[pct-l] [John Muir Trail] Newbie – May 2016 preplanning information (snow hiking)

Ned Tibbits ned at mountaineducation.org
Wed Oct 7 11:24:02 CDT 2015


(these comments about the May/June snowpack I want to send to the PCT folks, too)


May/June along the JMT is not for the snow inexperienced. Yes, lots of PCT thru hikers do move north on the same trail starting those months, but they usually go in later, after June 15, because of snow-hiking worries. Let’s see if I can paint you the picture of what those months typically look like after a “normal” winter...

Since you said late May, when the Tioga Road is still closed, I am assuming that you would be starting a NoBo trip. Snowline is typically around 10,500 and the route up out of Whitney Portal would be nuts to do then. The eastern side of the sierra doesn’t get much morning heating, so the surface of the snowpack in that drainage would probably be more powdery than the rest of the exposures (N, S, West) in the sierra where you will find nice, hard, consolidated snow good to walk on until soft under the afternoon sun. 

So, I’m thinking you’ll want to enter the sierra via Cottonwood Pass/Horseshoe Meadows, but the road usually isn’t open yet there either, so that’s out. Now, in my mind, your entry point will be Kennedy Meadows 30-40 miles to the south, which is usually where our Mountain Education snow skills training courses start, too. (This is also where the PCT thru hikers enter the sierra). This is a good place to start because you have three or four days to, in essence, climb up into the sierra rather than start at altitude and do one of those typically steep and grueling climbs up the east side with a full, starting pack!

Weather-wise, late May is still cold and has occasionally freezing nights. You can get a small snow storm now and again, but most of those that have hit us when we teach in there at that time of year only dumped a few inches and didn’t hinder us any. Keep in mind, Mountain Education has been offering Snow Advanced Courses since 1982, so we’ve experienced a few spring storms and know what the southern sierra looks like then. 

Now, May is usually about the time when the thaw begins, when the sierra starts dramatically warming up causing all the snow to melt quite quickly. Depending on the depth of the snowpack (how much snow the mountains received during the winter), with a melt rate of 1-4 inches per day, you can see why all the snow (if there’s 8-15 feet of snow) can take a few weeks, at least, to melt away. (I have entered the southern sierra during mid-April, hit 3 feet at 7,000 feet and 10-14 at 11,000, and had snow all the way to Donner Pass)! There are two additional concerns that will present to you at this time of season, post-holing and whitewater creek crossings (because of the thaw).

If you go in after the thaw has started, when the days are hot and the sun is blinding on the snow, you’ll find the creeks will be wide, deep, and not friendly. The snow will be firm, crusty, and hard-surfaced enough to easily (though slippery) walk on top of it during the morning hours, but once that hot sun gets it cooking, the surface becomes soft and you start suddenly and unexpectedly plunging through it, something we affectionately call, “post-holing,” because the holes your legs make in the snow look like those you may have dug in the dirt to set posts for a fence line. This is not fun and can damage ankles, knees, hips, and your spine because of the jarring trauma. Legs can get pretty cut up, too, should your leg slide past a boulder or tree or log. So, the plan is to start really early in the morning, get over the next pass, and get down the backside to dry trail before 11:00 or 1:00.

Creek crossings can be pretty easy if you know what you can safely do and what not to do. That is why we teach people how to be safe out there. Lots can be said about this topic, but the most important rule is that you do not have to cross the creek where the summer trail does! Drop you pack at the edge of the creek, get something to eat and drink while you search up and down the creek for a safer route across. This is a huge judgment call where you will rely on your experience and training to know where and how to cross.

Back to the snow. In May/June, snowline can be anywhere from 10,000 to 11,500 depending on the amount of snow received during the winter, the intensity of the thaw, and the frequency of springtime storms, rain or snow. This means in practical terms that you will have patches of snow below that elevation with solid snow on northern and eastern exposures, then gradually deepening solid snow from snowline up. It will probably be hard-surfaced and easy to walk on, but your hazardous areas will be walking on anything sloped, and that’s nearly everywhere because you don’t have a flat, side-to-side trail bed to walk on. After a light winter, snowline may be at 12,000 and by mid-June all the snow may be gone from the north sides of the passes. After a heavy winter it may be around 9,500 and not leave the passes until late August.

So, bring some sort of hiking crampons to make sure you get a good grip and don’t fall. Falling is not just bad because of the impact on the crust and hard snow, but because of the slide downhill into something that will stop you like a tree, boulder, log, creek, or lake. You’re going to need to know how to “Self-Arrest” these slides, stopping them before you gain any speed or tumble. Yes, you can watch a video, but this is a reflexive motor skill that needs “felt” and done before you get the hang of it. Besides Navigation over snow, this is one of our student’s biggest concerns, yet in the learning, the most fun!

