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Early-season backpacking || Merits of skis, snowshoes, crampons & axes


This multi-post series discusses recommended gear, supplies, and skills for backpacking in the Mountain West in early-season conditions. These normally prevail in May/June, and in July after exceptionally snowy winters.


The early-season is a messy inbetween — it’s no longer winter, but not yet summer, either. Snowpack and cornices still linger in the higher elevations and on shady and leeward aspects, while snow-free trails are found lower down and on sun-blasted slopes higher up.

This inconsistency presents backcountry travelers with a dilemma:

What will be more efficient and enjoyable?

  • Stay afloat on lingering snow with skis or snowshoes, but carry that extra weight across snow-free terrain? Or,
  • Risk extensive postholing in unsupportive snow, but enjoy simpler logistics and a lighter pack?

Carrying my skis across a bare patch of alpine tundra in the Alaska Range. Thankfully, these sections were few and far between, because the ground was still mostly snow-covered.

And what will be safer and more efficient?

  • Carry crampons or spikes, and/or an ice axe, to travel more quickly and more confidently on firm and slick snow, and to self-arrest a fall on a steep slope? Or,
  • Leave that weight at home, and rely instead on rubber lugs, trekking poles, and good footwork?

Descending a steep snowfield in Colorado’s Gore Range in late-June. We regretted our decision to leave behind our axes and especially our crampons — the added safety and speed with which we could have descended would have made their weight worthwhile, even for just this short section of snow.

The answers, which are rarely obvious, are further muddied by:

  • Planning for a trip weeks or months in advance, without knowing how springtime weather will affect the conditions;
  • Weekly, daily, and even hourly changes in the conditions;
  • Condition reports that can quickly become irrelevant due to the constant variability;
  • Unequal levels of personal comfort, skill, and fitness.

Bottom line: The need for skis, snowshoes, crampons, and an ice axe is a bit of a crapshoot. But let’s discuss the merits anyway, as it will at least help you narrow down your options. At the last minute, make a final decision based on the latest information or your gut instinct.

Floatation

The value of early-season floatation — in the form of skis, snowshoes, or a ski/snowshoe hybrid like Altai Skis — depends on several factors. I’ve described them in detail below to help you make an informed and nuanced decision, but here are my general recommendations after a normal winter:

  • May: Recommended
  • June: Maybe
  • July: No

Elevation

I will make an assumption about reader interests, and focus on high-elevation trade routes (e.g. JMT, PCT, and CDT) and off-trail routes (e.g. SHR, WRHR, and Pfiffner Traverse). Low-elevation routes melt out earlier, due to less snowpack and warmer average temperatures.

Time of day

Early-season snowpack normally firms up overnight, due to sub-freezing temperatures. On warmer nights, the snowpack can still freeze over due to radiant heat loss, especially in open meadows and alpine zones.

The morning crust will often support the weight of a floatation-less backpacker. It begins to weaken after sunrise, with lower elevations and east/southeast/south-facing slopes being the first to go. Heavier backpackers (or backpackers with heavy packs) are the first to notice the change.

Walking on concrete-hard snow below Muir Pass in mid-May, early in the morning. A few hours later in this same spot, I would have been postholing up to my waist.

Winter snowpack

After a normal winter, the upper elevations are extensively snowbound through May. The month of June is a mixed bag: snow will surround the passes and stick on north-facing and leeward slopes, but elsewhere it will be snow-free or variable. Summertime conditions finally prevail in July.

An abnormally dry or wet winter affects this timeline. This year in the High Sierra, for example, the passes will be preceded and followed by several miles of snow through the end of June, maybe even mid-July.

The general rules do not apply to all locations either. For example, Wyoming’s Wind River Range is exceptionally high and snowy, while Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness is unexpectedly dry because it is in the rainshadow of the Cascades.

High in the Wind River Range in late-July after an exceptionally wet winter. I should have brought my skis — it was not hiking season yet.

Snowpack composition

In April, stepping off groomed or high-use trails is utterly impractical. You will sink to your crotch, if not deeper, in the relatively light and fluffy snow.

But by July, any lingering snow is consolidated, and will support body weight even without skis or snowshoes. Late in the day it will be punchy and slushy, but you generally won’t posthole unless you hit a weak pocket, like a “rock moat” or a thin snowbridge.

May and June are periods of transition, and conditions will be variable. The snow will be supportive at some elevations, slope aspects, and times of day; and elsewhere it will be rotten.

In general, snowpack that falls deep and dense (e.g. “Cascade concrete”) will be more reliably supportive than thinner and fluffier snowpack (e.g. Colorado’s “champagne powder”). And snow in the alpine, where it has been tortured by strong winds and intense sun, will be denser and more supportive than snow in the trees.

Be aware that spring snow is not always easily ski-able or snowshoe-able. It tends to get badly sun-cupped or dimpled, which makes for uneven footing and traction.

