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  1. #1

    Default High Snows in the Sierra and affects on the '19 summer hiking season

    Currently the sierra, along with the majority of west coast ranges, are being buried by high snows. As an east coaster, going through the planning stages of a possible summer backpacking trip in these regions, Im wondering how the current winter snows may affect popular trails such as the PCT ,JMT as well as other popular hiking areas throughout the region - in relation to the upcoming summer hiking/backpacking season? Currently, it is looking like this year will yield a later melting and opening of the hiking season at higher elevations. Being from the northeast i'm used to the snow, but it would be my first time hiking in any of the west coast ranges and i am not experienced in the intricacies their cycles. Im wondering - is this something thru-hikers are accounting for and adjusting to - as far as trip timeframes etc.?
    Last edited by Out of Mind; 02-14-2019 at 12:50.

  2. #2
    Registered User Venchka's Avatar
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    The current forecast for California is extreme to say the least.
    The most recent high snow year was well documented by Dixie of Homemade Wanderlust video fame. The NOBO Hobos couple did a good job with their blog.
    If you aren’t attempting a PCT thru hike, September after Labor Day is a nice time to be in the Western mountains.
    Wayne

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    Its so highly variable, its impossible to guess until april to may.
    You can have record snowpack that melts away quick with no late spring storms to maintain it. Those storms make all the difference, adding weeks to melt off...or not.


    The problem is a few low snow yrs conditioned people to expect passable conditions in june-early july. This simply cannot be counted on.

    many people try to make a hike fit their timeframe or early permit, and fail .

    Pct hikers with adequate budgets can work around it. Others quit and go home. In 2017 a bunch of pct hikers ended up hiking in CO waiting for CA to melt. Beat going home, and cant stay in motel for a month waiting.

    For people with right snow skills and gear...(not yur avg hiker).only real issue is raging streams.
    Last edited by MuddyWaters; 02-14-2019 at 03:47.

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    Registered User Venchka's Avatar
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    Read MW’s last sentence. And read it again.
    Crossing late season snowfields is tiresome.
    Crossing swollen streams or rivers can be , and often is, lethal.
    Be safe.
    Wayne

  5. #5

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    The issue with the PCT community in recent years, is many of those years were below average snow years that often happened back to back just as the numbers hiking the PCT really started to grow and thus much of recent information tends to downplay the difficulties of the High Sierra. 10 years ago maybe 400 hiked the trail and they tended to be a bit more experienced overall than what I've seen in recent years.

    What makes the hiking hard is the high altitude (that many are not fully use to) makes the climbs feel harder then they would be at low elevation. Soft snow in the afternoon that won't support your weight and you start to posthole through it which can be very tiring and painful to hike on. I remember punching through up to my thigh once. The more snow coverage there is on the ground, the more miles you have to hike on it while postholing. You can try to compensate by getting up earlier so the snow remains harder for a longer period of the hiking day, but this can cause issues higher up on the passes; as you get higher up and the drops become steeper. The trail is completely burried up there, so there are no switchbacks to use, so you normally are climbing straight up and down the passes. The more snow there is, the colder the nights tend to be. If it was too cold (which higher up it tends to be), the snow doesn't just firm up, but it can become iced over. Thus you can't kick a step in to stand on. You have to cut a step in with your ice axe (and most of those UL alumunium ice axes most people carry don't work for this, they are really only useful for self arresting in semi-soft snow). If there are deep footprints from the previous day, you may be alright, but if they have already mostly melted away, you may end up having to wait for things to warm up. So adjusting your hiking day to time the snow conditions up high perfectly becomes the key. The more snow there is the more you have to compromise which usually leads to postholing at least part of the day. As the snow melts in spring, it starts to form suncups which are a pain to walk on as you have to keep stepping on the edges of them. So the snow is never flat which adds a minor additional anoyance.

    So you finally got over the pass and are now dropping into lower elevations. You usually are out of the snow, but if it's early enough in the season or there was a really large amount of snow, you may remain in the snow all day. The issue is all that snow runoff has melted into the streams and creeks you need to ford across (very few bridges on the JMT/PCT). As it will be deep and potentially fast, you'll want to spend time scouting around for a log to cross on, or at least a shallower or slower water spot to cross which can take time. You may not find a place and will have to wait until the next morning when the water is lower to cross. More hikers have died from being washed away on a water crossing than from the snow travel. This is a particular problem for small and light people as they are more easily swept off their feet.

