high sierra

All posts tagged high sierra

It seems the drought in California is over for the moment, as we’ve watched snow and rain pummel the state in the past few months. While the water was much needed in the state, up to a point, it’s likely to make things a little more difficult for Pacific Crest Trail hikers in the high elevations of the Sierra Nevada mountains. If you plan on hiking the PCT or JMT this year, you should read Andrew Skurka’s excellent overview of what to expect with the snow this year.

Hikers approaching Muir Pass in June 2010.

I won’t recap Skurka’s points, but I’ll add something that my partners and I have talked about frequently in the past few years.

2010 and 2011 were the last years with above average snow pack in the Sierra. In 2012, we released the first edition of Guthook’s Guide to the Pacific Crest Trail. Three weeks later, Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, was published. In the past five years, the numbers of hikers on the PCT and JMT have skyrocketed as a result of the book and movie, social media accounts from through-hikers, and an overall increase in popularity of through-hiking. At the same time, navigation became easier as the number of hikers with GPS units went from a small handful to just about everyone hiking the trail (regardless of which app they’re using).

Travel through the High Sierra section of the PCT in those years, from what we’ve heard from many hikers, has been vastly easier than what many of the 2010 and 2011 through-hikers experienced. With less snow, there was less need for difficult route-finding over snowfields and fewer dangerous stream crossings. When there was snow to travel across, abundant GPS options made finding the trail a simple task. And, whereas hikers in higher snow years strategized and schemed to delay their entry into the Sierra, recent hikers have had to pay little attention to timing when passing through the high elevations.

My fear, hopefully unfounded, is that after years of relatively easy hiking in the High Sierra, through-hikers this year may be a little too complacent of the dangers posed by above-average snow depth. Hopefully I’m just being a little paranoid, worrying without reason, but for everyone planning to hit the Pacific Crest Trail this summer, please be careful out there!

Crossing streams raging with snowmelt in the Sierra.

Remember, you will probably be fine as long as you spend a little extra time during your hike to prepare mentally and physically for the most dangerous parts of the trail. You don’t need to be an expert mountaineer for the Sierra section of the PCT in order to safely get through and have a great time, but be open to learning from others with more experience, changing your plans on the fly, and taking time to avoid unnecessary risks.

A few basic pointers to get you started:
1- Take your time in the beginning of your hike if you want to avoid hiking too long over snow. The longer you wait, the more will melt. You can always make up time north of the Sierra.
2- The PCT fords dozens of streams and creeks in the Sierra that will likely be raging with snow melt. Be extremely careful with these! Two of my friends in 2010 were swept downstream, and were lucky to get out without serious injury. It often pays off to scout up and down stream for better crossings, or to wait overnight to cross early in the morning.
3- Though an app will make it easier to find where the trail goes, if you’re walking across an expanse of snow, the exact location of the trail may not matter. Sometimes, where the trail goes under the snow is not the best place to walk. And sometimes it is. Decide based on the conditions.
4- Always have a backup plan. As they say in peakbagging circles, “the peak is optional, the car is mandatory.” For through-hiking, we can modify this to “moving forward is optional, getting home is mandatory.”
5- Know how to navigate without your phone. Bring maps, compass, star chart, whatever is necessary to navigate without the use of electronics. Whatever you bring, know how to use it because you may have to rely on it in unforeseen circumstances. Remember, your phone isn’t indestructible or immortal. Neither are you.

Is it too early for 2015 PCT hikers to make a High Sierra hiking plan? Probably. We took a look at historic High Sierra snow pack data, as gathered by the California Department of Water Resources  (Station ID: BGH) at Bighorn Plateau. The snow depth at the Bighorn Plateau station (Google map) has been measured since 1949.

The chart below plots snow depth each year from 1990 to February 2015. You will see 4 bars in each group (except 1996, which is missing March data), representing the snow depth in February, March, April and May for that year.

Sierra Historic Snow Pack

Although February snow level tends to be a decent predictor of May snow, you should notice that you cannot reliably predict the May snow level based upon the February data. Just take a look at 1991 and 2013 to convince yourself of that.

So far 2015 looks like it may be a low snow year, but it’s too early to tell.

For your entertainment, here is all data, from 1949, taken from the Bighorn Plateau station. If you tackled the High Sierra in 1983 or any of the other big snow years, it would be interesting to hear from you in the comments.

Sierra Snow Pack 1949-2015