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Reader question: Should I change my High Sierra itinerary due the heavy snowfall?

Extensive snow coverage on the north side of Mather Pass, looking towards Palisade Lakes, after a very wet winter. Taken June 28, 2006.

A reader question from Gabino:

In August I was planning to hike the Pacific Crest Trail through the High Sierra from South Lake Tahoe to Horseshoe Meadow. But all of this rain & snow has me concerned about lingering snowfields, high stream crossings, and late mosquitoes. Should I reschedule to September, instead?

I’m sure that every backpacker planning to undertake the PCT, JMT, Sierra High Route, Kings Canyon High Basin Route, or any other high-elevation route in California’s High Sierra is wondering the same thing right now. Here are some thoughts:

California’s snowpack: The Facts

There are many ways to record and analyze the snowpack, but I’ve always liked these snowpack plots from California’s Department of Water Resources. They show the current snowpack relative to the “average” winter, or to actual past winters.

If you have backpacked in the High Sierra for many years, this “percentage of average” figure can be used to accurately predict summertime conditions. CDWR divides the Sierra Nevada into three main watersheds. The High Sierra is encompassed mostly by Central and South.

In the charts below, you can see that more snow blankets the Sierra Nevada right now than anytime since the winter of 2011-12. Of course, several of these years were droughts, with the 2014-15 winter being the driest ever recorded.

This winter is tracking more closely to the biggest winters in recent memory — 2004-05, 2005-06, and 2010-11. And in the central and southern parts of the Sierra Nevada, it is on par with the wettest winter ever, 1982-83.

And the winter is not over yet

The snowpack typically peaks on April 1. In an average year, before April 1 more snow falls than melts; and, after April 1, more snow melts than falls. But wet winters tend to be longer, and the snowpack often does not peak until mid- or late-April.

Right now it’s only late-February and the snowpack is already well above its April 1 average. Even if the snow-machine turned off tomorrow, there is already so much snow on the ground that conditions will probably at least be “average” in the summer. More likely, however, snow will continue to fall and it will be a late spring.

Conditions after a wet winter

A wet winter presents a few obstacles for summertime backpacking.

Lingering snowpack

The High Sierra has a few glaciers and permanent snowfields. Everywhere else, the snowpack melts off completely. After a wet winter, it simply takes longer for the snow to melt.

Early-season hikers are affected most, with several miles of lingering snow on both the north and south sides of major passes. Look at the photo at the top of this page for a good example.

Sometime in June the snow becomes consolidated, and you can walk on top of it. But before that point, it rots in the afternoon (after the sun and warm temperatures melt the crust from the night before) and arduous post-holing ensues.

But even after it’s consolidated, the High Sierra snowpack is rarely pleasant. It becomes covered in small depressions (“sun cups”) that make for tedious walking.

Annoying sun cups near Selden Pass

High water and wet meadows

During peak runoff — normally in June, when temperatures are finally high enough to cause extensive melting — the rivers will be scary. At the right place and time of day, some will be pretty scary in July, too.

The creek flows are cyclical. In the morning, when temperatures are low and the sun is barely up, there is relatively little runoff. In the afternoon, after a full day of warm temperatures and intense sunshine, there is a lot. Plan your days around the creek crossings. And learn to read your map to identify safer ford locations — the trail is designed for July-September conditions, not June, and not July after a very wet winter.

By August the water levels should be manageable. When I did the JMT in 2010-11 after a big winter, there were only two crossings where we had to get our feet wet. Elsewhere, there were constructed bridges, downed trees, and rock steps.

In late-June 2006 I crossed Evolution Creek at the meadow about a half-mile above the trail crossing. Here, at 5 PM, it was MUCH safer. The trail crossing would have been a swim.

Mosquitoes

Normally the High Sierra mosquitoes peak in July, and dwindle or die-off in August as the meadows dry up. I would expect a late hatch, because they can’t come out until the ground is snow-free; and they will probably persist through August, until the first frosts of September.

Thankfully, mosquitoes can be managed. Some reading:

Learn to manage mosquitoes, or your back will look like this. Donohue Pass, August 2011.

Should you change your itinerary?

Without knowing more about your situation, I can’t answer that for you. If you want some specific feedback, leave a comment below. Given the current conditions, I don’t expect any unprecedented challenges for 2017 hikers — we’ve seen these conditions before, although not often.

Some specific predictions:

May: Bring skis.

June: Anticipate extensive snow coverage at the higher elevations, and high water crossings, especially in the afternoons. Earlier in the month, the snow will often be rotten in the afternoon. Later in the month, most of it will have consolidated but it will be sun-cupped.

