In March I was contacted by Sam and Steven Chaneles, a Miami-based father-son team who were planning to thru-hike the John Muir Trail in 2017. Due to permit availability and personal schedules, their dates were June 17 through July 9. They’d been watching the record-setting snowpack plots and were increasingly concerned about the feasibility of their plans given their thin backpacking resumes.
I was able to help them pare down their kits, talk through anxieties, and set their expectations — and then they did all the hard work (and had all the fun, and a heck of a father-son trip) in the High Sierra. After they returned, Sam wrote me and included a few photos and anecdotes. It sounded truly epic, and I thought their story was worth sharing — partly for the entertainment value, but also to help others better understand the challenges and hazards of early-season backpacking in the High Sierra, especially after an exceptionally wet winter. Sam posted a more general trip report on his website, Engineered for Adventure.
In this four-part interview, Sam and I discuss:
- Snow coverage, navigation, traction & snowshoes
- Passes, axes, and crampons
- River fords
- Mosquitoes & final thoughts
Q | What techniques and equipment did you use in safely getting across?
Our general protocol for creek crossings was:
a) Look for a log or a rock to hop across to avoid getting our feet wet. Often times this method worked for smaller creek crossings, yet for the bigger fords it almost always failed. During the early-season the creeks were flooded out of their normal banks and overflowing, so water volume was a serious concern.
b) Now that I know I need to get my feet wet, does this crossing look manageable? This answer to this question will vary from person-to-person depending on the level of risk you are willing to take. For the few more difficult crossings (Evolution, Tyndall) we encountered, we did not consider the normal “trail” crossing a viable option, as the combination of strong current and deep water was beyond our comfort level.
c) If it does look manageable, time to get into “fording mode.” We would take off our boots, socks, and pants, and put on our Crocs at this point. If the current was strong enough we would ford in tandem, using each other as support against the current. Only for a few wades where current was not an issue did we ford alone.
d) If it does not look manageable, look for alternatives. A great general protocol to have is to hike upstream (or possibly downstream) and look for where the creek may fork into smaller tributaries. This can convert the single, difficult crossing into numerous smaller, easier crossings.
The mindset we had going into creek crossings was be patient and wait until we find something we like. We always tried to avoid strainers (downed logs, debris, etc.) and whitewater, and instead looked for slower moving current, if possible. Never assume that the “trail” crossing is the best place to cross, because it may not be.
Some other tips we found useful about creek crossings:
- In terms of technique, when fording in tandem we had our hands on each other shoulders, leaning for support.
- When fording alone I faced slightly upstream, using poles for support.
- ALWAYS remember to unclip all buckles from your pack, making it easy to ditch in case you fall in.
- Shuffle your feet slowly across the bottom and avoid taking large steps, as your balance can be faulty in the strong current and cold water.
- Remember to keep moving as well, especially in the cold water. Creek crossings can take a lot of energy out of you.
- I always tried to eat a snack before a creek crossing to ensure I would have energy when I needed it. Longer crossings like Evolution Meadow were exhausting enough (more from the cold than the physical effort of the crossing) that I had to take a break after to regain my strength.
- Try to pick a line that is a bit higher than the place you are trying to reach. Often times due to the current you will drift a bit downstream.
- Leaning into the current slightly provides a good brace against the force of the flow, especially if the water level is higher than knee high.
Q | Which crossings were most dangerous for you? Would they have been as dangerous under different conditions, like if you had arrived at it in the morning versus 5pm?
Much to our surprise, the water crossings were not as intimidating or as difficult as we expected given the record snow conditions and water content of the snowpack. That may likely be due to our timing, as snow bridges still existed for many crossings.
At the beginning of our trip we were able to cross nearly all creeks on snow bridges, as significant snowpack was still present. Before crossing on a snow bridge we would use our poles to probe the bridge, trying to make sure it would not collapse under our weight. Be extremely careful when crossing on snow bridges, especially as they begin to thaw out.