Unpredictable postholing in the Colorado Rockies in late-June. By this time of year in the High Sierra or Cascades, you can have a dance party on the snow. But Colorado’s snowpack is thinner and less dense, and therefore does not consolidate as well in the spring.

Skis vs snowshoes

When there is extensive snow coverage, I would much prefer to be on skis than snowshoes, or, should I say, slowshoes. Skis are faster and a gazillion times more fun.

But they are also imperfect. They are difficult to ship, if you can’t drive with them to the trailhead. They’re expensive, if you don’t already own the right setup. And the learning curve is steeper than the “Ten-step Program to Snowshoe Mastery,” which involves simply taking ten steps in snowshoes. Yes, they are that easy.

Unless I were a diehard skier, I would probably not futz with skis in June, especially if I were thru-hiking. In addition to the aforementioned drawbacks, a ski setup is also heavy, and in a normal June it will need to be carried often. In contrast, snowshoes are relatively light, inexpensive, and easy to ship.

Atop Colorado’s Continental Divide in late-May. Snowshoes were the best pick for for this trip: I didn’t yet know how to ski, and the lower elevations were snow-free.

Traction & self-arrest

The value of crampons/spikes and an ice axe is a function of:

  • Your comfort on steep snow;
  • The hardness of the snow, which varies with the weather and time of day; and,
  • The presence of steep snow on your route.

I don’t know another way to say this: Your mileage may vary.

For some backpackers and some routes and some times of the day, it may be worth having a Petzl Glacier Ice Axe and either Kahtoola K10 Crampons or lighter but less capable Kahtoola Microspikes, for peace of mind if nothing else. For other backpackers, routes, and times of the day, it will be dead weight.

On the PCT/JMT in mid-May 2007 I carried crampons and an ice axe, and never needed either. I didn’t carry them in late-June 2006, and never felt like I wanted one. If I were planning an early-season trip on the Sierra High Route or Kings Canyon High Basin Route, which are generally steeper and higher, I would more strongly consider both.

For a moderately-angled snowfield below Thunderbird Mtn on the Glacier Divide Route, Dave & I put on our crampons but kept stowed our axes. With the traction, we were very confident on the snow, even though a fall would have been fatal due to a cliff band at the bottom of the snowfield.

An ice axe has several functions:

  • Balance, if you don’t use trekking poles;
  • Brake during a glissade;
  • Chop steps across steep slopes; and,
  • Self-arrest, if you were to fall on a steep slope.

Spikes seem more useful to me, and I’d carry a pair before I carried an axe, if I didn’t want to carry both. Crampons and microspikes lower the risk of a fall by providing excellent purchase on snow, whether it’s frozen, firm, or soft. They may reduce fatigue, too, by improving control across long sun-cupped sections.

The weight of spikes can be quickly offset by improved efficiency. Rather than waiting for a pass to soften up, you can get on it early. And, even when the snow is softer, you can climb or descend more quickly and with greater confidence.

Your turn: What are your thoughts on skis, snowshoes, crampons, and axes in early-season conditions?

Not sure what you need? To a large degree, it depends on you and your trip. Leave a comment with the details, and we’ll try to help you out.


Disclosure. This website is supported mostly through affiliate marketing, whereby for referral traffic I receive a small commission from select vendors, at no cost to the reader. This post contains affiliate links. Thanks for your support.

62 Responses to Early-season backpacking || Merits of skis, snowshoes, crampons & axes

  1. Perry March 30, 2017 at 1:24 pm #

    Hoping to do the SoSHR/SHR on my upcoming PCT thru. Figuring i’ll hit KM mid June so expecting to pick up some spikes, and then play it by ear as to whether i need an axe or if i can get away with using poles for self arrests, as i’ve done before.

    • Andrew Skurka March 30, 2017 at 2:33 pm #

      I don’t know the SoSHR very well, but obviously I’m familiar with the SHR. I would definitely bring spikes, and probably real ones. The ax is more discretionary, but I would probably take one. If you need to get on something steep and firm, trekking poles don’t exactly instill confidence — you can’t sink them in very well, and they don’t offer much leverage.

      • HighSierra March 30, 2017 at 5:34 pm #

        Southern Sierra has a record snowpack that won’t be going away for many months. Compared to the well graded highway of the JMT/PCT, you’ll see scant signs of anyone else along those routes, meaning you’ll be the lucky one to kick/chop steps, negotiate cornices, etc. The High Sierra is rather forgiving when it comes to navigation but not so much when it comes to rescue response times. If you’re going solo, bring a PLB in addition to crampons and an axe. A pole will not work to arrest on 40+ degree slopes except under the most forgiving of conditions, when you should not be falling if you’re considering these detours after a record winter.

      • Perry March 31, 2017 at 8:20 am #

        Real spikes meaning crampons or the actual branded Kahtoola/hillsound microspikes (as opposed to the cheap knockoffs)?

        Have you had much luck with any fully flexible crampons on trail runners? I’d rather not switching to boots for that “short” stretch of trail if i can help it, and being international can’t easily ship my boots out to me.