July: The snowpack will melt off and the creeks will come down, but the mosquitoes will hatch.

August: The first month of “normal” backpacking in the High Sierra, but with heavier bug pressure. It will be more like July.

Finally, September will be the nicest month of the year:

  • No lingering snow, high water, or mosquitoes;
  • Fewer people, especially after Labor Day; and,
  • Cooler daytime temperatures and a less intense sun.

Of course, September is always the nicest month, except when the High Sierra is on fire.

76 Responses to Reader question: Should I change my High Sierra itinerary due the heavy snowfall?

  1. seano February 21, 2017 at 5:11 pm #

    Great post.

    If this year is like 2011, I don’t think you’ll run into serious difficulties on the PCT in August, other than some runoff on the trail here and there. Peak-baggers may want an axe and crampons for couloirs that have been dry the past few years, e.g. the standard route on Thunderbolt.

  2. dgray February 22, 2017 at 7:28 am #

    My son and I have a permit to begin hiking the JMT from Yosemite going south at the end of the first week of July. If conditions at that time are something like the Mather pass picture you posted above how would you advise handling footwear choices? We usually use trail runners and have no problem with them on the typical summer snowfield crossings, but we are starting to wonder if the prospect of cold wet feet all day long and the need to kick steps in snow for longer stretches might call for light boots instead. Thoughts?

    • Andrew Skurka February 22, 2017 at 7:53 am #

      Assuming the winter stays wet, you should expect a lot of snow before and after each pass. Fortunately for you, the northern half of the JMT is less snowy than the south, giving the snowpack some more time (days at least, maybe weeks depending on your pace) to melt out.

      Donohue will be snowbound, but then you won’t hit much until Silver Pass, then another break until Seldon, then another break. In upper Evolution Creek, you will finally start getting into more consistent snow — that where the JMT really begins its pass-and-valley pattern, and stops dropping so low between the passes.

      Re footwear, scroll down to the very bottom of this page, http://andrewskurka.com/2016/conditions-hiking-waterproof-footwear-winter-system/. Thick wool socks will do the trick for those regular submersions, just taking the edge off that numbing cold water. They’ll dry much faster than neoprene, and they’ll be acceptably comfortable while hiking on drier and warmer parts of the trail.

      I would probably still bring a thinner pair of socks for reliably dry sections. Hot feet are more likely to get blistered.

      Your feet will probably not be cold while hiking on snow — your outsole insulates you pretty well, and you’ll probably be pretty hot from the intense sun and reflection.

  3. Chris February 22, 2017 at 8:51 am #

    Great article. I am planning on hiking from Yosemite to Sonora pass in late July. I did a large chunk of the Jmt in July 2011. Do you think this trip will have more challenges from the snow then my 2011 trip or less ?

    • Andrew Skurka February 22, 2017 at 9:02 am #

      The final 6-8 weeks of winter will partly answer that question. But the differences will probably be more related to the topography and local weather patterns (e.g. average snowline at Sonora versus Whitney), versus the snowpack being at 150 versus 175 percent of average.

  4. Nicolas February 22, 2017 at 9:19 am #

    Hello Andrew,

    Thank you for the timely post! I was checking those very charts last night trying to decide on the dates to write down on my HST permit application — had aimed for early-July to avoid peak mosquitoes.

    I am also planning to travel off-trail from Discovery Pinnacle, via the Miter Basin to Langley (mostly south-facing slopes except for the backside of Crabtree Pass).

    The HST doesn’t go too high (mostly < 10k ft) until we reach Wallace Creek.

    In your opinion, could we stick to early July with the Miter in our itinerary? Or would the snowfields be too dangerous in the Whitney region? I think mosquitoes will have to be managed no matter what, even in August.

    Much appreciated!

    Nicolas

    • Andrew Skurka February 22, 2017 at 9:58 am #

      I don’t know the Miter Basin very well. Maybe someone else can chime in. In general, the Whitney area does not get as much snow as other parts of the High Sierra, but it sticks around for a long time because of the high elevations.

    • seano February 22, 2017 at 10:07 am #

      The north side of Crabtree Pass could actually be more pleasant as snow instead of choss, provided you’re comfortable with crampons and an axe. Note that with a bit of cleverness and third class, you can contour around below McAdie and avoid most of the drop and climb getting from Discovery Pinnacle to Crabtree Pass. I remember the route on the Miter being partly north-facing as well, so there will still be snow in early July. Definitely Old Army, and possibly New Army Passes could also be snowy.

