Last Updated on March 25, 2020
A.K.A. In Which Unicorn Decides NOT to Hike Through the Sierras Right Now
The Sierra mountains received a much higher amount of snow this winter than is typical. While this has been helpful to alleviate drought conditions in California, it is also taking much longer for the snow in the mountains to melt than in previous years. Some ski resorts are planning to stay open as late as August.
This is causing a big dilemma for PCT hikers. Most PCT hikers start through the High Sierras in early-to-mid-June, which is typically the earliest time that hikers can make it through the mountains without employing four-season mountaineering skills. The earlier the better, of course, because once through the Sierras the race is on to make it to Canada before the snow starts falling in the Cascade mountains.
However, this is not a normal year. We received more snow this year than the last big snow year in memory (2011). Many parts of the trail are buried under snow, which will melt just enough in the afternoons to cause hikers to sink up to their knees or hips with every step (this is called post-holing). Hikers have to rely on navigation skills to even find the trail in the first place. Creeks, which are small trickles in the summer, are swollen to icy raging torrents and are very dangerous to cross when the snow is melting.
When I saw that it was shaping up to be a high snow year, I signed up for the Advanced Snow Skills class with the non-profit Mountain Education organization. The class teaches snow skills – such as arresting a fall with an ice axe, glissading down hills, and crossing creeks safely. This class specifically targets PCT hikers and begins right on the PCT a few days past Kennedy Meadows. Hikers then travel together with the instructor for six days along the PCT in the High Sierras, including over Forrester Pass (the highest point on the PCT at 13153 feet), along with an optional trip to summit Mt. Whitney (the highest mountain in the contiguous United States at 14505 feet).
With my class cancelled, I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I still try to hike through the Sierras even though I have minimal snow skills? Should I wait for the snow to melt? Should I skip ahead and hike another part of the trail until the snow melts enough in the Sierras to let me through?
Trying to hike through the Sierras right now doesn’t seem very appealing to me. We’ve been receiving reports of hikers who have tried it, and some had to be rescued off the mountain as they were almost swept away by raging creeks. One woman died on Mt Whitney who fell through a snow chute. Hiking the Sierras right now means hiking on snow every day and waking at 2:00 am so that you can hike when the snow is still frozen before it starts melting to prevent post-holing. Hikers can only expect to go 10-15 miles a day and it is slow going and exhausting. For some people this sounds exciting. This sounds terrifying and miserable to me.
I’ve always dreamed of hiking through John Muir’s celebrated range of light. I want to enjoy the experience when I do. So that option is out for me.
Some hikers are choosing to wait in Kennedy Meadows or in Lone Pine until the snow melts enough for the trail to be safely passable. But that could mean waiting a month or more – which means that, once through the Sierras, there wouldn’t be enough time to hike the rest of the trail unless you’re an insanely fast marathon hiker. Also I’d worry that I’d lose my momentum. So that option is out too.
Many hikers are planning to skip ahead and hike a section of the trail that has less snow, and then come back and tackle the Sierras later in the season (this is called flip-flopping). One challenge with this approach is deciding what section of the trail to hike. All of the mountains in the Cascades and Sierras were hammered with snow this year. Most of Oregon and Washington are fairly impassable at this point. Northern California between Belden and Ashland seems to be the only viable section of trail right now, and even that segment has some snowy sections which we’ll have to navigate.
The current plan is to continue hiking to Lone Pine, and then to assess the situation (as it may change) and decide what to do at that time. But we are leaning towards flipping to Ashland and then hiking southbound. So…we’ll see what happens.
What a crazy year to hike the PCT! It’s not what I had expected or planned, but I’m having a blast. I’m normally an ultra-planny person, but I’m having to let that go and live in the moment. Who knows where I’ll be in a few weeks!
For more on my experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, visit my Pacific Crest Trail 2017 page: