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Why are thru-hikers already in the High Sierra?

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.)

Below Forester Pass on its south side, the PCT/JMT was blasted into a rock wall and is about 8 feet wide. On May 26, snow was still partially filling in the cut. Photo: Justin McCormick
The chute just below Forester Pass on May 26. The trail — which cuts across the slope and switchbacks to the pass — is buried in snow. Photo: Justin McCormick
Forester Pass, the highest point on the PCT and JMT, on May 26, 2019. It still looks like ski season. Photo: Justin McCormick

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:

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.

The High Sierra was drenched during the 2018-19 winter, the the spring melt will be delayed by about a month.

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.

Statewide snowpack: 2005-06 (very wet), 2006-07 (very dry), and 2018-19 (very wet).

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.

Explanations

In defiance of conventional wisdom, why are thru-hikers pushing through the High Sierra already?

1. Permitting

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.

4. Challenge

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.

Good luck!

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.

Posted in on June 3, 2019
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77 Comments

  1. Dan on June 3, 2019 at 5:24 pm

    It’s definitely a trend this year just following the herd on social media, I think mainly because of the permitting windows. There are a ton of people stacked up right at or before Kennedy Meadows right now, and lots who have already flipped into still snowy sections farther north, which don’t look all that much better.

    • Brian on June 5, 2019 at 3:25 pm

      2017 saw many pics posted by those who braved May/June. Perhaps that helped normalize what’s feasible and safe in 2019?
      Helps to be young/fit enough so consecutive 6,000? kCal burn days doesn’t yield metabolic meltdown as I’m sure I’d experience…

  2. David on June 3, 2019 at 6:42 pm

    Some PCT thru-hikers have made it to Forester Pass already in late April. No idea if they were the first though.

    Here for example:
    https://www.instagram.com/p/Bw-YqPphlIi/?igshid=eq3g13dwzwz8

    What is notable this year more than the amount of snow from the winter were the numerous snowfalls/storms in May. Two weeks of precipitation every day with low temperature. I got snow between Tehachapi and Walker Pass and again camping/resting in KM south with below freezing temperature.

    It leads to a lot of fresh snow every day at higher elevation in the Sierra. I know this group (from the photo) and they had a hard time making a new path. The overall experience is challenging since all ressuply roads are not open (e.g. VVR still closed) meaning even more food to carry and they had a bad weather and low temperature.

    But I guess that’s part of outdoor aventures. You need to adapt to the conditions and wait/quit if too challenging.

    Yes the PCT is very popular but a large portion of people are quiting the trail quite early (before Tehachapi). I don’t know the reasons though. On some sections before KM I signed a trail register late in the afternoon and there was only two persons who signed before me that day. One explanation is also that people are slowing down to reach the Sierra later.

    Thank you Andrews for your blog. I have been finding very useful ressources here.

    • Andrew Skurka on June 3, 2019 at 7:04 pm

      nm

      • David on June 3, 2019 at 7:30 pm

        No idea what she meant on that post. Just finding it with a quick research. It was shared on some fb page at that time.

      • Eric on June 4, 2019 at 9:00 pm

        Agreed. Her photos remind me of the Andrew Bentz video of skiing the JMT. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZojE9nhR88o The same kind of hiker would be surprised to trigger a slab avalanche. Would’ve been easier on skis. Having been on Forrester Pass on May 25th of 2016, I’m surprised by how many people were there earlier this year. I’ve seen pictures of people standing on the cornice over the col. The mountaineering terrain a lot of these hikers are in isn’t the most technical but the consequences of a fall are deadly regardless.

        • Andrew Skurka on June 4, 2019 at 9:54 pm

          I knew he’d done that, but I didn’t know there was a video. So cool, totally the way to do it.

          • barry on June 4, 2019 at 10:33 pm

            Bucket list item, this would have been the perfect year to repeat!



      • JeanMarie Gossard on June 8, 2019 at 5:10 pm

        Hi Everyone,

        This will be my first ever official response to “comment
        threads”, but it seems my story is being discussed a bit out of context and more importantly without my involvement.

        So here is some background and maybe some answers to questions posed here. Hope it helps. My name’s JeanMarie and in addition to having a handful of years (5+) working as a backcountry guide, the PCT is my 7th long distance hike, I’m an experienced backcountry skier, have avalanche training and yes, was one of the first thru-hikers to cut steps on forester pass in late April. In no way do I consider myself (or do these experiences make me) an expert in mountaineering or snow travel, far from it-in fact I believe ANYONE in extreme mountain sports is always a beginner in the face of Mother Nature. But I WAS fully aware of everything Andrew mentioned in his article’s third point (and then some) BEFORE I went into the sierras. I had originally intended to walk to Kennedy Meadows and then head to a trail in New Mexico but after empowering mountaineering experiences on Jacinto and Powell I decided I wanted to tackle at least a few more days of mountaineering in the Sierra and assess conditions directly. I walked in with ice axe, crampons, snowshoes, microspikes and the knowledge (and experience) associated with their use as well as two weeks worth of food to wait out potential storms. I had no expectation that conditions would permit me to walk all the way through. Therefore my “I can’t believe” was in reference to having made the choice to head into the sierras, not an exclamation of surprise at the existence of snow on one of the higher snowfall years on record…

        I consider Andrew an inspiration and force for good in the hiking world as well as a mentor. I really appreciate this article as it is fact and conditions focused, dissuades (definitely important given the conditions!) without fear mongering and does not purport to tell people what they are and are not capable of (something as a female athlete I’ve been told my whole life). The distinction between thru-hiking and mountaineering alone will no doubt save lives.

        What I do not appreciate is being called ignorant. I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t share that I found these attacks on my intelligence in addition to being unprofessional and unfounded, actually quite hurtful.

        I hope those of you commenting in the future will consider contacting me (and anyone you plan to “cite”, take out of context, or label as ignorant) directly in the future if you have questions or plan to comment publicly. I’ve contacted Andrew directly but don’t have time to contact everyone else-apologies and hence why I’m publicly posting here.

        A heartfelt thank you to those strangers who spoke up for me or thought critically about the meaning of words that were being used to express some pretty hard earned and heartfelt empowerment work, not stupidity.

        Stay safe out there,
        JeanMarie

        • Geoff on June 8, 2019 at 8:03 pm

          JeanMarie – well said! A dignified and constructive post.

          Andrew has already admitted that he messed up here, so hopefully you can accept his apology. As you point out, his main message is important, even if he picked an egregiously poorly judged example.

          I think that the current situation on the PCT highlights a dilemma at the heart of all dangerous sports.

          On the one hand, we need to retain the freedom for competent and experienced people like yourself to test themselves against challenging projects. That’s the whole spirit of mountaineering. It’s clear from what you say that you were well prepared and fully understood what you were taking on.

          While on the other hand, we need to get better at educating newbies to develop their skills and respect their limits. I could point you to more than one PCT vlog from the last couple of years where inexperienced hikers were totally out of their depth and literally weeping with fear. This is clearly going to lead to casualties, risking the lives of wonderful folk on the SAR teams, and devastating families and loved ones.

          I don’t think that there’s a single simple answer, but we could surely do better. The current situation is increasingly worrying.

          The permitting system is the first point of contact for any aspiring hiker, and perhaps the authorities could better use this opportunity to educate inexperienced applicants.

          People are pointing out that it’s difficult to find reliable information about trail conditions, and perhaps the relevant agencies and associations could coordinate to address this.

          And as individuals, we should all be doing what we can on social media and with our blogs and personal contacts on the trail to alert people to the realities of tough conditions in big mountains (even if this involves shipping some abuse, as has happened to a few of us here).

          We should be pointing people to authoritative posts like Andrew’s here, or Cam “Swami” Honan’s excellent piece on when to call it quits in Washington:

          https://www.thehikinglife.com/2017/10/when-to-call-it-quits-on-the-pacific-crest-trail/

          And we should always remember that our individual actions *can* save lives on the trail:

          https://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/2018/10/concerned_womans_phone_call_sa.html

          But it’s a tricky balance. We need to find a way to do this without infringing on the freedom of the hills that we all cherish so dearly.

          • JeanMarie Gossard on June 9, 2019 at 10:07 am

            Geoff – I certainly agree with your points. This is a very tricky balance and a lot of my concerns revolve around how we treat and educate newbies like you said. And yes Andrew apologized to me personally as well so this is technically his second apology. Thanks Andrew, over the top – much appreciated and thanks for your thoughtful response as well as for writing this important article.



        • Andrew Skurka on June 8, 2019 at 9:13 pm

          JeanMarie:

          Thanks for your thoughtful comment, and for not being harder on me than you could have been.

          I’m sorry for my original reaction to the sharing of your post. I should not have speculated about its “apparent ignorance” without asking you for more context. Poor judgement on my part, and a good reminder about the reach that such words can have.

          Enjoy the rest of your hike.

          Andrew

  3. David on June 3, 2019 at 7:21 pm

    Regarding the permittting system which occur in November (1st wave) and January (2nd wave) it’s a tricky situation because:

    1. You want to know what will be the snow conditions but it’s obviously too early. But there seems to be a substantial difference between dry and wet winter. People argue also that by leaving too late you could get stuck by the heat during the first 700miles and suffer more from the late seson fires in Oregon and Washington.

    2. On the other hand you need to have a departure date in advance at least by January to get your visa, give your job resignations and get everything in order to leave far from hone during 6 months.

    By entering the Sierra mid/end June you will get better snow/trail conditions but you will need to hurry a bit to finish it before first snow in the Cascades.

    It’s a difficult equation.

  4. Geoff on June 4, 2019 at 6:46 pm

    For a seasoned mountaineer, the conditions depicted are relatively trivial, provided that local experts can confirm that the snow isn’t avalanche-prone. An early start gets you through the desert before the heat, and while there is still some water in the creeks. The snow in the Sierras provides a fun challenge on an otherwise technically undemanding trail. And you hit Northern California early in the season with all options open and the best chance of making it to the border. It’s the way I’m planning to do it when I finally get the chance, but I’ve been climbing in snow for decades.

    For a newbie though, I would say that those conditions would be unjustifiable. They simply won’t have the skills to judge the snow conditions or to move safely over difficult ground. I’ve seen more than one vlog this year where hikers were in way over their heads in the icy San Jacintos – one was entitled “Almost Got Myself Killed”. Their lack of skill was alarming.

    It seems that the glamour that has built up around the PCT is attracting people with so little experience that they don’t even understand what they don’t know. They’ve never been on snow or used a crampon or an axe. It will be a miracle if no-one gets killed if this continues.

    • Seldom Seen on June 4, 2019 at 8:24 pm

      The scary part is it will get worse before it gets better. The herd is at mile 500-700 right now, seeing all these people pushing into the Sierra gives a false sense of optimism to those about to set off, because the snow is in decent condition right now. In the next week, the melt will double, streams will be raging torrents, snow will turn to mush leading to fatigue and wet gear, snow bridges will start to fail, wet avalanche cycles, etc…

      • Geoff on June 5, 2019 at 3:18 am

        Seldom Seen – yes, it seems to me that you have to get through before the melt in true winter conditions, or after the worst of the melt is over. During the melt could be lethal, as you point out.

        That would involve an early start and hanging out at Kennedy Meadows for a weather window. And the maturity to change plans if weather and conditions don’t cooperate.

        Traversing the Sierras in winter conditions is a serious undertaking and not to be taken lightly. You’d need the requisite gear and experience, and you’d certainly want to be taking the advice of local experts. Emphatically not a project for naive newbies.

        Everest these days is cluttered with people who really haven’t earned the right to be there, with the inevitable consequences. They’re not really mountain people – just thrill seekers who want to tick off an item on their bucket list. I fear that the big, romantic US trails are going the same way. Fortunately, in good conditions they are safe enough that people can make beginner mistakes and get away with it. But winter conditions can be very harsh on the unprepared.

  5. Alpine_Nils on June 4, 2019 at 8:58 pm

    It’s crazy.

    “Atlantis Hikes” arrived in Mammoth in May 5th.

    https://instagram.com/atlantis_hikes?igshid=3ce01ayel0se

    He made made quick work getting to Truckee but end of May storms made him rethink plans. Amazes me that north of Tahoe was more difficult than the high sierras.

  6. barry on June 4, 2019 at 10:32 pm

    Always amazing how many people will follow the exact path of a trail over deep snow instead of avoiding an obnoxious sidehill or slippery footing directly over a cliff.

    • Andrew Skurka on June 5, 2019 at 7:42 am

      There’s security in following the trail exactly. But it’s safer and more efficient to simply think of the trail as an optional handrail — use it when it makes sense, and abandon it when it doesn’t.

      • Geoff on June 5, 2019 at 5:01 pm

        Agreed. But route-finding in snow and ice is a complex skill, learned over years of trial and error. It’s not something you can pick up from a book or a quick course. A high proportion of thru-hikers simply won’t have the background to judge the conditions and select the safest option. So they will stick to the trail for lack of knowing any better, and because it shows up on their GPS.