        • Andrew Skurka March 31, 2017 at 8:29 am #

          Some will say that I’m being too loose with the term “real.” For regular travel on steep snow and over cornices, I would rather have a “real” crampon like the Kahtoola K10 than their lighter and less capable Microspikes. Obviously, neither setup is as “real” as a plastic boot with mountaineering crampons. But that’s a different ball of wax.

          I haven’t had to use my original Kahtoola Crampons very often, but I’ve been glad I had them when I did. They have legitimate front-point bite, whereas the Microspikes don’t dig as deeply and require more contact area to really be sure that you have some traction. I’ve spent no time in plastic boots/crampons so can’t compare the two, but I can say that the combination of a trail running shoe (especially one that’s not Gumby-like flexible) and Kathoola Crampon is a pretty good setup for early-season backpacking.

  2. Marc March 30, 2017 at 2:10 pm #

    Similar to Perry, I’ll be at Kennedy Meadows mid June, but I’ll do the regular PCT/JMT in the Sierra. You didn’t carry crampons and an ice axe in late June 2006, carry them in mid May 2007 but didn’t need them. Will it be different this year considering the heavy snowfall? What would you bring? Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka March 30, 2017 at 2:39 pm #

      The winter of 2005-06 was really heavy, not much below where things are at now. There was at least as much snow in late-June in 2006 as there was in mid-May 2007, which was well below average. The distribution was different though — I think I recall there being more snow on north-facing aspects in mid-May 2007, because the sun and spring temperatures just hadn’t been able to melt those areas out. But there was more snow on south-facing slopes in late-June 2006, because the amount of snow simply overwhelmed what the snow could do.

      You have to remember that by mid-June, and especially late-June and early-July, the daily melt is tremendous. In May things still crust over pretty well each night. But it’s a short freeze as you get later into the year. So most of the time the snow is soft enough that you can kick decent steps into it.

      As the post says, however, YMMV. I’ve done a lot of snow-hiking and skiing, so being on snow is comfortable to me. A lot of other hikers would be more confident and comfortable with at least some microspikes, especially on the steep pitches below the passes.

  3. Jesse March 30, 2017 at 2:43 pm #

    Something I’ve been trying to get dialed in lately has been a setup for runs that encounter a fair amount of glacier travel. I’m mostly running in the North Cascades/Coast Mountains of BC, and looking to do longer runs this summer. Most of the things I’m looking at would normally be done with a mountaineering boot that easily accepts crampons, but I’d love to figure out a setup that would work well on a running shoe that would allow me to move quickly through the beginning/end of these trips. On slightly steeper glacier travel, Kahtoola’s offerings have felt insufficient to me in the past, and I’m interested to hear opinions on running shoe/full on crampon setups that preferably pack down well.

    I’m looking at La Sportiva Akasha’s paired with Petzl Leopard’s, as the Leopard’s pack down into a running vest quite well. But I’m concerned about the rigidity of the crampons on a flexible shoe. The best option would probably be to buy a shoe like the salomon x-alp but I’d love to hear if anyone else has found a combo that worked well for them.

    • Andrew Skurka March 30, 2017 at 2:47 pm #

      I was thinking the X-Alp, too, but I’ll be interested to hear what others have to say. For better or worse, my running regiment is long and hard, but not adventurous.

    • sean March 31, 2017 at 12:27 pm #

      I’ve done quite a bit of running in the North Cascades, and a bit in the Coast Range, using Kahtoola KTS crampons and a light-ish axe (usually a Petzl Aztarex, one of my ice tools). You can’t front-point in them, but with the security of the axe you can get up some pretty steep stuff if you know what you’re doing (Fury, Challenger). The Leopards look interesting, but I’m not sure how much you can front-point in flexy-soled running shoes. Shoe-wise, anything with big lugs works — Salomon, Sportiva or, this past summer, Adidas Terrex X-Kings.

  4. Randal Martin March 30, 2017 at 8:32 pm #

    in general, microspikes are more than adequate on the type of moderate grade slopes backpackers will cover. In my opinion full crampons are only necessary on steeper couloirs you would encounter on a snow climb.

  5. Dan March 31, 2017 at 9:19 am #

    I’m starting the pct southbound in mid-July. I don’t have a lot of snow experience, so considering bringing microspikes, no axe, in anticipation of a few steep sections that may still be snow covered. Reasonable?
    Thanks

    • Andrew Skurka March 31, 2017 at 9:34 am #

      Currently the Cascades are reporting above-average snowpack, nothing exceptional. By mid-July any remaining snow will be very consolidated. I don’t think you’ll see a lot of it, but you’ll appreciate having spikes for any steeper slopes, especially early in the day.

