It was a winter for the record books in California. Record-breaking snowfalls across the Sierra Nevada set the stage for an epic ski season, as well as a springtime crop of snowmelt that the state desperately needed.
But while skiers, snowboarders and hydrologists have been rejoicing all winter, it’s a different story for hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail, where the snowpack means a rough—and potentially dangerous—start to this year’s season.
Often dubbed the most scenic segment of the PCT, the Sierra section of the trail runs from Kennedy Meadows to North Lake Tahoe, through the heart of snow country. With 90 percent of thru-hikers heading south to north each season, good conditions on the route are critical to success.
“We’ve been talking about the snowpack through our channels since January,” says Jack ‘Found’ Haskel, Trail Information Specialist for the Pacific Crest Trail Association. “Our broad messaging is be safe and be responsible, but a lot of people start planning without thinking of the conditions.”
The issue is exacerbated for early starters: PCT hopefuls who set off in mid- to late April can expect to run into some of the trail’s worst conditions. How they handle that may boil down to experience.
“Some PCT hikers are super fit, so it can be attainable [to hike in snowy conditions], but for other it’s not,” Haskel says. This year early-season hiking will change some early sections of the PCT to something closer to mountaineering in nature.
Two of the biggest threats to life will be falling on snow and flooded creek crossings, both of which are plentiful in the Sierra section of the PCT. Haskel especially stresses the dangerous nature of the latter. “You have to be able to gauge how swift the water is running and how deep the creek is,” he says. “Be prepared to turn around.”
Haskel suggests that hikers leave themselves with an “out” by marking alternate routes on their maps and carrying enough food in case they need to backtrack dozens of miles.
As for falling on snow, there are many spots throughout the Sierra section where this could turn into a threat to life. Mt. Whitney, Forrester, Sonora Pass, and others are areas where safety equipment will not only be appropriate, but necessary. Early this season, hikers may even need to rope up to cross some sections safely—not a task most will likely be familiar with.
A less lethal but still serious danger is injury from postholing. “Breaking an ankle, twisting a knee, tearing an ACL and other injuries are all real possibilities,” Haskel says.
Access to food will require extra forethought this year as well. Hikers may need to leave Kearsarge Pass to go to Independence or walk up the road from Reds Meadow to Mammoth Lakes instead of being able to take a shuttle, since the stores in these places will open late.
“Resupply is feasible, it just has to be planned differently,” Haskel says.
Hikers willing to try something outside the norm might consider flip-flop hikes to get around the snow, with one variation starting at the Mexican border to the beginning of the Sierra, and then shuttling up to Canada and heading south.
In a snow year like this one, Haskel says, even those variations could be tricky.
“There will be challenging snow travel into July in all of the northern trail routes,” he says.
The safest solution: Don’t go early if you can help it. Haskel, who hiked the trail in 2006, another big snow year, is planning around it.
For hikers who have spent months or years planning their trips, however, Haskel acknowledges that that’s easier said than done.
“People are starting now,” he says. “Hopefully they are ready.”
Stay informed: The Sierra Avalanche Center has up-to-date information on avy conditions in the Sierra Nevada. You can also see real-time snow information at the PCTA’s site, and current snow survey data at the California Department of Water Resources.