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Winter PCT
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jonathan hauptman

Locale: A white padded room in crazy town.
Winter PCT on 10/30/2007 10:43:32 MDT Print View

I was wondering if anyone has ever tried to thru-hike the PCT in winter? Is it even feasable? If possible, I wonder how fast it could be completed? This is just something that popped into my head about a week ago. I can not seem to get it off my mind.

Ken Helwig
(kennyhel77) - MLife

Locale: Scotts Valley CA via San Jose, CA
Winter PCT on 10/30/2007 16:14:29 MDT Print View

Would be possible, but the hard part would be resupply and time needed. Dangers would include route finding, avalanche skills and the weather. Dunno if anyone has attempted it or not. I am referring to the Sierra's by the way.

Whit Kincaid
(razor) - F
Winter PCT on 10/30/2007 22:50:21 MDT Print View

It would take a seriously motivated individual to pull that slog off. If someone has actually done that already, I doubt he enjoyed it very much.

There are serious logistical questions that would need a lot of study to come up with realistic answers.

Much of the trail would be quite remote in the winter time. Getting from and to the trail after re-supply would be keenly difficult if you didn't have coordinated vehicular transport. In fact a good number of the resupply points commonly used would be unavailable in winter time.

In a medium or heavy snow year the upper elevations (7000'+ and often lower)all along the entire trail receive significant precipitation in the form of snow and rain.
You would be engaged in an activity much closer to alpineism than backpacking. You would often encounter vast areas of very deep snow.In fact, up high deep snow would be your constant companion.

Though the PCT has fairly gentle grades compared to many other trails, a partner for protection would be required often from the Sierras to the Canadian border.
It would be quite dangerous even with protection.

For instance let's talk about the areas of trail circumnavigating Murray Canyon in the section starting at Palms to Pines Hwy leading up to the saddle and then decending down to Idyllwyld via the Devil Slide trail.
About 38 miles including the walk into town. A lot of elevation gain. More to the point, 20 miles or so into the hike the trail becomes a roughly 36" wide stone shelf that was blasted out of the side of the cliffs in the 1930s. The stone work (or perhaps originally stonebackfilling?)providing the foundation of the trail, often in excess of twenty vertical
feet, is quite impressive.
Assuming winter conditions, this few miles of trail can be covered in a layer of thick slick ice. It would be really slow going, considering that if you go over the edge, the fall is hundreds of vertical feet.
And I'm talking sunny southern California here! 90 miles due east of downtown Los Angelos. The sierra, Oregon, and Washington would be much more difficult. The supply situation in Oregon alone would be the challenge of a life time.
You can't carry enough calories and hike fast enough to make it work. Simple as that.
Oh, did I mention the trail will be entirely invisible for sometimes days?

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Winter PCT on 10/31/2007 07:40:35 MDT Print View

Bet Skurka wouldn't even attempt that one.

Doug Johnson
(djohnson) - MLife

Locale: Washington State
Re: Winter PCT on 10/31/2007 07:52:53 MDT Print View

dfsfafsafsdI've snowshoed small parts of the PCT in winter here in Washington. Here's how I did it:

snowmobiled 25 miles to the trailhead
Used a GPS to go cross country on 11 feet of snow
Found Deep Lake and walked the saddle by Cathedral Rock (Alpine Lakes Wilderness)

It was a logistical issue but was also one of the most amazing wilderness experiences I've ever had. I've often considered doing a cross-country trip on the PCT and winter, but I've never considered an thru-hike. I think it would be pretty dangerous, considering the isolation and avalanche risk- at least here in Washington. But what a cool idea to ponder!


Edited by djohnson on 10/31/2007 07:59:02 MDT.

Ryan Faulkner
(ryanf) - F

Locale: Mid atlantic, No. Cal
Re: Winter PCT on 10/31/2007 12:59:28 MDT Print View

I have some big plans for the future, along the lines of one of skurkas treks.. the winter will definately be the biggest issue to consider.. a winter PCT hike would be dareing, but I think possible, and if someone were to complete it, It would make me alot more confident and comfortable with long distance hiking in the winter months..