    • Phoenix Genesis April 2, 2017 at 2:41 pm #

      Hello Andrew. Thanks to all the valuable information on your site, I was able to have a great adventure with my service dog Ray in August 2016 in the Sierras. However, this year, we have all the snowpack on the PCT. I have decided to go SoBo instead of NoBo, starting around July 10th. I have the microspikes and my ice axe and have mountaineering experience. However, I have never been through high elevation snow pack with a service dog (I use my dog for hearing and mobility). My older service dog Ray is retired and this is my new service dog Jake: a healthy young Siberian Husky. What, in your professional experience, do you recommend to help get my dog over some of the snowbound trail? Also, what would be the safest month to cross the rivers this year in the Sierras? I try to be as lightweight as possible for both me and my dog. I can find no information nor does the PCTA have any information as I am the first person attempting a thru-hike with a service dog. Any help is appreciated.

      • Andrew Skurka April 2, 2017 at 7:44 pm #

        Unfortunately my “professional experience” does not include any experience with four-legged companions. You might want to contact Justin Lichter, who did some very serious hikes with his dog, http://www.justinlichter.com/contact/

  6. Eric E March 31, 2017 at 10:51 am #

    Because of the heel risers and the aggressive bite of the many snow shoes, snow shoes beat skis for steep, “efficient” ascents. In the winter, we often choose our own direct-up route with the snow shoes and stair step to high elevations in a way you could never in a skinned ski.

    For the downhill, that leaves you glissading, not quite as fun as skiing, but efficient nonetheless.

    • Andrew Skurka March 31, 2017 at 4:13 pm #

      You may be able to take more direct lines with snowshoes, but taking a shorter route does not mean that you get there any faster. On slopes over a certain angle, you are physiologically capable of climbing only so many vertical feet per time; the horizontal distance traveled is irrelevant.

      More specifically, a skier may have to switchback to keep at a, say, a 20-percent grade, while a snowshoer can shoot straight up at 30 degrees. But if the skier and snowshoer have the same physical limits, both will only be able to do about 30 vertical feet per minute, although the skier will cover more horizontal distance in this time.

      Skiers lose some time to the switchback, but you can get pretty efficient at it. Meanwhile, snowshoers have no glide. All together, it’s probably a wash, and far less important than simply pacing yourself evenly on long extended climbs.

  7. Joe A April 1, 2017 at 3:10 pm #

    Planning to hit the PCT around mid-June, and will have snowshoes, microspikes, and a whippet waiting at Kennedy Meadows to make a final decision as what to take. I expect I’ll take the whippet regardless and will certainly take the microspikes if I skip the snowshoes. If I do take the snowshoes I’d appreciate input as to whether there’s still value in also taking the microspikes, or can the snowshoes provide needed traction on steep sections even early in the day on consolidated snow? Just to complete the picture, the snowshoes are NorthernLites, which have a toe and heel crampon but no spiking or traction at the rails. Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka April 2, 2017 at 7:16 am #

      I would take the spikes before I took the whippet. If you need to get a steep slope, you’ll be much more comfortable with spikes + no axe than no spikes + axe. Plus, trekking poles can serve partial function of an axe, as far as giving you some bite into a hard slope.

      I have used the Northern Lites extensively. They are essentially worthless on anything but flat or moderate slopes (but no side hilling). So, bring your spikes even if you bring your slowshoes.

    • MarkL April 3, 2017 at 11:27 am #

      I was wondering when someone would bring up the Whippet. It really is an excellent compromise, though there are some incredibly light axes out there these days. I might still bring the regular shaft in addition to the whippet if I were going to have long stretches without steep slopes. Poles are so good for so many things: pole-supported shelters, stream crossings, downhills, etc. Unless you are in crampon territory anyway I don’t think the self-belay aspect of an axe outweighs (pun intended) the versatility of the poles.

  8. Alex April 2, 2017 at 9:28 pm #

    Ice ax isn’t just useful for self arrest – it will self-belay when driven into the snow much more securely than any trekking pole. Especially in early season, before the snow has melted/compacted down to icy conditions, I can kick steps up a snow slope with no traction on my feet, but I want that self-belay ice ax to hang on to. I spend more time with an ice ax in my hand than with full crampons on my boots. My two cents from Washington state. Big fan of the blog, thanks for all you write here.

    • Andrew Skurka April 3, 2017 at 7:20 am #

      This is a good counterpoint, thanks for sharing. I’m curious if I would take the same approach on this same slope, or I would stick with crampons/no axe. While I could see the self-belay argument, I’m thinking that any slope needing that technique is going to require more than running shoes.

      • MarkL April 3, 2017 at 11:50 am #

        I think in most cases my progression would be:
        Spikes + poles
        Spikes + sturdier boot + Whippet
        Crampon + sturdier boot + Whippet
        Crampon + serious boot + axe

        I guess if I get to where I think a Whippet is actually needed, I want solid feet for kicking steps.

        • sean April 3, 2017 at 11:59 am #

          If a foot blows, you can catch yourself with an axe (or maybe whippet — I don’t use poles, so I can’t comment). But if you have to deal with miles of approach, boots suck for fast walking or running, and are bulky and heavy to put in your pack. I generally only use boots when I need to front-point or when it’s too cold for running shoes with warm socks and bread bags.

