In essence, we at Mountain Education don't disagree with Jackie at all,
especially if you want to minimize contact with snow. If that is the case,
start with the crowd after a "normal" winter, "late" after a heavy winter,
and "early" can be done after a light winter. Don't, though, let fear of the
unknown stop you from enjoying one of the most beautiful under-snow areas of
the whole PCT! Just know what you're going into and be prepared for it.
Since 1982, we have usually logged about 70 days/nights on-snow in the
sierra each year teaching how to get around safely. The conditions sure
aren't like walking a dry, prepared trail that
goes-where-you-want-so-you-don't-have-to-look-up. You have to be aware of
your surroundings and your senses need to be awake when snow-hiking, but
that is why we are in the mountains, anyway, to soak it all up!
Jackie accurately laid out what the conditions are like between the border
and Kennedy Meadows during the "early" start months of March and early
April. Expect consolidated snow (hard, compact morning surfaces that can be
slippery and icy turning to a soft, post-holing type snowpack later in the
day) wherever the trail is above snowline for the mountains you're in
(Lagunas, Jacinto, San Bernardinos, etc). You can still receive new snow
during those months (as we did the last two years), so plan for fresh stuff
landing on your tent.
If you have the training and experience dealing with these conditions,
which, as Jackie said most thru hikers do not, an "early" start is not
dangerous (from the trained and experienced perspective). If you want more
time on-trail, leave early and prepared with the requisite experience to
deal with what you'll find. You may have to go around certain nasty and
steep sections of trail (as Jackie pointed out one such is along the Desert
Divide south of San Jacinto) by gaining the ridge above and following it
cross-country on snow (as many did this past hiking season), but that is
easy. Of course, carry crampons (not the climbing kind) for traction
control, good, fat, strong, 2-section, cam-locked hiking poles with larger
snow baskets (we highly advocate the constant use of the BD Whippet pole in
one hand and a regular pole (like the BD Traverse pole) in the other, and
know what you're doing. It is not a walk in the park, but a little skills
training and mountain awareness for the summer hiker makes all the
difference for a fun and safe snow-hike.
So, you'll need to realize the conditions that can be present near both
borders early and late in the thru hiking season, make a personal decision
whether you want to accept those prospects, then make sure you have the
training and experience to deal with them safely before going ahead with
your plans to start as desired.
How about a little Snow Reality explained:
- Typical spring snow, when the snow pack has begun settling during
longer hours of sunlight and warmer ambient temperatures, can be crusty or
hard on the surface in the morning, consolidated throughout the pack (so it
holds together well because it is melting and sticking together--better than
with fresh, airy snow in the mix), minimally prone to avalanche, melts
during the morning, then you start postholing for the rest of the day until
you reach "dry" ground and trail.
- The Snowline in early May, when Mtn. Ed. runs its Snow Advanced Course
out of Kennedy Meadows over Forester Pass, can be as low as 9,500 feet after
a "heavy" winter. That's the elevation where the patches of snow disappear
and you stay on top of a solid pack maybe 6 to 10 feet deep. As for SoCal,
much of the same should be expected. When Mtn. Ed. teaches its satellite SBC
course up on San Jacinto right after the Kickoff (for the years when enough
thrus request the course), the snow depth has been around 3 to 5 feet deep
at Saddle Junction with the pack hard and easy to walk on during the morning
hours under trees. Just South of there is the Desert Divide with its issues
I'll talk about in a moment.
- Route selection is wide open to you. The trail is covered. You can go
wherever you want and there are no rocks, roots, step-ups or downs, nothing.
Cut your own trail! If the way ahead of you looks slippery, go around. If
the dry trail suddenly dives under a snow bank, simply climb up it (toe-in
or traverse), walk over the top of the bank, and look for the trail coming
out the other side. If the snow bank is the beginning of a huge snow field,
then figure out where the trail is going and exactly where you are (map
reading skills), and walk any line you want to get there. If the summer
trail goes where it is now too dangerously steep, follow another route. You
do not have to stay on top of the trail all the time! Simply know all the
time where the trail is and where you are in relation to it. You can be
following safe routes over the snow by staying in the valley or on the ridge
where you won't fall off the mountain while the trail is off to the side.