  5. Paul February 22, 2017 at 9:22 am #

    Just to add another data point to the discussion.

    http://walkingwithwired.com/2012/09/one-year-later-part-1-trail.html

    This link will take you to Wired’s blog, where she compared the JMT (Late Summer of 2012), to the JMT (June 18 – July 16 of 2011). There are a bunch of comparison shots that do a great job of illustrating the difference between June in a high snow year, and late summer in a low snow year.

  6. Luke February 22, 2017 at 9:32 am #

    Thanks for the write up Andrew! I am panning on hiking from Road’s End to Whitney Portal in mid August. I’ll prepare for more July-like conditions and more mosquitoes then I was anticipating.

    Hopefully Forester and Whitney will have significant melt by then. Keeping a close eye on it.

    • Andrew Skurka February 22, 2017 at 9:55 am #

      There will be some lingering snow in places, but the route will be heavily boot-tracked by that point, so don’t worry about it.

  7. Zach February 22, 2017 at 9:43 am #

    Would carrying lightweight Huaraches be useful for stream crossings and non-steep snow hiking to keep feet dry on the pct this year? Or does the approach of using non waterproof shoes, wool socks, climbing salve and drying out during breaks alleviate the effects of wet feet better?

    • Andrew Skurka February 22, 2017 at 9:54 am #

      Any attempt to keep your feet dry on the PCT will be an utter failure before sometime in August. If you carry multiple pairs of shoes and socks, you will simply end up with multiple pairs of wet shoes and socks, or your “dry shoes and socks” will sit in your backpack the entire time because every 800 meters you have to walk through water or atop wet snow.

      Learn to manage wet.

  8. Trevor Bluhm February 22, 2017 at 10:13 am #

    Andrew, thanks for the post! I’ve got a more specific question on the Adams Region. A few friends and I have been planning to head to Agnew meadows in Mid-June, for a loop through Ediza lake, Cecil Lake (offtrail to the base of the Minarets), Thousand Islands Lake, and back to Agnew meadows on the PCT.

    Last August I did this exact loop, and there was no snow except for the small ‘glacier’ that was about the size of a pool and no issue to get around when heading off trail to Cecil Lake.

    Curious to see if you think this will be too difficult of a time to head up there again, or if we should hold off a few weeks!

    • seano February 22, 2017 at 10:22 am #

      There’s gonna be snow. Here are some pics from the area in August 2011: http://drdirtbag.com/2011/08/15/sierra-challenge-4-waller-minaret/

    • Andrew Skurka February 22, 2017 at 1:12 pm #

      There will be a lot of snow on that route in mid-June. Not a terrible thing if you enjoy snow travel and are comfortable with it. But there might be so much snow that it’s annoying — miles and miles of it, wish-I’d-brought-skis, not just the final pitch on both sides of the pass.

  9. Matt February 22, 2017 at 12:06 pm #

    Appreciate the write up! How would you expect Donohue Pass to look around July 20? …Any special equipment required? Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka February 22, 2017 at 1:08 pm #

      There will be snow on both sides, but you’ll probably be able to follow the trail on-and-off. By July 20 there will be a very good boot pack on both sides.

      No special equipment. The grades are pretty moderate there.

  10. Quentin Cui February 22, 2017 at 12:20 pm #

    Great info, Mr. Skurka! This is only tangentially related, but would you say the Rockies, specifically the Colorado Trail, are going through the same conditions this year too? If so, what would a late-June/early-July start from Denver to Durango look like? Would you recommend something like Microspikes and/or an ice ax if conditions are exceptionally snowy, or are trail runners with thick wool socks sufficient? Thank you.

    • Andrew Skurka February 22, 2017 at 1:06 pm #

      Colorado’s snowpack is very healthy as well (relative to normal), https://www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/ftpref/data/water/wcs/gis/maps/co_swepctnormal_update.pdf.

      However, 150 percent of average in Colorado does not translate into as much snow as 150 percent of average in California, because Colorado gets a fraction of the snowfall that California does, on average.

      I did the Colorado Trail in 2004, leaving Denver in mid-June and finishing two weeks later, before Independence Day. I don’t recall what the snowpack was that winter — you could look it up. In any case, I didn’t hit much snow until was down in the San Juan’s. You hit a few pockets over Georgia Pass, the Ten Mile Range, and outside of Copper. But the lower route through the Sawatch and the Cochetopa Hills should be almost completely melted out by late-June.

  11. Grace February 22, 2017 at 1:06 pm #

    Great article! I was just chatting with my friend about the conditions the other day. She plans to start the PCT Southbound around mid June – early July depending on the snowfall. I’ll have to send this article her way.

