Secret Sierra Season Part One
Kinda proud of this title not gonna lie…
Information about conditions, my lessons learned, gear, and things to consider before making the decision to enter into the Sierras (especially this year).
I am writing this post with the intentions of telling my stories/experience in the Sierras and lessons that I learned. My goal is to share, inform, and educate for anyone who is thru-hiking this season or in a future high snow year.
First and foremost, I am no mountaineer (although after my time in the Sierras I feel a lot more like one). My experience might be different than others and what I learned might also differ. I am only trying to relay what I learned out there and safely encourage others who are struggling with decisions this season (because it’s a legendary year out here!!!!)
I am writing this in a Part 1/Part 2 way because of the copious about of information there is to relay and consider. I will split this up with ten points in this article and ten points in the other.
1. Desert to Snow Gear Changes
I didn’t make a ton of gear changes but it’s important to think about this upon arriving in Kennedy Meadows.
My pack weight went up to about 35-40 pounds upon leaving Kennedy Meadows. That weight is nearly 40% of my body weight and I can’t quite sustain more than that. With nine days of food carry I was almost maxed out.
I added a sleeping pad for extra warmth, crampons, an ice axe, my bear can (BV 450), extra clothes for warmth (and waterproof layers). I shipped forward my microspikes, camp shoes, warm clothes, and anything extra that I could live without to get that pack weight down.
I wasn’t willing to spend much more money on getting more gear, but some was necessary. I used trash bags for waterproof socks, and carried a smaller bear can because that was all that I had. You can do it cheap with small and intentional modifications.
Some people around me went in with just microspikes and that was a real red flag for me because the crampons (although heavy as HECK) can reach the consolidated snow layers when spikes cannot. I saw others go in with snowshoes (which some people swear by) and also with skis. The crampon/ ice axe combo was sufficient for me for the sections that I completed, but there are many approaches you could take up there.
2. The Talk of the Town
The Sierras have quite literally been the talk of the town this year. It’s been a historic snow year with the Sierras almost at 300% of average snowpack.
The general vibe at Kennedy Meadows was positive. If you were prepared, the feeling was that you should give it a try.
I wanted to see what the Sierras looked like for MYSELF and I am very pleased I did instead of just listening to fear and paranoia. I learned how capable I am as I was hiking in those mountains, and I never would have found that out if I hadn’t taken the leap to GO. It’s the epitome of “hike your own hike”.
Everyone has different skill sets, experience, and risk management. I would caution anyone to never get yourself into something that you can’t get yourself out of, which was a principle I heavily carried with me into the Sierras.
3. The “Sierra Secret Season”
There is typically a goal to get to Kennedy Meadows and enter on “Rae Day” on June 15. According to Backpacker Radio Podcast #193, Ned Tibbits talks about the entry for the Sierra in a year like this to be like a “bubble floating on a river” and you don’t have an exact date when it will be the time to go in.
I believe I caught the timing at the end of the “secret season”- snow bridges still intact, the freezing temperatures were still occurring at night making the snow consolidated, no fresh powder, and boot tracks left by hikers before.
Although us early season hikers have been through a lot of bad conditions thus far, March might have actually been the perfect time to start this thru-hike to get to the Sierras. The rivers are gonna be out of control (and already are)… but more about conditions later.
4. Team Meetings and Research
Let me start by saying that I am #BLESSED with the best group. I quite literally owe my life to these people. There were there for me and we encouraged one another so well when it got hard to take another step or when our worries got the best of us.
When we reached lone pine we took a zero and did diligent research. We each took a topic and had a four hour talk over dinner about each topic. We researched conditions, planned mileage, read far out comments, and asked people ahead of us about conditions. We looked into river crossings, safety/health concerns, snow camping, emergency situations and contacts.
The most impactful thing we did was created “accountabilibuddies” and we asked each other how we can be there for one another when we need encouragement. We were with that person through thick or thin and it was a wonderful time of bonding before we entered in not exactly knowing what to expect.
5. Group Dynamics
Like most people on the PCT, I started alone. In a normal year, you can complete the trail alone. The joy in the trail is meeting people and forming those bonds, but you of course can do it alone. There is an awesome statement that says “Go alone, go fast- but go with others, and go far” which I truly resonate with.
