highway exit. Park near the bathrooms, if you get there first! We will leave a car there for the week (with a Sno-Park Permit placed on its dashboard!).

Donner Summit Sno-Park

Now, we will drive our remaining cars east on Highway 80 to the town of Truckee, catch state route 89 south to Meyers, driving alongside Lake Tahoe’s west shore, turn right onto Highway 50, and climb up the hill to the Echo Summit Sno-Park (all about an hour and a half away). We will leave the remaining cars here for the week (with Sno-Park Permits placed on their dashboards!).

Echo Summit Sno-Park

The weather at this time of year is usually warm and nice since the sierra should be thawing out after the winter. If the weather is not looking good driving up to Donner Summit (rain or snow), yet you have and know how to drive with chains or have a 4-wheel drive with snow tires, stay in touch via cell phone (call Ned at 530-721-1551) so that we can coordinate our Donner Summit meeting and drive south to the Echo Chalet parking lot. If you don’t have a 4-wheel drive, you’ll need chains and know how to install them. This is all part of the SIC’s foul weather training. Carpooling is encouraged and can be facilitated through the pre-trip group emailings. If a really nasty storm is expected to roll in on our first day, we will talk about this in these emails and will consider postponing or canceling the trip.

Some students drive great distances while others fly into nearby airports and rent cars to drive to the trailhead. If students planning to fly coordinate their arrival times with fellow students, they can arrange to share car rental costs and save a few dollars. The pre-trip email discussions will help everyone understand the trip, “fine-tune” their food and gear, and prepare for their arrival at and departure from the trailheads.

Pre-trip lodging in the Lake Tahoe area is usually a good idea, especially to get used to the altitude and help you get to the trailhead on time the next morning! There are numerous Motels in Truckee, Tahoe City, Reno, and South Lake Tahoe from quaint to expensive to serve all your needs!

Section Four: Course Itinerary

All students rendezvous in the Echo Chalet Upper Parking Lot at 10:00 am on the first morning where we will cover group introductions, some paperwork, pack check, and so forth. Once we begin hiking up the PCT from the Echo Lake dam, your Instructor will stop frequently to teach about things seen around you, talk about knowledge pertinent to an activity you might do there, or take the moment to address a skills lesson important to learn. It will be through these daily and constant discussions and activities that you will gain new wisdom or apply old skills that you’d like to work on. We will travel as a group and close enough together to be able to hear everyone for the most part. Once a skill is demonstrated, taught, and practiced, your instructor will expect you to use it unsupervised and come up with questions, if you need.

Most of this first day out will be on dry trail until we get into the Lake Aloha basin where we may find snow covering the trail for the rest of the day. At this location of our first night’s camp, you will be taught:

  • Wise places to pitch your tents,
  • How to anchor tents in snow to weather high winds and heavy snows,
  • How to deal with wind and snowfall while making camp.

After our tents are pitched and securely anchored for any expected weather and while there is yet still enough light to see, we will:

  • Organize Camp and designate a latrine location,
  • Discuss sanitation, exploration, safety rules, and water needs, then have our first Clinic,
  • “How to Find and Get Water without Falling In!”

When this clinic is done and water bottles and bags are full, we may sit around outside (mosquitoes willing) with our stoves roaring and enjoy dinner and each other’s company! If it is raining or snowing, we will cover one more detail:

  • In-Tent cooking

(Note: Should the weather be nasty, our priorities will be to stay in our tents in order to remain warm and dry. “Wet-Packing” is not allowed during cold weather courses as it often contributes to worse situations like hypothermia, exposure, frostbite, and the like. We will try to teach you as much as we can, but we may have to change the Course Itinerary per weather and group abilities!)

The next morning, you will rise with the sun and do your usual, personal, “morning duties” about your camp, followed by cooking breakfast outside or in your tent, and then we’ll all pack up for the day’s snow-hike. During the first two days of hiking, we try to refresh everyone on:

  • Walking balanced with poles on snow (pole techniques),
  • Ascent/Descent Techniques with/without hiking crampons,
  • The appropriate use of Hiking-Crampons vs. Microspikes,
  • Route Selection: Avalanche Awareness & Avoidance,
  • Finding & Following the Trail beneath the snowpack,
  • Map Orientation by Landmark Recognition,
  • Map & Compass vs. GPS,
  • Risk Identification & Assessment,
  • Snow Hazards above, on, and below the surface,
  • Frozen Creek & Lake crossings (snow bridges),
  • Weather Awareness & Assessment,
  • Hydration, Exposure, Snow-Blindness, Hyper/Hypothermia, and Exhaustion/Fatigue,
  • How to keep water and clothes from freezing at night, and
  • Tips to stay warm at night for a better night’s sleep!

Day-2 begins with a cruise by the beautiful, alpine, Heather and Susie Lakes, then a drop through dense forest and meadows to Glen Alpine Creek. Here it is easy to lose the trail.

  • Below timberline navigation and route-finding skills taught.

The morning’s big adventure is two-fold, the discovery of almost perfectly round, Gilmore Lake, and the sometimes steeply traversing ascent up to Dicks Pass. Depending on the depth of the winter snowpack in this area, we might have snow from Gilmore to the Pass.

  • Traversing Ascent and Self-Arrest skills refreshed!
  • Snow-Hiking Crampon Skills

The drop in elevation off Dicks Pass to Dicks Lake on snow is another great place to

  • Teach safe snow-hiking Descent skills.

We will spend some time teaching these skills before reaching the outflow of the lake and maybe making camp or heading on to Fontanillis or Middle Velma lakes for the night.