  12. Eric February 22, 2017 at 1:54 pm #

    Do you think that micro-spikes and an ice axe would be sufficient for a late-June SOBO JMT thru-hike? Are snowshoes overkill for that time? My permit has me leaving on June 20th, and I’m hoping to be done by Independence Day.

    Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka February 22, 2017 at 2:21 pm #

      What is your comfort on snow?

      The primary purpose of an axe is to self arrest in the event of a fall on a steep slope. There are only a few spots where this might happen. Personally, I would just be cautious on these parts, and consider climbing around to avoid them entirely. Also, you will have soft snow to kick steps, and a boot track from other hikers.

      The spikes seem more useful to me. They would give you the extra purchase on anything steep, and they may make the snowpack a little less slick. However, they add weight and are a bit of a futz, so not a pure win there either. Personally, I would not take them, as I find them most useful for hard snow and ice, and steeper slopes than you will find on the JMT.

      • Brian D March 7, 2017 at 3:41 pm #

        Forrester nobo 19Jun2016 had a small sketchy section. Slow & relaxed worked, but it wasn’t a nice trench; instead at 2pm it was a ~22° tilted path of ice. Trekking poles found a few upslope holes when I needed assurance.
        16oz axe is my TBD for a 16Jul sobo JMT.

        • Brian D March 8, 2017 at 5:23 pm #

          22° slanted icy horizontal path (short section) on exposed 45° snowfield – yes, wimp in me wanted 2 minute use of axe

  13. Harry February 22, 2017 at 5:42 pm #

    Andrew,

    Awesome post, thank you! I have a trip starting in Tuolumne Meadows on June 27. What are your thoughts on Tioga pass being open, and if so, the amount of snowfall on the trails (Rafferty Creek – Vogelsang)? I’ve seen the opening/closing dates from the NPS, but I’d appreciate your opinion on this. How much would my chances improve if I could postpone my trip until July 5th or so?

    Really appreciate you for your time!

    • Andrew Skurka February 22, 2017 at 5:50 pm #

      Tioga opened the day before Independence Day in 2006, which was was a “less wet” winter (but a lot of late snow). NPS tries *really* hard to get the road open by the Fourth, because that is the first really big holiday of the summer. But you’re cutting it close, based on current snowpack and weather.

      I think I remember snowline being at 10,000 feet on Donohue on the north side in early-July. If that is the case again this year, expect snow from around Tuolumne Pass to Vogelsang. It will be melted out mostly on the south side.

      • Harry February 22, 2017 at 7:13 pm #

        Thank you Andrew, I appreciate your input. I’ll see if I can postpone my plans!

  14. Brian February 22, 2017 at 8:42 pm #

    Great post Andrew!

    My fiance and I have a northbound PCT permit starting March 31st. Our typical thru-hiking pace puts us on the JMT portion in late May, entering Mammoth Lakes in the first few days of June.

    I am convinced we will need snowshoes to prevent postholing this early in the season; my fiance less so.

    But then you go and suggest skis for people traveling through the Sierra in May. How serious were you being? We have some introductory backcountry skiing experience but have never travelled 200 miles on/with skis before. That would be a pretty awesome challenge that we both would be interested in. I’ve taken an AIARE 1 course and we both ski single-black diamond resort runs.

    Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka February 23, 2017 at 9:02 am #

      At that time of year I think you will want some type of floatation, either skis or snowshoes.

      Snowshoes are lightweight, compatible with standard hiking shoes, and work in all conditions (e.g. slope aspects and snow conditions). But they are horribly snow and non-fun.

      Skis are heavier, need specific footwear, and are fussier. However, they are f’ing fun and you would have a blast skinning around the high country and blazing the descents. Ski gear is not cheap, but the optimal spring kit for the JMT/PCT would be ultralight AT gear. Not necessarily race gear, because it tends to be pretty niche. I’m thinking Dynafit TLT7 boots and tech bindings (Speed Radical, Speed Turn, Low Tech). For skis, personally I would go with something long and skinny with a little bit of curve, maybe some camber so that I can use wax or kicker skins, because I’m touring so much more than going downhill. But a ski like the Broad Peak would be more fun on the downhills.

  15. Alex K February 22, 2017 at 10:20 pm #

    Hi Andrew – I’ve got itinerary to do mono meadow -> red peak pass loop incl. half dome end of may 29th -> June 4th. How should I prepare? I have not planned for so much snow. Thank you.