In the Sierras- you go with people. Going in alone is possible, but in my opinion, very dangerous. The possibilities of a tragedy are much higher. Navigation, compromised morale, and just overall safety are at risk.
Even with the people around me I heard horror stories of people getting left behind, lost, and miscommunication that ended with confusion and frustration. Having a good group is what can make or break your experience. Have experienced people in your group, and have good communication. More importantly, have a BLAST out there- if the morale is good it makes the hard miles a million times better.
6. The Schedule For Success
Hear me out… being nocturnal is a blast; And it’s so worth it up there.
By waking up at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. you are giving yourself the best possible snow conditions for your day. It awesome to be done in the afternoon and nap and hang out with your group.
The snow is crunchy and consolidated in the early hours. As the season continues the freezing temperatures will cease to happen, but it’s still better than slushy snow.
It’s not about the ambient temperature outside but rather when the sun hits the snow it becomes slushy. It creates a time sensitive routine in the day- it’s a race against the sun to get good conditions.
Although it’s hard to wake up that early, it’s so rewarding. Give being nocturnal a chance.
This is a big challenge in the snow. There is no trail and you are having to make your own path. Sometimes there are boot tracks and sometimes there is not.
Far Out is absolutely incredible- following the red line can be dangerous. The once dirt path on the steep slopes is no big deal, but cover it in snow and it can become treacherous.
You have to know how to look at the trail, look at the landscape, elevation, and general surroundings to make a decision on where to step next. Postholing and sun cups are threats to your path as well.
In regard to rivers… following the red line is nearly impossible. The path often crosses a creek where the livestock/wildlife do as well, which doesn’t mean that hikers should cross there. Walking upstream and surveying creeks are essential, especially in the Sierras. Which brings me to my next point…
8. Water crossings
Water crossings are always a big deal (especially if you are small like me). They are especially important to be ready for up in the Sierras- they are bigger than they have been on any other part of the trail.
Creek crossings are easier to accomplish in the morning when the water levels are low. It’s especially important to be smart about crossing in the Sierras because hypothermia is a concern and huge risk.
This was a big reason of why I wasn’t willing to continue further into the Sierras… the water crossings were too big for me. Once they are above your knees, your center of balance is compromised and you are essentially swimming.
Thankfully there were many snow bridges that were still intact in the sections that I walked though. Snow bridges are important to scope out and assess if they are able to cross. Hit them with your trekking poles and step lightly. Look around to make sure that if you fall through one you won’t get sucked into a section of the river that is under snow where you will not be able to get out.
We spent HOURS trying to find the best place to cross one creek. We searched up and down the creek assessing the best downed tree options. Logs are icy in the morning, the water is freezing, and the snow melt has made these creeks full to the brim. There are bridges that are down in the Sierras due to the raging creeks.
Not to mention… there are creeks under the snow and you could post hole right through to one. Being aware and alert is of utmost importance.
9. Planning for the Sierra Weather System
Afternoon storms are like clockwork out here. The clouds roll in the afternoon and it’s so lovely to be in your tent when that happens. It’s yet another reason to get up in the night and start hiking so you can be done in the afternoons.
The weather is absolutely unpredictable. There are apps and recourses that can be quite accurate, but you really never know. It’s important to be prepared for anything. Having enough recourses to be able to wait out a storm up there could be lifesaving.
The snow that can fall can leave fresh powder which isn’t ideal for steep icy slopes. I am by no means a snow expert (at all) BUT I did learn a lot about snow layers and how they can change. It’s an awesome thing to learn by experience and by being immersed in your environment.
Don’t rely too heavily on weather apps- use good judgement, expect storms, be prepared for weather (rain, hail, snow).
This will be my last point in this article. Your mindset will be key.
Do frozen shoes in the morning suck? Does the threat of dehydration because all the creeks are under snow suck? Does going only ten miles in a day in difficult slushy snow suck? Yes, these all do. And many more things about the snow are annoying and difficult.
BUT- Will those mountains take your breath away? Will the team you are with make you smile and laugh? Will this experience grow and change you? Yes. And it’s so worth it.
Go in there with a positive mindset. Be prepared and smart and ready for the worst, but know that you can do it. Be ready for hard and long days. You will be tired, hungry, and exhausted. But oh those views will be spectacular and you will remember this experience forever.
I will have 10 more points in my part 2 article!!!!!
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