If I were to attempt some of the western mountain ranges in the winter, I would be sure to have an experienced partner along with me, when during the rest of the year, I may prefer to hike alone.

also, I would not skimp as much on navigational and emergency gear. I would definatly have a GPS, personal locater becon, and small fire starting. survival kit with me.

Probably would not be the funnest thru-hike ever, but im sure record attempt hikes arent either... a trek like this would not exactly be for the same reasons as a typical thru-hike, and noone would expect it to be anything like a normal thru-hike. Why do some of us have the dreams and desires we do? I do not know, they are far from rational.. but I can definately relate.
"whatever the mind can conceive and beleive, It can acheive"

Richard Gless
(rgless) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Winter PCT on 11/01/2007 00:46:38 MDT Print View

The Muir Trail in California has been done in winter. There was one writeup in Summit Magazine about a '70s trip, but it was a very low snow year. It has been done in more normal snow years, but I gather it's quite a challenging ski mountaineering experience and there's no guarantee of success.

Dirk Rabdau
(dirk9827) - F

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Winter PCT adventure on 11/01/2007 11:04:17 MDT Print View

Wow! Great photos Doug. I've hiked that area several times during the summer but in the winter, it looks wonderful. That's quite the trek on snowshoes!

I would completely agree with your sentiments regarding Washington in the winter....Although my experience is more limited, there are substantial number of high ridges on the PCT that are quite exposed and subject to deep snow.

I think Washington would be made very difficult by the nature of winter storm damage that hasn't been cleared out yet. I know Scott Williamson, PCT yo-yo hiker, undertook a southbound attempt this year with his new bride, and from what I've read, the falldown up here in Washington was disheartening. It took them days to navigate a path that during a normal year would take hours.

Also, I would imagine the Kendall Katwalk would at the very least require an ice axe to navigate. Given the severe avalanche danger in this area, it is very risky given the drop-off on the other side. Now, that is completely from my perspective as a person with very little mountaineering experience. Perhaps someone with mountaineering chops would comment on the general risk profile in Washington along the PCT.
During an average snow year in Washington, the area around Glacier Peak would also be pretty difficult. The Goat Rocks section is also highly exposed in sections, but on a good day, you might find yourself sharing the trail with some of the more adventurous back country skiers.

Of course, if you left say, on the first day of winter from Campo and headed to Washington, a person probably wouldn't get to Washington until mid-spring or late spring at the earliest! Then the problem might not be so much snow but the problems of snow and freezing rain.

I don't want to throw cold water on anyone's dreams or attempts. I don't know if it could be done or not, but I do know it would take a very long time.

I am curious, would it make more sense to do a southbound hike in the winter?

Thomas Knighton
(Tomcat1066) - F

Locale: Southwest GA
Re: Re: Winter PCT on 11/01/2007 12:10:10 MDT Print View

>Bet Skurka wouldn't even attempt that one.

I'd attempt it.

Of course, I've never been known for my sound decision making skills...just meeting a couple of my ex girlfriends would make that obvious :D


Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Winter PCT on 11/01/2007 17:29:56 MDT Print View

I could envision a couple of really gifted, determined backcountry skier/mountaineer types doing it if they had people bring resupply stuff into them at predetermined points along the route, sort of like a supported JMT attempt. AND, if everything went just right and the mountain gods woke up on the right side of the bed for about 120 or so days in a row. I think it would require two people because there would likely be places where a belay and protection would be involved(pickets, flukes, ice screws, etc), unless it were to be a suicide mission. Think Forrester Pass, Kendall Catwalk for openers. Still, the odds would be long. All it would take would be a heavy snowstorm to create avalanche conditions that would abort the effort or possibly doom our intrepid heroes to slow death by starvation/hypothermia if it occurred just as supplies ran out and their support team couldn't reach them. There lots of other unhappy endings as well. Still, I think this would be possible.
Snowshoeing would be too slow to pull it off in one winter, IMHO, but perhaps the above scenario could be used to section hike the PCT in winter over several seasons.