During these pre-PCT-thru-hiker months, your tracks may be the only ones out there. Once the PCT thrus hit the area and try to follow the snow-buried trail, some will go everywhere, searching for clues about where the trail goes (yes, there are plenty), and some will just follow each other, making a “trough” in the snow. Should one of these be going where you want to go, staying in it on steeper slopes is the most safe if you do not know much about snow-hiking because the “trail bed” of the trough is mostly flat, side to side. This means that you can walk almost normally with little slippage and don’t have to constantly edge-in with your boots on traverses. You can use Kahtoola’s Microspikes in this situation. If you venture out of the trough and onto hard-packed snow on angle, just be careful and keep balanced.

Snow-hiking techniques are easy to learn, but the main planning detail is that it burns a ton of energy and takes twice as long to get anywhere. So, plan on 8-10 miles per day over snow (or 1mph) and eating up to twice the food you normally might on dry trail. Remember, your hunger won’t kick in until after 4 or more days depending on your stored fat reserves, eating habits, and hiking intensity. 

Snow-hiking on the flats is simple, but you’ve always got to remember not to be aggressive about speed forward, meaning you can’t “push” off your toes without slipping. Ever walk on an ice arena? Ascent is just a matter of kicking in and making sure your boots get a good grip on the climb. Descent is all about glissading, or sitting down and sliding to the bottom (so much fun!), but you’ve got to be able to control your speed, direction, and balance so you don’t start tumbling. 

Snow-hiking across a traverse, either up, down, or flat, is the most hazardous and requires great balance, traction, and technique to stay safe and not fall. Those who have summer hiked in the sierra may not know what I’m talking about because the trails are always flat, side to side, but once that trailbed is filled in with snow and tipped on edge across a steep traverse, any misstep can have nasty consequences. Couple that with afternoon post-holing, where you lose your balance and control anyway, and you can see why you’ve got to be off the snow by “posthole time.”

All this discussion is not meant to scare you away from snow-hiking, because it is fun, immensely gorgeous, and highly rewarding, but you’ve got to know what you’re doing. Learning the skills is only part of the solution. Next comes learning to navigate without getting lost! You need to know what you’re getting into, what the sierra looks like then, and what it truly takes to safely get around. Preparation, whether knowledge, wisdom, or skills, can keep you safer. Like I said, entering the sierra under snow in the spring and onto consolidated snow is something we do every year for those who want this freedom. 

You asked the right questions! Now, decide if you want to enjoy the sierra at that time of year, knowing what you do now, or wait until July or August when all the snow is gone...

I hope that helped paint the picture of what the sierra looks like in May/June and what it takes to hike in. Never hesitate to ask questions because we all benefit from the answers!

Ned Tibbits, Director
Mountain Education, Inc.
ned at mountaineducation.org 

"To minimize wilderness accidents, injury, and illness in order to maximize wilderness enjoyment, safety, and personal growth, all through experiential education and risk awareness training."

From: mailto:johnmuirtrail at yahoogroups.com 
Sent: Tuesday, October 06, 2015 12:10 PM
To: johnmuirtrail at yahoogroups.com 
Subject: [John Muir Trail] Newbie – 2016 preplanning information


I am trying to preplan for my 2016 JMT through hike and after some looking and directions from others – I have ended up here on this Yahoo Groups for JMT. While there is an abundance of information on the JMT, I am finding it difficult to find information on suggested schedules/itineraries and whether a late May/Early June 2016 hike will be possible. 

If I can plan for a late May/Early June hike, that means I must have at least my itinerary/route planned out before the end of November to start the fax request submission for my permit. I was hoping that there may be some suggested 20-21 day itinerary/routes planned that I could look at and either slightly change or improve on potentially – based on some suggestions on “must” see things and awesome campsites. I would prefer to do the traditional North to South, including going to the top of Half Dome (maybe Clouds Rest also).

I looked in this groups’ “files” but I didn’t see anything about itineraries – so if it is there, please direct my to the right spot and which one you may suggest to check out. 

Thanks in advance. 

Oh, I would prefer - I think - to do the JMT in the summer but late May/Early June looks like the only time I can get 3 weeks off work and I heard the trail is less crowed – but there may be snow in the passes? And the passes may be unpassable? I would be interested to here what you guys have say about this. 


Posted by: the8jeff at yahoo.com 

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