          • MarkL April 3, 2017 at 12:27 pm #

            I prefer to avoid the foot blowing out to begin with. If the boot means I have greater leeway to not use spikes to begin with (better step-kicking), or to feel the need to carry an axe, I prefer that. Also, as a 50 year old I like a little more foot support anyway (which is different than ankle support).To each their own.

            To be totally honest, I mostly backcountry ski anyway, so I sometimes end up hiking with AT boots on to get to the snow. In that context if I am not skiing I don’t find decent light hiking boots with some shank and a good sole to be that bad. 😉

  9. sean April 4, 2017 at 1:42 pm #

    If I wintered farther north, I might get into backcountry skiing and buy some modern crazy-expensive rando gear. Summer camping is bad enough, and spending long nights in snow caves seems truly awful. The light-and-fast outings I enjoy are a tricky tradeoff, but runnable footwear is a must. I’ve found that even light boots like Trangos are slow and pulverize my feet, and that carrying boots on/in my pack makes running awkward.

  10. Ender April 6, 2017 at 1:35 pm #

    Hi Andrew,
    Somehow my initial text doesn’t appear. Let me write it again in briefly: I will attempt a PCT thru hike this year (NOBO), starting from the Southern Terminus at the end of the May, which puts me at KM at the beginning of July. From what I read the best scenario is patchy snow in lower elevations and quite a bit at the passes and north sides. Of course that can change. I’m trying to decide whether I should take crampons, rather than microspikes. I think the weight is not that important because it is a small price to pay for security, especially this year. My first question is whether this is the right choice. My second question is about the crampon type. I’m more inclined to take a real crampon with universal attachments (strap-on). I believe this type of crampon’s front teeth are placed at an angle vs. Kahtoola or Hillsound crampons’ vertical front teeth. Which ones would be a better choice considering the Sierra part of the PCT and why?
    For the records, I know that one needs to decide oneself and is fully responsible for one’s own decisions. The disclaimer having been expressed, I would love to get your feedback on this.
    Thanks a lot

    • MarkL April 6, 2017 at 2:45 pm #

      Hope you don’t mind me chiming in:
      “Regular” crampons usually have 10 or 12 points, including 2 that stick out the front that are oriented horizontally. This is to allow front-pointing straight up steep, icy slopes. If you really need front points you are probably clearly in ice-axe territory. They are often not compatible with soft, flexible boots (or shoes) because they are made to be a pretty rigid platform and to go on mountaineering boots. Their spikes are also quite a bit longer than the K-10s and way longer than microspikes. If you aren’t practiced with them they can be a trip hazard.

      I don’t know the PCT you are talking about specifically, but I would think crampons like the K-10 would be perfectly adequate for trail-grade slopes as long as your technique is sound. Your ankles need to be strong and flexible enough to roll to get all the spikes in when crossing a steep slope. In ice and glacier climbing it is called “French Technique” and was developed before crampons had front points.

      The Hillsound Trail Crampon Pro looks like a hybrid between the K-10 and a mountaineering crampon, with less point in the front and shorter spikes all around.

      Here are a couple other options for light crampons:
      http://www.camp-usa.com/products/crampons/frost/ These are a couple ounces lighter than the Kahtoolas, but obviously have fewer spikes and probably don’t cover as much of the boot. Looks identical to the Hillsound Cypress6

      http://www.camp-usa.com/products/crampons/xlc-490-universal/ These are a 12-point that weigh the same as the Kahtoolas but are a full mountaineering crampon with front points. They are aluminum, so you would need to be more careful wearing them around rocky areas. Since they are not made for ice climbing they say they will go on hiking boots, but I would ask about that.

    • Andrew Skurka April 6, 2017 at 2:49 pm #

      For context, I went through the PCT/JMT in late-June 2006 (after a very wet winter) and didn’t have crampons or an axe, and didn’t feel like I was missing out. If I were on the trail this year, I might take some traction in the name of efficiency (i.e. safely travel on slopes early in the day that would otherwise have to soften up) but I would keep them pretty light. Definitely nothing more than K-10, and I might consider the Microspikes.

  11. Phil G April 18, 2017 at 11:07 am #

    Hi Andrew,

    Do you know of anyone having success using Petzl’s Leopard Flex crampons on trail running shoes?
    Thank you, Phil

  12. Bob Winds88 April 18, 2017 at 3:00 pm #

    Petzl is a good company, but my first thought is that the cords wouldn’t last long on mixed routes like in the summer time Wind Rivers. Gaiter cords don’t last long, and they get less stress.

    https://www.amazon.com/Petzl-Leopard-FL-Crampons/dp/B01JANLURY

    The reviewer’s cords failed going through the holes in the aluminum. He liked them after smoothing the holes with abrasive cord, maybe a rat tail file would work too, personally I’d shop for other crampons.

    • sean April 18, 2017 at 4:19 pm #

      Even if the cords didn’t wear through, the toe and heel parts would need a stiff sole between them to attach securely. In a trail runner, you would have to painfully squish your foot to get them to stay on. Plus, that type of heel attachment can dig into your achilles tendon even on normal strap-on crampons. I’m guessing they’re designed for ski boots, making them the opposite of what you want.