        Just another reason why they probably shouldn’t be there in the first place…

  7. Noam Gal on June 4, 2019 at 11:25 pm

    I assume that the “I never thought I’d be walking through the sierras in snow!” comment is referring to “last year” or “when I was growing up”, and not “a week ago when I left KM”. I’m sure the hiker had knowledge there will be snow in the Sierra Mountains as she was heading into them, and hopefully was equipped and prepared for it accordingly.

    But that’s just nitpicking. I understand your sentiment, and I hope people will act responsively when entering the mountains, and take their experience, abilities and gear into consideration.

    • Andrew Skurka on June 5, 2019 at 7:41 am

      But that’s my point. In ANY year, even the record low winter (2014-15?), you’d still be walking on snow in the High Sierra in late-April. It might not be as snowbound as in a normal year, but the temperatures haven’t been warm enough to melt snow at the higher elevations and shadier slopes.

  8. Stacy on June 4, 2019 at 11:42 pm

    It’s giving me hives watching some of the PCT hikers who are vlogging go thru. Many made early mistakes near San Jacinto (there were a lot of rescues) and started to make better choices. Some are gearing up more seriously than I’ve ever seen thru hikers but they still don’t take the courses (which they could in Bishop) or know enough. One glissaded down a very steep slope, dug their shoes in to slow down and cartwheeled and lived to talk about it, basically very lucky. Many are from lower altitude states and havent hiked in snow from what they share. I don’t think many realized this is an extraordinary snow season.

  9. Hunter on June 5, 2019 at 12:54 am

    In a year like this, would you consider a SOBO route to be a better choice?

    • Andrew Skurka on June 5, 2019 at 7:39 am

      Southbound has always struck me as difficult on the PCT and CDT because you can’t normally get onto the trail until July. If you get on it in June, you’re dealing with the same conditions that you’d be dealing with in the High Sierra. And then for the rest of your trip, it’s getting darker everyday. When I have the option, I like to surround my trips around June 21, usually the longest day of the year, to maximize daylight.

      I think the better strategy this year was to pick a starting date based on “normal” conditions, and then have a Plan B for a low and high snow year. If it’s low, either hike a little faster through SoCal, or start at a random section in SoCal earlier, then bounce to the border for your official start date; skip the miles you did earlier when you hit that section.

      If it’s a big snow year, hike SoCal to Walker Pass (which is a more convenient exit than Kennedy Meadows) and go hike somewhere else for a month (or do something, so long as it’s not hiking north on the PCT), then come back. It’s possible that some other section of the trail could be melted out, but usually a “big” snow year in the High Sierra also means a “big” snow year all the way up the PCT. Sometimes that’s not the case, like in 2005 when it was extreme in the south and drought in the north, but I think that’s more exceptional.

      • Brianna on June 5, 2019 at 11:44 am

        If you’re prepared for the conditions, I would say that getting in there and out before the hard melt out starts is arguably safer. The melt out will be epic this time, and I would not be surprised to see casualties this year.

        I’m still surprised some of those areas in the Sierra’s that can be intense in melt out conditions don’t have better crossing options. Here in WA where I live they’re pretty quick to get seasonal river crossings reestablished if they wash out, etc. Having to do a full on crossing here is rare.

  10. Dylan Kuhn on June 5, 2019 at 7:11 am

    I was on splitboarding on Leavitt peak near Sonora pass on June 1, and took these pictures of the PCT looking south and north:

    https://flic.kr/p/2g7sbGb
    https://flic.kr/p/2g7sr22

    I didn’t see any hikers or post holes. I’m going to go back this weekend, maybe I’ll look a little closer.

    As someone who started the PCT too early in 1996 and was fortunate to hit an average snow year, I can relate a bit. It’s an adventure, and spring snow conditions are easier to learn, but you do have to learn.

    As a backcountry skier, I strive to be off the snow before noon, and plan carefully which aspects I’ll hit at what time. Thru-hikers cannot really do that. My primary concern for them is that they’ll mire in wet snow or be entrained in a loose wet avalanche, but getting on steep frozen snow too early without crampons and ice axe is also dangerous.

    Andrew, you may smirk if you remember meeting me on the CDT in the San Juans in June 2004 with a big pack still carrying my ice axe.

    Can you link to your source for the snowpack graph?

  11. Dylan Kuhn on June 5, 2019 at 7:21 am

    Aha, I found the snowpack graph source, that’s great.

  12. Karl Keating on June 5, 2019 at 7:54 am

    1. As noted above, for experienced mountaineers present Sierra conditions are not problematic, but for most PCT hikers they will be.

    2. The proportion of hikers with little or no experience hiking–not mountaineering but just plain hiking–has increased the last few years. Many of these hikers are on the PCT, they tell me (when I trail angel), because of social media promotion or because of having seen or read “Wild.”

    3. The most recent comparable year, snow-melt-wise, was 2017. That year, two people died attempting to cross whitewater streams. Let’s hope that record isn’t exceeded this year. With hundreds of hikers now approaching the Sierra, it could be.

    4. For Andrew: the word “alumni” is plural. An individual may be an “alumnus” (male) or “alumna” (female) but not an “alumni.”

    Some plural Latin terms, when used in English, have become “singularized,” such as “data,” the actual singular of which is “datum,” though nowadays most Americans use “data” for both the singular and plural. This alteration hasn’t occurred with “alumni” yet, so “alumni” should be restricted to use as a plural.

    (“Alumni” is the plural when referring either to a group of men or to a mixed group. The variant for a group comprised exclusively of women is “alumnae.”)

    (/grammar note off)

  13. Buck Nelson on June 5, 2019 at 8:10 am

    I think you covered it well Andrew.

    There’s going to be a similar problem in Washington as well, with hikers trying to finish the trail far too late in the season.

    The lottery system was devised my smart people doing their level best to address the very real problem of trail overcrowding, but it is definitely a big factor in pushing hikers outside the ideal/safest hiking season window, and, people being people, there will inevitably be unfortunate consequences.

  14. Eric on June 5, 2019 at 8:17 am

    I got criticised by another hiker in 2016 for saying, “anyone behind us is in trouble” when we got to Canada on October 8th, 2016. Some of the passes were getting filled in by snow. They said I was fear mongering and that people behind us were fine. Chris Fowler, “Sherpa”, went missing a few days later. Never seen again. I’ve been tempted to send that hiker an “I told you so” ever since. Similarly, I noticed that the PCT Facebook discussion groups can be a pep talk rally that filters legitimate criticism. Plenty of onlookers cheering people on and legitimate criticism gets cast as fear mongering. There was a guy last year that got rescued twice and people kept cheering him on in the comments to keep hiking and any dissent was blasted.

