[pct-l] Snow Questionaire for pct thru hike finishers

Singewald singewald at earthlink.net
Tue Sep 26 01:07:55 CDT 2006

Warning this response to Ned's survey questions is lengthy.


I would be happy to share some information related to your survey questions.
I would preface this, however, with the following:

My departure date from KM was June 9th this year.  At that time there were
less than 20 people that had departed KM for points north.  My plans also
included a direct hike between KM and VVR without re-supply.  This goal was
not met however for several reasons of which I will share in the context of
the survey.  Much of the southern Sierra was completed prior to the
significant melt-off that began around June 15th.

> In light of your snow and ice challenges:
>     - What would you say was the best method of traveling over the  
> snow and handling the icy stretches? (snowshoes, boots only,  
> runners only, ice axe, crampons...)

I made a decision that I would not change my footwear during my Sierra
crossing.  I stuck with my Brooks Adrenaline ASR Trail Runners and had no
problems whatsoever with this decision.

I chose to ship my snowshoes home from KM rather than bring them along for
the ride.  My decision was based on previous experiences of snowshoe travel
in areas with significant sun-cups.  The sun-cups were substantial both in
size and depth and were nearly everywhere where tree-cover was at a minimum
and the pitch of the grade was below 4%.  There were some sections where
snowshoes would have been helpful, but I am comfortable with the decision I

I chose to carry a lightweight ice-axe (Camp XL 210) and the ULA In-Step
crampons for additional snow-travel protection.  I did have previous snow
travel experience and felt that this additional protection was well worth
the small increase in pack weight.  For the most part, I did not encounter
any solid ice and therefore did not have a significant concern with the
inability of lightweight ice-axes to get solid penetration while traversing
an ice field.  The lightweight ice-axe would not be a good choice if you
were to encounter hard ice of any significance.  The aluminum head does not
lend itself well to cutting steps in hard ice either.  Again, for the
conditions I faced (consolidated snow and minor ice) the lightweight axe was
sufficient for climbing, traversing and descending.  The in-step crampons
were ideal as they were lightweight and they were simple to put on and take
off as needed.  They provided an additional level of traction that a
trail-runner just can't provide.

I typically made an effort to time the summits for early to mid morning.
While this decision typically put us on the climb before the sun had a
chance to hit the slopes for an extended period of time it allowed us to
maximize the time on the north-facing descents where post-holing was your
worst enemy.  This did not always work though as we had significant
post-holing on a number of descents. 

>         -  which was the safest, most injury-free?
>         -  which allowed you the most miles?
>         -  which kept you the driest?
>         -  were you glad you had snowshoes?
I traveled with two other thru-hikers through the Sierra and we remained
injury-free throughout.  Our ages ranged between 45 and 57.  We initially
hoped to average 17 miles a day between KM and VVR however, we quickly found
that this was very aggressive given the amount of snow we encountered.   We
averaged approximately 10-15 miles a day between Forrester and Muir.  The
long downhill descents sometimes took as long as the ascents.  I am not
certain that there is a way to make thru-hiker type mileage in the
conditions we faced.  One simply needs to adapt and adjust to what the trail

Staying dry?  During the majority of time that I spent in the Sierras,
staying dry and warm was not a significant issue.  With snow and water
run-off at the levels we encountered this year, you can assume that you will
be wet.  Fortunately, though the temperatures during this day were typically
70-80 degrees.  I found that with the exception of that first hour in the
morning (and I always started at 6:00), I wore only running shorts and a
short-sleeve shirt.  I would slip on my rain/sliding pants for creek
crossings or glissades as they provided an additional barrier.  Shoes will
be wet, that's a given.  My shoes were wet nearly full-time from Chicken
Springs Lake to Sonora Pass.

>     -  How many of you were injured in any way while on snow?   
> (strains, sprains, cuts, infections, submersions, hypothermia,  
> overexposure, dehydration, blindness, cramping, weight loss...)
As I mentioned earlier, no one in my party of 3 encountered any significant
injuries in the Sierras.  We had several scrapes and bleeders as a result of
post-holing against rocks though nothing serious.  We had one SERIOUS mishap
during the ford of Kerrick Canyon.  I will cover this further under another

Weight loss was a major issue for me.  During my thru-hike, I lost 31 pounds
(starting weight was 192).  I lost nearly 18 lbs in the Sierras alone.  This
was in part however, due to a decision to begin conserving food because my
hiking partners were running low on food and it was my hope that through
sharing of my food we could make it to VVR.

