Sierra Trail/Snow/Creek Condition Reports:
Region: Southern Sierra
Trailheads: (eastside) Horseshoe Meadows (HM) north to Onion Valley (OV)
Route: PCT via Cottonwood Pass, Mt. Whitney, Forester Pass, Kearsarge Pass.
May 10, 2017: [Horseshoe Meadows to Guyot Pass]
A. Snowline: 9,000
B. Creek Crossings: Rock Creek has a log crossing upstream
C. Temperatures: 30-60 degrees
D. Snow Condition: Consolidated with a surface crust, 6-12″ of slush, then another ice layer (to slip on). Hiking crampons worn daily, depending on snow condition and slope aspect.
E. Snow Depth: (per Snow Surveyor) 200% of normal in southern Sierra with greater amounts to north similar to winter of 1968.
F. Creeks: Most are running higher than during normal pre-thaw time frames, but lower in volume than after the thaw starts. Most still have intact and reliable snow bridges, though are open in many places to get water (no need yet for creek crossing shoes).
G. Daily Logistics: It feels like the thaw is going to start soon, so days are quite warm and the snow gets soft and slippery early. Best to start your days as early as you can see (0600) and quit when potholing gets painful.
H. Trails: All buried above 9,000 feet depending on slope aspect, though we did see 100 feet of trail on one south-facing slope.
Horseshoe Meadows (HM) road is currently closed, but may be open by mid-June. HM has 2-4 feet of snow throughout. all Passes into it have snow, Mulkey, Trail, and Cottonwood.
Mt. Whitney, though not seen directly, yet, I do not expect to be safe for ascent by the average thru hiker for some time.
Forester’s chute “trail” should be cut this week.
Onion Valley road is open and has sufficient snow depth at the trailhead to allow skiing down the the asphalt.
May 26, 2017: [Horseshoe Meadows to Kearsarge Pass]
A. Snow Line: 9,500 feet
B. Creek Crossings:
(Note: there is no way to tell how deep the snowpack is when everything is covered. Best glimpses are at open creeks where you can see how much snow is piled up on the banks.)
- Rock Creek: Log crossing upstream has almost lost all its snow cover. Easy crossing. Bits of dry ground appearing here and there, otherwise solid snow into and throughout the area. Southern aspect climb out northbound is showing sections of dry trail, but most of the tree-covered switchbacks are still covered with 4-6 feet of snow.
- Guyot Creek: Solid snow from 10,200 on southern aspect climb up from Rock Creek into basin before Guyot Pass. Creeks in this bowl are completely covered.
- Whitney Creek at lower Crabtree Meadow: Brief steep snow descent into Crabtree! 2-4 feet of snow covering entire meadow with creek still opening up. No snow bridges at 10,300. Creek is over-flowing through meadow slowly, but has 2-4 foot vertical snowbanks on both sides making for awkward getting in and out of the water. Best crossing is at summer trail location. Flow rate is pre-thaw, meaning water is clear and non-turbulent and about 20 inches deep. Small stones – medium sized rocks.
- Sandy Meadow creeks: solid snow all the way to Wallace Creek. Few places to access water in these little creeks. Great views of Western Divide!
- Wallace Creek: Steep snow descent into Wallace! 2-4 feet of snow lining both sides of this open and moderately flowing stream. Be careful you don’t fall in while maneuvering down the snowbank to get in! Best crossing is at summer location. No dry place yet on the northern bank and flat areas to dry off after. Flow rate is pre-thaw, meaning water is clear and non-turbulent and about 24 inches deep. Medium sized rocks. Steeper slope than Whitney Creek.
- Wright Creek: Completely covered. No water access. Strong snow for easy walk across.
- Tyndall Frog Ponds: Completely covered and no water access at bear box crossing.
- Tyndall Creek: Just opening up (snow bridges collapsing) at summer trail location, but good snow bridges upstream. Decent flow coming down from open bowl above with moderate force (glad we didn’t have to wade across). 4-8 feet of vertical snow on both sides of creek where open. No water access above creek and over Forester until Center Basin Creek.
- Center Basin Creek: (10,500) Still completely covered with 8-14 feet of snow.
- Bubbs Creek: Open from 10,800 down with 8-14 feet of vertical snow on both sides. Some water access areas.
- Bullfrog Lake and ponds creeks: Vidette Meadows area (9,000) completely covered with 2-5 feet of snow. Some patches of ground starting to appear wherever it is not flooded. Route up to PCT/JMT jct. at Charlotte Lake/Kearsarge Pass trails is completely covered though on a southern aspect with no water access. Ponds below Bullfrog are starting to open up with standing water on lake snow surface, but no peripheral cracking making for safe passage across. Bullfrog also completely frozen with safe passage directly across. No water access in Kearsarge Lakes drainage.