Follow creeks (there are no bushes to whack through!), valleys, ridges which
are the safest. Constantly watch for recognizable landmarks to make sure
you're where you want to be, a certain shaped lake, bend in a creek, an old
avalanche path, a rock outcropping on the map, etc.. So, the Desert Divide's
nasty east-facing trail cuts can be simply avoided by taking a route along
the ridge above it! Always choose routes within your means and travel
prepared. A fall can happen to the experienced, too. Don't be hasty.
- Traversing over/across steep snow is the most hazardous. Microspikes
are not God's answer to the traction solution since they can roll right off
your shoe. Ask the manufacturer, if your selection of traction device is
designed for higher angle snow traversing. Crampons are the answer and have
kept us secure and happy for years of teaching early-season snow-hiking
along the JMT/PCT. Always stay balanced. Never hurry until conditions
permit/allow. Always be ready to self-arrest when you fall and start sliding
out of control down to the trees or rocks below. Know how to identify
hazardous conditions ahead and when to have your Whippet or ice axe in hand
and at the ready. It's beautiful out there and incredibly rewarding, but you
need to be wise to remain safe. It is not a walk in the park along a
prepared trail. You're in God's Country and you need to be aware and not
naive or inexperienced.
- An early start may mean rain or snow might fall, muddy trail, some
creeks flowing in SoCal that might not otherwise be there if you left later,
and firm snow to walk on where you find it. Just be prepared for them.
- A late ending across the 49th parallel into Canada may mean fresh and
deep snow you may not be able to wallow through that effectively stops the
triumphant end of your 5 or 6 month thru hike. According to the rangers in
Manning, hike-stopping snow can begin to fall anytime after mid-September,
so consider planning to end your dream-hike by then. Fresh snow is nothing
like consolidated snow! Hiking into October may have been possible for some
in the past, but the start timing of each year's storms is a gamble you have
to accept if you end up running late in your schedule.
- How to deal with snow-hiking:
Once you hit the spring snow pack, it doesn't matter whether there is 2
feet or 10 feet deep, you walk on it the same way. Navigation is by line of
sight with map and compass to provide assurance. If you're in the trees and
can't see out, a GPS unit with Halfmile's maps is essential for the
experienced. Learn how to pick a route to where you want to go that is
direct, manageable for your skill set, avoids nasty creek crossings (if you
go early, these may still be covered in snow or snow-bridges), rocks, and
slippery traverses, still keeps you close to the "trail," and is safe for
all in your group to stay together.
If the surface is hard, crusty, or icy, you'll need some sort of
traction device, like the Kahtoola KTS crampons (not the Microspikes) for
those steep ascents, descents, and traverses, especially. If your route
turns steep, whether during a traverse or that simple ascent or descent off
a pass, you'll need some sort of self-arrest device like the Black Diamond
Whippet pole in one hand should you fall. Your ice axe can be a useful
"rudder" while glissading down any steep, soft and long slope. Shorter
steep, soft descents are best handled by heel-plunging or boot-skiing.
Yes, the better and more definitive device is an ice axe, but, unless
you can forecast where you'll need to take it off your pack and put it in
hand, it most likely won't be at-the-ready, in your hand when you need it to
self-arrest after the fall while the Whippet will be! For those final and
steep conditions, or anytime where you're on a hard, steep, slick crust,
you'll need an axe in your uphill hand as an anchor should you slip and for
balance (the continual monitoring and correcting of your balance is critical
all the time when on snow to stay safe, so go slow and don't "push" too
aggressively off your toes as on dry ground).
Cutting switchbacks up or down a climb, whether just to get over a
house-sized hump in the snow or an entire pass, requires the talent to
remain balanced and kick steps in the snow. For that, a firm-edged boot is
best, but many thrus get by with their trailrunners on soft snow (how they
do it on hard snow, I do not know).
If your reason for hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is to experience a hiking
adventure that spans three seasons and changes your life, congratulations,
you have found your opportunity! Now, go into it with your eyes open. If you
have any other questions about snow travel and snow-hiking, please feel free
to email back. We have snow skills training courses from January to August,
mainly in the Sierra along the PCT and one this year on South Sister in
May God bless your desires and that your dreams become your reality!
"Just remember, Be Careful out there!"
Ned Tibbits, Director
South Lake Tahoe, Ca. 96150
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