    Some people (who are confident in hiking in snow) feel that going in earlieris actually safer as there may be snow bridges across the creeks or at the very least, the runoff isn't as heavy as it may be in 2-3 weeks. Suncups may not be as deep. But in trade, you hike on snow for much farther each day with potentially postholing and you may get a late season snow storm. Going in a bit later, there may be less snow cover, but the creek crossings may be deeper. Or you can try to wait for the melt to happen. An amazing amount of snow melts off in just a week or two in June. The problem is for a PCT thru-hiker, you just can't always wait for it to melt off enoough if you want to reach Canada before winter. Waiting til July isn't going to work for a PCT hiker if they want to hike the whole thing. People do try to flip-flop to somewhere with less snow, as sometimes only the Sierra gets hit hard but the north Cascades don't so you can flip to Canada. But that doesn't work every year as sometimes there is no better place to flip to as north of SoCal, the rest of the trail could be buried under just as much snow. That said, everyyear some hikers go through no matter how much snow there is and do alright. But some do not do well. The last big snow year 2 years ago, I remember a Japanese girl died on a creek crossing when hiking solo. Another year, I heard a guy tell the story of how he and some other hikers had to rescue a girl they were with when she got swept off her feet. They were able to run ahead of her to a log where they caught her. Know yourself and your limits and try to hike with a group so you can help each other is the best advice I can give.

  6. #6

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    You all offer excellent, informative points highlighting the very issues I have been researching. Dangerous stream crossings, postholing, snowed over / possibly icy trails, are not to be taken lightly. It’s Interesting to hear that, even with the high snow numbers we are currently seeing, the conditions can still turn very quickly - depending on late spring storm activity and that it is hard to truly gauge the summer melts until that time. Usefull info.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Out of Mind View Post
    You all offer excellent, informative points highlighting the very issues I have been researching. Dangerous stream crossings, postholing, snowed over / possibly icy trails, are not to be taken lightly. It’s Interesting to hear that, even with the high snow numbers we are currently seeing, the conditions can still turn very quickly - depending on late spring storm activity and that it is hard to truly gauge the summer melts until that time. Usefull info.
    Cdec is your friend
    You can watch snow depth at high alt monitoring stations
    Also postholer has interactive map showing snowcover
    This yr is a little above average so far, but it can change.

    2017 was on track match 83, until feb, then fizzled
    getSWCGraphWidget1.png
    Last edited by MuddyWaters; 02-14-2019 at 13:18.

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    Here’s an Interesting article on the ‘17 season in the Sierra’s - which was a BIG snow year.
    Link - https://www.rgj.com/story/life/outdo...ard/306988001/

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    I’m just a bystander as far as the PCT goes, but I’m wondering how many people carry show shoes? It seems like it would be beneficial and even the added weight would certainly be made up for with less postholing.


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  10. #10

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    The trick is to hike on the snow when it's frozen - get up before 4am, hike up and over passes and down the 9000-foot-land by afternoon. Then lather, rinse, repeat.

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    Very few carry snowshoes in hiking season. Most of the snow is "Sierra cement" not powder. Post holing is a pain but only occurs in certain conditions & not worth snowshoes.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mountain Mike View Post
    Very few carry snowshoes in hiking season. Most of the snow is "Sierra cement" not powder. Post holing is a pain but only occurs in certain conditions & not worth snowshoes.
    this is an example of ( last 10 year average ) thinking - big fresh snow dumps can happen any month, this is the “in case” snow shoes are most helpful for - in all the low snow years the light pack “you do not need that” mind set has been established - this true you do not “need” mountaineering gear to do the PCT as long as you are willing to wait for a different year

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mountain Mike View Post
    Very few carry snowshoes in hiking season. Most of the snow is "Sierra cement" not powder. Post holing is a pain but only occurs in certain conditions & not worth snowshoes.
    Thanks! I figured there was a reason.


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  14. #14

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    It's true that few thru-hikers carry snow shoes as the thru-hiking season the snow is pretty consolidated hence the term "Sierra cement". Which is pretty nice to hike on when it isn't ice in the earl morning nor soup like on a hot afternoon. But unlike many, if I was re-hiking the trail in a 200%+ snow year and entering late May/early June, I would consider bringing my MSR Lightning Ascents snowshoes. I have talked to a few hikers, who in some really big snow years in early June, did carry snowshoes and said their travel was easier than those hiking companions that did not have them who were postholing much more frequently. So they were glad they had them. But they were also seeing snow much lower down than the typical thru-hiker would normally see where the terrain would make them easier to use. But for more average conditions where you are mainly concerned with snow on the passes while climbing/descending/traversing on the steep slopes, I think they'd of limited use for the weight and traction devices of far more use.