>     -  What techniques worked best for stream crossings?

We encountered numerous creek crossings on a daily basis that were both
dangerous and difficult.  This was by far the most dangerous aspect of
traveling through the Sierra at this time of year.

We utilized the same plan on every occasion but one and that was the
crossing of Kerrick Creek when we had a MAJOR mishap.  In summary; when we
would reach a creek ford, we would first check-out the on-trail ford and
than we would search up-stream and down-stream for 100-200 yards to
determine if there was a safer alternative.  Once we decided upon the ford
location, one of us (either Larry or I) would test out the ford.  We would
typically take off the pack and than ford the stream.  If successful the
tester would re-cross the creek and than share advise with the others before
heading back across.  As we had one smaller female in our group, Larry and
Sandy would frequently cross the more difficult streams in tandem with Larry
"breaking water" on the up-current side.
>         -  any troubles with clothes drying out?

Clothes (with exception of shoes and socks) typically dried out after creek
crossings fairly quickly as we all utilized a type of "quick-dry" fabric for

>         -  what worked on your feet while crossing?

We never attempted to cross creeks in either bare feet or camp shoes.  We
always crossed with our shoes on.

>         -  anyone fall mid-stream and how did you get to safety?

The mishap on Kerrick Creek occurred when Sandy overconfidently began
crossing the on-trail ford without any preliminary scouting or testing.  She
was swept off her feet within the first 7 feet of the stream.  Fortunately,
Larry and I were able to race downstream on our side of the creek and fish
her out nearly 150 yards downstream.  We were fortunate that the rocks and
current pushed her towards our side of the creek as we were unable to get
more than a few feet into the current to rescue her.  There was no doubt
that God was watching over her that day.  This could have easily been
avoided by sticking with the scout and test plan that we had utilized on
many previous occasions.

>         -  any lost gear?

Yes, Sandy lost her poles on this creek-crossing mishap and I lost one pole
while attempting to toss a pole back to her after I crossed the creek.
Kerrick Creek accounted for three of our lost poles.
>     -  How many miles a day was realistic?

Once we reached Forrester Pass, we averaged 10-12 miles a day.  We did not
make it to VVR as planned.  As we neared the final "bail-out" opportunity
over Bishop Pass it was clear that we would not have enough food to reach
VVR.  We hiked the 12 miles over Bishop Pass and spent several days in town.
When we returned, the conditions had improved significantly as the melt was
really in full force at this point.  There was a noticeable difference in
just 3 days.  From Muir Pass north our daily mileage picked up to 15-20
miles daily.
>         -  did you have a strategy for accomplishing your miles?  
> (passes/streams   early, really early starts, simply long days...)

We did not change are strategy much in terms of start time.  We typically
awoke at 5:00 and hit the trail by 6:00.  We typically camped above 10K on
pass days in hopes of reaching the pass by 9:30-10:00.  We found that we
took far fewer breaks during the Sierra crossing.  I believe this was simply
due to the slow travel and the need to make mileage.
>     -  Were you prepared for how hard it was?

I was prepared mentally and physically for the conditions however, it became
obvious at Glen Pass that my partners were not prepared for the difficulty
we encountered.  It was draining both mentally and physically as it was
difficult to ever "let your guard down".  Even with this difficulty, I would
not have chosen to have it any other way.  It was different; both in beauty
and in challenge.  It was not the standard cookie cutter crossing of the

>         -  how would you help the next class understand what to  
> expect?

Wow, good question.  I would encourage future hikers to practice with and
learn how to utilize a compass and map to the point that it is very
comfortable.  We encountered nearly 80% snow coverage from Chicken Springs
Lake to Donahue Pass.  In these conditions it is important that you feel
comfortable traveling without sight of the trail using map and compass.  We
purposely chose not to carry a GPS as we all wanted to make the traverse
without the aid of a GPS however, these devices can be very beneficial in
conditions such as they were in 2006.

