Snow in the Sierra
Updated: Nov 23, 2019
One year ago today, I started hiking the PCT for the second time to kick off my Calendar Year Triple Crown Attempt. Instead, I finished the AT as my final trail on January 13, 2019 finishing in under a year duration, but not in the same Calendar Year. Therefore, I call it a Single Year Triple Crown.
The next long distance hiking season is upon us and soon, if not already, people on the PCT (my favorite trail to date), will have to make a decision.
Every year on the PCT people get to Kennedy Meadows well before "Ray Day" (June 15). That normally means hiking through the Sierra in what I will call "early season conditions". Basically, that means more snow is on the trail so the trail is harder to follow, post-holing is more common, and stream crossings can be more dangerous. In 2018, I was one of those people who hiked through the Sierra in "early season conditions".
Nothing but Snow.
Some people who arrive early decide to wait for better conditions, others decide to flip. A few people like me decide to go through anyway. Some of us end up changing their decision, but some of us make it through. The reasons that people decide to attempt hiking the Sierra in "early season conditions" vary. I believe there are two main contributors to this:
1. PCT permits spread us out at the start including making a lot of people start sooner than would otherwise happen.
2. What used to be an anomaly, wildfires on the trail, has become the expectation. I would guess that in 2018, only around 30 people beat all the wildfires that impacted the trail. Since over 900 people reported a completed through hike, that's a very small percentage.
Basically with long distance hikers starting sooner and with the desire to beat the wildfires, or for numerous other valid reasons, long distance hikers will continue to attempt to hike the Sierra in "early season conditions". In 2018, I successfully pulled that off. Before I get into advice I have for others crossing the Sierra, here is one point I want to make:
Someone who decides not to enter the Sierra when you do is not necessarily a coward and should not be made to feel so. Someone who decides to enter the Sierra when you won't is not necessarily crazy and you providing them with your opinion that everyone who enters at this time is crazy does not help. Please, make your decision and leave it at that. If someone asks for information, provide only information. Only if someone asks for your opinion should it be provided, which I doubt will actually happen.
Here are a few pieces of advice for those who want to attempt hiking the Sierra in "early season conditions":
1. Bunker Mentality: Fear-mongering is real. The reason people fear-monger is understandable if also misguided. Once you decide to enter the Sierra, stay off social media, stay away from people to the maximum extent possible, and especially stay out of the hostels. Positive thinking helps performance and negative thinking hinders it. Stick with only those who will put positive thoughts in your head.
2. Group vs. Solo: Hiking with a group of like-minded people is probably best, but you have to be careful to make your own decisions and communicate clearly (see #3). However, you have to find people who have a similar schedule or alter your schedule to match theirs. I hiked the Sierra solo because I could not find someone who would match my schedule and was unwilling to change my schedule for someone else. If you are comfortable hiking the Sierra solo, I won't tell you not to, but do admit that hiking in a group is probably better.
3. Make Your Own Decisions: I've taken avalanche training because I do some backcountry skiing. Most of the class is about clearly communicating so that you have the following scenario happen: person A wants to turn around because of sketchy conditions but person B is still going forward so person B must know something person A doesn't. Meanwhile person B wants to turn around because of sketchy conditions but person A is still going forward so person A must know something person B doesn't. In that loop, you let the decision make itself. To prevent that loop, you must make your own decisions regardless of what others are doing. This is the most important advice I can give. If with a group, clearly communicate your concerns because others may share your concerns but don't want to speak up.
4. Use GPS: I had a boss tell me once that "life is tough enough as it is, there's no need to make it harder". This follows that principle. I ran out of food because I chose to navigate by map and compass. Carrying maps and knowing how to use them is probably a good idea if you are going solo, but quite honestly GPS devices (Guthook's App is probably the best) are very reliable, so it probably isn't needed.
I spent a lot of time on snow looking at a map. It would have been much faster with GPS.
5. Ice Axe: I carried an ice axe from Kennedy Meadows to Mammoth Lakes twice and didn't need it either time. Most long distance hikers don't know how to use an ice axe, how to pack an ice axe, or even how to carry an ice axe. If you don't know how to use it, it won't do you any good. Most likely you won't need it anyway. I would recommend not carrying an ice axe. I would recommend carrying at least one trekking pole.
6. Traction Devices: Both times I hiked through the Sierra, I didn't carry any traction devices and I didn't feel I needed them. Any traction device you carry will spend more time in your pack than on your feet, so if you feel you want something on your feet to feel more comfortable, then I would recommend microspikes. Crampons are not needed and there is more knowledge needed for using them than one would think. Also, they are heavier than microspikes.
7. Snowshoes: I could see using snowshoes to prevent from post-holing so much, but most likely by the time you decide to get them, you will already be past the area where they would be helpful. Snowshoes work best when there is a hard crust on top of soft snow so if you find out that those are the conditions you face, you may want to consider them.
8. Learn to Walk on Snow: My experience tells me that people who grew up on snow have a much easier time than people who have never seen snow before entering the Sierra. Look up the following French styles of walking with crampons on: Pied Marche and Pied en Canard. Understanding those styles of walking will probably help you on snow more than any traction devices will.
9. Learn from Mountaineers: Crossing the Sierra in "early season conditions" is not mountaineering in my opinion. However, some of the skills and techniques crossover such as walking on snow (see #8). Thinking like a mountaineer will help. First, mountaineers use alpine starts because the snow is more consolidated in the morning. You should too. Second, mountaineers do things like sleep with their boots in their sleeping bag so they don't freeze. You should too.
10. One Pass a Day: Advice I saw many times about hiking through the Sierra is to set up as close to the base of a pass as possible and hike over it first thing in the morning when it is easiest and then spend the rest of the day getting set up for the next pass. I would agree that it is easiest to hike that way, but if you have the time an energy to take on a second pass, I don't understand why you wouldn't. Think of it this way, you save a day by getting over two passes, so you can carry a day less of food.
11. Scout: This applies both to walking on snow and crossing streams. You don't have to stick to the trail precisely and in fact, you can generally find better and safer options than trying to stay exactly on the trail. Find the best spot to cross a stream instead of only crossing right at the trail. Be willing to take a different route than the trail when on snow. Sometimes that means scouting out to find the best route or best spot to cross a stream.