    • Geoff on June 5, 2019 at 9:06 am

      I’ve had a similar experience on YouTube. A couple of times I’ve seen people on the PCT heading for disaster and been eviscerated when I tried to gently point out that they were overreaching their skills. Apparently I was a miserable killjoy who was crushing their dreams…

      But I was right.

      One had a near-fatal fall after getting lost and trying an absurdly dangerous descent, ending up stranded in a panic on a (relatively easy) snow-slope. She called in the rescue, and nearly killed the SAR team when their ‘copter went down with engine failure. She was a remarkably arrogant young lady, and appeared to have learned nothing from the experience.

      The second guy also nearly killed himself, but extracted safely, thank goodness, and began listening to advice.

      Both of them wandered solo into big mountains in winter conditions without any experience at all. The comment sections were buzzing with people telling them how wonderful they were.

      There’s a very dangerous scene growing up around that trail. I guess it’s the Hollywood effect, as others have been saying.

  15. Greg on June 5, 2019 at 8:34 am

    I agree with your message, but it’s unfair to roast that hiker based on her Instagram caption. The backstory is that she had been planning to skip to another trail after KM since Campo, but met someone with mountaineering experience who she learned from and decided to continue with. Thus: surprise to be walking in snow. You’ve attributed a false narrative to the post and published it on a well-read blog, which is irresponsible.

    • Andrew Skurka on June 5, 2019 at 8:58 am

      Fair point, and I wondered if I as being over-judgmental as I wrote that last night. Updated, and that part removed.

  16. Andrey O on June 5, 2019 at 9:00 am

    “here’s to not letting anyone tell you what you can and cannot do”

    And that exact attitude is what often results in having to call the SAR team.
    The social media (especially Instagram) effect has been on the rise, allegedly. Folks on VFTT have been complaining about it for years, recently alluding to a statement that SAR missions in the White Mountains are reaching all-time highs. Too many inexperienced people heading out there without understanding the risks.

  17. Jody on June 5, 2019 at 9:09 am

    Eric, you are correct. The only thing I am enjoying on the FB page these days is Ned Tibbets. Valuable information that people are not listening to.

    I think this is the scariest post I have read to date.

    https://www.instagram.com/p/Bxlgt_jlftc/

    I am planning to hike the PCT in 2020. I have a husband and 4 kids that I want to stay safe for. I am watching, studying maps, learning about it, training and have solid plans to get snow training with an expert for a week or more (however long it takes) before I start into the Sierra. AND! I will wait to go in when the snow and rivers are managable. I have no problem leaving the trail and doing something different until this happens. I imagine the Sierra are beautiful in the snow but I want to enjoy them, not be in survival mode. I know my limitations and have no problem flipping around during the season to get the best of each section. I want to see these places, and I don’t think a perfect OCD driven path is of importance.

    It scares me that so many are doing things on the trail that are sketchy and well outside their abilities. Stepping outside your comfort zone is one thing, but putting yourself and others at huge risk and not being prepared for the worst is crazy. Folks are wearing crampons with trail runners and wondering why they are breaking so much on rough terrain and they don’t recognize the signs of frostbite. The bubble hasn’t even arrived at KM yet so I fear the worst is to come.

    Everyone uses this one quote so often on the PCT social media stuff….”Tell me, what is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life”. Mary Oliver wrote “The Summer Day” and it is a poem, not a random line or battle cry. The line before it states “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon”. She is saying that it is fine and enough just to have an idle day to enjoy the small things. To truly see and enjoy even the smallest of things can be enough. To lie in the grass and watch a grasshopper. To be mindful. She wasn’t saying go out into the world and do things on the brink of death to live. The poem is the exact opposite of how everyone is using it out of context.

    “Who made the world?
    Who made the swan, and the black bear?
    Who made the grasshopper?
    This grasshopper, I mean–
    the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
    the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
    who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down–
    who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
    Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
    Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
    I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
    I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
    into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
    how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
    which is what I have been doing all day.
    Tell me, what else should I have done?
    Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
    Tell me, what is it you plan to do
    With your one wild and precious life?”

  18. Jill on June 5, 2019 at 9:43 am

    I have been following along posts about hiking the PCT this year. If avalanches are a risk this time of year, I wonder if people are aware of how to avoid triggering an avalanche and how to assess slopes for possible avalanche danger. I don’t know this, but I am not currently hiking the PCT or JMT. If this is a risk, perhaps you could write a blog post on this topic. I haven’t seen this topic discussed among the many posts regarding hiking in this high snow year.

    • Andrew Skurka on June 5, 2019 at 10:06 am

      I’m not an avy expert, so I’ll leave it to someone else.

      In general, avalanches are less likely in the spring, because the snow has started to consolidate into a single layer (whereas in the winter, there are multiple layers that represent different storms and wind events). But you can get slides after spring storms (e.g. light snow falls onto a sun crust, and then slumps off), and on warm days you can get wet slides, where the snowpack essentially becomes too slushy to support itself.

    • George on June 5, 2019 at 4:26 pm

      They should be a concern and I’m willing to bet few are aware of the conditions or risks. So the last few weeks of snow fall definitely increased the risk. Still, this time of year the majority would be “wet snow” avalanches. Strong sun makes top layers very wet and it’ll slide on lower sold layer. They’re slower and, if you see them coming, you can actually scurry out of the way.

      Even if you trigger one you can often step out of it. But they’re certainly dangerous enough that, with speed, will definitely knock you over and could bury you. You’re see some major ones along roads as they’re being plowed.

      A worker was killed at Tenaya Lake years ago plowing the road and undercut a slab, which released.

  19. Freefall on June 5, 2019 at 9:49 am

    Where is it written in stone that one has to travel northbound? If I were to thru-Hike the PCT again, I would highly consider going SOBO to avoid some NOBO limitations (lottery, crowds, Sierra snowpack, calendar).

    • Andrew Skurka on June 5, 2019 at 10:04 am

      It’s the more traditional direction because it makes the most sense. Hike through the desert in the spring (when it’s cool and there’s still water), hit the High Sierra just as it’s opening up, and then enjoy 3-season conditions through Oregon and Washington (by which time it will probably have cooled off).

      By going southbound, you can’t start until June or July, and you’re finishing in SoCal (where it’s cool again, but not as wet at that time of year) late in the fall, when the days are short and nights are long. Also, you still have to get through the High Sierra before late-Sept or mid-Oct (if you risk it).

