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backpack late season in fall

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backpack late season in fall

Postby SSSdave » Thu Sep 17, 2015 8:45 pm

Responses to current thread "Trip advice for October" is now going beyond the specific advice asked about that was Pioneer Basin and Emigrant Basin. A general discussion on recommended late season Sierra Nevada trips has value because each fall we receive similar questions and some of the time those doing the asking have dangerous ideas. Additionally not all the advice from members is all that wise so it would be worthwhile to suggest some guidelines and provide some examples of what to and what not to do. Back in August 2010 I posted in the thread "Sierra high country in October" the following thread that I just happened to look back up because someone writing a book on the PCT emailed me about usage rights which I gave permission for.

I don't see High Sierra in October as pleasant even on fair weather days. And November is much less so. Days are short, nights tent bound are long and chilly. Every morning ice forms on brown turf and many northern exposures are shadowy all day with remnant white snow dustings from the last early front passing. The sun is at a much lower angle even at noon so it doesn't warm up that much. Smaller streams show dried watercourses often leaving long trail stretches without water. Permanent streams are at their annual minimum flows with ice crinkling and breaking during morning along any shady bank edges. Vegetation is all dried and drab brown leaving evergreen pines and firs the only green. High country terrestrial insects have all long since hatched, lived, reproduced, and died so most birds have left for warmer climes leaving an eerie silence about vast distances. Even rodents stay in their burrows nibbling unseen on their summer larder. Deer have left the high country to eat berries at mid forest elevations. Trout readily gobble any underwater object that wiggles while ignoring the lifeless lake surfaces. Experienced backpackers and climbers are scarce too while a few novices ramble up trails proclaiming how great it is that they are alone even on popular trails. Clear skies give way to growing afternoon clouds. In the evening stars appear then later ominously disappear with a whine in whitebark pines growing each hour. One awakes in the we hours and a new sound is tinkling on one's tent. One contemplates on being really alone and why this is so.

For over 3 decades I've been rambling about our mountains and for much of those years fall has been a favorite event because as a color landscape photographer the Eastern Sierra aspen groves can be a thing of beautiful wonder. For many of those years outside of Sierra locals, only small numbers of people bothered to make the long drive to those areas each year as it was not until the rise of digital cameras and the Internet Age that most photographers and "leaf peeping" visitors began to take notice with Carol Leigh's Calphoto site sparking much of that early interest. Of course the last decade those areas have seen multitudes suddenly making the pilgrimage. From about the third week of September through fourth week of October is the period where I visit those groves and after that work mid and lower elevations of Sierra western slopes for scattered Pacific dogwood, bigleaf maple, black oak, redbud, willow, and black cottonwood. And as an enthusiastic long time resort snow skier, have keenly watched early winter storms move in to start that favorite winter activity. By late October we've seen a couple feet of snow at higher Tahoe resort elevations. All this over years has given me a keen sense weather and conditions about the range during that period.

During one fall, first week of October, a dry continental cold front with just a little snow came down just as another large format photographer friend and I had driven over Tioga Pass for a few days working the groves. We spent that night down bags atop foam pads out in the open in the Mono Lake Basin near the SR167 junction that is below 7k elevation. Temperature that night got down to 3 degrees Fahrenheit and the next morning the gauge on the outside of our Subaru got down to zero out along SR120 at Mono Craters. Folks, you just don't mess around when temperatures get that low. Over the years see snow at higher elevations above 9k on most week long trips and at times down below 7k. The following feature shows a snow depth map for a storm October 10, 2013. Notice how significant areas received over 8 inches and look at some of the snowy pictures then think about trying to follow a trail in snows that deep.

http://www.davidsenesac.com/MonoFall_20 ... _2013.html

Such snowstorms are almost never a surprise for a weather savvy person in this Internet age though an average person that relies on watered down mass media forecasts is asking to be misguided. Anyone out during these periods needs to be familiar with the NWS technical forecast discussions from the Reno and Hanford offices. Some basics and believe me there is much more. In fact there are whole books on coping and backpacking during winter.

