The Sierra Nevada is getting a bunch of snow this winter, and that is mostly a good thing. The drought that has lingered in the Range of Light, and the surrounding environs east and west, has been among the worst on record. The rain and snow we’ve gotten this year has pretty much pulled everyone out of drought (although it has only scratched the surface of refilling the aquifers). In years past, at about this time of year, I’ve published an article about the advantages and disadvantages of a low snow year. This year, the situation may be the opposite. (Keep in mind that it could stop snowing at any time, and if we were to get some warm rains in the spring, much of the snow could be gone pretty quickly.)
If the snow keeps falling, or even if what we have persists well into spring, here are some obvious and not-so-obvious ways it may affect your hike.
More Snow. The JMT spends a lot of time in the high country and goes over eight major passes. Unless things change pretty drastically in the next couple of months, you are going to see a lot of snow in June on the majority of the trail, and quite a bit of snow in July. Snow is hard to walk in, is a little trickier to camp in, and makes navigation many times more challenging. Although I would never suggest it, if you put 100 hikers at Happy Isles on a low snow year, and didn’t give them a map, compass, or guidebook, probably 98 would make it to the summit of Mount Whitney. If you put those same 100 on the trail this June, I doubt any would make it. Navigating in the snow is hard because you can’t see the trail. Unless you have really advanced navigation skills, walking this trail in the snow can be dangerous. Remember also, that all this navigation takes time — your three-week trip could easily take four or more.
More Water. The most obvious is that there will be more water. That can be an advantage, because the more water you have along the trail the less you have to carry. If you read the article at the link in the first paragraph, above, you’ll find a list of dry stretches you might expect during a low-snow year. Most of these will likely not be a problem in 2017. The most convenient source you will be able to depend upon is Sunrise Creek — a source that may come into play on your very first day out of Happy Isles.
More water means more stream crossings, which can be dangerous. Especially if you are going to hike before August, I would seriously consider getting some training on stream crossings. Even if the crossings are more benign, they are going to be more frequent. In past trips I have never carried separate footwear for stream crossings; I’ve only had to take off my boots once, at Evolution Creek, and it didn’t make much sense to carry separate shoes for one crossing. (By the way, the hiker in the video link does not use the proper stream-crossing technique; you should undue your hip and sternum belts.) If you are intending to hike in July, some footwear for crossing streams may be a good idea. If you are going to try in August, try to get some reports from the trail before deciding.
More Mosquitoes. Not only more mosquitoes, but mosquitoes later in the year. In the past few years, by mid-July, you could walk most of the day without the risk of exsanguination. Not true this year! Make sure the insect repellent and head nets are on your packing list. Also, pick your nightly campsites a little more carefully; a spot away from the water with a bit of a breeze could really help.
Wildflowers. You will have one thing going for you as you swat bugs: the wildflower season should stretch well into July! Be sure to bring a guide on your smartphone so you know what you’re looking at!
Good hiking, Ray