      • Warner Springs Monty on June 5, 2019 at 1:28 pm

        There are no rules, Freefall.☺ And if you hear of any, you are only hearing from someone who does not get HYOH.

        2005 was a great Sobo or flip year. I flipped June 15 no problem, but we have not seen low snow up there like that since. My guess is mid July on might be a better starting date this year.
        This is a good flip year if a person wants to complete the trail in one season.

      • Dahn on June 5, 2019 at 10:26 pm

        Andrew, I have to disagree with you. I SOBO’d in 2018 and conditions were perfect. Never had precip the whole hike, great hiker boxes, resupply locations weren’t demolished by the herd and weather windows were perfect for each “problematic” section of trail. Plus having actual solitude as opposed to the maniac thru-hiker migration was something to be cherished. In my opinion, south bound makes much more sense to would be thru-hikers, especially during this especially snowpacked year.

        • Geoff on June 6, 2019 at 3:17 am

          There’s lots of good discussion about this on the web.

          From what I can gather, SoBo is really only practical if you are someone who can cover ground fast and reach the Sierras before the weather turns.

          Dahn – I love the idea of a quieter hike, but what mileage were you covering to hit those weather windows?

          • Dahn on June 7, 2019 at 8:39 am

            My mileage fluctuated wildly. I also took 40 zeros in one week increments to explore other parts of the West Coast.

            On normal days I’d try to get 50km/31 miles in but my average including zero’s and nero’s is probably closer to 20 miles/day



          • Geoff on June 7, 2019 at 9:42 am

            Dahn – thanks for the info.

            I suspect that one key to a SOBO hike is to hit the trail in hard condition and get the hammer down from the start.

            Some of the NOBO vloggers this year started very early and are averaging under 10 miles a day as they find their hiking-legs. There’s no rush as they are encountering plenty of water and they don’t need to hit the Sierras till after the worst of the melt.

            I doubt that would work SOBO – you’re going to hit big, snowy mountains from the get-go and the clock is ticking…



        • Andrew Skurka on June 6, 2019 at 7:14 am

          I don’t doubt that SoBo is a great experience and that it makes sense now. But if you had to make the decision in a vacuum, without factoring in the effect of several thousand other people on the trail, which is the good fortunate that PCT hikers pre-Wild had, I think there are more reasons to hike north.

          • Dahn on June 7, 2019 at 8:45 am

            Sorry to harp on this point but what are those reasons?

            North seems counter intuitive, racing a heating up desert, slogging through snow and potentially dangerous water crossings in the Sierra, re-routing through forest fires in NorCal/Oregon – through thick mosquitoes, and getting dumped on by freezing rain and snow that can stonewall you early in Washington.

            Inversely the only major obstacle a southbound journey presents is beating winter by getting through the Sierra in time. With much more predictable and stable weather patterns in relation to the Cascades, seems like the obvious choice.

            I may be missing something but NOBO just seems to be people following the norm instead of thinking for themselves.



          • Andrew Skurka on June 7, 2019 at 8:59 am

            I don’t think you’re giving full credit to the difficulties of a southbound hike:

            * Start in snow through very mountainous and remote terrain;
            * Endure the same wildfire season in late-July/August through Oregon and northern California;
            * Race winter through the High Sierra;
            * Experience similar temperatures in southern California as northbound hikers did in the spring, but with fewer reliable natural water sources;
            * Enjoy increasingly less daylight, a pattern that accelerates around Sept 21.

            Either way, there are significant challenges, and hikers have a narrow window to pull it off (but it’s not as tight as threading a needle). But overall, in a vacuum, northbound makes more sense to me.



  20. john colver on June 5, 2019 at 11:30 am

    Hi Andrew,

    Quick comment here after hiking in Yosemite this spring. Looking at Photos from 2019 and 2017, its clear that the snow at 12,000 feet and above is not as deep. The signs at the top of passes are visible in all photos this year. In May 2017, the signs were buried deep under snow. I know this is a subjective observation but nevertheless, the passes don’t look too difficult from a mountaineering perspective.

    Not being an expert thru-hiker, it never occurred to me that PCT was a hiking trail designed for novices. To me it has always been a long mountaineering expedition.

    Perhaps we need to stop viewing this through the lens of “When it’s safe for a person without mountaineering experience”?

    PCT is a big deal. JMT is a big deal. What’s surprising is that anyone is surprised?

    The drama though…. None of these passes compare to an average trade route climb of Shasta, Rainier, Hood, Baker, Adams… something which thousands of people do each year with good training and preparation.

    Sierra in May is not so difficult, as long as basic mountaineering principles are followed.

    I’m troubled by folks relying on reports, conditions, weather circumstances etc. On a Denali expedition, it’s normal to wait for days or weeks for weather to change. One sits it out, climbers take proper gear, they train hard. Apply this approach to Sierra Nevada in Spring and to the PCT in general and many people would both be successful and have an enjoyable experience.

    With snow skills, navigation skills, river crossing skills and proper gear and footwear. It’s just not the monster that the media (news/facebook/insta and bloggers) make it out to be.

    Thanks for illuminating more about what a Sierra Spring crossing entails.

    I think we have to acknowledge that for each hundred hikers attempting a thru-hike; Ten should have stayed home, thirty will flip-flop, fifty will quit, nine will make it with skipping fire-closures etc – and one will do a thru-hike.

    Perhaps the reason the Sierra Nevada gets so much attention is that it’s the crux of the PCT, but it also comes early – after only 700 miles – and it cuts short a lot of peoples (most hikers) dreams of a thru-hike.

    There is no incentive for PCTA to make it harder for folks to do the trail. The more folks attempt the PCT, the more revenue PCTA take in.

    And the PCT has become such a badge of honor, that it will continue to draw people.

    Let’s change the concept of thru-hiking to section hiking, which is what it is for most PCT hikers. For nearly everyone who is leaving Campo headed north, until the true expectation of what is required to succeed on a thru-hike, is communicated, only a small minority of hikers will make it through California.

    No vacation or long distance hike is worth dying for.

  21. Scott Matheson on June 5, 2019 at 11:46 am

    “For the sake of the trail, [the permitting system is] a good policy.”

