Yesterday, I had three different PCT Class of 2023 thru-hikers call me on the phone from different locations throughout Southern California asking me about what to take into the Sierra after such a huge winter.
During the process of reviewing gear, clothing, food, and fuel for the task, it occurred to me that the PCT thru-hikers of this year are going to have a serious problem in Kennedy Meadows, south (KMS), the gateway to the High Sierra.
When conditions on the ground and in the air (think weather and the results of it) are ideal, hikers don’t really need to carry a whole lot of stuff, thus the Ultra-Light trend was born encouraging minimal stuff and smaller packs to carry it all.
Facilitating the trend was the ability of the Weekend Warriors to select ideal weather windows during which to spearhead their immersions into the High Country without, even, tents – because they could.Even the week-long crowd could choose great weather windows allowing them to bring less stuff in small packs. Sounds pretty good, right?

Problems started emerging when the trails got too popular and wilderness permits had to be secured during the winter for trips in the spring or summer – they weren’t always granted for the most ideal time or dates. This change of events caused backpackers to carry more stuff for the weather challenges expected for their permit dates, necessitating strapping stuff on the outside of their little packs or simply going without because it all wouldn’t fit on the inside.

Thru-hikers, comparatively, have to be on-trail for months (in some cases) to accomplish their desires of going from start to finish causing them to have to deal with three season’s of weather nastiness, which, you would think, would cause them to carry the biggest packs of all in order to be prepared…but, no.

The Ultra-Light (UL) craze has created competitive social pressures among hikers such that everyone on-trail, upon meeting each other, looks each other over and mentally evaluates gear carried to support their decision to buy and carry the latest, greatest, most gram-minimal items and, thus, have the lightest pack out there. So, no one wants to be seen with a big, practical, functional backpack, anymore.

(Never tell anyone how much your pack weighs!)

Enter the Epic Winter of 2022-2023 that dumped tons of snow on the Sierra and some, even, down to sea level!
Enter the arriving PCT Class of 2023 to Kennedy Meadows, south, where they hear that there is still so much snow in the mountains, ahead, that…

  •  all creeks and lakes above 7,000-feet are buried such that they won’t be able to find readily available drinking water – without using their stoves to melt snow (meaning, they’ll have to carry more fuel weight and volume).
  • “late-season” snow storms are still arriving into the Sierra in May borne on Alaskan cold fronts – meaning they’ll need lots more clothes than they came with from the warm, desert sections in SoCal.
  • the resupply locations they planned on accessing and utilizing during their idealistic planning phase way back home many months ago will not be opening for business (because of all the snow still on buildings and roadways still blocked by rock slides and snow avalanches) until after they have passed through the area (think Muir Trail Ranch, VVR, Tuolumne Meadows General Store, and Kennedy Meadows, north, to name a few).
  • exit routes out of the Sierra for resupply will entail much longer roadwalks than after a more “normal” winter, because of those road closures to the trailheads.

OMG! What will this mean for the UL masses that thought they could simply cruise through the mighty Sierra and

  • – get water from every creek and stream everywhere,
  •  always find nice, dry, warm ground upon which to camp,
  •  be resupplied every few days from nearly on-trail resorts or businesses, like in Southern California, and
  • have short hikes out to trailheads teaming with day-tourists in their cars from whom they could easily hitch a ride into a distant town for resupply, hamburgers, laundry, pizza, showers, shakes, a real bed to sleep in, and more beer?

So, they will congregate amongst themselves on the porch of the Kennedy Meadows General Store in utter dismay as the realization hits them that…

…there’s no way they’re going to be able to carry all they need to take to be sufficiently supplied with gear, clothing, food, and fuel to go the, now, huge distances between resupply locations…
…in their little UL backpacks!

[Yes. Believe it or not, I do, finally, get to my point!]

Thus, the “KMS-23 Conundrum” =
1. do I change packs and get a bigger one that can carry more stuff just as comfortably and go into the Sierra prepared for safety or
2. do I skip this logistic nightmare created by a huge winter in the Sierra, keep my UL pack and style of hiking, and flip up to a hoped-for location far, far away where snow doesn’t exist?

Now, to be fair, #2 is always on their minds when they arrive in KMS after, even, just a “normal” winter. I don’t blame them. Sunny Southern California doesn’t usually have much snow on the trail, so they’re not used to it and don’t want to deal with it going forward.

Re-enter the “massive” winter of 2022-2023:

  • Snow in Sunny Southern California has been plentiful this March and April, burying the trail in many locations, and forcing the thru-hikers into local motels to wait out an incessant winter as they struggle to progress north.
  •  Snow has not been confined to just the high elevations where hikers can push through, briefly, and get back on dry, warm trail. This winter has been cold enough to dump snow down to elevations that have never seen it before – sea level!
  • Though most of the winter’s storms routed southerly and into California, NorCal, Oregon, and Washington still received a “normal” winter’s amount of snow, thus hikers can’t naively think they can flip from KMS to NorCal or anywhere else to find dry trail.

So, what is the PCT Class of ’23 going to do upon reaching Kennedy Meadows, south?
The KMS-23 Conundrum!