As we made it deeper and deeper into our trip, and as snow bridges continued to melt, we were forced to ford numerous times.
Our first “major” ford came with the crossing of Evolution Creek. Upon reaching the normal trail crossing we quickly decided to try the alternate crossing in the calmer, yet deeper Evolution Meadow upstream, as the swift current of the normal creek crossing was not passable, in my opinion. Evolution Meadow is a very common alternate for PCT hikers, and is famous for the deep wade across its waters. We crossed in the early morning (around 8 AM), which meant that the water levels were lower, yet the air temperature was much colder than later in the day. The main wade took me around 30-45 seconds to cross, and reached just below my sternum at the deepest point (for reference I am 6’2”). The cold water forced me to take a few minutes to rewarm, as my feet had gone numb.
The next major crossing we faced was the South Fork of the Kings River, which we encountered after coming down from Mather Pass. We found out that we did NOT need to actually cross the South Fork of the Kings River, which at the time was a raging monster. By staying high and east of the river and crossing it at its headwaters just below Mather (which still had snow bridges), we were able to avoid this intimidating crossing. The PCT/JMT redundantly crosses over the river twice, so by staying high and east of the river we stayed dry.
The next, and nastiest, crossing we faced was the White Fork crossing, which we faced after coming down from Pinchot Pass. A seasonal stream that many later season hikers have never even heard of, the crossing was a raging current of whitewater when we first walked up to its banks. We had heard from numerous PCT hikers that there were no good alternative crossings for the creek, and after some hiking up and down stream I agreed. The main trail crossing is short, only about 8 paces for me, yet the current was raging when we came across it, even around 10 AM when we came to it, and came up above my knee (I lost a Croc fording due to the current).
The stretch between Pinchot and Glen Pass was the wettest for us, in terms of stream crossings. Just a few miles after White Fork we came upon Baxter Creek, another tricky early season ford. Longer than White Fork, Baxter Creek also does not have any good alternate crossings up or downstream. Fording in tandem, there were a few points when I needed to lean on my dad for support, and a few times when he needed me to regain his balance. Crossing in the early-to-mid afternoon, the water came up to my mid-thigh at the deepest.
After Baxter the next crossing we came across was the ford across the inlet of Arrowhead Lake. As previously mentioned, the outlet of Arrowhead Lake was too deep to ford when we came through, over 8 feet deep according to the ranger. Fording the inlet, however, came up to around my hip, with minimal current. This was one of the few crossings we did solo and not in tandem, as the current was easily manageable.
The final and fourth crossing of that particular day was of the Rae Lakes at the Sixty Lakes junction. In the later season this will not be a major crossing, yet due to the snowmelt, and the lakes overflowing their banks, this crossing was up near my chest at points. We forded near 7 PM, so water levels were larger than they would have been in the morning, yet the water was so cold I feared hypothermia would have been a significant risk if we had forded early in the morning when the air temperature was much lower. The ford took me just under a minute, and similar to Evolution Meadow my feet were numb upon completion, forcing me to take a few minutes to rewarm.
Between Glen and Forester Pass we did not encounter any major stream crossings, with our next ford coming with Tyndall Creek. When we came upon the normal Tyndall crossing we immediately concluded that we should search for an alternate, and actually found that downstream, around 100 yards or so where the creek forks, there was a good spot to cross. The two smaller crossings came up just above my knee, and in tandem the current was not a problem.
After Tyndall Creek the only remaining crossings we faced were of Wright Creek and of Wallace Creek, both of which were little trouble. Neither crossing appeared to have good alternates up or downstream, so we took the main crossing for both. The crossing of Wright Creek had a little bit of current to deal with, yet Wallace was simply a wade.
In terms of fording in the morning versus later in the day, we always tried to hit the major crossings in the morning, as water levels would be lower than later in the day when snow had a chance to melt. This, however, meant colder air temperature, and at times required us to take a break to rewarm ourselves.