When we leave Fontanillis Lake, our route drops into forest for the next few days until we reach Barker Pass and the Twin Peaks ridge north to Donner Summit, so

  • Below timberline and over-snow Route-Finding and Navigation skills will become the main topic of instruction and practice!


On this day, we will enjoy mostly dry, forested trail, two interesting creek crossings of Middle Velma Lake’s outflow and Phipps Creek, a long ridge walk on the east side of the famous Rubicon Valley, and a nice little lake and cabin at the end of the day!

  • Safe Creek Crossing Techniques
  • Below Timberline Navigation skills


Leaving Richardson Lake and the Sierra Club’s Ludlow Hut, we entertain the idea of wading across often raging Miller Creek, only to cross it upstream via a concrete roadway footing, then continue on through dense forest to cross Bear Lake’s outflow stream amidst tall Aspens. With the sounds of 4-wheel drive Rock-Crawlers rumbling nearby us, we make the gradual climb up Barker Creek to Barker Pass and maybe back into the snow!

  • Creek Crossing Safety Assessment
  • Safe Creek Crossing Techniques
  • Below Timberline Navigation skills

Depending on our progress, we may camp right on Barker Pass or climb over to the headwaters of the North Fork of Blackwood Creek where there is a very delightful little campsite at the base of a meadow!


Climbing up and out of the Blackwood drainage via some pretty serious switchbacks, we top out at Twin Peaks where our route separates from the Tahoe Rim Trail with fantastic views of Lake Tahoe to the east!

  • Over-Snow Navigation Skills
  • Safe Ascent Techniques

Continuing along a high, very exposed, and windy ridgeline, our west-facing, rocky, and dry trail weaves in and out of little bowls as it approaches Ward Peak and the Alpine Meadows Ski Area. Before we begin the switchbacks down into Five Lakes Basin, we’ll actually have some awesome views through rock-carved “windows” in the ridge onto the base lodge of the ski area! The treasure of the day comes when we make camp at the historic Basque sheep-herder’s encampment called Whiskey Creek Camp.

  • Snow-Hiking skills; on and off snow issues


Today begins with an interesting little exercise in

  • Cross-Country Skills below Timberline

The morning is spent ascending a winding route amidst wet meadows and tall Aspens up to the 9,006-foot, Granite Chief, and the intersection with the famous Western States Trail at the top of Squaw Valley Ski Area, home of the 1960 Winter Olympics. Immediately after taking pictures of each other on the parked chair lift there, we begin a rather steep snow-bound descent into the Squaw Creek headwaters.

  • Safe and Controlled Snow Traversing-Descent Techniques

A few miles later, after a long, gradually descending trail beneath Lodgepole Pines, we emerge from the forest where the trail crosses the outflow of Mtn Meadow Lake with a fantastic sunset view down the North Fork of the American River!

  • Safe Hiking Techniques on Rough Trail


Our last and longest day out on the Snow Intermediate Course begins with a moderate climb up the western side of a long, north-south ridge on dry-trail rising above timberline and topping out at Tinker Knob. This can be a cold, shadowy ascent, so we often have to practice

  • Thermal Management Awareness to prevent Hypothermia or Frost Bite

From Tinker Knob (where the adventurous can make a quick, packless climb to the summit via a use trail to gain a commanding view all the way back south to Pyramid Peak and the Lake Aloha basin where our trip began!), we get our first incredible eastern views down into the Truckee River basin draining out of Lake Tahoe.

The trail undulates along the ridge north-bound for another mile or two until, rounding Anderson Peak and taking a short but steep side trail, we find another Sierra Club shelter called Bensen Hut where we often enjoy our lunch in the sun looking down on Donner Lake, below.

The PCT continues on toward Canada by following the ridge across another forested, west-facing bowl only to begin a slight descent on shale-like trail to Mount Disney, the highest peak in the Sugal Bowl Ski Area near Donner Summit. It is on the south-east aspect of Mount Disney where snow tends to stay well into the summer and we have to cross a very steep, corniced patch!

  • Hiking-Crampon Use

From there it is all downhill, traversing across the ski area’s bowls and under their chairlifts to make a last, steep, boulder-strewn, switchback descent to old Highway 40. Thinking we are “home-free,” the remaining 3 miles to Highway 80’s southside trailhead parking lot (where we left a car a week ago) undulates over little granite ridges in the pines, past small lakes riddled with mosquitoes, and seams far longer to walk than we want!

  • Maintaining Fuel and Patience
  • Mosquito Protection Options
  • Rough Trail Hazard Caution

At the trailhead, the drivers of the cars parked back at Echo Lake get into the vehicle left on Donner and make the two-hour round-trip drive down there, pick up their cars, and return to pick up the rest of our party (this is arranged before the SIC starts or on the first day).

Instructor’s Notes:

  • There will be at least one night where we will have to camp on snow, so bring adequate sleeping bags and pads to keep you well insulated from the cold.
  • Many days along this stretch can be quite cold, so bring several layers of thermal clothing to include extra socks, gloves and shells, long underwear, pant shells, a fleece hat, gaiters, water-proof boots, and a poncho in case it rains.
  • It is not unusual for us to be hit with a good snow storm, so bring a canister stove with which you can cook inside your tent.
  • A 3-seson tent is sufficient in design to hold snow and high winds at bay. If you question your tent’s abilities, email us to talk about bringing it or not.
  • This Snow Intermediate Course is designed to teach you Snow-Hiking Skills so you can extend your summer hiking season from Spring to Fall and eliminate any fears or concerns you might have about walking on or camping in snow for days on end!


More Information

Snow Intermediate Gear List
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