Doug Johnson
(djohnson) - MLife

Locale: Washington State
Re: Winter PCT on 11/01/2007 18:04:28 MDT Print View

I agree that ski mountaineering would be the ticket. But the snow up here can get extremely deep sometimes and the skis might slow you down in certain circumstances.

From my mountaineering background, Kendall Catwalk would make me much less nervous than many of the PCT traverses under serious avalanche chutes. That's the dodgy part. Routefinding would be tough too.

Still, I'm in. At least for part! It's been a dream of mine to do a short thru on the PCT in Washington in mid-winter for years. Stevens to Snoqualmie in mid January? Maybe it would be insane but I'd love to at least think about it!!!

Further, I can provide snowmobile support from the Lake Cle Elum / Hyas Lake side. Anybody up for a 3 day teaser this winter? Enough talk, let's make an adventure!!!

Edited by djohnson on 11/01/2007 18:29:15 MDT.

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Re: Winter PCT on 11/02/2007 18:00:12 MDT Print View

No question that avalanches would be the number one hazard in our hypothetical endeavor. Probably a show stopper in fact. But still, it's fun to contemplate. An iced over Kendall Catwalk would be not a problem with the right equipment-just an ice axe and crampons should do, but without them it, too, could be a serious problem-major detour at the least. Actually, I was using the Catwalk as an example; there are probably enough such potential problems along the way to string the trip out into early spring, but you wouldn't really know for sure until you encountered them. For navigation, I think I would use a GPS device with a VERY large number of waypoints stored in advance. Things just don't look the same under 10+ feet of snow.

P. P.
(toesnorth) - F

Locale: PNW
Re: "Winter PCT" on 11/02/2007 18:22:41 MDT Print View

We have a Washington section PCT trip in the works (though not in winter....hmmm, so far) and were told that the trail has actually been revised??? The most recent data books I have are from 2003. Should I be looking for an update?

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Re: "Winter PCT" on 11/02/2007 18:36:45 MDT Print View

The Forest Service had to reroute sections of the trail, particularly in the section from Rainy Pass to Stevens Pass due to heavy storm damage last winter. A good bet would be to check the their website or, more personally, give the Darrington Ranger Station a call. They're usually a pretty good source and nice folks to boot. I bagged a section hike on that portion of the PCT this summer when a friend told me about some of the detours; seemed like too much hassle at the time. Washington Trails Association is another good source. I was just looking at a report they put out about damage to the Suiattle River Rd, which is in that area. The projected repair time frame for the road is pretty general-2008/2009, and that's just for a couple of washouts. Lord only knows when they'll get around to cleaning up the PCT. A better bet would be the section from Stevens Pass to Snoqualmie Pass. It was in good shape in 2006 when I did it, and I haven't heard anything to the contrary since. Check to be sure, though. Good luck.

Sarah Kirkconnell
(sarbar) - F

Locale: In the shadow of Mt. Rainier
Re: revisions on 11/06/2007 11:15:45 MST Print View

P.P., the revisions are past Stevens Pass from the storm damage in 2003. If you are doing anything from Columbia River to Stevens, don't worry.

Hoosierdaddy and I did Chinook Pass to White Pass about a month ago in the first snow storm. A lot of fun, very cold though. We didn't see anyone till the last 5 or 6 miles. The snow was easy till then, but after that..the horses the hunters we passed had just chewed it up. That made our last couple miles sucky. We slid all over, falling into holes due to the horses hoofs pulling up chunks of snow.

I'd love to do more of the PCT in the snow....but, and a big but, no thanks on Kendall Katwalk in the snow. It isn't the Katwalk that bothers me, but rather the long traverse after it, heading North. That traverse goes on for miles. And it is steep, I am figuring it is massive avy cute in winter? Coming up to Parks Lakes from the East side maybe instead?

We did Stevens to Snoqualmie in 2006, Mt. Hood to the Columbia River this summer. We may try to do Lava Beds to the Columbia River this month, in the early snow.

