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Sierras in may
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Blair Gentes
(blastreach) - F
Sierras in may on 12/05/2009 21:38:51 MST Print View

I am planning a PCT thru-hike for 2010. I want to finish before september; gotta get back to school. I have been planning on hiking 20-25 mile days, but in order to finish this early, I think i will have to enter the sierras in late may or early june. I live in the Canadian prairies where it can be rare to see a contour line. Needless to say I have no experience with snow in the mountains. I was just wondering if anybody had any suggestions on how to get ready for it.

What gear differences would I be looking at comparing late may to mid june?

Is it safe for someone with no experience to do this? Or do I just need to mentally prepare myself?

Paul McLaughlin
(paul) - MLife
Re: Sierras in may on 12/05/2009 22:10:39 MST Print View

No, I don't think it is safe for someone with no experience to d o this. In Late may, some of the passes would be mountaineering rather than walking, unless it turns out to be a VERY low snow year.

Paul McLaughlin
(paul) - MLife
Re: Sierras in may on 12/05/2009 22:36:28 MST Print View

To elaborate: pretty much all the passes between the southern Kennedy Meadows and Tahoe will have a lot of snow on them in late May. Some are not too bad with snow on them if the snow is soft: some are going to be tough no matter what condition the snow is in. To be able to make progress under those conditions you are going to need some experience using an ice axe and possibly crampons.
Depending on the snowpack, mid-june can be much the same or much easier. One difference is that in mid-june you'd be going through with a bunch of other folks. In late May, you'll be on your own - you might not see a soul for a couple hundred miles.
Logistically you would have some problems as well. You probably would not be able to resupply at MTR or VVR in late may, although it might be possible. Maybe not at Red's Meadow either, and even Tuolumne could be closed but would probably be open by then.
This is not to say it would be impossible or that you should not do it; just to say that you better be darn sure you know what you are getting into, because it can be a very different game to be up there just a few weeks earlier than the rest of the PCT pack.

Jack H.
(Found) - F

Locale: Sacramento, CA
Re: Sierras in may on 12/06/2009 01:46:32 MST Print View

Assuming that late may in an average year is comparable to mid june in a high snow year, I'd be inclined to think that you'll be ok. I can't say that it's "safe", it's NOT. Backpacking isn't safe, and snow travel is much less so.

I hiked the PCT through the sierra in June of a heavy snow year. Most people said it was "impossible", "suicide", etc. We all had a superb time. Going before the pack adds some specific complications though.

You'll be making your own trail. It was safer for me because i could often hike in preformed steps. You'll have to do the correct navigating and more walking on virgin, slippery snow.

Stream crossings could be even higher than the very high levels that I saw. Multiple thruhikers got swept away in fast moving current. No one was seriously hurt in the swims, but they're "near misses".

The biggest obstacle *might* be Forester Pass. You WILL have to cross a steep snow slope that has high fall potential and deadly consequences. It's likely that there won't be prints for you to walk in. One year, early thruhikers even had to boot up the entire couloir, cut through an overhanging cornice at the top of it, and scurry to the top. That is by no means the conventional crossing of Forrester Pass. It's HIGHLY DANGEROUS. Insane without crampons. Extremely unwise without mountaineering experience. It's highly likely that no one will be able to give you beta on whether Forrester has been crossed, weather the trail is melted out, whether you'll be climbing the steep snow couloir the whole way, whether there is a cornice at the top of it.

If you hit all the wrong notes, the snow won't be fully consolidated and you'll have an excessively hard postholing hike ahead of you.

Should you do this with no experience? No of course not. But it would be an adventure! Mentally preparing yourself won't help when it comes to learning how to snow climb, assess objective hazards, cross flooding creeks, use crampons or ice axes.

Better advice could be received from guys that have hiked the Sierra in May. Scott Williamson and Trauma are the only one I know that fit the bill.

Jack H.
(Found) - F

Locale: Sacramento, CA
Re: Re: Sierras in may on 12/06/2009 01:49:23 MST Print View

The resupply issues are easily surmounted. Some options... Go out to Onion Valley. Hike out to Mammoth. Hike down to Yosemite Valley. I believe that VVR opens fairly early too, I think that they do early season ATV fishing tours before stuff fully melts out.

Jack H.
(Found) - F

Locale: Sacramento, CA
Re: Re: Re: Sierras in may on 12/06/2009 01:53:42 MST Print View

I general, I like the idea of being in the Sierra with snow. I like the idea of passing through earlier and having less pressure to make miles later in the trip. I might consider this strategy for my next PCT thru.

The big issues for me are the Forrester Couloir and the stream crossings.

When I hiked, the most dangerous snow slopes were on both sides of Sonora Pass and Dick's Pass. Both well north of Yosemite and what is normally considered the riskier mountains. I fell on Sonora and thankfully self arrested.

