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Snowpocalypse 2019: Expected “summer” conditions in the High Sierra & southern Rockies

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

California, Oregon, Nevada, and the Four Corners states have been drenched this winter, with snowpacks now about 150 percent of their normals. If you have scheduled backpacking trips in the High Sierra or southern Rockies in June or July, and to a lesser degree August, here is some reading for you:

1. Today on my Outside blog I just published a new article, “What Epic Snowpack Means for Summer 2019 in the West.” It details the snowpack, predicts likely conditions, and describes critical gear and skills.

2. When PCT and JMT hikers were losing their $hit in spring 2017, when the snowpack was negligibly greater than it is this year, I posted a six-part tutorial on backpacking in early-season conditions. I have not updated it since, but I’ve read it through and it’s just as relevant today as it was two years ago.

3. The snowpack was at similar levels in June 2017, when Sam Chaneles and his father thru-hiked the John Muir Trail. I interviewed Sam afterwards in a four-part series to document his experience and the conditions they encountered.

I’ve also started a public map, High Sierra Creek Hazards, that pinpoints known problem spots and potential workarounds. I’m thinking that I’ll pair this with a public datasheet (i.e. spreadsheet) and make both available for public download. To start, I think it makes sense to focus on the PCT/JMT, but I’d like to expand it to the high routes and to no-routes as well.

17 Responses to Snowpocalypse 2019: Expected “summer” conditions in the High Sierra & southern Rockies

  1. Max March 28, 2019 at 2:27 pm #

    For real. There goes my plans for 4th of July week long Yosemite high route. I’ve got lower elevation ideas but not telling anyone for fear they’ll be packed full of you people!

  2. Jim March 28, 2019 at 4:16 pm #

    We are doing Rae Lakes loop starting July 5th. We will either try CW or CCW route depending on how high the rivers are running.

    • bmcf March 29, 2019 at 1:02 pm #

      FYI, South Fork Kings River Bridge at north end of Paradise Valley is still out, plan was to replace in 2019 has moved to 2020. This river crossing would be at approximately 9 miles CW and 32 miles CCW. This river crossing will be running pretty high that early considering the heavy snow this year. Might consider going in and out via Bubbs Creek, the start of the CCW.

      • Mikey da Hikey March 29, 2019 at 1:47 pm #

        Yea and I believe it was the 2017 melt that knocked it down originally — which is what everyone is comparing this winter to.

  3. Mikey da Hikey March 28, 2019 at 6:00 pm #

    Big Pine Lakes end of May will probably still be frozen over…hopefully trails won’t be too deep in snow…

    • Andrew Skurka March 29, 2019 at 8:05 am #

      I think that’s a safe assumption.

  4. Sean March 31, 2019 at 4:53 pm #

    Thanks for the update Andrew. There’s been a lot of people over at Reddit who think they can hike in April/May in the Sierra backcountry and a lot of time is spent trying to explain conditions to them. I’m kind of amazed at people who don’t look at snow pack totals and weather patterns before planning a huge trip like that.

    I’ll be forwarding them to either this or your Outside blog.

    Another thing, if you prefer knits/merinos to woven nylon, you can ship garments to insectshield to get them professionally treated for the life of the garment. It’s about 10 bucks an item, cheaper if you do it in bulk. I’ve done it to a few shirts that I particularly like (those high sierra hiking polos you’ve mentioned in the past are all IS treated). I have the permathrin spray too but that requires re-application and I think may end up more expensive over the life of the garment.

    https://www.insectshield.com/ISYOC.aspx if you’re interested.

    • Andrew Skurka April 2, 2019 at 8:54 am #

      As a native East Coaster, I can vouch for it being really difficult to fathom the snowpack and the seasons in the West. My first summer in Colorado, I started backpacking the second weekend I was here, in mid-May. When I arrived at the trailhead, I wondered why I was the only car. And then about 400 yards into the woods I realized that everything was still completely snowbound.

