Top

No longer #snowpocalypse: Just an “average big winter” for the High Sierra

Through the beginning of March, California was having an extraordinary winter. Snowpack in the High Sierra was keeping pace with the wettest winter on record, 1982-83.

If the trend had continued, conditions would have been very challenging for aspiring Pacific Crest and John Muir Trail hikers, due to extensive lingering snowpack and high run-off, probably until August. The High Sierra would not have been “impassable” in June or July, but early-season gear and skills would have had premium value.

Current snowpack versus the all-time record of 1982-83, and the historical average, which peaks on April 1.

Coming up short

Early-season travel in the High Sierra will still be challenging in 2017, but probably less so than previously feared. The 2016-17 winter is no longer a #snowpocalpyse. Rather, it’s just an average big winter, about on par with 1997-98, 2004-05, 2005-06, and 2010-11.

During these seasons, many hikers successfully pushed through the High Sierra early in the season. They didn’t quit, change their itineraries, or wait at Kennedy Meadows for the snow to melt. Read up, gear up, and go.

Current snowpack versus other “big winters” from the past 20 years, as recently as 2010-11.

Disclaimer

Now, it is only April 10, and things can still change — but probably not dramatically, if at all. In the charts above, you’ll notice that the snowpack rarely grows at this time of year. The days are too long, the sun is too high in the sky, and the temperatures are too warm for snowfall to regularly exceed snow melt.

At best, these “average big winters” seems to flat-line until mid- or late-April, before spring/summer conditions finally prevail. In an average winter, the snowpack peaks on April 1.

Recommendation

If I were planning an early-season High Sierra trip right now, I would be expecting extensive lingering snow and high run-off, but not of never-seen-before proportions. Early-season gear & skills will most definitely still be a value-added.

And I would continue to check the CDEC snowpack plots weekly. An exceptionally wet-and-cold or dry-and-hot spring will delay or accelerate the great spring melt.

13 Responses to No longer #snowpocalypse: Just an “average big winter” for the High Sierra

  1. postholer April 10, 2017 at 9:17 pm #

    Your assessment is incorrect. “Above 8,500′ the snow is highest on record.” You are looking at the entire snow pack, not at trail elevation. Here’s the release from the April 1st snow survey:

    “Park staff have completed the April 1 snow surveys, and report that the water content of the snowpack in the Tuolumne drainage is 177 percent of average. In the Merced drainage it is 168 percent of average.

    The snowpack is heavily weighted toward the higher elevations. Below 7,500′ the snow is deep but not exceptional, with 143 percent of average across the park. Above 8,500′ the water content of the snowpack is the highest on record. The snow on the high elevation courses is 10-14 feet deep and contains 5-7 feet of water.”

    • Andrew Skurka April 11, 2017 at 8:42 am #

      Hmm, interesting. That detail will matter to hikers.

      To what park is this referring? SEKI or YOSE?

      • postholer April 11, 2017 at 9:09 am #

        Yosemite. It’s relevant to the entire high sierra, though. Yosemite is the only one to make the statement.

        For an extensive view of snow conditions along the sierra and the entire PCT, give this a peek: http://www.postholer.com/snow/Pacific-Crest-Trail/1

        • Andrew Skurka April 11, 2017 at 9:29 am #

          I pulled that up after your first comment, figuring that you might have some additional details.

          This post is based on the snowpack plot charts, which I’ve always used and which have proven pretty reliable. Moreover, the gap between current and 1982-83 is very significant at this point. Assuming a normal spring melt, can you definitively say that snowpack conditions in the High Sierra will be of never-before-seen proportions come May/June/July?

          • postholer April 11, 2017 at 2:06 pm #

            The snow pack charts are what we’ve all used for a long time as it was the best tool we had. Last year was the first year of the ‘next generation’ trail snow chart. Here’s a graphic disparity between ‘snow pack’ and ‘trail snow’ at the end of the the 2016 season: http://www.postholer.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=17&t=2878

            For the last 10 years I’ve been tinkering with snow data and the above demonstrates the exact reason why I was able to resolve the differences between on trail hiker reports and snow pack charts….’trail snow’ and ‘snow pack’ are clearly different things.

            With the ‘trail snow’ chart we have a 13 year record at a 1 kilometer resolution, which is why SoCal is still poorly represented (steep terrain @ 1 kilometer).

            The statement Yosemite made this year, to my knowledge, was the first time they actually separated observations by altitude. This also vindicates the ‘snow pack’ vs ‘trail snow’ idea.

            Thanks for all the inspiration!

        • Andrew Skurka April 11, 2017 at 9:30 am #

          P.S. There are lot of hikers who would love for you to bring and my assessment to be right.

  2. Eli April 11, 2017 at 11:06 am #

    Hey Andrew, I appreciate your insight into this years Sierra conditions. In your experience as a fast/light hiker in early Sierra conditions, how was your daily mileage affected by snow travel in the Sierra? I’ve got a really light pack and I do bigger miles (30-35mpd on PCT graded trail), so I wanted to know what I can realistically expect mileage wise covering mostly snowcovered miles in the Sierra in June. Let’s assume normal weather patterns (sunny), daily temperatures, and consolidated snow.

    • Andrew Skurka April 11, 2017 at 11:23 am #

      I would have to look back at my trip logs to be sure, but I think I recall my mileage being more like mid- or high-20’s in 2006 and 2007. If not for snow, those would have been 30-35 mile efforts.

      • Eli April 11, 2017 at 12:24 pm #

        Great. That’s exactly what I’m looking for.

  3. Amanda Petel April 17, 2017 at 8:01 am #

    Hi Andrew
    I was so relieved to find your great website! My Mom and I are planning to take my kids 8 and 10 to stay at Vogelsang HS Camp in mid July. I haven’t hiked up there before although we’ve done many hikes off Tioga Pass. We are trying to decide if we should try to push our trip to early August because of snow. I am also not sure if there are any river crossings in either direction (Rafferty Creek or Lyell Canyon) on the way up there. We are concerned about mosquitoes but it sounds like July and August will be about the same. Thanks so much for any advice you might have!!!

    • Andrew Skurka April 19, 2017 at 3:47 pm #

      You might hit some snow but the trail will be very well established by then, with hundreds of people having gone through, including horse teams possibly.

      There is a bridge over the Lyell Fork. I don’t recall if there is one over Rafferty, but the creek has a pretty low gradient at the ford and I don’t think it will be too problematic. The rangers will be able to tell you more.

  4. Charles April 19, 2017 at 1:08 pm #

    Any thoughts on the difficulty of Northern Yosemite in particular this summer? It seems like this area has abnormally high snow, even compared to recent high snow years.

    Potentially related: what kind of sleeping pad would you use for camping on snow? Will it be necessary this year with an “average” June 15 Sierra entry? Maybe assume a pace around 20 miles/day in the Sierra.

    Thanks for all you do for the hiking community!

    • Andrew Skurka April 19, 2017 at 3:39 pm #

      I would assume the same story in northern Yosemite. Things will begin to normalize sometime in mid- or late-July.

      Normally in June you can find snow-free ground at lower elevations and on windward or sunny aspects. I wouldn’t change my pad: I’d use a NeoAir XLite for snow or dry ground.

Leave a Reply

Please prove you're not spam: *