    Maybe. Possibly the permitting system is deterring some hikers from even starting the pct, sending them to other long-distance trails – it’s impossible to know how rapidly usage would be increasing in the absence of the permitting system. But if the primary effect is to induce hikers to start earlier, and then hike through southern california more slowly, which means more campsites, more catholes etc. then the impact on southern california is increased, not decreased, as the intense use period is merely expanded into the shoulder season. I have seen more hikers this year doing half days in southern california, camping in the early afternoon, than I can recall seeing in previous years. And to the extent that hikers are flipping or waiting so as to enter the sierras at their preferred times the impact there is also not reduced. I don’t know enough to comment intelligently on the trail impact of having more hikers in the sierras early, when the trail is still buried and then uncovered but soft and muddy, although I would expect best use would mean encouraging hikers to be there in the fall, when the ground is firm.

  22. Peter on June 5, 2019 at 12:10 pm

    Is there an argument to make for avoiding the desert heat with its sun exposure and dehydration being better for your health in the long term? Of course only if you don’t die in the cold or snow and are only exposed to snow blindness and frostbite.

    Maybe it’s also has to do with recency bias as the last years were very fire closure prone and people overreacting to this now.

  23. Warner Springs Monty on June 5, 2019 at 1:20 pm

    Very good assessment of the situation.
    I have been watching hikers in Section A all season.
    We had February starts!! So far I have decided to not even hike this year.
    I usually hike 100-150 miles early then leave home (Warner Springs PCT mile 109) about May 1st for a normal snow year or less.
    June 15 use to be called Ray Day, named after Ray Jardine, as the ideal AVERAGE day to enter the Sierra from Kennedy Meadows. That is still 10 days from now for the average snow year.
    2007 was a dream in the Sierra. My favorite snow year yet. Early snow up north cut the hike short for a lot of hikers. I finished on the 23rd and the last hikers I know of finished on September 25th.
    Right now I would jump from Lone Pine to Burney Falls as I did in 2009 and Sobo as the snow melts in the Sierra. If I hit high snow, then hike north from Burney or south from Ashland and still come back for the Sierra later.

    • Andrew Skurka on June 5, 2019 at 1:34 pm

      Damn, Warner Springs Monty chiming in. Hey Monty!

      • Warner Springs Monty on June 5, 2019 at 2:02 pm

        Hey Andrew. It’s been a while.

  24. Andrew Skurka on June 5, 2019 at 1:48 pm

    Some clarification from Jack Haskel, Trail Information Manager with the PCTA:

    [The PCT Long-distance Permit system] is really a government permit that we facilitate on their behalf. It’s not a PCTA permit. The Forest Service is the lead decision-maker on the permit and they are the ones who make decisions around capping number of starts per day and other major matters like that.

    [Your original description of the permit system] could make it seem like it’s PCTA doing it, but really it’s the federal land management agencies making those decisions. We facilitate the interagency permit on their behalf.

    The permit system has a lot of nuance to it. It’s not a lottery system like what one would normally see in other permit lotteries. It still has strong elements of first-come-first-serve. It’s a bit of a hybrid but could one day become a lottery (if the agencies decide so.)

    In general, the PCT is a world-class place to do snow travel like skiing, mountaineering and snow-hiking. But just because permits are available for trips across the snow, doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea for everyone.

    One element that seems omitted: people encouraging each other to start the PCT early and/or do snow travel. There’s a strong chorus discounting the risk and challenge, and also just providing mediocre information.

  25. George on June 5, 2019 at 4:05 pm

    Andrew et al: I started following a vlog of a PCT hiker that’s pretty good. Her video technique and narration are improving. This one she and her small group are coming into Sequoia at Siberian. From then on, it’s just sold snow. Now, overall, I really, really, really dislike PCT hikers. Most of them would be happy just running on a hamster wheel. But she’s pretty good and honest about how things are going.

    This one is as they start into the Sierra at Siberian. The last #18 — within the last few days, I think — is heading out at Mammoth. It is still solid winter out there. These are pretty gnarly folks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGxQeJ1qCPc&list=PLOyEACJWUVgBCm4d3dkn-oJJzTRrp9j_q&index=7
    Looks like they came out at Mammoth a few days ago.

    Re: increase on PCT. My impression (45 years as ranger on JMT) is use is definitely increasing as a result of that movie (name gone…) and a few books. And, yes, folks here are right that the lack of experience of many is truly frightening. As I once commented on a guy who wrote a book about it: “never has one person hiked so far and learned so little.” Still, we’re not talking all that many people, even in good years. Many drop out well ahead of the Sierra.

    And, also, on the totally bright side, folks are getting out and away from their car ports and video games. That’s definitely a good thing.

    Incidentally, Andrew, you were good enough to send me your gpx file for the Sierra High Route when I was in Sequoia Kings as a ranger. I still work SARs there and we used it to map the search for the marine who went missing a few months ago. Appreciate your support!

    • Buck Nelson on June 6, 2019 at 8:35 am

      “Now, overall, I really, really, really dislike PCT hikers.”
      Clearly most PCT hikers you encountered weren’t misbehaving, so disliking them so intensely seems like a lose/lose.

      “Most of them would be happy just running on a hamster wheel.”
      Yikes. Hiking the PCT is just about the opposite of running on a hamster wheel. A hamster wheel is the same all the time, the hamster caged. The PCT changes continuously. The hiker is free to leave whenever they want. I’m guessing you think PCT hikers were hiking too fast. First of all, if a hiker leaves KM in mid June, they have to AVERAGE nearly 22 miles a day, including days off, NEROs, injuries, etc, to reach Canada three months later in mid September, before winter snow is a significant threat. That means they’ll be hiking about twice as fast as the average JMT hiker.

      Secondly, as long as they are following the rules, it’s their hike to enjoy any way they like.

      • george on June 6, 2019 at 1:17 pm

        Buck: well, if it does you any good, you’re mostly kinda sorta right about everything you wrote. Alas, from 45 years of talking to them and trying to get them to fly right, I still don’t like most PCT hikers. I don’t like their trail names, I don’t like the too-often assumed arrogance that, because they’re doing such a mammoth undertaking (and, yep, they get full marks for the physical challenge) that they have a tendency to deny their impact on the land (rock climbers are the same…); I don’t like the fact that their only interest seems to be where they are in the herd, how far to the next camp, and their general insularity from where they are. OK. No question I’m kinda grumpy about it but there ya’ go.

        Story time: a few years back, I was stationed at McClure Meadow RS and got there in mid-June. Spectacular lightning storm and rain. As the sun popped out below the cloud deck we got a double rainbow, a zillion shades of green in the meadows, and the Evolution range lit up through a rain curtain. I’m out contemplating life and rainbows and meadows. PCT hiker come rolling down the trail and we talk briefly. I tell him the river at Evolution Meadow is probably not crossable because of the rain. It was already chest deep on me the day before. Without looking at rainbow etc. he mutters “Damn, I’ll have to spend a zero day at McClure and powers off.” So, ya, I understand they’ve got to crank out mileage and, you betcha, I understand my experience need not be theirs, but jeez, you gotta notice the terrain and silence and rainbows occasionally.