  13. Kat April 20, 2017 at 2:51 pm #

    Me and my friend (new to backpacking) are doing Rae Lakes Loop May 27-29 2017, 3 days. Counterclockwise. Any advisories or advice regarding snow gear and footwear??? I get mixed opinions about the manageability of this trip.
    We’re both physically fit, healthy, and 25.

    • Andrew Skurka April 20, 2017 at 4:12 pm #

      Your youth and fitness will help you out, but the Rae Lakes Loop in late-May of this year would not be my first pick for new backpackers. You will be spending a lot of time on snow, probably from about 11,000 feet on the south side of Glen Pass to probably about 10k on the north side. The trail will be completely buried, and you will have to navigate with map, compass, and GPS. Other hikers will have come through by then, but you have no guarantee that they are going where you are.

      Thankfully, there are bridges over Bubbs, Woods, and the South Fork.

      I would probably encourage you to rethink this plan, and stay at lower elevations away from the snow. Or, be prepared to go out and back on the same trail, and don’t go over the pass.

      • Kat April 20, 2017 at 4:28 pm #

        I have a couple years of experience but my navigation skills are not strong. I did the lower half of the JMT 2 years ago so this pass is a little familiar. With a GPS, Tom Harrison maps, and a compass, how manageable would that be if I studied up on navigation? We are very committed to this trip and do not scare easily. Also, permits for both direction of that trail head filled up so I am hoping for plenty of other hikers that weekend as well as PCTers passing through.

        If we absolutely must, would you recommend hiking towards Forester then back out or something else?

        • Andrew Skurka April 21, 2017 at 3:44 pm #

          Not scaring easily is not necessarily an asset.

          At-home studying can help you some, like understanding how to use a compass. But ultimately you need to apply nav skills (e.g. relating map to terrain, finding a bearing, hiking towards a waypoint on your GPS) in the field. A short trip would help you a lot with this, or a trip where you wander within safe distance of a base camp.

          I would not have confidence that the other permit-holders will be any better off than you. You might encounter footprints going every which way.

          • MarkL April 22, 2017 at 8:42 am #

            Thank you for stating that, Andrew. As someone who helps train SAR and ski patrol personnel in winter travel and navigation, I have a lot of concerns here. My SAR friends would say “I don’t scare easily” is the backcountry equivalent of “Hold my beer.” One of the most important aspects of trip planning is evaluating the skills of the group and matching it with the goals, terrain, and equipment. Pushing yourself is fine to a point, but I see a major mismatch here – especially for a novice partner – which raises all kinds of red flags.

            If your partner is a novice to backpacking, you will be the “guide” and your partner will be relying heavily on your skills and judgement. Imagine you are your novice partner and you were interviewing guides for a trip, and one of them said, “I don’t have much snow experience, but even though the trail is completely buried by snow, we should be OK because I just studied up on my own a couple of weeks ago.” Would you feel comfortable going with that guide?

            If your partner is a novice, you want them to have the most positive experience, and I am with Andrew on this that this looks pretty ambitious as an introduction. Moving on snow is very different than moving on a trail and can be very slow in marginal conditions even if you know the route.

            Finally, I am not familiar with this route, but I know it has been a huge winter in many parts of the Sierras. Looking at the map, the pass S of Rae Lakes is mostly prime avalanche angle, and Paradise Valley is very narrow and riddled with avalanche paths I can see from the satellite image. I ski tour a lot in late May and early June in the Cascades and late spring avalanche hazard is no joke, especially in a big snow year.

            I am certain there are different objectives that would be challenging enough to develop your navigation and snow skills with a greater margin for error.

  14. Kat April 22, 2017 at 9:05 am #

    Mark and Andrew

    Thank you both for the sound advice and opinions. Yesterday, after much thinking about the trip and Andrews comments, I realized that doing that pass with heavy snow is not a reasonable goal for us right now. I recalibrated my thought process and will rather look at and map out all the trails connected to Bubbs Creek at lower elevations. We will likely just go out as far as we are comfortable, do some day hikes the next day, then hike back out the same way.

    Sometimes my eyes are bigger than my stomach which is why I’m glad to have gotten both your advice. I had also received advice from other backpackers that said it was doable.
    Marks comment further solidified my decision to not attempt that pass at that time.

    • Andrew Skurka April 22, 2017 at 9:43 pm #

      The route is “doable” but not necessarily “safe” or “doable for you.” It might very well be, but also might not be. And that’s why I’m encouraging you to go up there with a flexible itinerary, not a strict schedule that will force you into a bad situation. If I were in your shoes, I would plan on wandering up towards Glen Pass, but be perfectly willing to turn back around if I didn’t like what I saw, and then use my extra time to explore upper Bubbs below Forester.