C. Temperatures: 27-31 overnights with highs into the 50-60s.
D. Snow Condition:
- Below Timberline: Consolidated with a strong surface crust, 6-14″ of afternoon slush, then another ice layer (to slip on). Hiking crampons worn from 0530 starts daily, depending on snow condition and slope aspect, until early afternoon when they started “balling up” and were removed.
- Above Timberline: Consolidated with a strong surface crust made by overnight sub-freezing temperatures re-freezing previous day’s surface thaw until about mid-morning when nasty postholing begins and progresses to hip-deep even before noon. Already!
E. Daily Logistics: Get up at 0300, be off by 0500, eat hourly snacks, drink often, have bigger “pack-off” breaks frequently, and all to utilize what hardened snow you may have from overnight freezing to get over your daily pass and down its backside before postholing time arrives, say by 1400. Camp for the day. You will waste time and energy trying to attain more miles in hazardous afternoon postholing conditions than you will starting and ending early!
F. Places of Concern & Advice (NoBo):
- Rock, Whitney, Wallace Creek Descents: All of these have steep, northern aspects with switchbacks in the summer, but when covered in snow, require steep snow skills to remain safe.
- Open creeks with high snow banks: Be careful where you cross. Utilize your creek-crossing skills and techniques to select and cross where easiest and safe.
- Cottonwood Pass (another pass with a steep final pitch) is still covered with feet of snow, so don’t plan on sailing up it without crampons (depending on time of day and presence of a boot-track). Trees on the slope can be a clear and present danger to any tumble after a fall.
- Siberian Outpost: As long as it is covered with snow, there is no reason to go straight down its length and reconnect with the PCT at the other end.
- Mt. Whitney’s west side we do not consider safe to ascend this early in the season. There have already been too many rescues and fatalities on the east side for anyone without extensive mountaineering training (not just equipment) to be up there.
- Weather: We are anticipating this spring to bring many, daily thunderstorm events to the Sierra. Do not go up into the Forester basin expecting to easily go over the Pass if one is building for the day. Make sure you have enough food and time to get back out over Cottonwood (Shepherd and Trail Crest are not safe exits yet) should weather events last for days. Stay below timberline if thunderstorms are imminent!
- Snow-hiking can be far more exhausting than any dry-trail walking, so cut your desired daily mileages down to 8-10/day and don’t continue above timberline after postholing time. Drink and eat much more than you normally would.
- Exposure: The sun is intense! Wear wide-brimmed hats, lots of sunscreen, and decent sunglasses for high elevation on snow!
- Forester Pass: Get over it by 1100 or face miles of postholing down the north side in soupy snow. All above timberline navigation is line-of-sight, so follow Bubbs Creek and not the trail. Nav through the trees involves lots of ups, downs, and arounds lumps and bumps in the snow which is avoided by staying out in the open, out of the forest.
- Kearsarge Pass: Get over it by 1200 or face miles of postholing down the east side in soupy snow.
G. Trail Conditions: Most dry trail is still being revealed as the snow melts. There is little out there, so anticipate navigating by GPS and keeping your electronics charged.
- Forester’s Chute “trail” has been cut half-way (I ran out of time to do the whole thing). There is the usual near-vertical wall at the top of the pass that should have toe-holds to use to climb up the final pitch. The route up from the bottom involves cutting (kicking and scratching with crampons) your own switchbacks into the steep snow up the snow-ramp on the right (where the summer switchbacks are) to where you can begin to see the trail emerging in the steeper wall above. Once on the exposed trail, anticipate that the trailbed may be full of snow and ice, so walk carefully, always maintaining your balance. The switchbacks after the chute are dry and exposed to the final wall, about 12 feet tall.
- Kearsarge’s east-bound high traverse from the Charlotte Lake jct. is still buried under snow, so until it melts off making it the preferred route, take the low route over Bullfrog Lake.
- The Thaw is about to start! Nighttime temperatures this spring have been sub-freezing, delaying the arrival of the thaw in earnest. After the thaw starts, prepare for raging creeks, really early daily starts and endings, and lots of postholing, if you don’t.
Play Safe & Stay Found!
June 10, 2017: [Horseshoe Meadows to Rock Creek]
This is a short commentary because we couldn’t continue past Rock Creek due to instructor injury (severe knee pain due to chronic low back, IT Band strain).
