2017 Sierra High-Water Crossing Advice From Someone Who’s Hiked Through

The following is a guest post which originally appeared on the Facebook PCT 2017 group page, courtesy of Daniel Winsor. Daniel’s post addresses the challenges of creek crossings, and near-misses of two 2017 PCT hikers on the Mammoth to Sonora section.

This section was difficult, there’s no way around that fact. Creeks and rivers are swollen, making trail crossings almost entirely unusable. But there is almost always a safe way to get through it. Let me make one thing perfectly clear: Mammoth to Sonora Pass is NOT unavoidably dangerous.

What happened to Hiker I at Return Creek was harrowing, scary stuff. But he crossed at the trail crossing, which was swift water that was waist deep (or deeper). Not 200 yards upstream, we crossed a short, slower section of knee deep water. Safe, easy, and secure. The hiker was also alone, and guys who had hiked with him knew he wasn’t great (mentally) with crossing creeks.

Hiker II is no doubt a strong hiker, and it was both surprising and rattling to hear how traumatizing her experience was. But while hiking down that creek, she walked past four or five snow bridges, the last one being about 1.7 miles from the trail crossing. After arriving at the trail crossing, she made the decision to cross at a sunken, collapsed log with swift water moving over it, rather than walking back up to the snow bridges. She was alone. Apparently there were footsteps leading to and from that crossing, but let’s clarify another fact: Just because someone successfully crossed somewhere, that doesn’t mean it was safe. The hike back up to a snow bridge and back down would’ve been ~3.4 miles, along with some mild elevation gain/loss. Almost nothing for a hiker as strong as her.

Different decisions would’ve led to dry (or close to dry) crossings for these two. Poor decisions almost killed them.

The Sierra section is as dangerous as you make it. There’s been at least six successful crossings of this section so far, and more hikers are out there now. Here’s how those hikers were successful and stayed safe.

1. Don’t be limited by food

How long is Mammoth to Sonora? 110-ish miles, right? Nope, not right now. You’ll spend miles and miles hiking upstream to find the perfect crossing, then back downstream to the trail crossing. As snow bridges continue to disappear and heat waves swell creeks even more, you’ll be hiking even further. I brought 12 days of food with me. If I did it again, I’d bring 13 days. With the high temps this week, you might want 14 days of food. You are in a BAD place if you’re staring across a dangerous crossing without the food margin to go hike upstream to a safer crossing. Don’t skimp on your food. My base weight in the desert was 11 pounds. I left Mammoth with over 50 pounds on my back. Ignore the UL backpacker in you and be prepared. Carrying a couple extra bags of instant potatoes is worth not dying. You’ll just have to trust me on that…

2. Creek crossings in swift water above your mid-thigh are dangerous.

Don’t do them. That height varies from person to person. If you don’t feel comfortable crossing with everyone else, keep hiking upstream. Do NOT give in to peer pressure or the trap of “Well they did it, so can I!” This is YOUR life you need to protect, so take control. Your decision of where to cross will dictate whether you end up safe on the other side, or end up being swept away, stranded, injured, or much worse.

3. Solo hiking can be a poor decision.

But if you find yourself alone, you need to assess the worst case scenario. If you go down, have to ditch your bag, and end up standing there soaked, alone, with no navigation, food, or shelter…. You’re in trouble. Hiker I made it out, but narrowly. Being solo, you’d better hike your lonely ass as many ridiculous miles upstream as you need to until you find a knee-deep or lower crossing. You should pack a disaster kit and find a way to attach it to yourself. This kit would ideally be a dry bag under a rain jacket with a day of food, navigation tools, and a jacket inside. Those items are at a MINIMUM. You’d just follow your footprints back? On a warm day, they’ll be gone in hours.

4. Know all of your crossing options.

When you get to a creek, walk upstream. Then turn around a walk downstream. Saw nothing you like? Walk further upstream. Know every single crossing option within two miles before you stop and discuss which you’re going to choose. If you keep walking upstream, you will find a crossing that will make you breathe a sigh of relief. Every single creek out there starts as a trickle you can step over. Go find it. It’s remarkable that every creek we crossed was very easy to walk along either side for miles and miles. Go walk uphill and enjoy some of the most beautiful creek drainages on the damn planet.

I could go on, but these are the biggest points to stay safe out there. I never got wet above my mid-thighs. I never felt uncomfortable at any crossings. I spoke up when I did feel uncomfortable, and I did what I needed to to maintain control of the situation at all times.

The mountains are truly heartless. They’re big, beautiful, and care absolutely nothing about whether you’re strolling along in a forest or dead in a ravine. That leaves your health and safety up to your own decision making. Make poor decisions, and you’ll deal with the potentially fatal consequences. Make good decisions, and it’ll be relaxed, fun, and easy.

Sometimes the difference between death and a simple wade is literally a five-minute walk uphill. Think about that. Drastically different consequences for such little effort.

I want to reiterate that I feel incredibly bad for the two hikers who had such terrifying experiences. I’m not trying to rub salt in any wounds. Even though it was their own decisions, those were some horrific ends to hiking in such a beautiful, remote paradise. Their side has been told though. The Sierra is a dangerous death factory… should be shut down… yada yada yada.

It’s not.

Be prepared, not afraid. Go study my creek crossing section of my website. Screenshot it, print it out, write it down, memorize it… do whatever you have to do. But that information will ensure you stay safe if you use it. I really hope it’s helpful.

Good luck out there, and stay safe.

Feature image and videos courtesy Daniel Winsor. Post has been edited for clarity and to protect hiker’s identities. Daniel’s photography and more information can be found here.

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Comments 7

  • Kerry "Scribbles' Smithwick : Jun 22nd

    Thanks for this great post and the link to your creek crossings – I’ll be taking this along in ’18.

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  • Leon Wise : Jul 17th

    Great post, and thank you for the advice! I’m doing the JMT this summer, and seek advice for the best footwear for water-crossings. My brother, also on the trip, thinks that we would be best to buy a pair of crocs shoes, or similar, to have as both camping shoes and river crossing shoes. My gut tells me that the trail shoes will be fine to perform a river crossing, and will dry out sufficiently soon after. Any advice would be much appreciated! Thank you kindly.


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