    A better debate might be of microspikes verses something more crampon like (such as Kahtoola K-10s which do work with trail runers or the Hillsong Trail Crampons that have longer spikes than Kathoola microspikes; don't confuse these with Hillsong's mircospike equivalents with shorter spikes) . The longer teeth would give more grab once the snow softens which might make a few traverses a little less nerve racking. Though most hikers are fine with just normal microspikes.

    The most important thing a hiker can carry when there is a lot of snow is extra food as the snow travel will slow you down and many a hiker has run out of food or had to ration when a section took longer then they planned.

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    Ive only seen Sierra cement referring to the heavy wet snow that california/nevada ski areas often get. By comparison to the light dry powder rockies receive. Its different to ski heavy ungroomed sierra snow. More demanding.

    Not to consolidated snow conditions and thaw cycles.
    Last edited by MuddyWaters; 02-18-2019 at 12:42.

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    Some good points made already but I will weigh in because I hiked in one of the last major snow years, 2011.
    1) Don’t confuse the amount of snow that the Sierra gets with what you will experience on trail IF you enter during normal windows, mid June. 2017 was the largest snow year in the last 20 but it also melted out much faster than other years such as 2011. It is both how much and how fast it melts.
    2) You will hear so called experts talk of a magic hiking window in mid to late May when you can skip your way across the consolidate snow and cross streams on snow bridges sprinkled with manic pixie dust. This scenario was very real in ‘11 but only because there was a much delayed melt out until early to mid June. Had you attempted to do the Sierra in mid to late May 2017 you would have found both major snow and raging stream crossings. Net, every year is different and what works one year could be a disaster the next.
    3) During every major snow year there starts to be a chorus taking about flipping. This can work some years but only if there is a light snow year in the Cascades. In 2011 there was nowhere to go as the snow in the Cascades had a slow melt as well. Make sure you aren’t jumping from the pot to the frying pan.
    4) It is not impossible to make it through the Sierra in a high snow year. You will hear all kinds of doom and gloom but a well prepared and experienced hiker can make it through, I am proof of it. But I also did many snowshoe trips into the Sierra in the winter and early spring so I knew exactly what I was getting into.
    5) Snowshoes. No way. I have done trips with and without them. For a thru hike going into the Sierra in mid June they would rarely be worth the weight. Yes there can be late season snows, I had one going into Sonora Pass in ‘11. But it was about a foot of fresh snow at elevation and snowshoes would have collected with little marginal benefit. I don’t remember the last major Sierra snow that dumped feet of snow in mid to late June or later.
    6) Beware of snow advice from those that hiked in a low snow year. The “just follow the footprints” and Guthook is all you need is laughable.
    If you want to read all the gory details here’s what you can expect. The snow was a great blessing to me. It was an enormous sense of satisfaction and the power of Mother Nature is in full display. You can’t image the sound of a raging torrent of water rushing down through those canyons or the devastation of the avalanche trails. But that is what made the trip absolutely incredible.

    https://www.postholer.com/journal/Pa...t-Beyond/23541
    enemy of unnecessary but innovative trail invention gadgetry

  17. #17

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    Forecast is calling for another 5-10 feet of snow in the Sierra, over the next few days, adding to what is already a record year.
    💨❄️🏔
    Last edited by Out of Mind; 02-27-2019 at 13:26.

  18. #18
    Registered User Venchka's Avatar
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    Currently:
    “Wednesday, the Sierra Nevada’s snowpack stood at 150 percent of its historical average for this time of year, up from 69 percent of average on Jan. 1,. The snowpack, which provides California with one-third of its water supply, now stands at 129 percent of its historical average for April 1, considered the end of the snow/water season by the state’s water managers.”
    Wayne

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    As hinted at by the above post, you need to wait until April 1st to determine what the snow pack is going to be like this year.
    However, should the snow pack stay on the current track...

    ...if you want to see some of the practical aspects to hiking the Sierras in a high snow year, watch the movie "Mile... Mile & A Half".
    The movie is well worth watching on its own merits.

    But for those planning to hike the Sierras during a high snow year, they started their hike July 10, 2011... a high snow year.
    BTW: the movie will make mention that they carried micro-spikes, I've since learned that they never used them.

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