Be realistic about mileage and be prepared for a significant drop in mileage
in a higher than normal snow year.  Be aware of your "bail-out" points along
the trail in the event that you need emergency supplies.

And most importantly, unless you are adamant about going solo, identify and
select at least 1 (preferably 2-3) hiking partner to cross the Sierra with
before leaving KM.  You should select someone with similar goals (straight
thru to VVR or go out via Kersarge Pass, climb Whitney or pass on Whitney,
ect.).  Similar hiking ability is not a key as long as the stronger hiker is
willing and able to adapt to the less-skilled hiker.  It is actually a
benefit to the less-skilled hiker to travel with someone that is more
>     -  Did you have enough food?

I left KM with 12 days of food and a plan to make it through to VVR.  My
hiking partners left with 9.5 days of food.  When we reached the Bishop Pass
trail, I believe I had sufficient food to reach VVR however my partners did
not so we bailed out over Bishop Pass in order to keep the group together.
It wasn't our plan but we adapted to what the trail offered and it was
important for us to stick together as a group.

>         -  which worked best, Hot meals or Cold?

The three of us did not modify our food strategy for the Sierras.  Each of
us only cooked one meal per day and we stuck with that strategy.  We
typically would eat the cooked meal around 1:00 - 2:00 in the afternoon.  I
used this strategy for much of Ca, but reverted back to eating my hot meal
in the evening from Castella north to Canada.

>         -  what would you carry more of next time?

If the conditions were similar, I would not carry any additional gear or
carry more food.  I typically carried one day of extra food on all legs of
my thru-hike.  If I had to make the choice again, I would still make the
choice of attempting to go straight through to VVR.  Just my choice though.

>         -  did you go through more fuel or less than on summer trail?

I did not find that my fuel consumption was more during the my Sierra
crossing.  As I said, I typically would only heat water once per day for one
hot meal.  I was not precise in measuring HEET, although I typically filled
my pepsi can stove to a small mark and I can't recall any problems with
bringing water to a boil.

>     -  Did your poles work out?

Poles are a thru-hikers best friend and in conditions that existed in 2006 I
found them to be absolutely critical.  In sun-cups, ascents, descents and
creek crossings the benefit was significant.

>         -  baskets hold up?

I exchanged small baskets for snow baskets at KM and had no problems

>         -  poles bend or break?

I snapped a pole heading up Glen Pass and saw a noticeable difference until
I was able to carve a make-shift walking stick out of a birch limb.  I
purchased replacement poles as soon as I had access to a re-supply point.

>         -  wish they were designed differently??

Nope.  I use the Leki Makula with the anti-shock.
>     -  Ice axe use:
>         -  did they help while glissading?

The ice-ax most definitely assisted with glissades.  To my surprise though
there were not as many glissade opportunities as I had expected.

>         -  did any one fall and need to arrest their slide?

No one in my group required a self arrest from a fall.  We did have several
opportunities to use our ice-axes for self-belay however and avoided the
need to self-arrest.

>         -  did they help on the climbs?

Yes.  There were several passes where we encountered steep ascents or
traverses and the use of the ice-axe in a self-belay position provided a
higher level of comfort than the use of a pole on the uphill side.  We also
encountered several small cornices  where the ice-axe was beneficial in
providing an additional level of safety. 

>         -  did anyone wish they had learned how to use them before  
> the trip?

Yes.  Both of my hiking partners had taken a 1 day class on winter skills,
however, this class did not provide them with sufficient knowledge or
practical application.  In many "classroom" settings it is difficult to
practice self-arrest as the conditions typically are not what they would be
in the field.  Sure, you can throw yourself down on a slope, but this isn't
practical unless you were to do this blindfolded.

>         -  anyone injured by the axe, itself?

>     -  Crampons:
>         -  how often did you need them & under what conditions and  
> circumstances?

Because of the general lack of snow travel experience of my partners I
encouraged them to use their crampons on the majority of the upper sections
of the passes and on a number of steep side-hill traverses.  Once they fully
realized the benefit of the crampons, they felt much safer when using them.

>         -  what design worked best on runners or boots?

I utilized in-step crampons from ULA and my partners used adjustable 10
point crampons.  We all utilized trail runners and the both the in-steps and
the 10 points were easy to secure to our trail runners.