  15. Kat April 22, 2017 at 10:06 pm #

    Andrew

    That sounds exactly like what we now plan on doing. If we happen to get some hot May weather that clears more of the path we may just wander further down the loop but, as you said, we will go in with a very flexible schedule and gauge as we go with what route seems best fit for us.

    In the future I’d love to get into snow backpacking and learn how to properly navigate. Are there any specific resources you’d recommend?

    • Andrew Skurka April 22, 2017 at 10:28 pm #

      I recommend studying up on available resources (try these) and then getting into the field as much as you can, starting with low-risk outings and increasing risk/commitment in proportion to your new skills and comfort.

  16. Jordan April 24, 2017 at 6:13 pm #

    First, Andrew, as a soon to be first-time backpacker, I really want to thank you for putting out your 2nd Gearguide – I’ve found it completely invaluable and will be recommending it to everyone looking to get more information on hiking/backpacking.

    Second, despite my initial hesitations, I think I’m taking your advice and using non-WP hiking shoes for my upcoming trip Chilnualna Falls Trail in Yosemite at the very of May; however, now I’m wondering if I need spikes for my shoes. Since my it will be my (and my girlfriend’s) first time backpacking, I’m going in with a very flexible schedule/goal/mindset, but if it doesn’t seem unreasonable due to our ability and the conditions, I’d like to at least make it to Crescent Lake (see anticipated route and topo map here https://drive.google.com/open?id=1Ya-Hcnn5Afs8AU-AaC2o5jhplu0&usp=sharing).

    Can anyone please offer some advice Re whether I should bring spikes for my shoes (or other special snow gear)?

    • Andrew Skurka April 25, 2017 at 8:28 am #

      Since the falls is southwest-facing, it probably melts out early. And 6k feet in late-May is pretty low for snow, even after a big winter. The remainder of the route climbs, but never steeply. I would not bother with spikes. And if you end up needing snowshoes, boy, those June PCT/JMT hikers better reconsider skis or snowshoes.

  17. Travis May 2, 2017 at 11:25 am #

    Hey Andrew I want to get the K10 crampons but nobody has any, I originally was going to use the microspikes but wanted to go a bit bigger. I called Kahtoola and they are not making any more until July. Do you have any others worth considering that would work with trail running shoes.

  18. Justin Baker May 3, 2017 at 11:58 pm #

    I am thinking about a mid-june Rae Lakes loop hike. Any thoughts on bringing snowshoes? I have some 2.5 pound msr shift snowshoes (a children’s snowshoe that fits adult feet just fine). Definitely bringing microspikes. Mostly concerned about glenn pass.

    • Andrew Skurka May 4, 2017 at 5:46 pm #

      If it’s not an inconvenience I would bring them, and ask at the ranger station if they think snowshoes are needed. You are right on the cusp of the snow setting up well. It should be okay in the morning, but might be pretty rotten in the afternoon.

  19. Nate Winsor May 8, 2017 at 10:04 pm #

    Hey Andrew, I have been backpacking and snowshoeing for a few years through Eastern Canada, however this will be my first trip into the Mountains. While I have experience soloing, my partner is not experienced. Our plan is to hike the PCT from Walker Pass to Donner Pass, staring June 28th. I am wondering what your take on snow conditions will be. I hear 199% on postholer, and then ‘don’t worry about it’ on hiking forums. I am a big guy, and will be carrying an 80L pack( as light as possible) in order to accommodate a carbon fibre tripod, and some landscape photography gear. I do not normally use trekking poles. I am wondering if I should invest in Khatoola K-10s for the snow, as well as an ice axe (intending to get practice before KM) and also trekking poles, or would some combination of the two be okay? I would rather K-10s over microspikes, as I find the rubber slips off my boots to easily. My tripod is 3 pounds (heavy for backpacking, light for photo gear) so I am trying to limit the amount of weight I need to carry. I am also a graduate student, so cost is always a consideration– albeit not as important as our safety. Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka May 9, 2017 at 5:00 pm #

      The snow in early-July will definitely be more than a “don’t worry about it” issue. But I don’t know how to interpret Postholer’s data since it did not exist in other big snow years like 2004-05 or 2005-06.

      If you have not already, you should read the remainder of this early-season tutorial and the comments, where the K-10 and microspike discussion has happened on a few occasions. Ultimately, I can’t say what you will need — the conditions will change in the next 8 weeks, and I don’t know whether you will be comfortable on snow. Best bet is to have them available, and make a last-minute call based on what you are hearing from hikers ahead of you.

      To me, seems like a really long way (through difficult conditions) to carry that much weight. Personally, if I were going to carry volume like that I would give up the long-distance interests and just focus on photography. Have you read this?

      • Nate Winsor May 9, 2017 at 6:32 pm #

        Hey Andrew! Thanks for the reply (you’re a hero of mine, so its neat to get a response). I have read all the basic stuff, however, I will send it to my partner. I bought an 80L when I first started soloing for a ‘long’ hike (though not by your standards) and it was overkill. I am considering picking up a 60L to cut down on weight, as I subscribe to the UL mentality (to allow for camera gear) and the 80L already has empty space. Camera wise, I am already packing as light as possible, 1-2 lens (nikon DX format to cut down weight), DX DSLR, filters (3), extra battery and rain cover, but the tripod is one of those stupid luxury items I can’t give up. I will send along an ice axe + K-10/microspikes to KM to have the option. Thanks again!