The longer one's trip the more chance a forecast will change.
Any front that is forecast to only go as far south as Oregon can easily surprise and end up moving down over the Sierra.
Check the jetstream forecasts> http://virga.sfsu.edu/crws/jetstream.html
Bring warm clothes as nights and early mornings are certain to be at a minimum frosty. And that includes headgear and gloves.
Wool is good.
Bring shoes that won't soak up water from walking through snow during the day and freeze overnight, impossible to push a foot into.
If backpacking, and a storm threatens, stay overnight below 7k. If one is above 8k at night especially off on dirt roads and snow starts, get up, break camp and drive down lower, lest one might get stuck a while.
The best plans start at trailheads below 7k especially on paved roads and not dirt roads with destinations that one can directly descend back to the trailhead in just a few hours if necessary without having to climb over higher ridges or passes.
Last edited by SSSdave on Thu Sep 17, 2015 9:05 pm, edited 2 times in total.



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Re: backpack late season in fall

Postby rlown » Thu Sep 17, 2015 8:50 pm

you forgot to tag this with #rant. I don't get your style. historical means nothing at this point. It is what it is.

Look at the weather coming in relative to your plans. Don't go if it sucks. If you go, have an exit plan.
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Re: backpack late season in fall

Postby zacjust32 » Thu Sep 17, 2015 9:56 pm

SSSdave wrote:Such snowstorms are almost never a surprise for a weather savvy person in this Internet age though an average person that relies on watered down mass media forecasts is asking to be misguided.


I get the liability of giving people advice late in the season, but this #rant seems somewhat personal. I agree with Russ that common sense and information are greater than simply not going.
Hiker, adventurer, fabricator, tinkerer, theologian, and occasional student. http://www.zacjust.blogspot.com
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Re: backpack late season in fall

Postby Tom_H » Thu Sep 17, 2015 10:25 pm

I appreciate the post. Maverick has to organize way too many search teams looking for people who made mistakes in judgement or just don't know what they are doing. I completely agree with your sentiment. If you don't have the right gear and also know what you are doing at that time of year, consequences can easily be fatal. So thanks.
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Re: backpack late season in fall

Postby Wandering Daisy » Fri Sep 18, 2015 7:47 am

I also do not think this post is a "rant". Regardless of weather forecasts, some facts hold: daylight hours are short, sun is low, nights are colder, your pack is heavier because smart people take shoulder-season gear vs. summer gear. Personally, I prefer to do day-hikes in October, and return to my car-camp where I have more comfort, more artificial lighting, and if needed, external heat (can always get in my car and turn on the heater), and an easy bail out. Additionally a sudden snowstorm in October can be the start of winter and not melt. If caught in an early Sept snowstorm, you can wait it out and it melts in a day or so, sun comes out, and you can dry off. I agree that the weather (climate) is warming and our fall season is extending a bit, so comparison with historical conditions may be a bit off. Although that early onset of winter may be more infrequent now, it still can happen. And yes, weather forecasts can be wrong.

Nevertheless, if you are one of those "love the cold and winter" types, it would be wise to seek some winter camping experience and have gear that is appropriate before venturing out on a long, over the divide trip in October. It is not my "cup of tea" (hey- I moved to California from Wyoming to get away from this type of backpacking!) but can be done relatively safely. There is safety in numbers too- better to go with a group vs solo. Having a PLB is not a guaranteed rescue- in continuous poor conditions rescuers may not be able to get to you in time.

I do not think SSSDave is talking to the experienced shoulder season backpacker - he is addressing the relative novice to these conditions. If never have been caught in a late season snowstorm, it is a shock the first time to realize how miserable you can get quickly and how inadequate your gear can be. My introduction to these conditions was with a group of very experienced climbers who saved my sorry self. Next time I came prepared.
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Re: backpack late season in fall

Postby oleander » Fri Sep 18, 2015 8:01 am

If people are going to call Dave's post a "rant" - I say it is a most gentle and appropriate one. :thumbsup: Thank you Dave.