    • Andrew Skurka February 23, 2017 at 8:39 am #

      Assuming that the winter sticks to its trendline, on that particular route at that time of year I would expect snow from about Merced Pass Lake to Triple Peak Fork. The biggest challenge will not necessarily be the extensive snow coverage, but that the snow will not yet be consolidated at the higher and shadier aspects. It will be spring corn, ideal for skiing in the morning, and probably crusted hard enough to walk on, but horrible postholing in the afternoon.

      Depending on your comfort on snow, you might find the steep pitches immediately below Red Peak Pass (on both sides) to be pretty exciting. You might have first tracks. I would probably bring some microspikes for reliable purchase. Personally, I would not take an axe, but I’ve been on slopes of that steepness many times and feel very comfortable. YMMV.

      Finally, the trail is going to be snowbound, completely invisible to you. So I hope you know how to navigate using a map, compass, altimeter watch, and/or a GPS.

      • Rob W February 24, 2017 at 8:07 am #

        Andrew,
        I’ll be doing this loop the first week of July. What should I expect then?

        • Andrew Skurka February 24, 2017 at 8:14 am #

          By then the snowline will be higher, but plenty of snow will still be lingering. At least it will be consolidated by then, so much less post-holing, if any. You’ll hit intermittent snow at first, then consistent snow, especially on the north side of Red Mountain Pass.

  16. Teresa February 23, 2017 at 4:45 am #

    I’m applying for a permit to hike the High Sierra Trail in September. It’s my first trip to the area and I’m going solo. I hike and backpack solo here in WV and on the AT but the terrain is nothing like the Sierra’s. I’m a little freaked out, I have no snow experience whatsoever. Any advice?

    • Andrew Skurka February 23, 2017 at 8:25 am #

      You might encounter a snowfield or two, but probably nothing more than 100 yards long and nothing steep. By September there will have been thousands of people on it before you, to show you the way. In other words, stop freaking out. You have nothing to worry about.

      • Teresa February 23, 2017 at 8:29 am #

        Thanks so much! I just needed some confirmation.

  17. Leo February 23, 2017 at 11:04 am #

    This is the best article I have read on the subject. Thanks.

    But September is the worst time to go to Yosemite for backpacking, everyone should go in July (yah that’s it, that’s the ticket).

  18. Ashley February 23, 2017 at 7:22 pm #

    I have a NOBO JMT permit to start on July 22 from Horseshoe Meadows, and neither my friend nor I have any snow experience. Do you think we’ll need microspikes (or more) by that time of year?

    • Andrew Skurka February 23, 2017 at 7:27 pm #

      I think you’ll be okay without them. There might be a few places where they would help, but overall the extra weight and futz will not be worth it, and you’ll never truly need them. Remember that by July 1, never mind by late-July, there will be a VERY good boot track across all of the snowfields.

      • Ashley February 23, 2017 at 7:31 pm #

        Thanks for the advice! We’re planning on re-supplying at Onion Valley. Do you think it’d be worth it to have them for the first part of the trail and then ship them off or are they not worth the hassle?

        • Andrew Skurka February 23, 2017 at 7:40 pm #

          Not a bad strategy if you are nervous.

          You might also keep them in your “last-minute” pile, and get some feedback from hikers via the JMT Facebook page (or some other resource) about whether the current conditions warrant them.

          • Ashley February 23, 2017 at 7:59 pm #

            Thanks for the help!

  19. Andrew Ferguson February 24, 2017 at 2:22 pm #

    A friend and I were able to secure a seven day permit for the JMT from July 6-13. We are starting at happy isles and planned to complete the trail in the one week time frame. We will be travelling superlight but given that there is a certainty of snow and serious run-off is there any specific gear that you would consider essential ? We are obviously trying to carry the least amount of weight possible.

    • Andrew Skurka February 24, 2017 at 2:28 pm #

      I don’t know how “easy” this trip would normally be for you. If it’s an all-out effort, then you need to equip yourself so that you can move regardless of the conditions. For example, you may have to climb passes in the morning before they are melted out, and you may have to sleep immediately below a pass (on one side or the other) because that’s where you were when you ran out of daylight or energy. So microspikes and an insulated pad would be smart.

      Another factor that will screw with your schedule is run-off. It’s best to cross bigger creeks early in the day, before they get filled up with the day’s melt. But you may not have that luxury. It’s impractical to bring a raft. So my recommendation is to identify beforehand alternate routes around major creek crossings (e.g. locations where it is wider & slower, or take on multiple tributaries rather than the single crossing) so that you aren’t wasting time in the field identifying these options.

