Each year’s thru-hike poses unique challenges. Some year’s hikers may grapple with drought, or wildfires. This year? It looks like our biggest challenge will be snow.
The first 700 miles of the hike are mostly in the Mojave Desert, but then, beginning at Kennedy Meadows, we’ll be in the Sierra Nevada range, traversing peaks and valleys above the snowline.
On this chart, the green line indicates how much snow is currently on the ground, blue is the historical max as of April 1st, and black is the average. The orange line overlying the yellow elevation line (which corresponds to the righthand Y-axis) shows where there’s snow cover on the ground (it’s almost everywhere)! So that’s what we’re heading into!
We’re expecting to hit this point of the trail around the end of May, so some of this will have melted. All this snowfall also means water will be plentiful! The snow will be mostly consolidated, underfoot, so we hopefully won’t spend too much time postholing in deep snow- that wonderful moment when you think you’re on solid ground, and suddenly your foot breaks through several feet of snow and you’re up to your waist in snow. One day of this is one thing, but postholing day after day means your average speed goes down, your caloric needs go way up, and it takes longer to get from town to town. All of this means you need to carry more food, which is more weight, which is another thing that requires more calories. It can be tough!
To help cope with the snow, we’ll each be swapping out one of our hiking poles for a Whippet- a hiking pole with a small ice ax on the end.
We’ll also have Microspikes to stretch over our shoes, for traction!
Both of these will be invaluable if we lose our footing on some of the more treacherous passes. Before we reach those, we’ll be practicing using the Whippet to do self-arrests, as demonstrated in this slightly harrowing video:
The other danger caused by snow is a secondhand effect- as the snow melts, the streams and creeks that flow all over the Sierra range get higher and higher. This is great news when we want fresh water to drink, not so great when we have to ford every one of these creeks.
This is from 2011, the last notoriously high snow year. It looks kind of terrifying, but we have some bits of advice we’ve gathered that we hope will carry us through:
- Unbuckle the hipbelt of your pack before crossing, so if you do get knocked over, you can get out of your pack without it dragging you down.
- Look for an exit route- an easy place to clamber out of the water if you do get swept downstream.
- Face upstream, so your knees are sturdy against the current.
- Use your hiking poles to find sure footing and for balance.
- Cross creeks in the morning, as less melt overnight will mean lower water.
- If it seems treacherous right where the trail meets the creek, walk upstream to find shallower or slower-moving water.
- Cross as a group, link arms for balance. Have the larger person go first (sorry Tim!) to help break the water for those following.
Of course, it’s one thing to learn these things by rote and another to execute them successfully in the real world. We can watch videos and take notes for now, but at some point we’re actually going to have to *do it*. When the unexpected happens, that’s when, we hope, this mental preparation will come in handy.