Fearmongering the Sierra

It can happen on any part of the PCT, about any part, really.

Every year partway through the desert the discussion and dilemma begins. Will the Sierra be passable when we get there?

A wise hiker would do research online when possible, and ask people along the way who would have the right information. However, whether you choose to do this or not, there is a deluge of (mis)information coming your way. The trick is to separate the wheat from the chaff and to find the needle in the haystack.

Signal vs. Noise

I have found several criteria common to advice that I deem to be fearmongering. Not that there are not some elements of truth to the advice, but it needs to be taken with a large grain of salt. When information comes this way, I treat it with skepticism.

It’s Unsolicited

Typically bad trail news will come unsolicited. You can be minding your own business in a hostel or at a trail angel’s house, and someone will come up to you and start warning you and telling you how terrible things are going to be.

It’s Always Bad

Nobody will randomly come up to you and tell you how easy the trail ahead of you is. And there’s a lot of easy trail. Confirmation bias.

It’s Not Timely

Lots of bad news that falls into the fearmongering category is also not time sensitive or immediately useful. For instance, a volunteer at Agua Dulce (mile 454) will start warning you about ice conditions on Forester Pass (779). When you’re at Agua Dulce you probably have three weeks before you get to Forester Pass, so how useful is the information really?

It’s All About Them

Whether it’s the volunteer at Agua Dulce or the outfitter at Kennedy Meadows, the bad news they deliver serves mostly as a way for them to show off. The actual info they share ends up being secondary and serves as a vehicle for them to brag about their own exploits. They are the former Triple Crowners, they are the ones who used to teach mountaineering classes years ago, or they are the ones who sell cleverer maps.

They Offer No Alternatives

Fearmongering advice is long on the bad news and short on alternatives. You will hear a lot of scary stories, but those who are delivering the news offer no help. “The passes are bad right now,” they will say, three weeks before you get there. What’s the alternative? Not hiking? In this example, if you ask about flipping north, they will counter with even more doom and gloom.

What to Do

There’s nothing wrong with educating yourself on the trail conditions ahead. You should. But trust yourself, trust your trail family, and trust your gear. You know your limitations, or you should by the time you got to mile 700. Don’t be afraid to turn back or to seek alternate routes. To quote Scout, make wise decisions. Also remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. Be the tortoise, not the hare.

Don’t let anyone scare you or crap on your hike.


Check things like the snow and ford report on http://pctwater.com.

Postholer has a neat graph here. Although again, depending on who you listen to, that graph is crap because Postholer is “just a number cruncher.”

Educate yourself; ask people. Talk to southbounders, shop owners, anyone who might know. Use online resources. Text your trail friends who went ahead. I find that when you seek advice, you’re going to get better data.

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