  20. Vik February 27, 2017 at 4:23 pm #

    Thanks a lot for this informative write-up, Andrew! I was thinking of bagging Williamson and Tyndall over the July 4th weekend via Shepherd’s Pass, but am not so sure now given the increased snowpack. Do you think it would be feasible to successfully do such a trip at that point in the season? And if so, do you think it would be a good idea to bring snowshoes/crampon and an ice ax? I appreciate the help!

    • Andrew Skurka February 27, 2017 at 4:55 pm #

      The snow should be set up by July 4 and you should be able to walk on top of it with a problem. Snowshoes might actually not work because of the sun-cupping.

      I don’t know the route up either of those peaks, but I’m assuming there are some steep snowbound pitches or traverses. In those cases, crampons/microspikes can make the difference between being comfortable and turning back. An ice axe is more discretionary — it really depends on your assessment of the fall potential. If you’re on something really steep in a no-fall zone, it would be smart.

  21. Peter February 28, 2017 at 8:16 am #

    Andrew,

    I have a permit for a trip in Yosemite leaving Tuolumne Meadows on July 1, exiting at Happy Isles on July 4, with stops at Glen Aulin, Cathedral Lakes and Cloud’s Rest. My group has no snow experience or snow gear. Assuming Tioga is open, do you think this trip will be doable for us?

    If not, is there another trip you could recommend, either in Yosemite or within a 4-5 hour drive of San Fran? We are flying into SFO on June 30 in the morning and flying out on the 4th at night. Thanks for the great info.

    • Andrew Skurka February 28, 2017 at 9:00 am #

      Tioga will probably be open. Historical dates, https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/tiogaopen.htm.

      It’s not difficult to hike on snow at this time of year — it’s sun-cupped, but you should be able to walk on top of it mostly. The challenge is that the trail is buried. By early-July there will have been a lot of hikers through, setting the trail, assuming they know where they are going.

      Since your itinerary is just a few days long, I would stick with it. You’ll have to hike on some snow, but it’ll be different and possibly fun. If you were planning a JMT thru-hike I might suggest trying to push it back, because 220 miles of that gets old.

      Most of your route should be melted out. Cathedral Pass will probably be the snowiest section of your route.

      The bigger hazard will be water crossings. I would check to confirm that there are bridges across all the major creeks or rivers you will cross. You’re all set getting to Glen Aulin. But I don’t know the other trails as well.

    • Ronnie S March 14, 2017 at 3:04 am #

      Expect water and check with the Yosemite rangers closer to your arrival. Last year in Mid-June, the trail to Glen Aulin was 10ft underwater. We decided against the Lyell Canyon hike for a similar reason. Cathedral Lakes trail might be muddy and you might have water in the meadow but doable. Cloud’s Rest – ask the rangers. They can also suggest alternatives. The current snowpack is 190% normal.

  22. Katie February 28, 2017 at 12:08 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this information, Andrew. My husband and I are planning to hike the High Sierra Trail and summit Mt. Whitney the week of July 3-July 9 provided we are able to secure a permit for those dates. We are 28 and 30 years old and are both very physically active with significant hiking experience and moderate backpacking experience. We have limited experience with snow at higher altitudes as we live close to sea level on the East Coast. Do you think our trip would be feasible and safe on those dates? If so, do you recommend any additional gear? We are up for a challenge but definitely want to make sure it is safe and enjoyable. Thank you in advance for your feedback!

    • Andrew Skurka March 1, 2017 at 9:14 am #

      You’ll hit snow on your way over the Great Western Divide and again on Whitney. In both cases, there will have been plenty of traffic on the High Sierra Trail and the way across the snow will be obvious, although perhaps circuitous if the first route-finder didn’t put in a good track.

      So long as you don’t attempt to hike on steep snow early in the morning (when it may have a hard crust on it), you shouldn’t need any additional equipment. However, at a minimum I would recommend footwear with at least moderate lugs, so that they will bite the snow. If you really want peace of mind, bring some microspikes, which will give you really good purchase on slopes up to moderate grades.

      If a section totally freaks you out and feels really unsafe, find another way around, or bail out.

  23. Peter Heidler March 1, 2017 at 5:51 pm #

    Hello! I received permits for a June 28 start date and i’m pretty anxious about all this snow. What do you think about ice axes and snow shoes? Also, is there any safety mechanism I can bring along for stream crossings? Maybe paracord? Or is that a stupid idea? I guess lastly i’m wondering if you’d recommend waterproof boots or just trail runners. Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka March 2, 2017 at 5:12 pm #

      Peter – Enough people have been asking these questions that I think I’m going to do a dedicated post on it. Stay tuned.

