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John Muir Trail early-season 2017: What was it like? || Part 2: Passes, axes & crampons

In March I was contacted by Sam and Steven Chaneles, a Miami-based father-son team who were planning to thru-hike the John Muir Trail in 2017. Due to permit availability and personal schedules, their dates were June 17 through July 9. They’d been watching the record-setting snowpack plots and were increasingly concerned about the feasibility of their plans given their thin backpacking resumes.

I was able to help them pare down their kits, talk through anxieties, and set their expectations — and then they did all the hard work (and had all the fun, and a heck of a father-son trip) in the High Sierra. After they returned, Sam wrote me and included a few photos and anecdotes. It sounded truly epic, and I thought their story was worth sharing — partly for the entertainment value, but also to help others better understand the challenges and hazards of early-season backpacking in the High Sierra, especially after an exceptionally wet winter. Sam posted a more general trip report on his website, Engineered for Adventure.

In this four-part interview, Sam and I discuss:


Q | Did you carry an axe or crampons? Did you use them? Would you recommend them?

We both had Hillsound Trail PRO Crampons and a Black Diamond Raven Pro Ice Axe, and we did use them in the mornings when conditions were suitable. Most mornings we were on the trail by 5:30 a.m.to take advantage of the frozen snowpack. In the mornings, the combination of crusty snow and crampons allowed us to travel at a decent pace, even over suncups.

Nearly all of the PCT hikers we encountered used Kahtoola Microspikes instead of full-fledged hiking crampons. Personally, I felt like our hiking crampons allowed us more sure footing when we ventured off of the snow tracks, as well as traversing some of the steeper passes (Mather, Glen).

On steep traverses, the ice axes were useful for self-belaying, as well as keeping balance when at rest. I only had to self-arrest once (just a minor slip), and the axe worked perfectly when I needed it most. The ice axes also proved useful for the two times we were able to glissade, notably down the Whitney Chute, which not only saved us timed descending but was a load of fun!

A deep glissade track down Whitney Chute. With snow walls over 4 feet tall, the chute felt more like a bobsled track.

I personally would recommend carrying at least an ice axe. In the event you need to self-arrest, your trekking poles are really not up to the task. Many PCT hikers had the lighter Camp Corsa Axe, which would be a good option if you are looking to minimize your weight.

Q | What passes felt the most sketchy?

The most difficult passes for us were Mather Pass and Glen Pass, mostly due to the presence of rock scramble. For us the descent down from Mather Pass was particularly steep, and in places required scrambling down loose scree rock. Very good tracks, from PCT hikers, were present, yet we had to take carefully calculated steps at times going down Mather.

Northbound PCT hikers make their way up Mather Pass’ southern slope.

Glen Pass was another difficult pass for us, yet reflecting on it now I can say it was definitely my favorite pass. Glen is steep on both sides, so the experience will be similar no matter if you are going southbound or northbound. For us, ascending required a few sections of rock scramble, which could be considered “sketchy.” The final traverse up to the pass was steep, yet well tracked. Coming down from Glen Pass required similar maneuvering as coming down from Mather. There were steep sections where rock scramble was required, which were a bit dicey. Very good tracks existed on the descent down from Glen Pass for us, yet we still felt it was necessary to take slow and calculated steps.

Climbing up Glen Pass. Glen was an interesting mix of rock scramble and snow travel.

Q | Was there a reliable boot track up to and down from each pass?

With the exception of Cathedral and Island Pass, nearly every pass had very good tracks up to and down from the top, put in by PCT hikers. Cathedral and Island didn’t have tracks because those are off the PCT, and were one of the first — if not the first — groups through.

We had nice, deep tracks like these around the major passes.


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