Jim W.
(jimqpublic) - MLife

Locale: So-Cal
Sierras in may for a solo flatlander on 12/06/2009 08:40:58 MST Print View

I've spent plenty of time in the Sierra in all months. I love late spring when the days are warm, there are no crowds, and the mosquitoes haven't reached the high country yet.

For someone with no experience crossing snowbound passes I would strongly caution against solo travel. Routefinding can be challenging. Travel on steep hardpacked snow slopes can result in a bad slide over a cliff.

Experience in the southern California mountains will certainly help, and if you hook up with other hikers that would help too.

For gear I suggest footwear that's stiff enough to kick steps in firm snow. I would take that over crampons with lighter shoes. Practice self-arrest with hiking poles.

Consider doing some flip-flopping on the trip. Do northern California before the Sierra.

Whatever you do, do the trip when you have the time. I kick myself for not hiking the PCT before I had baggage that keeps me from a multi-month trip.

Edited by jimqpublic on 12/06/2009 08:45:35 MST.

Jack H.
(Found) - F

Locale: Sacramento, CA
Re: Sierras in may for a solo flatlander on 12/06/2009 10:06:58 MST Print View

I somewhat disagree with doing the snowy sierra in stiff soled boots. You'll be hiking through a ton of meltwater and won't be taking your shoes off to cross it. Heavy, saturated boots are worse than wet trail runners. A decent compromise would be a more rigid light trail shoe as opposed to a trail runner. Or something with a decent amount of rigidity and quick drying uppers like the Brooks Cascadia.

Jim W.
(jimqpublic) - MLife

Locale: So-Cal
Footwear Re: Sierras in may for a solo flatlander on 12/06/2009 11:46:53 MST Print View

Jack;

Right. It's a tough call but something with a good tread, fairly stiff sole, and toe bumper is ideal. More experience and practice reduces reliance on equipment. An experienced person can cross terrain with trail runners that a novice might need crampons on. Chouinard could probably do it with deck shoes!

Timing the crossing of passes is important too- which means doing two in a day is logistically difficult. Soft enough to get purchase but not so soft that you're slipping or postholing. Depending on the weather that might be early afternoon or first thing in the morning.

All that leads me back to my initial point- experience is important. Blair says " I have no experience with snow in the mountains." Without that experience having a heavier boot and knowledgeable companions seems very prudent.

Edited by jimqpublic on 12/06/2009 11:52:02 MST.

Dave T
(DaveT) - F
sierra in early season. on 12/07/2009 10:28:34 MST Print View

I'd agree with other folks that the High Sierra in late May or early June (in a late snow year) can be pretty daunting to someone with little experience. I did the PCT in 2004 in a very low snow year, and it was a breeze in mid June. However, I did take a winter mountaineering course prior to my thru-hike, to learn about safer snow travel, ice axe use, crampons, etc.

I did the Sierra High Route starting in mid-June of a very high and late snow year, and I sure would not have wanted to be there by myself or without the experience I had gained since 2004. Dangers include steep snowy slopes (and occasionally icy) with unsfafe runouts, on which we used ice axes extensively, and also crampons on some early morning pass descents. Stream crossings can also be very gnarly, either requiring much hiking upstream to find a suitable place to cross or a tree trunk to shimmy across. Both of these dangers (slopes, streams) are potentially fatal.

As far as early season gear, on the PCT I had my ice axe, but didn't need it and sent it home from Independence. On the Sierra High Route, I had Vasque Velocity shoes, neoprene socks, ice axe (Cassin Ghost), and Camp XL490 crampons. I wouldn't use heavy boots that will just get wet and stay wet, but also wouldn't use really light trail runners - a little more support is good for all the funky conditions (talus, frozen deep suncups, etc.), kicking steps, and possible support for crampons. We could've done it without the crampons, but it would've required waiting for some conditions to soften enough to descend/ascend some passes and steep slopes.

I'd suggest either flip-flopping (though I personally wouldn't want to disrupt a thru-hike that way), or at least making sure you head into the High Sierra with a couple other early PCTers. And if you carry an ice axe, you need to LEARN how to use it ahead of time.

That said, the High Sierra with lots of snow is one of the best possible experiences EVER.

towards muir

Edited by DaveT on 12/07/2009 13:53:35 MST.

Blair Gentes
(blastreach) - F
Sierras in may on 12/09/2009 12:09:58 MST Print View

Yikes, sounds like i'd be in for quite the effort if I left that early, which is what I had expected. I can't say I feel comfortable with that kind of a challenge, so I don't think i'm gonna go for it.

Going to the other end of the spectrum, on an average year, what is generally the latest one could leave from the Mexican border?

I understand that finishing into October, or later is kind of pushing it, but I'm confident I can put in a 25 mile average, assuming no injuries.

I'm concerned about other obstacles, as in:
1. heat in desert into late may
2. crowding on the JMT and other popular places

Are there other obstacles I should be reading on regarding an early or late start?