  5. Stephanie Shoot April 1, 2019 at 10:34 pm #

    Thank you for the resources Andrew. I’ve been monitoring the snow pack but this will definitely help. I’m planning my first solo backpacking trip for this summer – JMT starting June 23rd. I’ve heard your opinion on that trail and it kinda got me bummed out and motivated at the same time. I conquer this then I move on to possibly one of your trips or learning enough myself to do a similar trips. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Andrew Skurka April 2, 2019 at 8:45 am #

      Thanks for the reminder to share additional content. If you are starting the JMT in June, you really need to read this, https://andrewskurka.com/2017/john-muir-trail-early-season-snow-coverage-navigation-snowshoes/. It will really help to set your expectations. The snowpack is a little bit less this year (maybe 5 percent) but your experience will be very similar.

      • Stephanie Shoot April 2, 2019 at 8:03 pm #

        I was already about half way through that write up 🙂 Thanks again for all the information. Next up the good stuff, the eats!
        Question though. My permit starts at Lyell Canyon, do you think hiking from LYV to Tuolumne in a single day is a posibility in the expected conditions?

        • dgray April 3, 2019 at 9:03 am #

          I ultimately to defer to Andrew on your question to him, but I would be wary of trying that as a day hike. It is challenging as a one day hike in dry conditions, mostly because of the combination of mileage and elevation gain. If you really want to experience the whole trail you could possibly do it in the other direction, i.e. from TM to Happy Isles with a small daypack and probably snowshoes, then take the shuttle back up to TM to start the backpacking trip. Note that navigation will also be a bit tricky with the snow cover and slow you down. I started the JMT at Happy Isles on July 8th in 2017 and several miles of the trail near Cathedral Pass were completely covered with no discernible path. If you are leaving your car at TM and shuttling back from Whitney at the end, you could also do the day hike at that point when the snow is largely gone after 2-3 weeks of melt off.

          • Stephanie Shoot April 3, 2019 at 12:03 pm #

            I like the flip flop idea, Tuolumne to Yosemite sounds much more attainable! Thank you. Any idea if leaving a car in Tuolumne safe?

        • Andrew Skurka April 3, 2019 at 9:38 am #

          That would be realistic for some, but not for many. When I thru-hiked the JMT in 7 days in 2011, we went from Happy Isles to beyond the minimum camping distance in Lyell Canyon, so it can be done.

          But assuming you start from LYV (not Happy Isles), it’s 18 miles and 4,800 vertical feet of climbing to reach Tuolumne, and then you’d have to get a few miles up Lyell Canyon before you can legally camp. For context, if you can 4,800 vertical feet of climbing in a day, I’d put you on one of my “very high” intensity guided trips, which normally fill with strong endurance athletes (e.g. 3:00 to 3:30 marathoners).

          And that’s not even accounting for the snow, which will slow you down even if you don’t have any navigation issues.

          • Stephanie Shoot April 3, 2019 at 10:16 pm #

            The distance and elevation don’t stress me too much, I’m not a 3 hour marathoner but I have done hikes of similar specs. It’s the snow/navigation that’s worrying me.
            What are your thoughts on flipping? Would going down hill from Tuolumne to Yosemite be a better option?

          • Andrew Skurka April 3, 2019 at 10:34 pm #

            Personally, it’s not worth it to me to endure such logistics just to say that I’ve hiked every step of the JMT. Plus, I think the miles between Happy Isles and Tuolumne are among the JMT’s least interesting.

            I’d either do the first few miles, to the top of Nevada Falls, as a warm-up and day-hike; or I’d pull a 1-night permit north of Tuolumne and go check out some of the enormous falls like White Cascade, California, and Waterwheel — they will be raging in June.

  6. Stephanie Shoot April 3, 2019 at 11:24 pm #

    You had me at raging! I’ve already been to Nevada Falls so if that was the highlight of that section of trail, I’ll go with your northern route. I just googled both falls you suggested & they look amazing! Thank you!

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