As I start to plan this year's possible fall trip(s), I could use these reminders about how to adjust my destination choices, equipment, and expectations.

- Elizabeth
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Re: backpack late season in fall

Postby WarrenFork » Fri Sep 18, 2015 9:13 am

zacjust32 wrote:
I get the liability of giving people advice late in the season, but this #rant seems somewhat personal. I agree with Russ that common sense and information are greater than simply not going.


Exactly. The OP in the thread in question asks about an overnighter, not ten nights on Roper's High Route. NWS point forecasts in that time frame are extremely reliable and obviously if the weather looks at all marginal you adjust your plan accordingly. I have always found October to be one of the most pleasant times to be in the backcountry, whether on day trips or longer outings.
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Re: backpack late season in fall

Postby WarrenFork » Fri Sep 18, 2015 9:57 am

Tom_H wrote:Maverick has to organize way too many search teams looking for people who made mistakes in judgement or just don't know what they are doing.


I know a lot of people who are active in Mono and Inyo SAR and I don't think this is accurate. He's known for putting together an ad hoc search for Larry Conn and more recently a couple of unofficial groups seeking to recover the remains of Matthew Greene. Larry Conn may have made mistakes in judgement but he was very experienced in the backcountry. Matthew Greene was an accomplished climber with lots of time in the backcountry. Since no one knows what happened to him it's impossible to say if he made mistakes or was simply the victim of bad luck---rockfall, for example. But he definitely knew what he was doing. I met Matt's father when he was out here a couple of years ago to search with one of the longtime SAR members and we talked about his son's climbs.
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Re: backpack late season in fall

Postby Hobbes » Fri Sep 18, 2015 12:23 pm

Growing up in the Bay area, then moving to SoCal for college and staying, I learned that every A-list place in Calif has their respective prime time. Here are some general observations:

- Early fall (eg Oct) is best spent along the coast in NorCal. You simply will not get better weather in Carmel, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, etc. So why go to the Sierra? Why not take a drive trip from SF to Big Sur with plenty of stops & day hikes?
- Late fall/early winter is when SoCal (literally) shines. Santa Barbara, Malibu, Laguna & La Jolla can be unbelievably perfect in Nov-Dec. We make last minute strikes depending on whim.
- In a normal year, Jan-Mar is typically when the ski season really gets going.
- April - tell me, who doesn't know that Apr is when to hike/hang out along the coastal range? Flowers, green green grass, absolutely perfect.
- May, June & July are my favorite times in the Sierra. Long days, no fires, no people (May), brilliant blue skies with blinding white snow capped peaks - it's all there.
- August - get out of the state - anywhere as long as you're not stuck here.
- Sept - the best beach weather in SoCal.

So why force the issue? Who schedules a beach vacation in SoCal in June when chances are it will be depressing & foggy? (It's not called June Gloom for nothing.) Likewise, who vacations in SF in Feb when it will be cold & wet? Or, worst of all, who goes to Disneyland in August? Some kind of masochist? Every dog has his day - you just gotta know when to go.
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Re: backpack late season in fall

Postby Mike M. » Fri Sep 18, 2015 1:02 pm

I appreciate sssdave's words of caution about-late season adventures in the high country. I personally enjoy fall hikes, especially because there are so few people around. But you have to come prepared (in terms of clothing and equipment) and have a bail-out plan. Not a good time to go ultralight.

Mike
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Re: backpack late season in fall

Postby KevinDo » Fri Sep 18, 2015 2:39 pm

Good advice! Thanks!

I personally love going out to the sierras in october and November but always do trips that have a bunch of exit areas in case something goes south ie like this past week where we got snowed on around Ireland lake!
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Re: backpack late season in fall

Postby schmalz » Fri Sep 18, 2015 2:45 pm

I did an early fall trip up to Finger Lake last year and it felt like summer the entire time outside of the short days. For short trips, it's possibly the nicest time of year as long as the weather is favorable.
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