      • Peter Heidler March 13, 2017 at 10:25 am #

        thanks for doing these posts! you’re awesome!

  24. Larissa Balzer March 6, 2017 at 6:50 pm #

    Starting my southbound hike in Happy Isles on July 20 and the plan is to end at Whitney Portal on August 17. Am I’m being naive to think that the snow pack will be consolidated in the later half of this hike (Muir Trail Ranch to Whitney ish) by the time I get there? I’ll just be dealing with North side of the pass snow and high and fast creek crossings? Worst case scenario is that I get out there and then have to turn back right? I can’t just defer my permit and wait for next summer.

    • Andrew Skurka March 7, 2017 at 10:40 am #

      The snow will most definitely be consolidated by late-July. The rivers will be manageable, although you might want to plan to hit the biggest crossings (e.g. Bear Creek) earlier in the day just to make them a bit easier.

  25. Andrei Baumann March 11, 2017 at 5:43 am #

    Hi Andrew,
    Thanks so much for this post. I share a similar love for nature. I hike because I love being the outdoors, photography, the wonders of nature, etc. I have no need to break individual records…going mainly for the overall experience. I was lucky enough to get a JMT-permit from HI (June 15th)…and if all goes according to plan, exiting Whitney July 7th. Your ultimate hiker book has been a great tool, and those Alaska trips…man, please don’t get a real job!!
    I’m moving back to California from MA, so this JMT will be a “welcome home”. Looking forward to the snow, to the high sierras. Hoping to figure out some combination of a Type I and II JMT trip. Bringing spikes or the Kahtoola hiking crampons.
    Cheers! Thank you!

  26. Peter Hirst March 13, 2017 at 9:22 am #

    Hey, Andrew: Really good of you to be doing this. Two questions. On other sites, I see a lot of dismissal of micro-spikes, but you seem to be recommending them over crampons. Am I misreading that? If not, what’s the reasoning? Second, I don’t see anyone contemplating or recommending glissading anything. I would have thought there would be some enthusiasm for that, especially on south facing slopes with decent runouts (Mather? Forester?)

    • Andrew Skurka March 13, 2017 at 10:40 am #

      1. With crampons you can confidently hike on steeper and harder slopes. But Microspikes perform pretty well, are lighter, and are more useful on less technical terrain (e.g. some extra traction on slick sun-cupped snowfields). Frankly, unless someone knows what they are doing, they should probably stay off slopes that require crampons.

      2. Glissading is fun but risky. Plus, your butt gets soaked and can get scraped up (unless you put on rain pants).

      • Peter Hirst March 13, 2017 at 1:28 pm #

        OK, thanks. In fact I know what I am doing on short stretches of steep technical terrain and have no experience with long stretches of flatter stuff with suncups. The other advice I have been looking at advises against microspikes for anything, but rather hiking or trail crampons (slight shorter spikes and no front points, EG Kahtoola K-10, for everything. do you (or would you) go with one set for everything, micros for the less technical and say Petzl Irvis or similar for the steeps? Something else?

        • Andrew Skurka March 13, 2017 at 4:39 pm #

          I haven’t done every pass in the High Sierra, and especially not in early-season conditions. What’s best is a function of the terrain and the individual. Someone who has no snow experience might really appreciate an aggressive crampon like the K-10, whereas a veteran might not need anything at all.

          Definitely just go with one system. The crampons will give you more comfort on steeper and firmer snow, but the spikes should be okay for moderate terrain and they are half the weight.

  27. Luke Burdette March 13, 2017 at 9:23 am #

    Hi Andrew, My JMT hike is starting in mid July. Of the 211 miles of the trail how many of them will be walking on snow? Your best guess.

    • Andrew Skurka March 13, 2017 at 10:06 am #

      Disclaimer: The snowpack melts really fast in June and July, and every week the high country looks dramatically different. It really will depend on how the snowpack finishes.

      Maybe 10 percent snow coverage this year?

      What is motivating your question? Why do you think snow coverage matters?

  28. natasha March 13, 2017 at 12:29 pm #

    Hi Andrew, thanks for the post! I have a somewhat related question.

    I am planning a SOBO section of the PCT, starting in Northern Washington (Snoqualmie or Stevens Pass) to Crater Lake. I plan to start when many southbounders do, on July 2, but 200 miles to the south, so there won’t be many before me. I am hiking solo and won’t be comfortable with substantial snow on the trail; couple snow fields should be ok. Do you think I’m better off reversing the direction? Or it should be fine? I’d love to postpone, but may not be able to do it.