Sarah Kirkconnell
(sarbar) - F

Locale: In the shadow of Mt. Rainier
Btw on 11/06/2007 11:19:08 MST Print View

I put all my TR's together for the PCT. I am still working on it, but for now about 2/3rds of it is done.

Dylan Taylor
(nevadas) - F

Locale: California Coast
yeah... you have to know exactly what you are doing on 11/21/2007 20:08:51 MST Print View

suffice to say that any winter backcountry in the sierras and cascades requires a sober evaluation of your skills and abilities. i've done portions of the PCT in winter in the sierras and the oregon cascades, around the three sisters area, on cross country skis.

as noted above, i cant imagine doing something like the north side of forrester pass in the dead of winter. you would need the perfect combo of weather, snow quality, etc. to do it safely. what about near whitney, at the trail crest? whoo hoo.

and, it certainly wouldnt be an ultralight endeavour.

heres a shot from last winter on a two nighter out to glacier point. too bad my buddy couldnt focus my camera with his gloves on...

half dome winter

anyway... hey i will do a 3 day winter trip up in WA. sign me up and i'll fly up. i would love to check that area in the winter with someone who knows the area. my sis lives in ballard... she'd probably be in too.

Brian Lewis
(brianle) - F

Locale: Pacific NW
Not just exposure but forests can be tough on 11/30/2007 17:00:31 MST Print View

I think a person would end up being somewhat --- no, make that quite --- "creative" in the actual route they followed. Relative to where the literal PCT lies. And apart from just following roads or walking routes that others have been walking (leaving tracks), I think this would indeed be very very challenging.

I walked section J (includes the Kendall Katwalk) this summer, and areas like the Katwalk wouldn't be my biggest, or at least my only concern. If you've ever tried to follow a summertime trail in the winter, one that no one else has been walking on, you'll know that there are real challenges to not being able to see the trail.

Walking in a forest, at times it's pretty obvious where the path goes. But very often it's not at all obvious, and at the point where I find that the trees and brush are getting denser all about me, and it's difficult to proceed, I can try to bust through and continue to whatever looks to be the most open ahead, or I can backtrack --- but really I'm just bushwhacking more or less in the vicinity of something that's a clear and easy trail in the summer.

The snow covers brush and sometimes makes it easy to travel places and take shortcuts you wouldn't take in summer, but that's far from universal, and sometimes in the forest the snow falls on deadfall or brush that you can sink into or get tangled in ... it can be exhausting sometimes just travelling a mile or two in such conditions.

This, btw, could make it challenging to pull a sled/pulk along a summertime-trail.

I suggest picking some forested as well as some exposed (vertical) sections of trail and doing a multi-day winter trip "on the PCT" before committing to anything more aggressive. Test to see what kind of pace can be reasonably sustained. See how easy it is to navigate in extensive forest (you might want spare lithium batteries for your GPS, and if for nothing else but safety I do recommend you bring one, ideally one with the SiRF Star III chipset ...).

Brian Lewis

Eric Blumensaadt
(Danepacker) - MLife

Locale: Mojave Desert
Party of four on 12/01/2007 22:13:41 MST Print View

Those who feeel avalanche would be the biggest danger are absolutly correct. Any slopes between 32 and 48 degrees are the most avalanche prone.In my estimation you'd need a minimum of a party of four for avalanche safety (i.e.self rescue).

Next, the absolutly necessary avy evaluation and rescue equipment would add to your weight. Namely snow evaluation kit (one for the party), shovels, avy probes, avy transciever beacons, and the new packs with instantly inflatable avy bags such as SnowPulse or ABS (they reduce fatalities to almost zero). Also "nice" would be a PLB for rescue if necessary. (One for the party)

With heavier loads and more calories needed for cold weather you would have to do smaller sections for more frequent resupply than summer trips.

Of course if you get Nat'l Geo. to sponsor you you can always use air resupply drops and just stay on the trail. ;)


Wayne Kraft
(WayneKraft) - F
Oregon PCT in winter on 12/08/2007 11:29:28 MST Print View

I have been watching this thread and hoping to find time to add this post. Maybe I will be able to get it done this morning.