Zack Karas
(iwillchopyou@hotmail.com) - MLife

Locale: Lake Tahoe
you can do it on 12/09/2009 12:28:38 MST Print View

If you needed to be done by Sept 1st, you could leave with the leading group of thru-hikers from Kennedy Meadows, then put in high mileage for northern CA (high 20s), high 20s to low 30s for Oregon (totally doable), and high 20s again for WA and you should finish around/before Sept 1st.

I finished Sept 16th. I left Kennedy Meadows June 13th, averaged 20 mpd through the Sierras, 25 mpd through Norcal, 27-30 mpd through Oregon, and 25 mpd through WA. I think I took 3 or 4 days off from Kennedy Meadows to Manning Park. It would have been very easy to add a few miles per day to this to get my finishing date close to Sept. 1st.

I'm not saying it would be a walk in the park, but it would be doable. You should be able to find other fast hikers out there that you could possible hook up with for the whole trip. I don't think it's uncommon for the lead group to hike the trail in around 3.5 months.

David Olsen
(oware)

Locale: Steptoe Butte
Re: Sierras in may on 12/09/2009 13:04:11 MST Print View

Second the issues with passes and stream crossings in May
and early June.

Take a buddie or two for those sections.

Get training and practice and take a rope for the steep passes as well as ice axes
and cross them at the end of the day when the snow may be softer. I believe chopping steps on belay (no crampons)
is safer than solo with crampons. Snow ropes can be smaller
and lighter than most climbing ropes.

If the water at crossings is over your knees, find another
way across. Don't use a rope for crossing unless you
have extensive training.

I like wool socks and double vapor barriers in my snow
boots whether stiff soled or not. Keeps the thick
wool sock dry.

Pour over the maps before hand and find any potential
avalanche paths that cross the route.

It can be heavy snows and 0 degrees F. in May or
daily rain.

Trails and blazes will be covered at times,
so a GPS and good maps will be a time saver.

Dirk Rabdau
(dirk9827) - F

Locale: Pacific Northwest
For what it's worth on 12/09/2009 14:17:16 MST Print View

I hiked with several people who began in May and finished with me (I started in late April). It really is more or less an issue of zero days along the trail. I took a lot of zero days for one reason or another - around 27 or so. Add to that a handful of near-o days - days under 10 miles and you can understand why it took me so long to finish. But like many things worth doing in life, it's best to take your time.

You asked about finishing in October. I finished the PCT on October 14th of this year. We were definitely pushing it - it got very cold (under 10F) but we did manage to finish before the snow started to really pile up in the Cascades. We did experience significant snow for three or four days and managed to bail off the trail for three days (so I could attend a friend's wedding) during another spate of snowy weather - this was fortuitous timing.
Had it snowed for another three or four days route finding would have become increasingly difficult...I am glad I was hiking with others.
All that said, IMHO the best time to hike in north is in the fall. The colors change and the Pasayten Wilderness and the North Cascades are especially beautiful.

You can always flop - I know several people who did and enjoyed a successful trip. Some skipped Oregon (bailing out at Ahsland), finished Washington and then went back and hiked from Cascade Locks to Ashland. They did out of concerns of snow in the late fall in Washington. The trail in Washington - especially the sections north of Snoqualmie Pass - are significantly more challenging than most of the trail through Oregon. Basically, it's easier to make big miles through Oregon than Washington.

Finally, if you do arrive in Washington in October, please keep in mind the bus that services Stehekin reduces its schedule for a week or so before suspending service entirely for the winter. Stehekin is a great trail stop, and one worth doing if for no other reason than the bakery is a near-religious experience.

Best of luck and have fun!

Dirk

Edited by dirk9827 on 12/09/2009 16:27:20 MST.

Amy Lauterbach
(drongobird) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Monitor the Sierra Snowpack on 12/10/2009 17:04:38 MST Print View

Blair,

The snow conditions in the High Sierra vary ENORMOUSLY depending on the winter snowfall. You'll want to monitor the snowpack to get a sense for what you will face.
http://cdec.water.ca.gov/cgi-progs/snow/PLOT_SWC
The high passes on the PCT are in the Southern Section (San Juoquin through Kern).

It's too early to know, as our wet season just started a couple weeks ago. But we are currently in moderate El Nino conditions, which means the odds are that we will have above-average snow-pack.

To give you a tangible sense for what others are saying (May in Sierra is not for the snow-novice) note that the classic Sierra High Route ski trip (not the same as Roper's route) is usually done in late April or early May.

Look at photos in this trip report from May2-7 2009 (note that 2009 May snowpack in Southern Sierra was ~60% of normal - so these photos are from a DRY year)
http://www.tetongravity.com/forums/showthread.php?t=160294

See also this link:
http://www.alpineskills.com/spring_shr.html

Good luck, have a great trip.