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?
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?
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.
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
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.
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. In 2019 in the High Sierra, for example, the passes will be preceded and followed by several miles of snow through the end of June and into July. Whereas in 2018 in southern Colorado, the Continental Divide Trail and Colorado Trail was essentially snow-free in May.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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/
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 😉
Recently I got a PCT thruhiking sobo permit for June 21st. I was wondering what the conditions are like on average at that time of year. I have microspikes and an ice axe that I plan on bringing. I’m new to backpacking and to be honest I would not have chosen this date if I had had the choice. So I was wondering what technique I should be practicing, I live my snowy hills but that is about it. I also plan on bringing a garmin in reach, is that sufficient enough for navigating that region at this time of year or should I also have a compass and paper map?
Depending on the winter, that could be an ambitious trip for someone with little prior backpacking experience.
There are other resources on this site that you will find beneficial:
Taking on a trip with snow and freezing potential as an intro to backpacking is biting off a lot at once. If it is solo (you didn’t specify, but there is a lot of “I” instead of “we” in your comment) the risk rises significantly. As a search and rescue volunteer I’ll be perfectly honest: I have concerns. You have a lot of homework to do. If there is an outdoor shop or climber’s group they may have classes or workshops you can attend.
Always compass and paper map *and the training to use them*, along with the InReach and understanding what information the InReach is giving you. This is especially important when snow obscures the trail and weather is unstable. Never be completely reliant on electronics. They are not fool proof and a lot of people get in trouble thinking the GPS will get them out. It won’t. It won’t tell you the best route to get from where you are to where you want to go. Do you know how to read a topo map? Do you understand how the InReach works? What the location coordinates mean? There are lots of videos and books about all of this, but it takes practice in the real world to really understand it.
Ice axes are a hazard without training. The techniques you are looking for are called “self-arrest” and “self-belay.” It takes practice. I don’t know if links are allowed in these comments, but REI has a written primer titled “How to Use an Ice Axe for Mountaineering” that will get you started. There are many books and videos, but practice in controlled conditions with someone who knows how to do it is important.
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.
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
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.
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.
Do you know of anyone having success using Petzl’s Leopard Flex crampons on trail running shoes?
Thank you, Phil
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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)?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m guessing with that pick it won’t work as a center pole for a pyramid shelter?
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.
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?
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.
If you need more than that, it’s probably a sign that you should stay off the slope and do something safer.
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.
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.
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)
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.
What footwear would you recommend for snowshoeing (followed by camping) on wet spring snow (April in Montana)? My Gore-Tex lined boots leave my socks saturated by the end of the day and then never dry out. I’ve taken to wearing plastic bags over my socks, which leaves the socks wet from perspiration but not as wet as without the bags and therefore easier to dry overnight in my sleeping bag. Is there a better way?
Those are tough conditions, and I don’t know of any perfect options.
This page has some suggestions, both in the text and the comments, https://andrewskurka.com/2016/conditions-hiking-waterproof-footwear-winter-system/.
You can embrace the wetness, so long as you can keep your feet warm enough (probably using a thick wool sock or a neoprene sock). Or you can keep trying to fight the wet, like with a new pair of waterproof boots (sounds like the age of your boots may be accelerating their failure during the day) or the baggies.
For wet feet, there are some good tips here, https://andrewskurka.com/2017/backpacking-footwear-early-season-conditions/
A good gaiter with full coverage could be helpful, like the OR Crocodile or Verglas. If they are leather boots make sure the waterproofing is fresh.
Snowshoeing I would still consider a winter boot, even if temps aren’t that extreme. Salomon, Vasque, and Adidas all make boots with hiking soles but that are insulated and at least somewhat designed for wetter environments.
I’ve been using OR Rocky Mountain High gaiters and I’ve treated the boots (Salomon Quest GTX) liberally with Snoseal but to no avail. The boots did work better when they were new (although they were never perfectly waterproof) so I suppose Andrew’s suggestion that new boots could be in order is correct. That’s a shame, though, since these are nowhere near worn out in any respect except waterproofness and I have no other use for them, having bought them specifically for use on springtime snow. In colder conditions I’ve been snowshoeing in Vasque Snowburbans and my feet have stayed much drier, but that could be due as much to drier snow as to better boots. Perhaps next year I’ll use the Snowburbans deeper into spring and see how they perform in wetter conditions. As for this year, I just returned from a trip (Sapphire Range, Montana) on which I carried four pounds of snowshoes for three days and never put them on since the snow, although still plentiful, is finally consolidated enough (for the most part) to hold me. So I think I’ll “embrace the wetness” and transition to non-waterproof shoes and thick wool socks. Thanks, guys, for responding.
Hi Andrew, just discovered several of your posts and can’t thank you enough.
We’re planning a NOBO JMT starting July 14. We’re from the UK so not familiar with your conditions. I know there’s still some time for more snow or a cold spot to arrest the melt but all things being equal we were planning on microspikes and walking poles assuming crampons and axes are a dead weight.
Any advice most welcome on that and the river crossings.