In the mid-1970's (the exact year eludes me) a group of four back country skiers led by Jerry Igo attempted to ski the Oregon PCT from Timberline Lodge in the north to Lake of the Woods in the south. As far as I know, the details of the trip remain unpublished. What I recount here is from memory of conversations with participants and Jerry's slide show presentation about the trip from 30 years ago, so please excuse me if I miss a detail or two.

The participants were Jerry (who was about 60 at the time and a trip leader and some-time wilderness skills instructor from the Portland, OR area), June Fleming (author of The Well Fed Backpacker and Staying Found: The Complete Map and Compass Handbook), Jerry's son and a young woman from back east whose names I have forgotten.

They began their trip from Timberline Lodge on about March 1. The theory was that most of the winter storms had passed and that the trip would be mostly spring type skiing conditions. I do not recall a great deal about their gear. They all four used Trak Bushwacker skis. These short, wide, metal-edged, fish-scale bottomed skis are no longer manufactured. I tried them out back then. They were a kind of compromise between skis and snowshoes.

The first week of the trip yielded anything but spring-like conditions as a series of cold fronts swept in from the Pacific dumping 5-7 feet of fresh snow in the mountains. Our intrepid trekkers survived this experience quite comfortably, but the going was quite slow. It was often necessary to take off packs, break trial, return for packs and so on.

The group had arranged for re-supply from a network of friends who would meet them at various points along the way. I was to be a member of their first resupply platoon, scheduled to meet with the group at a place called Pamelia Lake near Mt. Jefferson. Pamelia Lake is now a short detour off the official PCT, but I believe it was actually on the official PCT route (aka Oregon Skyline Trail} in those days.

After a few days of slogging through heavy snow, it became obvious to the Igo group that they would not make it to Pamelia Lake on schedule or anywhere close to it, so they bailed out down a power line cut and eventually made their way to Breitenbush Hotsprings (a resort -- not at Breitenbush lake) and met up with the winter caretaker and his broken two-way radio. The group was concerned that when their resupply got to Pamelia Lake and they failed to arrive an unnecessary rescue effort would ensue, so after a short rest they made their way afoot down logging roads toward the town of Detroit. They were eventually picked up by a wildlife photographer in a 4wd vehicle and ferried into town.

Meanwhile, the resupply crew, of which I was a member, was slogging up a snow covered road toward the Pamelia Lake trailhead when we were surprised to hear the roar of a V8 behind us. When the noise caught up with us Jerry jumped out of the bed of the 4wd pickup and regaled us with tales of the group's crazy week in the deep snow, snagged his resupply bag and went back to Detroit for a warm, dry motel night. The resuppliers re-grouped, discussed and decided to continue on to Pamelia Lake to spend the night, drink some Schnapps and sing some songs as the snow turned to rain.

The Igo group determined that avalanche conditions north of Santiam pass through the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness were too severe to warrant a traverse at that time so they arranged transport to Santiam Pass and continued south from there, skipping a segment of the PCT.

Once again, winter reasserted itself and the group arrived at McKenzie Pass in driving wind and very low temperatures. They were able to shelter themselves fairly well by erecting a tent inside the observatory there (a kind of lava rock hut with holes in the walls for viewing surrounding peaks); however, their stoves (Svea wick-type as I recall) were not adequate for the task of melting snow and rehydration became a problem. Once again, a long bail out to the town of Sisters ensued.

After an interlude in Sisters the group returned to McKenzie Pass and completed their trek to Lake of the Woods as conditions in the high country steadily improved. I recall seeing slides of group members skiing in shorts and T-shirts by the end of this trip.

I have pretty much lost touch with these characters over the years. Jerry Igo, who must be 90 by now, was alive and kicking as of a year or so ago residing in the Columbia River Gorge and regaling tourists aboard a river boat with tales of the woods, some of them probably even true. June Fleming is well last I heard and must be at least 39 by now ;-). Of the others I have no news.

I hope this account is useful to anyone planning an extended winter trip on the PCT and interesting, at least, to the rest of you who retain some portion of your sanity.