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Re: [John Muir Trail] Walking on Snow

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  • John Ladd
    Great post, Ned! I ve added a link to this post in out Trailcraft - Snow Technique folder in the Links area of the Group.
    Message 1 of 2 , Nov 28, 2012
      Great post, Ned!

      I've added a link to this post in out Trailcraft - Snow Technique folder in the Links area of the Group.

      There are aother useful links there as well.

      John Curran Ladd
      1616 Castro Street
      San Francisco, CA  94114-3707

      On Wed, Nov 28, 2012 at 1:02 AM, Ned Tibbits <ned@...> wrote:

      I’m going to cross-post this as I think it will be instructional to both trail groups.
      Walking on the surface of snow is easy as long as it is hard. The only issue you will have is that it is slippery. Solution, traction-aides like Kahtoola KTS crampons. (We, at Mountain Education, have been sponsored by and have tested along the PCT between Crabtree and Forester Kahtoola’s Microspikes and have found them to be utterly worthless—and dangerous to trust—when used on a traverse, however short. The issue is that they can roll off toward the side of your shoe just when you need them the most! (A clever member of our test team tried to tie them into his boot’s lacing system, but to no avail. They slid sideways anyway!)
      The snow is especially hard on the surface after warm days of sunshine followed by freezing nights. This frozen surface will remain hard until sufficiently warmed by the sun (so watch out in the shade!) The surface will soften gradually and your boots will get a better grip, almost allowing you to push off your toes again. This could be about mid-morning (depending on aspect), pre-thaw, in the spring sierra. Once the surface softens, you can plunge fairly easily with each step into the softer snow beneath. This is called “post-holing” and is exhausting and has the potential to cause serious knee and soft tissue injuries. Thus, try to avoid post-holing like the plague and get your day done by mid-afternoon or earlier.
      Now, you will get really good at reading snow slopes, however short (like those brief snow-berms that drift across the trail in places), to decide practically in mid-stride whether it will be safe to kick steps up the side of it or to go around. Once on top of the drift, you will have to adjust your walking technique to a more “flat-footed” manner so you don’t slip (pushing off your toes on snow may cause you to slip and fall), not to mention that you will, also, have to edge in with the uphill side of each foot just to get a grip and a little traction. Although we are tempted to hurry these snow crossings, haste only encourages a fall, so go easy and always test the snow surface for grip.
      Bigger and longer snow “fields” require the same attention to safety and traction assessment, but are not always on a traverse. The flat approaches to the bottom of pass climbs can be easy for walking (watch out for those suncups), but when the route you have selected (remember, the trail is buried and you can go wherever you want—just keep in mind where the trail is and parallel it) gradually shifts to a steeper traverse, you might want to put those Kahtoola KTSs back on! You are never a “wimp” when choosing to be safer. Just know when to do it!
      Use your poles to correct any and all sideways balance shifts, to help you push up the inclines (toeing in), to help you slow down on the descents, then put them away and grab your ice axe for the seriously steep climbs and glissades.
      Now, the good part.... “Do I need snowshoes when snow-hiking the spring sierra on melted, consolidated snow (hard in the mornings and soup after lunch)?” Our advice is that you do not. The added weight and infrequency of need isn’t worth it. Just be happy with the 10 to 15 miles you’ll be able to get in before post-holing and call it quits early.
      “So, how do I get my needed miles in each day?” First, change your thinking. You’re not on dry trail anymore and can’t go fast since you can’t push off your toes on slippery snow. To do so risks a slip-and-fall, so don’t. However, if you plan your days right, you can maximize the miles, even when there is snow above 10,000 feet. Do your climbs early in the morning when the snow is hard and get off the passes right away by sliding (glissading) down the back side (caution: watch out for hidden rocks!). Even though there may be miles of snow past the steep slide down, the object is to reach dry trail below snowline before you start post-holing in the early afternoon. Once on dry trail, fly down to the creek crossing, get across it (hopefully before the thaw starts and the creeks are huge and foaming!), and pack your way back up to the base of the next pass. Stop for the day. Resume the same thing tomorrow. Post-holing descents are dangerous and ascents are exhausting if not ridiculous.
      Snow bridges need to be talked about. In the early season, say before June first, most of the notorious creek crossings will still be covered with unbroken snow that, if it is thick enough, you can walk on and get over the slightly moving creek underneath. You have to be able to assess the thickness of this bridge before crossing or else you risk breaking through the bridge and falling into the creek below the snow pack. If you can not do this, search for another bridge nearby where you can see the thickness of the snow below where you will be walking. Once crossing, probe ahead with your poles to test for snow strength. You will acquire a “sense” about which bridges look “good” and those that spell disaster.
      Later, once the thaw starts (when overnight temps remain above freezing), these bridges will thin out and collapse while the creek grows in size with the increased pack melt. It is at this time when most thru hikers enter the sierra. The thaw can take up to a month to melt out all snow (depending on the depth of the winter’s accumulation) up to 11,500 or 12,000 feet and can start at any time (depending on the spring).
      So, expect to have to walk on snow through the sierra (unless it was a really mild winter). When you get there, the snowline may be at 9,500 and you’ll hit it just north of Monache Meadows or it may be at 11,000 and you won’t taste of it until Chicken Spring Lake. Nevertheless, expect the passes to have miles of snow on either sides under the worst of conditions with high, whitewater creek crossings below. If you plan and prepare for this reality, you won’t be caught off-guard and without the skills needed to assess and travel over snow safely!
      Ned Tibbits, Director
      Mountain Education

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