        Of all the hikers I’ve talked to over the decades (tens of thousands) they — and Sierra Club groups — are the most difficult to get them to stand still long enough to listen to my brilliant pep talks on minimum impact etc.

        I now retire to my cave and gnaw on the bones of ancient grievances.

  26. Hunter Hall on June 5, 2019 at 4:39 pm

    It’s better to err on the side of caution and risk being chastised than to hold your tongue and find out someone perished as a result.

    Our culture unduly awards praise to those who proceed with unbridled optimism. It similarly scolds methodical caution and mistakenly labels it as odious pessimism.

    The fact that people die in increasing numbers every year taking selfies speaks volumes on our collective consciousness.

    Reality is your friend.

  27. Jellybean on June 6, 2019 at 9:18 am

    I think the permitting system probably does play a hand in people starting earlier. But I also think there might be an overall trend of people deciding to start earlier just in general. The PCT Class of 2020 Facebook group has a roster where people list their desired start date and the majority of them seem to be late March/early April. Often when there’s a discussion of start dates anyone who talks about starting after April 15 does so with a negative tone. Also, FWIW, if you Google “best date to start PCT” the first two articles that pop up that aren’t from the PCTA are all about why starting in March is a lot more desirable than starting in April or May. So some people might just be getting caught up in the “trendiness” of an earlier start date, which is then compounded by a permit system which doesn’t allow hikers to take weather trends into consideration.

  28. Innes on June 6, 2019 at 10:48 am

    As someone hiking the PCT currently, I think articles like these played a part – https://www.dwinsorphotography.com/april-worst-time-start-pacific-crest-trail-heres/
    https://thetrek.co/pacific-crest-trail/7-reasons-pct-thru-hike-march/

    When permitting meant people were getting early start dates, and the snow levels were beginning to become apparent, we regularly saw these posted and used to encourage early Sierra entry. It’d go along with a vague mention of the “secret season” before the melt, but no discussion of closed resupply points, May storms, winter/mountaineering gear choices or walking into an increasing melt. The level of fear-mongering in some PCT groups (historic bear attacks, videos of snakes which don’t even exist in the USA) makes it difficult to pick out legitimate advice and evaluate actual risks, so the most frequent message passed on from hikers who dealt with the high snow year in 2017 was “just get out there and see for yourself”.

    The factors you’ve identified feel correct to me – reaching Kennedy Meadows early, being surrounded by enough hikers to be unaware that you are ahead of the bubble, a lack of knowledge and experience. But on that last point I want to highlight that it isn’t just about being unaware or ignoring expert advice or failing to research – it’s that the sheer volume of information and misinformation makes it so easy to start the trail without much experience, and then so difficult to learn and evaluate levels of risk.

    I’ve currently hiked through as far as Kearsarge Pass, and while the section from Kennedy Meadows to here felt very doable last week in the early mornings with short mileage and careful navigation, there were certainly things I’m concerned about. I’d read that avalanches were generally a lesser risk in Spring in the High Sierra compared to other places I’d hiked, but we were routinely seeing evidence of runs and collapsed cornices, and through the afternoons were hearing and actually watching avalanches and large runs of snow. The “trail” of footsteps at the moment goes straight over avalanche fields, under/on cornices and directly up streams along weakening snow bridges, but once you’re hiking it’s incredibly difficult to take the decision to deviate from it. While I’m with a generally snow/risk/avalanche aware group who’re taking the time to make plans and backups, having hiked the trail prior to the Sierra aided by apps like Guthooks gives you so much momentum that it’s hard to pause and reconsider. The culture and feeling is that you can just keep hiking, and that you have to, because winter in Washington will eventually impose a deadline. And the trail is insular – you meet few other mountaineers who might otherwise potentially question what you’re doing.

    As you said, the vast majority of us will make it through regardless. It’s hard to express levels of risk that fall short of “you’re all definitely going to die”. But I hope the next question after “Why are PCT hikers already in the High Sierra?” will be “Where do we start in helping future thru hikers, with vastly different experience levels, to make informed and realistic risk assessments?”

    • Andrew Skurka on June 6, 2019 at 11:45 am

      This is really thoughtful and insightful, thank you for sharing.

    • george on June 6, 2019 at 12:56 pm

      As the major melt starts up high as of the last day or two, your dangers are going to be high water and collapsing snow bridges. The latter is not trivial. There are a handful of hikers over the last few years who have gone through snow bridges and injured themselves or died. Quite often, you don’t know there’s a small stream below you until you punch through.

      At least two rescues I’ve been on that was the case. One died (couldn’t get out of the stream tunnel, probably died of hypothermia) the other survived but only by an absolute miracle. She got washed downstream, punched one hand up through the snow which happened to be seen by the only 2 hikers going by that day, who dug her out. And you’re right about folks commenting/warning but not knowing terrain. So, anyway, evaluate and plan accordingly… .

    • Darren Mason on June 6, 2019 at 1:34 pm

      Thank you for sharing your experience and all the best to you on your hike! I think your comments about information vs. misinformation, it is really hard to decipher if you are a) not an experienced hiker b) don’t know how to identify a “trusted” source(s). I’m an analyst by nature so I spend an inordinate amount of time researching things beforehand. I had a small window for the JMT this year, but required a start sometime in June and there’s no way I’d attempt it given the snow levels this year.

  29. Innes on June 6, 2019 at 2:48 pm

    Right! Even for someone with the knowledge to identify information which is trustworthy and relevant to their situation, there’s a huge amount of work just in filtering out noise. For anyone without that knowledge, it becomes impossible. Like many (a very sizeable percentage) I’m from Europe, and the challenge is in trying to work out how the environment here matches situations I’ve been in before, and the important ways it differs. And no matter how much research is done before the trail, there’s a lot which can’t be entirely decided until weather, snow levels, other hikers and road closures are clear – and that’s going to mean planning on trail, from patchy internet on a mobile phone. It’s a tricky situation where it’s so easy to end up unaware of just how much you’re unaware of.

  30. Gwendolyn Alley on June 6, 2019 at 11:16 pm

    I did California in 1985 and OR/WA in 87. Memorial Day in 80 I was in Reds when it snowed a foot– and we cancelled our backpacking trip. In 85 on the PCT, we were in Reds just after Memorial Day, and people were concerned about the snow. I had 10 years mountaineering experience — lots of time in snow in Colorado. We were fine but it wasn’t easy.