>         -  did you feel more secure with them on?


>         -  did they add to the safety of your trip through the snow?


>     -  Were you warm and dry enough?

Warm enough yes.  Dry enough?  With the exception of feet, yes I remained
relatively dry for the majority of the Sierra Crossing.  For my gear I did
use a double bag lining system for my pack so I had no problems when my
backpack got wet.

>         -  what clothing combinations worked for you?

I utilized the same clothes for the entire trail.  With the exception of the
early morning when I added my Montbell Thermawrap jacket to my upper body, I
typically would not wear anything more than shorts and t-shirt.

>         -  any trouble with frozen items in the morning:

>             -  water bottles, tent floors, pants, shoes, socks,  
> gaiters, bags, flies?

Several mornings I awoke to semi-frozen shoes.  This was only a problem if I
did not bring the wet shoes into my tent at night.

>             -  did you take time somewhere in the day to dry out?

We typically stopped for lunch between 1:00 - 2:00 and would dry any gear
that required drying at that time.  We typically would not make a separate
stop for this chore.

>             -  if you had trouble with wet and frozen shoes, socks  
> & gaiters, how would you recommend others avoid what you experienced?

Wrap them in a plastic bag and bring them inside your tent.  Put them under
the end of your sleeping bag or inside your backpack.
>     -  Shelter:  Tarp or Tent?

I used a Big Agnes SL1 and used it every night but once after we hit the
snow.  One night at 11K just south of Mather Pass, we cowboy camped on a
flat piece of granite in the middle of a huge snowfield.  Probably the
coldest night of the entire trip! 

>         -  did anyone experience bad weather on snow? (wind, rain,  
> snow...)

The only bad weather we experienced was during our summit of Donahue Pass.
We had rain and snow for nearly 4 hours between Rush Creek and Donahue Pass.
We relied on maps and compass even more due to limited visibility.

>             -  which type of shelter worked best for you or for  
> others?

See above

>     -  What techniques worked best on sun cups?

I prefer crossing sun-cups while they are still firm or frozen.  Get across
them in the morning.  I find stepping on the top edge to work best rather
than stepping into the cup.  I also try and maintain a good rhythm so that I
can keep the momentum moving forward.  The use of hiking poles helps
>     -  Any troubles with navigation?

We had two significant navigational errors.  We climbed the wrong pass at
Mather (we went up the pass west of Mather initially) and made a
navigational blunder at the top of Kennedy Canyon just south of Sonora Pass.
Both errors could have been avoided if we had taken better care to utilize
the appropriate landmarks.

>         -  how would you advise/reassure future hikers regarding  
> following buried trail?

First of all understand that in conditions like 2006 (and 2005) you will
likely not be on the trail for significant parts of the Sierra.  The best
advise is don't sweat it!  Use landmarks and take the most appropriate route
towards the next landmark.

>         -  what techniques/tools worked best?

>     -  Traction and Sure Footedness:
>         -  did you slip a lot walking on the snow or in mud once  
> off the snow?

Not really.  The trail runners provided more traction that I anticipated.

>         -  what would you do differently?

>     -  Climbs and Descents:
>         -  did you go straight up or switchback?

Given that the trail was under snow for the majority of the Sierra, the
switchbacks were rarely evident so we typically would go straight up to the
passes.  When the ascent became too steep we would traverse upwards.  The
same on the descents.

>         -  did the snow ever make any strange noises in the pack as  
> you passed?

No.  However, for several weeks we would hear sounds that we initially
thought might be related to the snow-pack.  However, we later found out that
the noise was simply the mating call of the mountain grouse!

>         -  did you get sick of the snow and choose rock routes up  
> or down?

No way!  The snow was far easier to travel on then the rocks.

>         -  did you posthole down and was it the safest way?

Post-holing was pretty much a given after 11:30-12:30.  You can minimize the
post-holing somewhat by learning to watch for snow that is more likely to be
soft.  Snow will soften up more quickly around rock outcroppings and at
lower elevations.  You may find yourself wanting to "island hop" from one
rock outcropping to another.  This technique can be used but always be
careful on the step or two going on and off the rock outcropping.

