Last week an alumnus, Rod, sent me photos of Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers in the High Sierra, climbing over Forester Pass. The photos were taken May 26, but he didn’t know the party.
(Update, June 7. In a recent Instagram post, these photos were credited to Justin McCormick, and are of Jonathan Frankson and Abby. Permission from Justin to include these photos has been given, thanks.)
Based on the absence of tracks on the trail, Rod speculated that this was the first party through the High Sierra this year. But multiple people have already gone through, including but not limited to:
- JeanMarie Gossard, who entered in late-April;
- Atlantis_hikes, who was already in Mammoth on May 24;
- Joshua Seligsohn, who made it to Bishop on May 24;
- r/Dolphinizer, who on June 4 was in Bishop with “plenty of other [PCT thru-hikers]”
I don’t follow the PCT scene closely, and my initial thought was that these hikers were just anomalies. With roughly 1150 percent more hikers on the PCT now than in 2007, when I last did a long section, there are simply more outliers. Virtually everyone is on Instagram, too, potentially creating a false impression. But my understanding is that these hikers are indicative of a trend, not just one-offs.
Timing the High Sierra
June 15 is known as “Ray [Jardine] Day” on the Pacific Crest Trail, and has long been considered the optimal date for thru-hikers to enter the High Sierra at Kennedy Meadows after a normal winter. By mid-June, there’s been enough snowmelt to allow for reasonable passage; and after exiting the High Sierra, there’s still enough time to reach Canada before the trail becomes snowbound again.
After an exceptionally dry or wet winter, the window can shift by up to a month. The 2018-19 winter was epic, and “normal” Ray Day conditions will not be found until mid-July.
I have hiked the PCT through the High Sierra twice in springtime conditions:
- In 2006, after a very wet winter, I entered in late-June. I pulled into Tuolumne Meadows on Independence Day and picked up my package from the PO on July 5, the first day it operated that year.
- In 2007, after a very dry winter, I entered on May 13, while attempting the Great Western Loop. When I reached Tioga Road eight days later, the PO was not yet in service but the road had been open for nearly two weeks.
On this second hike through, I was weeks ahead of the next hiker, and “the herd” was probably a month back still. Trains of thru-hikers in the High Sierra in late-May 2007 was unfathomable.
Springtime challenges after wet winters
After a very wet winter, the conventional wisdom is to delay your entry into the High Sierra, giving the snow more time to melt. By adhering to a “normal” or “dry” timeline, hikers find conditions that are both more challenging and more risky:
- Steep snow-covered passes,
- Snow-covered campsites,
- Cross-country navigation,
- Extensive walking on snow,
- Greater avalanche risk,
- Late-season storms,
- Deep rock moats,
- Crumbling snow bridges,
- Post-holing in the afternoon once the crust has melted,
- More intense sun exposure,
- Colder nighttime lows, and,
- More difficult resupplies because nearby services have not yet opened and roads have not yet been cleared.
In sum, the PCT in the High Sierra is currently more of a thru-mountaineering expedition than a thru-hike. It has very little resemblance to the spoon-fed miles of southern California or the Appalachian Trail, where most thru-hikers cut their teeth.
To be clear, I am not saying that the High Sierra is impassable — clearly, it is. Nor is it necessarily unsafe — for some hikers, it’s entirely within their limits. That said, every hiker needs to objectively determine if their gear and skills are really up to the task.
In defiance of conventional wisdom, why are thru-hikers pushing through the High Sierra already?
To reduce impact along the trail and improve the hiking experience, the federal agencies that manage the PCT (primarily the US Forest Service) capped the number of starters at the US-Mexico border to 50 hikers per day. This cap is managed with the PCT Long-distance Permit, which must be obtained from the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA).
For the sake of the trail, it’s a good policy. But it causes some hikers to pick their starting date partly based on permit availability, not based on the High Sierra snowpack. And when the lottery opens in November, not even the world’s best meteorologist can accurately predict what the snowpack will look like in six months, leaving hikers to base their plans on historical averages.
2. Compelling arguments for early starts
This winter two widely circulated articles — this one and this one — argued that starting in March was a good idea, citing cooler temperatures, more water, and fewer hikers in SoCal, and less risky water crossings in the High Sierra.
Many hikers seemed to be sold, and are now determining the merits of this advice. Personally, I wonder if the authors undersold the long-term difficulties of an early High Sierra entry — the snow will not magically disappear at Sonora Pass. Instead, it will be 450 to 500 miles of snow, roughly from Kennedy Meadows to north of I-80/Donner Pass.
3. No where else to go
Intimidated by the snowpack, some hikers opted to flip north, hoping to find snow-free trail in northern California or southern Oregon. Among the ranks was another alumnus, Paul, a strong hiker who left the US-Mexico border on March 24.
Unfortunately, these flip-floppers found the same thing further north that they would have found in the High Sierra: lots of snow. To add insult to injury, the flip cost them money and time, and disrupted their continuous walk from Mexico to Canada.
In hindsight, the better decision for hikers like Paul would have been to:
- Start later, or
- Eat up time with a Plan B, like a multi-week trip in California’s coastal ranges or on the Colorado Plateau.
Long-distance trails can be mind-numbingly boring — not every mile is beautiful, and sometimes you exhaust interesting things to talk about with the hikers in your group.
But when the PCT is snowbound, it feels more like a high route or an Alaska-style expedition, involving a novel level of autonomy, risk, and difficulty. For those who are drawn to such an experience, the High Sierra is currently an exhilarating opportunity.
5. Group think
Humans often assess risk based on the experiences, observations, or feedback of others, not on their own objective metrics. With an increasing number of thru-hikers leaving Kennedy Meadows, “I did it!” posts on social media from hikers further north, and footsteps showing the way across the snow, you can imagine some hikers being lulled into a false sense of security.
I wish the best for PCT hikers who are entering early. It will be challenging and exciting, and probably a highlight of your journey.
But be conservative, and don’t be afraid to exit early if the conditions are too much. Completing a long-distance trail is often a matter of willpower. But especially this year, Mother Nature may defy those who try to impose their will on her.
This post was originally published June 3, and revised considerably on June 7 to better express my own thoughts and to integrate thoughtful and insightful comments, including some by current PCT hikers.