The Sierras: A Day in the Snow

Somehow we find ourselves out of Kennedy Meadows after two zeros and waiting for packages to arrive. The desert feels far behind me and grassy meadows turn into mountains that tower upward as we hike above 10,000 feet of elevation daily. This year, more than any other year, the snow has piled over the trail, making a simple walk in the woods turn into a bit of mountaineering mix with whacky slippery sun cup-filled miles. So while you pack your cooler to hit the beach this summer, I pack my bear canister and embarked on a portion of the snowy trail that majority of PCT hikers decide was not worth going into just yet.

Alpine Start

At 2:30 a.m., my alarm goes off, giving me one hour to pack up. I get dressed into my morning hiking clothes under my sleeping bag to stay warm: long johns with rain pants over it, tank top, button down, fleece vest, and my puffy. I estimate it to be around 25-35 degrees at this time of the morning. Gloves, hats, and shoes get put on immediately before leaving my tent. I boil water to make instant coffee mixed with chocolate breakfast essential mix for protein. This beverage turns into jet fuel. I take a protein bar and put it into my pants so it can warm up enough that I can actually bite into it. The group’s headlamps shimmer off the snow while we pack up silently to ourselves. 3:30 a.m. I’m swallowing my last bit of bar and we have all congregated now taking off our top layer because once we start walking our bodies will be too warm. Runway is the most experienced in alpine guiding and probably because he’s the oldest he is always our morning navigator. He can look at the map for ten seconds and keep us on track for a mile in the dark before needing to reference the map again. So the rest of us fall in line put our heads down and follow our Runway. 

The going is fast and easy, since at this hour the snow is solid and we just keep walking till we see the sunrise, briefly admire the pink and orange hues, and continue walking again. We want to walk as much as possible before noon because around 10:30 the snow starts melting and our pace of about two mph turns into one mph. The morning is my favorite part of these days; I’m energized, not beaten down yet, and excited to see the color get put back into the mountains and melt into the sky. My least favorite part of these mornings is when you get to a stream before my body heat could get to my feet and we’re taking off socks and shoes to step into snowmelt water that can be waist deep. 


The sun feels like a ticking time bomb, every moment of rest early on is double the amount of moments of struggling hiking later. Threats of sun cups, sunburn, slippery mounds, and ‘no fall zones’ over passes grow. For you lucky people who don’t know what sun cups are, allow me to explain: Sun cups are open depressions in an open snow field. Normally wider than they are deep, they form closely packed dips with sharp narrow ridges separating smoothly concave hollows. The easiest way to walk on them is on the ridge so you don’t need to step down and out of each hole. Once it warms up, the ridges grow weak and your foot may break the thin ridge or slip off the top, and your foot falls into the hole anyways. 

The sun is above, the snow is below reflecting the sun, and all around you are mountains covered in snow, it begins to feel like I’m in some sort of magnifying glass. The only skin I have showing are my hands. I keep a buff over my face, long sleeves, and pants on regardless of how hot it becomes because sunburn in these conditions will happen within 15 minutes. Dipping under trees is a blessing so I can peel that buff away from my face and breathe easy, but the trees come with their own issues. The snow is not level here, so instead of going smoothly over a trail, I go up and down these mounds of snow built up between trees. During the day most of us choose to heel ski down approximately one to three feet while keeping balance on the back of our heels. Lastly, a no-fall zone is when you are going up over a mountain pass, it’s barren at these points, and if you were to have a foot slip out you can potentially fall 2,000 feet down a slope. This is why we all carry ice axes to self-arrest if a slip were to occur. We all have crampons (shoe traction devices with metal spikes) so the chances of slipping out are much lower. Most traverses we’ve done have been low risk, high consequence, and been overall easy for us seasonal ski bums. 

When lunch rolls around it’s hard to keep it short. We’ve been up for hours and all want to nap. Again and again, we make the mistake of taking too long of a lunch and struggle rolling into camp at our estimated goal time. 


Depending on our day, we can roll into camp anytime from 3:00-8:00 p.m. We try camping at lower elevations so it might be warmer and more likely to find dry patches amongst the snow to pitch a tent. After getting sedated by Knorrs pasta sides and Benadryl, we crawl into our tents, warm and proud of making it maybe 12 miles that day. 

This all seems absolutely miserable, but that is not what I want the takeaway from this post to be. It’s surely hard and unlike any other hiking I’ve done before, but every single day I say, “Another day in paradise” (not sarcastically). I am walking within a national park that I virtually have to myself and my three friends. These mountains are the most beautiful things I’ve laid my eyes upon. It feels as vast as the ocean with waves of rock frozen in time. I get to experience all four seasons in a day; the long day of summer, the swelling streams of spring with plants freshly starting to bloom along the edges, the winter wonderland of snow, and that early morning chill that feels like a fall October dusk. This experience is truly unique and I feel lucky enough to be with the people who are all strong enough to take on this portion of trail with me in a record snow year! In real life, if I need to go to a “happy place,” this is the type of place I imagine. Another day in paradise is probably an understatement.

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 1

  • Jackoftheforest : Jul 20th

    Sierra is already plurlized in Spanish. The Sierra


What Do You Think?