An Icy Climb Up Muir Pass

Amanda Jameson breaks out the microspikes for her climb up an unexpectedly snowy pass on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Muir Pass

Posing for a selfie outside of Muir Hut. Photo by: Amanda Jameson

We made it through four of the five main passes through the Sierra—Forester, Glen, Pinchot, Mather, and Muir—before actually running into the snow that I was worried about. Mather Pass, which I did yesterday, was incredible: a gentle ascent before the approach proper, a fantastic set of switchbacks which put both the tundra and the high alpine environment below on fine display, and a gorgeous view down to some lakes where I lunched. Today, it was all about Muir Pass.

We'd heard there was "some snow." Some snow it was: nearly a mile from the pass itself, there were snow fields to cross, and ice bridges to consider. I'd come up with two members of my trail family, and we'd made sure to come up early enough in the morning so that the snow was still relatively solid, but melted out enough so as not to be completely ice. I'd learned my lesson with about ice trying to glissade down Mather Pass about an hour too early. Not only did the icy conditions make it more dangerous, but I ripped holes in my leggings as well. I wasn't about to make that mistake again.

Walking in the icy snow can often be made a little easier by following in the footsteps of the people who come before you, but you have to be careful: the path they choose is not necessarily the path want to take. Such was the case when the footprints led us to an ice bridge which, while solid given our early crossing time, would have been much scarier at the end of the day. As things melt and refreeze and melt and refreeze, stepping near things like exposed rocks heated by the sun or water melting the ice from underneath can lead to postholing, sometimes leaving you stuck in the snow up to your hip. It's not much fun to try to get yourself out with a pack weighed down by a bear can.

Ultimately, I'm glad I had my microspikes with me, particularly for the last push up to Muir Pass itself. While there was a lovely staircase leading to the top, the person who came down right before me glissaded down the step track, leaving it sheer and smooth for the rest of us. But sometimes, that's the way it goes, and it's good to be prepared for such situations.

Just like that, the five hard passes were done, four of them in four consecutive days. There are certainly a few passes left, Selden and Silver in particular, before our next town stop, but the worst is over. I'm worried that this means that the best is over, too; the Sierra has been stunning, and it's bittersweet to leave its heights behind.