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Getting an early start for the PCT

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Getting an early start for the PCT

Postby sirlight » Thu Mar 17, 2011 8:25 am

I was out last friday (march 11) doing a very short overnight backpack to Morena Butte. It's only a few miles south of lake Morena, right off the PCT about 20 miles north of the border.

I met a young guy with his gal heading north on the PCT. They said they were planning on doing the whole thing. Of course I asked him if he was aware of the snow issues he would encounter this year. He said they were shipping snowshoes and other winter gear north for when they hit the snow. They were planning on taking their time and fishing along the way. They were NOT ultralight backpackers like most of the thru hikers tend to be. Was a little concerned when they asked "do you know of any good places to camp around here?". If I was doing a hike of that magnitude, I would certainly have at least the first few days campsites burned into my brain!

This really got me thinking about the advantages (and difficulties) of getting such an early start in a year like this. Of course, you must have the skills. It will be slow going through the snow. You will beat all the crowds, and can take your time and enjoy the trip. You have plenty of time to reach Washington, with little fear of snow problems there.

Wishing them only the best in their trip!



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Re: Getting an early start for the PCT

Postby Wandering Daisy » Thu Mar 17, 2011 8:42 am

With this year's snowpack, snow is going to be an issue no matter when you start. IF you have excellent snow travel skills and equipment an early start may not be a problem. I find that full-out late spring conditions are easier than late-melt conditions. However you must have skills at a mountaineering level and experience. Snow covered passes are very steep and you must have an ice axe and be able to stop a fall immediately. You must also be very good at navigation. Mountaineers often prefer snow. A few years ago there was a big Memorial Day snowstorm. New snow would make things more difficult. If this couple were only experienced in trail backpacking, then they are going to be in trouble. If your impressions are correct, this couple's lack of skills, not the snow per se that will be the problem.

I think a majority of thru-hikers are NOT experienced mountaineers, so try to avoid snow. Plus if you need to make 20+ miles a day, that just is not going to happen in snow. However, if you have the skills and equipment, and a plan that allows slower travel, it certainly can be done - it is just a whole different ball game.
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Re: Getting an early start for the PCT

Postby sirlight » Thu Mar 17, 2011 8:52 am

The impression I had was that this couple were experienced backpackers. No idea about their mountaineering experience. Hopefully the experience they have will convince them to bail out (if possible) when conditions get bad. If my calculations are correct, they should be hitting Big Bear right about when another storm hits this weekend.
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Re: Getting an early start for the PCT

Postby hikerduane » Thu Mar 17, 2011 8:26 pm

We're getting hit again up north this week with rain and snow. The Middle Fork of the Feather River, close to where I live, is 8' over flood stage I read. Heard Kirkwood ski area has received over 500" of snow so far this year, I haven't checked their site for a month now since WD posted a link. Should be interesting. I'll be home tomorrow, so I'll get to see how the creek across my property did this week while I was off to work.
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Re: Getting an early start for the PCT

Postby East Side Hiker » Fri Mar 18, 2011 9:40 am

Unless there is significant snowfall - which can happen anytime, but especially early in the season - there will be a trail through the snow made by the early adventurers. I'd say the main problem will be going over passes (the other being crossing snow covered fords, i.e. the Mortenson situation). Do the gnarly passes early in the morning.

By the time one gets to the Sierra, its later in the PCT season. I believe that many people have had trouble in the San Bernardino's, San Jacinto, and the San Gabriel's early in the season.

The snow this year, as last, will be a factor in many places for many months to come, but when you're determined to be on the trail and have a goal to achieve, be safe, go as slow as needed, and enjoy it with a wandering and positive frame of mind.
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Re: Getting an early start for the PCT

Postby John Dittli » Sat Mar 19, 2011 11:02 am

Perhaps they will leap frog and come back to the Sierra later, somewhat common with PCTers.

But as WD said, traveling in the spring can be a real joy with the right equipment. One can ski from Forester Pass to Vidette (a half day walk for many) in about an hour.

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Re: Getting an early start for the PCT

Postby hikerduane » Sun Mar 20, 2011 4:35 pm

It snowed just about all weekend where I live at close to the extreme northern end of the Sierra Nevada at 4000'. For many years, the snow around my place is melted off by April 1. The Daffodils have not had a chance to come up, but when the snow is gone, I imagine they will be there poking out of the ground.
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Re: Getting an early start for the PCT

Postby DoyleWDonehoo » Sat Mar 26, 2011 2:06 pm

As most experienced people know, it's not the spring to summer snow that is the big deal. I have done many great hikes over consolidated late spring snow. It's the runoff that is the problem, and easily the worst danger at that time of year. Some of the most inconsequential mid season stream crossings can some years be near impossible or at least inadvisable early season. The worst Sierra PCT spots will be, for example and not exclusively, Wallace and Tyndall creeks, Middle Fork Kings River, Evolution Valley Creek, Bear Creek, Pocket Meadow, Matterhorn Creek and the potentially the worst of the bunch, Kerrick Creek (and many of the ones after that over the next 10 miles). I am sure there are others I have not mentioned. I don't think this will be a great PCT year. There is so much snow up there that is going to run the streams into late season, and push the mosquito season into August.
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Re: Getting an early start for the PCT

Postby kpeter » Tue Mar 29, 2011 9:15 pm

I'm wondering what those crossings and passes will be like by the last week of July. In a normal year, that is usually pretty safe, but this is not a normal year. I'm planning the North Lake to South Lake loop then, and am beginning to get worried about stream crossings, Bishop Pass, and the like.

I guess a lot will depend on whether we have a very warm April/May to get the high melt started early.
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