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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