In July I’m running six trips in Yosemite National Park, split between two guide teams: two intro-level 3-day courses, and four more advanced 5- and 7-day trips. We will be hiking sections of the John Muir Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Sierra High Route, and Yosemite High Route, in addition to other trails and off-trail routes.
Because of the exceptional 2018-19 snowfall and a stormy spring, we expect to encounter more lingering snowpack than normal (as well as higher runoff, more prolific mosquitoes, and more intense sun exposure). This post is designed primarily to guide my clients in the purchase of crampons and an ice axe. But I’ve included a broader discussion to make it applicable to other backpackers, too.
I’ve written elsewhere about early-season conditions and the 2018-19 snowpack:
1. For my Outside blog, in late-March I wrote a piece, “What Epic Snowpack Means for Summer 2019 in the West.” It details the snowpack, predicts likely conditions, and runs through critical gear and skills.
2. When PCT and JMT hikers were losing their $hit in 2017 after a similarly wet winter, I posted a six-part tutorial on backpacking in early-season conditions. I have not updated it since, but it remains just as relevant today.
3. For JMT/PCT hikers specifically, read the three-part interview with Sam Chaneles, who thru-hiked the JMT in June 2017. It will give you an idea for the likely experience.
Do you need crampons and an ice axe? And what specific models should you buy?
Well, it depends. I know that’s not that the answer you wanted, but it’s a nuanced topic.
Below I’ve discussed four considerations to inform your decision. My general advice would be to purchase now what you are most likely to need, and to exchange or return the items later if your needs change. This approach has two benefits:
- Take advantage of start-of-summer sales, usually 20-ish percent off a full-price item.
- Move onto other aspects of your trip planning.
In determining whether you need crampons and an axe, and which products to purchase, consider:
1. Current conditions
We know that the High Sierra got whacked this winter. But what do conditions look like right now? Nowadays, the most current information and images will be shared online by hikers after they exit or while they resupply.
Start your search with the JMT and PCT (e.g. #JohnMuirTrail, r/PacificCrestTrail, and John Muir Trail Group), which transect the High Sierra and which receive heavy backcountry use. Then narrow your search for more specific results (e.g. #RaeLakesLoop), or start following specific hikers to observe trends.
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More deep powder on Forester Pass, great views though few and far between due to snow, hard to access water, white out at the base of Forester, and our hitch to Bishop. Forage (@leechristoph) featured in all photos. A wild week on the trail but now I have boots so I’m stoked to get back at it. After Mule Days and some beer in Bishop, of course. #pct2019
2. Time of day
Throughout the spring and summer, the snowpack is in a general state of melt. The seasonal trendline is interrupted most nights, however, when radiant heat loss and colder ambient air temperatures cause the snow to firm up or crust over. This can make even low-angle snow problematic for early-risers and dawn-to-dusk hikers. A few hours after sunrise, such sections will be unremarkable.
3. Individual comfort and skills
If you have prior relevant experience (e.g. early-season backpacking, mountaineering, climbing) or if you’re fit and athletic, you may need less equipment than others. For example, on steep but soft snow, you may feel comfortable with just an axe, whereas another hiker would want an axe and crampons.
What challenges should you expect? For example:
- How often will you hike on snow (which is a function of elevation)?
- What steep pitches along your route are unavoidable? Pour over those maps!
- Might you encounter a cornice on the leeward sides of some passes or ridges?
- Will a boot track or glissade track have formed by hikers ahead of you?
Prior experience — with map-reading, early-season conditions, and the High Sierra generally — is really helpful is accurately predicting the likely conditions.
An axe is used to:
- Self-arrest a fall,
- Self-belay up or down a snowfield,
- Control a glissade; and,
- Cut steps or cut through a small cornice.
On most backpacking routes, axes are needed only occasionally, usually to gain or descend a pass, or to contour across a steep snowfield or avalanche chute below a pass.
I recognize that it’s difficult to justify a ~$100 expense and 12 ounces of extra pack weight for an item that you infrequently need. But it can be a vital safety tool.
I’m requiring that every client in my 5- and 7-day trips have an axe, since we’ll be hiking over several steep off-trail passes like Don’t Be A Smart, Stanton, and Matterhorn. Generally, I’d recommend an axe for backpackers who will:
1. Travel on or across steep slopes in June and July without the aid of a boot track. This would include low-traffic trails and off-trail routes. By August, most snowfields will have melted, and most cornices will have lost volume and steepness.
2. Follow a major trail (e.g. JMT/PCT, High Sierra Trail) in June and some of July. As summer backcountry traffic increases, a boot track will form on the trade routes, helping to take the edge off steep slopes and chutes that are holding snow. The consequences of a fall could still be very bad, but the risk of falling will be lower.
Specific ice axes
Shopping for an ice axe is fairly simple: options are limited, and the styling and technologies are mostly the same. Select a/an:
- Entry-level axe if you want to save money and are willing to carry the weight;
- Performance axe if you will use it often and/or need a longer length;
- Ultralight axe if you are willing to accept at least one tradeoff (e.g. price, short shaft, performance).
Personally, I own an ultralight axe. It’s been sufficient for the occasional instances when I want it, and I don’t curse its weight during the miles in between.
Stay upright, holding the pick and keeping your arm by your side. Conventional wisdom says that the spike should fall between your ankle and mid-calf. For early-season backpacking I think mid-calf is better, because you probably will use it only on steep slopes. Mountaineers use their axe like a cane, and thus prefer a longer shaft.
I installed a wrist leash on my axe, believing that the risk of losing it on a steep slope is greater than the leash’s fussiness and its entanglement risk.
On slick and steep snowfields, boot rubber alone will probably not cut it. And on low-angle and slushy slopes, hours of slip-and-slide can be tedious and energy-sapping. The solution is to increase your purchase with crampons or shoe chains.
I told my groups to skip the crampons. By mid-July more ground will be melted out than still snow-covered, and the snow will be soft enough to kick steps. Generally, I’d recommend:
1. Hiking crampons in June, and for aggressive routes in July.
2. Shoe chains for high-traffic trails in July to maintain traction in the boot track, which can get packed out and sometimes slick.
Traction devices fall into three categories:
1. Just-in-case crampons are better than nothing, and weigh very little. If there’s a low chance of needing traction or if there’s just one token problem spot, this is a good option.
2. Shoe chains are good for packed-out trails and boot tracks. They are lightweight, relatively inexpensive, easy to put on and take off, and bite well into firm surfaces.
3. Hiking crampons are best for icy/crusty snow and deep snow, and steep slopes. For backpackers, they are the most robust option.
Questions about axes or crampons, or your need for them? Leave a comment.
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