A. Snow Line: 10,000 feet
B. Creek Crossings:
- Horseshoe Meadows/Cottonwood Pass trail: The only creek crossing on this segment is usually a rock-hop across a narrow tributary, but is now quite flooded at the west end of the meadow. Search upstream as always for a narrower jump-across or try the flooded log at the summer location.
- Rock Creek: This peaceful, little creek is a whitewater torrent right now! The usual 2-log dry crossing 75 yards above the summer location is nearly underwater and it is 4-5 feet above the creek bed, so you can’t cross there. Another log exists nearby that fell across the creek breaking on a boulder on the other side, but it has a hazardous jump-down on that end, so think twice about that one. Otherwise, as always, go to meadows where the flow is spread out in the flooding area, shallower, and the current’s “push” is less strong. Crossing in the meadow below the Ranger Station (upper campground) works best.
C. Temperatures: 25-37 overnights with highs into the 50-60s.
D. Snow Condition:
- Below Timberline: Due to a recently reported high country rain event, the otherwise softening and thawing snowpack has re-consolidated, hardened, and become something decent to walk on without snowshoes nearly all day! Start with hiking crampons or other traction device you can rely on to use on steep surfaces until the “ball-up” underfoot when the snow starts getting soft and wet in the afternoons.
- Above Timberline: Our only exposure on this trip was on Cottonwood Pass, itself, and the south-facing snowpack was wonderfully consolidated and easy to walk on all day.
E. Daily Logistics: When the snowpack can change so quickly in the heat of sunny days, the rule of thumb is always to be off as early as possible, yet without the need for headlamp use (that limits your ability to differentiate between pitches in snow and easily avoidable hazards in surface conditions that may result in a fall or posthole alongside a boulder or tree). Usually, the hour or hour-and-a-half before direct sun is a good time to start walking. Get over your daily pass as early as possible, too, so your glissade down the backside will be gloriously fun!
F. Places of Concern & Advice (NoBo):
- Cottonwood Pass: Dry trail for most of the way up until the last few switchbacks where snow covers the steep trail! This last pitch across 50 yards is where, if you’re on hard, morning snow, you might want to crampon-up and stay in the boot-track, otherwise you’ll be on your edges and wishing you had decent boots.
- Rock Creek descent: Still under snow and quite steep in places requiring steep snow descent techniques to stay balanced and safe from falling.
G. Trail Conditions: All south-facing trails are opening up and making for nice and easy leg swinging in cool, daytime weather conditions below 10,000 feet! Shady trail may still have large patches of snow where you may lose the trail. Keep walking in the general direction where you know the trail to be headed and keep looking around for signs of it going across any open ground nearby. Learn how to use your GPS to know where you are in relation to the trail. Routes through the trees will consist of lots of ups and downs over drifts of snow whereas routes through flat meadows and open spaces between trees will be flat and easier to walk across.
- Mosquitoes are coming out in droves below 10,000 feet, but are slow and stupid in the morning cold. Bring repellant or netting!
- Gaiters were not necessary since we were not postholing this time through the area.
- NIghttime temps were either so warm that we were sleeping under our bags or so cold that we had to layer-up our clothing to stay warm enough. Current forecast calls for continued cold temps into the low 20s, so go prepared!
- The Sierra Thaw started around May 25th, but has since seen rain, cold, and snow events that will slow the thaw causing snowline to remain low into the summer. Prepare for long, snow-covered trail up and down each pass.
- As long as the snowpack continues to melt, the creeks will run high and fast like they are right now. Look for meadow crossings and learn how to safely cross creeks, first by dry routes, then by wading across. Remember, you may not have enough dry trail on the other side to allow your shoes to dry, should you choose to cross in your hiking shoes, so the issue of “trench foot” caused by chronic wet feet may arise.
- Even the long-distance PCT thru hikers who already have 700 miles under their belts are experiencing altitude sickness when they get up to 11,000 feet, so watch for those symptoms!
- This same group also was experiencing surprising daily fatigue where even 8 miles/day was all they could take over snow. Snow-hiking is very tiring and uses different muscle groups than dry-trail hiking, so don’t necessarily expect to be able to do 10-20 miles/day.
- Take lots more food!
- Looks like we will be getting more thunderstorms this spring-summer, so go prepared.
- If the above-timberline snowpack starts getting super-soft again in the thaw, stop your struggle through the wallow and just quit for the day rather than strain something trying obstinately to make your miles. Get up early in the morning to utilize what hard snow you might have to facilitate easier walking!