Sierra On Track for Record Snowfall This Year—Here’s What It Means for PCT Hikers
How Does Current Snowpack Compare to Previous Years?
Current snow levels are well above average—they’re even higher than they were in the historic 2017 and 2019 seasons. In 2017, aka “the year of fire and ice,” PCT hikers were postholing through feet of snow in the Sierra well into July. It’s likely that hikers can expect similar conditions in 2023.
According to current data from the California Department of Water Resources, statewide average snowpack was 196 percent of average on February 10, 2023. In comparison, the statewide average snowpack for the same date in 2017 was 180 percent of average.
In the Sierra, current average snowpack is also higher than it was at this time in 2017 for the Northern Sierra/Trinity, Central, and Southern regions. Postholer.com, which specifically tracks snow conditions on and near the PCT corridor, says that trail snowpack in the Sierra is 263 percent of average for this date.
Hikers should be aware that regions south of the Sierra have seen higher snowfall this season as well. Sections of trail to pay extra attention to include Mt. San Jacinto State Park (Idyllwild) and the areas in/near Big Bear and Mt. Baden-Powell.
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Hikers should be prepared to carry microspikes for several sections of trail this year. After losing his son Trevor in a tragic accident in southern California on the PCT, Doug Laher created the Trevor Spikes Program to give discounted spikes to PCT hikers. You can buy your discounted pair of spikes here.
Carrying an ice axe for the Sierra—and high-elevation sections further south—would be wise as well. Make sure you know how to use an ice axe, including how to self-arrest. REI offers mountaineering courses for beginners. If a course isn’t offered where you live, you can also try reaching out to local guiding companies and alpine clubs for advice. Social media and Youtube are your friends, too—just make sure the advice you receive is from an expert.
Another thing to consider is that a high snow year could result in deeper, more dangerous stream fords, particularly in the Sierra. Make sure to research this subject ahead of time so that you’re prepared to make safe crossings.
Unpredictability of Snowpack
Something important to keep in mind is that snowpack is unpredictable. For example, record-breaking snowfall in the Sierra in December 2021 had much of the hiking community convinced that 2022 would be a high snow year. However, those heavy December snows gave way to the driest January and February on record, which led to worsened drought conditions and an increase in wildfires that summer. The Sierra ended the 2021-2022 winter with just 38 percent of average snowpack.
That sort of dramatic turnaround is unlikely to happen this year; statewide average snowpack to date is already 140 percent of the average for April 1, meaning that even if it were to stop snowing today, 2023 is certain to be an above-average snow year. Even so, winter is far from over.
March snowfall could still have a big impact on overall levels—and the final snowpack will, in turn, affect hiking conditions well into summer, having the potential to temporarily alleviate drought conditions and reduce the risk of wildfires.
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