    For the past 8 years or so, we’ve been skiing at Mammoth; it snowed like crazy this past Memorial Day and I kept thinking about hikers. I’ve spent some time on trail in the past 8 years and I really worry about people who think they know what they are doing when they don’t even have maps. They just don’t have the experience in the mountains. I want to be supportive but people need to do at least one shakedown in snow!

    And to the person with the hamster wheel remark: when people ask me about the PCT and training I tell them if they can do 20 miles on a HS track and then want to go back and do it again the next day, they have a chance — it is a lot of psychological as well as physical.

  31. Hikermom on June 7, 2019 at 11:46 am

    Ugh, the PCTA was sharing various avalanche conditions with pics to warn their hikers on their instagram story, the very next story I saw was The Trek PCT account pacificicrest.trail story with hikers posting jokes in the snow about fear mongers.They are also crossing with an ice axe – and microspikes! Some of their bloggers are deleting warning or negative comments. Others who are blogging for them also cited “fear mongering” in Kennedy Meadows and how they were so brave for not listening. I think a lot of the typical mantras that adventurous types embrace are dangerous in these conditions. I don’t see a ton entering the Sierra though, and hope most heed the warnings. Another tried flip flopping up north but is heading back down to try it. Restless Kiwi on youtube has gotten through most of it safely, and hasn’t really encountered others, although she may be ahead of the bubble. Andrew, you just did an interview with The Trek folks, you might want to give them a call if you have any influence. The snow bridges will be gone and the melt will start ravaging.

  32. Payphone on June 7, 2019 at 4:35 pm

    I have to agree with Dahn and disagree with Andrew, going southbound makes a lot more sense. I did it in 2017, a big snow year in the Sierra, slightly above average in the Cascades and it was fantastic! I started in the first week of July, there was almost no snow in Washington, no rain, and the flowers were in full bloom. By the time I got to Forester Pass, there was a snow storm on September 20th, but the snow melted after like 4 days. Besides that, it was perfect hiking conditions the whole time. I could describe myself as an average thruhiker, doing 20-25 MPD in good conditions, so I would highly recommend going Sobo to someone who can commit to do these kind of MPD. My biggest challenge was to meet all the NOBOs in Oregon!!! Yes it was getting dark in October in the Desert, but at this point, you can relax, hike shorter days and go to town more often, no big deal. The water situation was also not that bad, just plan accordingly.
    But the big plus for me was that it was much more quiet than a typical Nobo experience, so don’t listen to me, go Northbound! 🙂

    • Geoff on June 7, 2019 at 6:52 pm

      Hi Payphone –

      Interesting, but I don’t see how the math works out, especially with such a late start. Terminus to Forester is around 1860 miles, and you got there in around 80 days. So you averaged 23 miles a day overall. Even if you took just 1 zero a week you must have been averaging 27 miles for your on-trail days. Not a problem for the likes of Andrew, but pretty damn grueling for an old crock like me, even if conditions were good.

      Either I’m misunderstanding something, or you’re being rather modest when you describe yourself as an average thru-hiker. Can you enlighten me?

      • Payphone on June 8, 2019 at 5:21 am

        Hey Geoff,

        I only took 2 zeros and 3 neros between the Canadian border and Forester Pass. It took me roughly 90 days, so if you average 22 mpd it’s possible to go Southbound and still have great conditions.
        Once in the Desert, I had a more relaxed pace though.

  33. Geoff on June 8, 2019 at 6:41 am

    Payphone – pretty impressed that you managed 90 days with only a couple of days off trail!

    But I suspect you have the right idea. A lot of walkers seem to go for punishing 30+ milers, but then they leave the trail to recover and party.
    Shorter days but with fewer zeros is probably kinder on the body, provided you are strong enough mentally to keep it up with so little time off. And it keeps you immersed in nature, which is the whole point, after all.

    I guess another key is to carry a bit more food and minimise long trips off-trail to resupply?

    Personally I enjoy a bit of snow, so I’d probably try to start a couple of weeks earlier if conditions allowed. That would give a little more breathing space on the way down to the Sierras.

    And as you say, once you’re into the desert the pressure is off. I positively enjoy night walking, especially in good moonlight, so the shorter days wouldn’t be so much of an issue for me.

    I’m not taken by the idea of the NOBO bubble – I prefer a bit of solitude. And as you point out, in years with big snow in the Sierras it may often be the safer option anyway. Plus I’m assuming that permits are less of an issue?

    So perhaps SOBO really is viable, even for a decrepit old crock like me. Thanks for the heads up – you’ve really got me thinking…

  34. Payphone on June 8, 2019 at 7:09 am

    Geoff- Hiking at my pace of like 22-25 mpd without pushing and minimising time off-trail worked for me. I chose resupply towns/business that were on or very close to the trail, and a few times I chose to carry 7 days of food instead of hitchhiking 20 miles to get to a town and come back.

    You’re right about the permits, you basically give your starting and finishing dates, and you got it.

    Also, there’s a great website you could check:
    https://www.pctsouthbound.com/

  35. atlantis_hikes on June 11, 2019 at 12:22 pm

    Andrew, thank you for mentioning me as one of the first to go into the Sierras this year. Actually, I was THE FIRST one.
    Let’s get some things straight:
    – On May 24th, I was in Lassen NF.
    – I arrived in Mammoth Lakes May 3rd.
    – I left Kennedy Meadows on April 24th.
    – Until Mammoth Lakes I only carried microspikes and hiking poles, no ice axe, no snowshoes and no crampons.

  36. Hap Henley on June 14, 2019 at 10:56 pm

    Andrew,

    I’m a big fan of your backpacking advice and your writing style. I’m currently attempting a CDT thru-hike.

    Based on my pre-hike research, I thought I might be able travel on top of the snow (until about 1pm), if I waited to hit the snow in the first week of June. That strategy does not seem to be working this year based on my experience and reports from other hikers. It seems the snow is not yet of a consistency to traverse it even in the early morning without post holing.

    Do you think the snow conditions I was describing will happen this year in CO? Or is this year different because of the late winter and large amount of snow?

    • Andrew Skurka on June 15, 2019 at 11:48 pm

      It should happen, but it was a delayed spring so the snow has not consolidated like it normally would have by now. Sorry, must be frustrating. Keep pushing.

      • Hap Henley on June 16, 2019 at 6:49 am

        Thank you Andrew.

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