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Re: [pct-l] Early start, snow reality taught

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  • ned@mountaineducation.org
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 10, 2011
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      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
      Oregon.

      May God bless your desires and that your dreams become your reality!



      "Just remember, Be Careful out there!"

      Ned Tibbits, Director
      Mountain Education
      South Lake Tahoe, Ca. 96150
      P: 888-996-8333
      F: 530-541-1456
      C: 530-721-1551
      http://www.mountaineducation.org


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