I’m no meteorologist, but everywhere I turn I read that this year could be a big snow year for the Sierra Nevada. If true, what does that mean for John Muir Trail thru-hikers?
Later Start. It’s not impossible to hike the JMT in snow – Galen Rowell skied much of it one year – but it takes a substantially greater set of skills (and lots more equipment) when there is lots of white stuff on the ground. Walking is harder and, perhaps most daunting, good map reading and navigation skills become an almost constant requirement. In the past few years we’ve grown accustomed to a June, or even a late May, start. Lots of snow will preclude that from happening for the vast majority of hikers.
Fewer Permits. There won’t be fewer permits per day, but there will be fewer for the season, if the season is shorter. That will make scoring one of the exit quotas for Donohue Pass even more difficult.
Trickier Stream Crossings. We’ve all gotten spoiled with the easy stream crossings over the past few years. With the exception of the Evolution Creek, most people have walked the entire JMT without getting their feet wet. If we get lots of snow early season hikers are going to need to brush up on their stream crossing skills and perhaps even time their crossings for early in the morning, before the heat of the day has swollen the streams to the point that they are dangerous.
Later Mosquito Season. Did you hike mosquito-free in July last year? Don’t expect to do that if there is substantial snow on the ground in June. August could even be a time where DEET is absolutely necessary.
Possible Transportation & Resupply Problems. If we get so much snow that it persists well into spring (and summer?), or if what snow we get comes late in the season, it can complicate getting to the trail and arranging resupply. If you are approaching Yosemite from the east, the Tioga Pass road may not open until late. The average opening date in the past four years has been the 6th of May, but the overall average is May 27th, and there has been at least one year when it didn’t open until July. If the road is closed a resupply at Tuolumne Meadow is impossible. The opening of Red’s Meadow can also come late if there is lots of snow, as can the transportation options from Red’s Meadow into and out of Mammoth Lakes.
The Sierra Nevada is in desperate need of snow – lots of it. I think we’re all hoping for huge amounts (with no spring flooding, please). But a big snow winter can also have a big impact on your JMT hike planning.
Good hiking, Ray
Great article Ray! In 2011 I remember being eaten alive by mosquitoes even during the first week of September.
The greatest hazard in a big snow year is stream crossings. In decades past, even the calm Evolution Creek crossing has been very hazardous, with swift, cold, and deep water. Hiking poles are absolutely essential in those conditions. I agree, hikers need to brush up on stream crossing skills and safety protocol.
On the positive side, through hikers can glisade down many of the passes. Fun and fast!
Thanks for the comment, Ken. There are several places where one should take place. Coming off Silver Pass, southbound, is another.
Thanks for the info Ray. I’m a new hiker so stream crossing is an area I’m trying to learn about for safe crossings.
There is lots of good training out there on the web, but nothing can beat actually doing it. I’m a big fan of Ned’s Mountain Education. Thanks for the comment!
Always enjoy your posts Ray. With the recent uptick in snowfall in the Sierras do you think late May start dates are essentially off the books this year? Looking to be at least an average snowfall year. I know PCTers brave the Sierra snow in May regularly but that’s not your typical summertime backpacker. I currently hold a May 17th permit that will have me avidly watching snow pack and melt throughout the spring Thanks for the input.
Great question, Caleb, and if I was forced to venture a guess I would say that a late May JMT hike would not be recommended unless you were fully equipped with the skills, time, and equipment necessary for lots of snow. Lots could happen between now and then, though, so your approach of waiting and watching is probably best. Thanks for the comment!