>         -  did you sit down and slide, stand and skate or traverse  
> down?

Shoe-skiing and/or glissading whenever possible! 

>         -  was walking in other's footsteps helpful, awkward or  
> dangerous?

Given our position near the front of the pack we rarely had sufficient
tracks to follow.  We found that with the sun-melt, footprints rarely lasted
more than 8-10 hours.
>     -  Sanitation:
>         -  how did you deal with your used toilet paper?
I would typically bury my paper.  Keep in mind that I am very regular and
usually would wait until I was able to reach a section of trail where dirt
was accessible.

>     -  General:
>         -  did everyone carry sunscreen, lip balm, and dark glasses  
> and use them?

In our group all of these items were used multiple times daily.

>         -  did you drink more water or about the same as summer trail?

This was interesting!  While water was readily available and rarely required
treating in the Sierra, we all identified that we drank less while traveling
through the snow.  The conclusion was that prior to the snow, we all made it
a point to stop once per hour and drink and than hydrate or camel-up at
significant water sources.  We did not do this in the Sierra as we rarely
carried water.  We typically just stopped as needed and drank from the

>         -  did you have any food cravings (like you were missing  
> something dietary)?

When you eat dehydrated food on a daily basis, you are going to have food
cravings!  I'm a meat and potatoes kind of guy and I was constantly craving:
steak, baked potato and a fresh green salad.  I also craved "town
breakfasts"  Eggs, bacon, hash browns and pancakes!

>         -  any issues with communication out?

Communication out?  We didn't have any communication if that is the
question.  Our group saw no one else from Vidette Meadow (north of Forrester
Pass) to the Bishop Pass trail.  From Bishop Pass to Sonora Pass we only
encountered one other hiker.

>         -  any safety problems with group members getting spread  
> out on snow?

Our group of three made a decision early on to stick together.  We made it a
point to travel/rest as a group.  I would highly recommend this.

>         -  any advice regarding resupply in the High Sierra (KM to  
> Echo)?

This is a personal preference.  I am definitely a re-supply drop thru-hiker
and only buy lunch supplies in trail towns.  The big question is whether you
would like to exit the Sierras for a town stop before reaching VVR (for
those that want to experience VVR).

>     -  Ultralight, advantages/disadvantages:
>         -  does the ultralight philosophy adequately prepare you  
> for the snow experience or does it, basically, get thrown out the  
> window during this time?
I am a lightweight hiker and will never make the leap to ultra-light.  I
like a few conveniences and thus I am fully prepared to carry the additional
weight that a lightweight hiker carries.  That said, with 12 days of food
leaving KM, I was carrying a load, but it diminished with each day.

I personally think that some folks are unwilling to carry the additional
protection that would benefit them in the Sierra because of the desire to
remain "ultra-light".  Personally, I don't feel a big difference when I am
carrying a bear canister, ice-axe and crampons, but than again, I trained in
advance with this weight.
>     -  Forums, ADZ, PCT-L, publications, professional schools and  
> training:
>         -  can these methods adequately and realistically prepare  
> thru hikers for the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual  
> challenges of the long trail?
>         -  what helped you and why?

I think all of these can help to some degree, however, I would not rely
simply on these.  Nothing can prepare you for the physical aspect of hiking
more than training.  I was a believer in advance of the hike and even more
now that I have finished.  Regular training in advance of the thru-hike is
beneficial without a doubt.  From a mental perspective, I think it is
important to take what the trail offers.  It will be difficult, no doubt.
If you allow yourself to get down mentally because the conditions are not
what you expected than you will have a difficult time.  Go with the flow.

While the forums and lists are helpful, most of the info you receive
(including my post here) is based on what I experienced in my specific
adventure.  Be aware that the conditions changed dramatically this year in
less than two weeks, so the conditions I experienced were much different
than what folks just a week or two behind me experienced.  Many of the
guides available are not written for high-snow years so these guides are not
that valuable.

One thing I would like to see posted and available for print is a picture of
each of the High Sierra passes from both north and south in a high snow
year.  I think this would help people navigate the passes as it is sometimes
difficult picking out the right pass, especially when it is fully engulfed
in snow.  It would also give people a better understanding in advance of
what to expect.

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