  20. MarkL May 9, 2017 at 9:39 pm #

    Question re: ice axe: do you know how to use it? It can be unreliable at best and hazardous at worst if you aren’t trained in how to use it. Another option is the Black Diamond Whippet, which is a ski pole with a removable pick in the handle.

    • Nate May 10, 2017 at 7:57 pm #

      I was intending to take a course between now and the trail. I’ve heard the whippet is not as strong/ not rated to stop a fall in the same way as the ice axe. However, the fact that it doubles as a pole is attractive. I know there has been lots written about their relative pros/cons elsewhere, so I don’t want to hijack the thread, but feel free to add your two cents.

      • MarkL May 11, 2017 at 12:08 am #

        It is definitely not a true ice-axe replacement, but if you are in snow shoe and microspike terrain as opposed to crampon and ice-axe terrain, (e.g., cutting steps, swinging the pick in on ice, belaying with a rope), it can be a pretty effective tool for slowing or stopping a slide on snow. It is designed for skiers as a self-arrest grip. https://blackdiamondequipment.com/en_US/ski-poles/whippet-ski-pole-BD1115420000ALL1.html It’s been used on big mountains (McKinley, Everest) and Antarctic expeditions. There are videos of it being used to stop ski and snowboard falls in steep couloirs.

        I’d still recommend the self-arrest course. Ask the instructor about ski pole techniques.

      • MarkL May 11, 2017 at 12:11 am #

        Forgot to mention: mine is really old with a removable pick. I think the new versions don’t do that. You need a separate upper shaft if you want to switch it out.

        • Justin Baker May 11, 2017 at 12:57 am #

          I’m guessing with that pick it won’t work as a center pole for a pyramid shelter?

          • MarkL May 11, 2017 at 11:17 am #

            Probably depends on the shape of the shelter. The pick droops down and the point is on the bottom. You could probably find or make a pick-guard (they make them for ice axes).

            If you are carrying two trekking poles anyway, if it is a one-pole shelter you could use one Whippet and use the other pole for the shelter, or just buy a replacement upper shaft with a regular handle.

            That all being said, the Camp Corsa ice axe is half the weight, it is just less versatile and you have to carry it separately.

  21. Justin Baker May 9, 2017 at 10:19 pm #

    Any idea on how a k10 crampon would work with a shoe like the altra superior? Would the flexibility of a shoe like that cause issues?

    • Nicolas June 29, 2017 at 11:06 pm #

      My question exactly. I have a pair of Hillsound Trail Crampon… I am wondering whether or not I should upgrade. Staring to hike the HST in early July.

      • Andrew Skurka July 4, 2017 at 7:38 am #

        If you need more than that, it’s probably a sign that you should stay off the slope and do something safer.

  22. Rick Self July 1, 2017 at 3:22 pm #

    Andrew,

    I’m hiking from Cecile Lake down the somewhat steep north-facing slope to Iceberg Lake, and then climbing Mt Ritter in August (10-11th). Any suggestions on predicting the need for crampons and ice axe for these treks? I’ve hiked the JMT in this area several times, but not these two specific routes.

    Rick

    • Andrew Skurka July 4, 2017 at 7:25 am #

      I’ve done the descent to Iceberg in early-July in a dry year. Wasn’t an issue for us without crampons.

      Have not climbed Ritter.

  23. PatB July 7, 2017 at 7:16 pm #

    Thanks for all your work to encourage folks to get up and experience the outdoors!

    Given that your experience on Roper’s SHR, any thoughts about whether crampons or microspikes would be worth the added weight (and increased confidence) on some of the Class III passes this July?

    I’ve got a small group of friends doing a segment from Dusy Basin to Lake Italy, and we’re looking at Echo Col, Alpine Col and/or Snow Tongue Pass as the biggest challenges for a late July trip this year.

    We all have some experience off trail, but aren’t super comfortable with steep snow-covered terrain. Will be carrying ice axes to help with stability on snow-covered segments. FWIW, had a great (if slightly challenging) time on the Road’s End to Dusy segment last year (including Frozen Lake Pass and that sketchy chute down from Red Pass to Marion Lake)

    • Andrew Skurka July 10, 2017 at 8:06 am #

      I haven’t been over Echo or Alpine Cols, but I have done Snow Tongue and a lot of others in the area. I would expect anything that holds snow to still be holding snow in late-July this year. In other words, it will be a snow tongue. I’m sure that you could get down it without an axe or crampons, but you’d be a heck of a lot more comfortable if you had both. I know it sucks to carry an extra 2 lbs of hardwear, but that’s a better alternative than having to turn around or having a group member get really hurt during a fall.

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