"Impassable is a State of Mind"
1998 ranked among the three snowiest years on record in the High Sierra during the last 25 years. All that snow had a disruptive effect on 1998 north-bound thru-hikers. This article will provide a little of the flavor of what it was like to thru-hike in a big snow year.
First, some background. Jenelle and Chris set out from Campo on April 26, 1998 and finished their hike at Manning Park on September 22, 1998. They were the 4th and 5th hikers to have made it straight through from Mexico.
During the winter, they had been following the snow reports and had become increasingly concerned. Poring over the data via the internet, they would think, "What the hell is snow water content?" and "Well, 180% doesnt seem so bad. Maybe it will melt." Adding to their concern was Ray Jardines published advice that if the snowpack exceeded 200% of normal (which it was in most of the High Sierra during April 1998), one should postpone their hike till the next year, or - failing that - "that you not start until late May, that you prepare to hike many miles of snowpack in southern and central California, and that beyond the High Sierra you press ahead with a will in order to finish before the early-winter snowstorms hit the North Cascades." However, Chris and Jenelle decided to stick with their April 26th departure date. They didn't want to wait until June and hike southbound, and the idea of hiking home (they lived near Stevens Pass) was appealing.
Rays advised that hiking in heavy snow years was really winter mountaineering and beyond the scope of his book. How bad it could be?
Their first evidence came during their flight from Seattle to San Diego on April 25th. The flight path took them directly over the Sierra. They could see Mono Lake and Mt. Whitney. "Is this where we're going to be hiking in a few short weeks? Look at all that snow," they said to each other.
Their Journey Begins
At 9:20 a.m. on April 26th they set out: excited, nervous, anxious, but confident. There was no snow at Campo and not a single patch of snow in the Laguna Mountains, which gave them hope. But they read hiker register entries, dated a couple of weeks before, that mentioned some hikers were on snowshoes.
It wasnt until they climbed over the shoulder of Combs Peak (map B3 in the S. Calif. guidebook) that they got their first good look at the San Jacintos. "Gulp! Damn, there is a lot of snow there!" They would be there in about 2-3 days.
Unseasonable storms ran them off the Desert Divide into Idyllwild prematurely and after waiting for 3 snowy, rainy days in Idyllwild they made our way back to their bail-off point and continued north. Chris' journal entries for May 8 - 10:
They continued to have poor weather on and off, all the way to Kennedy Meadows, including an 18-inch snowstorm in the San Bernardino mountains near Mission Creek Trail Camp on May 13th and several other days of really severe weather. The storms were remnants of the El Nino cycle, which didnt really release its grip on Southern California until mid-June.
The High Sierra
They arrived at Kennedy Meadows on June 10th and spent four nights there waiting for the weather to improve. They made a foray into the Sierra to see what conditions were like. The majority of other thru-hikers had decided to skip this section, going to somewhere in northern California or flip-flopping (hiking south, from Canada). The hand-wringing, nervous speculation, and endless debates about what to do had consumed a lot of thru-hiker energy over the past couple of weeks. It was a nauseating topic.
The weather patterns had settled down by the 13th, and on the 14th, with a new hiking partner, Randy (a section hiker who had started at Tehachapi Pass), they left Kennedy Meadows. They were carrying six days worth of food and their plan was to go as far as Trail Pass and then depending on their progress, continue to Cottonwood Pass or (the best case scenario), continue to Crabtree Meadows, over Trail Crest, and resupply in Lone Pine. Within the first half-day, they met two hikers who said that plan didnt stand a chance.
They knew of only two hikers who had left Kennedy Meadows heading north ahead of them. One was only going as far as Olancha Pass, where he would hike to Highway 395 and flip-flop. The other hiker was an experienced nordic skier and had skis with him. They felt certain he was out there ahead, which offered them a degree of irrational comfort. He was about a week ahead. (They later learned that he had only traveled about two days before deciding that solo-traveling was not a good idea and flip-flopped).
Before setting out from Kennedy Meadows, they contacted a backcountry ranger at the Lone Pine ranger station. The ranger informed them that there was 100% snow coverage in the high country, but that the snow was "bomber," (i.e., in good condition for traveling). Avalanche danger) was their major concern. They knew they'd struggle (post-hole) badly if the snow was unconsolidated. The rangers information turned out to be quite accurate. While the PCTA (and many, many others) were telling hikers that the Sierras were still impassable, they found the hiking strenuous and slow, but quite doable. An excerpt from Chris' journal describes the conditions from Kennedy Meadows to Kearsarge Pass:
On that first leg from Kennedy Meadows they exceed expectations and made it all the way to the Kearsarge Pass cut-off, where they headed out to the Onion Valley trailhead, resupplying in Lone Pine (where they had sent their drift box). Unfortunately, the Onion Valley road had just opened and had very little traffic on it. They had to walk 8 (of 15) miles down the road before catching a ride into Independence.
After a couple of days rest in Lone Pine, they decided to continue north along the PCT, rather than flip-flopping. They made an 8-day leg to Reds Meadow, where they hitched out to Mammoth Lakes for more rest and another resupply. Chris' journal entries for the passes north of Kearsarge:
The snowy trail continued in earnest after Reds Meadow and the snow level actually dropped the further north they went in the Sierras. While there was little snow on the ground in Tuolumne Meadows, there was still plenty in the Yosemite backcountry and all the way to Sonora Pass. Their worst river fords came between Tuolumne Meadows and Falls Creek, where they had several deep, chest-high crossings. A couple of the hikers, both ahead of and behind them, reported having to inadvertently swim on one or two of the crossings. Thankfully, they were able to scout for logs on a few of these crossings. A few times they had to bushwhack along the streams some distance, crossing miles upstream, where it was safer. By this time they became comfortable with not having a trail to follow. They had experienced little exposed trail over most of the High Sierra.
Their last long stretch of snow wasnt until shortly before Belden (map M10 in the Calif. guidebook) at approximately 6,800 feet, though they had encountered drifts and snowfields on and off all the way through the Marble Mountain Wilderness in northern California.
Despite all the mental stress and hard work, the snow-covered Sierras were beautiful, vast and awe-inspiring. The physical hardships, the exhaustion, and the frustrations of constant route-finding, were rewarded by solitude, views that few thru-hikers see, and by the reassuring knowledge that they were still heading north to Canada. They wouldnt trade the experience, and suggest that future thru-hikers (with adequate skills) consider taking the PCT on its own terms, even when conditions are difficult. Not that theres any "right," "better," or "best" way to hike the trail, but there is perhaps a little value in continuity and accepting the challenges of the trail as you find them.
Chris and Jenelle reside in Leavenworth, Washington, where they work for the Forest Service. You can read more of their journals and view other information about their hike at their website.