    • Andrew Skurka March 13, 2017 at 12:32 pm #

      I don’t know the early-season conditions in the Cascades as well as I do in the High Sierra, and I’m hesitant to offer advice. You might get better info elsewhere. The PNW has not been as dry as CA in recent years, so some recent alumni can probably speak to it.

      • natasha March 13, 2017 at 12:44 pm #

        Thanks anyway!

  29. Emily March 13, 2017 at 1:50 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your important opinion on an uncertain subject that has caused concern for many. I’m planning a September 2017 SoSHR and look forward to watching what happens to the snowpack curve in the early summer. That being said, do you have any High Route-specific thoughts on late-summer travel? Any special considerations or recommended gear for cross country snowfield travel in late summer? Thank you again. This shameless admirer also appreciates photos of your backside 🙂

    • Andrew Skurka March 13, 2017 at 4:35 pm #

      By September most of the snow will be gone. What remains might be pretty firm, especially on the northern aspects and higher elevations. Keep abreast of trip reports, and decide last-minute whether you should bring some spikes.

      Ha! I’ll see what other backside photos I can find for you.

      • Emily Guyer March 14, 2017 at 1:04 pm #

        Thanks so much for your response. It seems like microspikes would be sufficient for any lingering firm snow, but let me know if you think lightweight crampons are more appropriate. Being a PNWesterner, I’m used to carrying crampons for glacier travel and microspikes for our softer snowfields. Also speaking of the PNW, did you schedule any REI Seattle talks yet? Thanks again!

  30. Ken Steinhoff March 13, 2017 at 7:46 pm #

    Thanks for the write up and your patient and diligent responses to everyone’s questions. I have a couple questions of my own:
    1)KCHBR thoughts? I like the idea of walking over snow covered talus, braving any mosquitos for the sake of seeing wild flowers, etc. but don’t want to carry an axe or slide to my death :-). Any particular spots you would anticipate I should plan an alternative route if the snow is too much?

    2) I’d also like to do the WRHR this summer. Do you have a recommended snow report source for this? Which route would you choose for earlier (July say) and which for later (Sept say)?

    Thanks again.

    BTW you may want to PM those backside photos to Emily…not so sure I want to have that image in my head 🙂

    • Andrew Skurka March 13, 2017 at 9:03 pm #

      1. King Col will be the toughest. It gets choked up with snow. There will be cornices elsewhere (e.g. Longley Pass, Amphitheater Pass) but they are a bit easier to get around. Ionian Basin will have a ton of snow through July. I would take lightweight crampons through August probably. I’d probably leave the axe at home, but I’m pretty comfortable on snow.

      2. For Wyoming snow data, use SNOTEL, either the state point maps or the basin filled maps, https://www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/gis/snow.html.

      Given current snowpack, WRHR is definitely the route to do in July, and KCHBR in September. The issue with KC is not the snow, but the run-off. You have to ford Bubbs and Woods further downstream than the JMT crossings (where there are bridges), plus the South Fork of the Kings (again downstream of the JMT, but at least near a wide meadow where the creek will be slow), Palisade Creek (where there should be some log bridges), and the biggest of all, the Middle Fork after Cataract Creek and Palisade Creek have dumped into it. Watch out for that one!

  31. Brad Henson March 14, 2017 at 6:37 am #

    I’m planning to do a trip through evolution valley, a one week loop from north to south lake, going through piute, muir, and bishop pass. Starting the trip on July 23. No one in the 4 person group is super experienced with snow travel, what do you think the conditions at that time will be like?

    • Andrew Skurka March 14, 2017 at 6:41 am #

      There will be sections of snow near the passes, probably intermittent. All of those passes see a lot of traffic and there will be a track left by other hikers. The snow will be compacted and support body weight, but it might be sun-cupped.

  32. Zach March 20, 2017 at 11:31 am #

    Hi Andrew,

    Just bought your book and am super stoked to read it!

    I’m taking my first trip to the Sierras with a friend who is new to backpacking on July 27-29. We were planning (and have permits) to do the Ediza Lake – Thousand Island Lake Loop. I have very limited experience with hiking on snow and the majority of my backpacking experience is on clearly marked trails.

    Should we look for a later date, or do you think the snow will be ok by this point in July? I know we need to be prepared for hordes of mosquitos, but I’m mostly worried about taking a newbie on a trip where we end up super uncomfortable due to snow cover.

    Thanks for all of your help!

    • Andrew Skurka March 20, 2017 at 2:34 pm #

      By that time of year there should be ample snow-free ground. Look first on open south-facing slopes and wind-blasted knobs.

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