I think you’re probably right, and I say as much here with a little bit more reasoning, https://andrewskurka.com/recommeded-crampons-ice-axe-high-sierra-jmt-pct/
Looking at Scott’s fantastic work at Postholer https://www.postholer.com/snow/Pacific-Crest-Trail/1 (what did people do before he did this?), it looks like much of the snow is rapidly going.
Given I’m not departing until July 14 and the only detour from the JMT I’m planning is Kearsage to resupply, I’m assuming that if the melt continues at this pace I don’t even need microspikes. Does that seem reasonable, or would you carry them just to be sure? For example can you get significant snow in July over the passes?
Thanks Andrew for this report. Forgive me if my question is a bit dumb, but I lack much experience in this type of weather. I’m planning on hiking in Europe during in the early to late fall (mid October to November) and my working assumption is that snow will fall and start sticking above 2,200 meters. In this article you only discussed early season and not late season hiking. Is there a reason for this? In other words are there qualitatively different conditions out between these periods (e.g., more ice and less snow given the quick warming of snow, sudden winter storm that blankets everything, etc.)? What would be your strategy for hiking in mid to late fall (also in the USA)?
I’m a long time lurker. Preparing for trips in de mountains from the Dutch flatlands, your blog and book are invaluable resources. Thanks for putting them out there.
As Dano above, I am planning a late season trip, in my case in the Italian Dolomites. Elevations between 6000” and 11000”. I found a weatherstation at 7000”. During our trip, the following conditions apply there:
Average temperatures 45 F, lows a bit below freezing.
High humidity, average 76%. Average monthly percipitation 3 inch.
The unofficial hiking season ends half September. We will do 25 Sept-4 Oct.
Since the snow we may experience will be fresh, I suppose traction devices will not help us that much. If we need anything, it will be flotation. I expect problematic snowcover will be a very temporal affair, so snowshoes seem to be the most appropriate option. I would like to leave them at home but are not sure that is wise. Are you able to give some guidance on this matter?
Our group has done some summer and winter trips in mountainous terrain, but has no experience with fresh snow in steep (713 feet per mile elevation change) terrain.
I’m unfamiliar with fall snow conditions in the Alps, but I imagine it’s not that different than here.
It’s rare that you need snowshoes after just one storm. The threshold for snowshoes is probably a foot and a half of snow, 18 in, about half a meter. That will take a while to develop, unless you get a huge storm, in which case you’re not going to want to be up there anyway.
The difficulty you’ll have is light snow a top trails. It’ll make things slippery. But I’m not sure that traction will be of much help, because traction tends not to bite well into fresh snow.
Another thing you might want to consider is that based on the amount of vertical gain and loss per mile, the train sounds very steep, in which case it is probably prone to avalanches. If you have a big storm, this may start to happen. And whenever there is snow on the ground, it can slide.
Overall, I would go into this trip with the expectation of being very flexible. You’re not going there during prime season, and you’ll have to adjust based on the weather. Hopefully it works out for you, but if not be prepared to bail out and go eat cheese and drink wine in the closest village.
That high elevation will you be crossing any permanent snowfields? If so it could be very icy and slippery, especially in the morning. In that case traction devices (and maybe ice axes or self-arrest poles) might be very important.
Early season snow can be the most difficult conditions to hike in. I would ask guides or shops in the area that you are going to what to expect. Look for hiking reports from past years from hiking or alpine clubs. Agree with Andrew that snowshoes are not really useful until it gets a little deeper.
Hi Langleybackcountry, I don’t think we will encounter year round snow. The local intel is a good one, I’ll look around for that.
Andrew, thanks for your thoughts. We will prepare for the worst we can handle and investigate bail options. When all that fails, cheers!
Do you have any snowshoe recommendations for extremely deep powder on easy flat terrain and dry climate? I’d be about 240lb with pack. Multi day, about a 90mile trip.
I have a few options on my shortlist so far:
GV Wide Trail snowshoes
MSR lightning Ascents
8×35 88oz/pr (with tails)
I wish I could get the northernlite tundras because they are 49oz but I doubt I’ll have enough float with deep and dry fresh powder considering my weight.
Any insights you have would rock!
It’s been a long time since I looked at snowshoes, so unfortunately I can’t help you. Given what you’ve said, I don’t think you’d be disappointed by having more float, even if that means strapping more weight to your feet.
Hey Andrew I am starting the PCT 2023 in this crazy snow year and will get to Kenndy Meadows South around 5-17-23 going into the Sierra before the thaw kicks in hopefully before the river crossings get to dangerous. What are your thoughts on using K-10 crampons and a Whippet instead of an ice ax? I appreciate all you articles with great information!
For as often as it will be needed, I think I’d rather have a dedicated axe.
Have you considered skis? Seriously.
I am planning to go from Cottonwood lakes over New Army pass, through the Miter basin, over crabtree pass then down passed crabtree lakes. Finally up the JMT to summit Mt Whitney. I would like to go mid June but could push to first half of July. This route represents an incremental increase in off trail travel for me with crabtree pass. Would appreciate your thoughts on snow and creek conditions. Wondering if I should take an axe or if that would be unnecessary. I have been reading your articles here and found them very informative.