The Pacific Crest Trail is arguably the most diverse trail of the Triple Crown long distance trails in the U.S. It traverses volcanic lava fields to deserts, from moist, moss filled forests to barren, alpine granite passes – in fact from Muir Pass not even a bush or a tree is visible (the only place on the PCT). During our winter traverse of the trail the weather conditions were just as variable. We expected the worst since an El Nino was forecasted for this year. However, NOAA kept pushing back its arrival during the trip and ironically I just read today that it has finally arrived.
We decided to start on October 21, 2014, knowing that this hike could easily take six months. The Pacific Northwest had a dry early October, but we were headed right into an atmospheric river. The last 10 days of October we saw constant rain and snow. In fact many areas of the PNW set daily rainfall records. Things started wet and sloppy, and for the most part remained that way for the first two months. We can count on one hand the number of sunny days (not raining or snowing) that we had in the first two months. November continued to be wet, with sporadic cold snaps. In fact, circling Mt. Hood in mid-November the highs hovered in the single digits with a steady 50 mph wind. A few days later it snowed two feet and the temperatures remained just as cold. Portland received snow and ice and set some records. We had bumped our snowshoes ahead and struggled to make progress. We both suffered from frostbite on our feet during this cold snap and had to deal with the pain until the end of the trip 3.5 months later.
A week later the temperatures warmed considerably. We were around Santiam Pass, OR when the next storm started as rain and turned the snow into a sloppy, slushy mess. Our new and improved footwear system worked well to keep our feet dry and warm and we pushed on as the temperatures dropped and the rain changed to snow. The winds also began to howl for a few days as we navigated our way through the convoluted terrain of the lava fields around McKenzie Pass. The Three Sisters Wilderness was blanketed in feet of fresh snow. The winds were howling and the travel was slow, albeit incredibly beautiful. We had a windy, sunny day as we passed through this area. The winds died down in the afternoon and the Wickiup Plains felt like a snowy, desert. The next storm approached in the evening and the rain started about a half hour before we stopped for the day. More sloppy conditions ensued. There’s not much that can be more miserable than postholing through feet of snow in a cold rain.
The rain and snow continued through Oregon and into northern California. As we left Ashland the hyped “Storm of the Century” was approaching. We timed it well. The winds picked up and the rain started in the afternoon. We were close to dropping off the ridge into Seiad Valley, one of the low points of the trail. It rained hard and the winds were gusty, but we were low and off the ridgeline. We later heard that gusts were clocked well over 120mph on the ridge and 10 inches of rain had fallen in Shasta City. This all led to our unfortunate swim the next morning before sunrise while trying to cross Grider Creek. As we ascended into the Marble Mountains a foot of fresh snow blanketed everything. It was gorgeous and we finally had another sunny day.
We left Etna knowing that another storm was coming in. It was only forecasted to drop 2-4 inches of snow each day and night for the next three to four days. Three to four feet later, we were wallowing through the Trinity Alps. Heavy snow was sticking to our snowshoes. We often had to lift our legs with our hands to help get them high enough to take the next step. We alternated breaking trail and switched every 30 minutes. If the person in the rear waited 25 minutes they could catch the person breaking trail in the remaining 5 minutes of their shift. It took us 10 hours to descend 9-10 miles. It was a frustrating day. Pepper snapped his trekking poles 3 times in a matter of hours. We finally dropped below the snowline with Castella in our sights. We covered the same distance in the next 2.5 hours.
We left Castella with another impending storm. By the next morning, it was raining and we woke up in a poorly draining campsite that had puddled below us. It rained hard all the way to Burney Falls State Park. We headed into a few days off for Christmas with 8 miles in the sun to Highway 299.
When we returned from Christmas the pattern had changed. It was nearly January and we had researched the weather patterns. We knew that 6 of the last 8 Januarys had been dry in the Sierra. We hoped the pattern would continue and it did. The Hat Creek Rim was cold and crisp, with highs in the 20s and lows in the single digits. As we passed through Old Station so did a reinforcing cold front. It left a dusting to an inch of fresh snow, but dropped the temperatures for a few days to the teens as highs and lows in the single digits or even below zero. Our water would freeze in our water bottles and we had trouble finding running water. We stayed warm and the cold snap lasted about a week. From there the temperatures moderated and eventually became balmy. Our bodies were used to cold and wet and when the temperatures hit the 50s we felt like we were in the summer. We made good time snowshoeing to Truckee in warm temperatures. The snow got more rotten and more difficult to travel each day as the nighttime temperatures stopped dropping below freezing eventually and the snow failed to refreeze.
In Truckee we switched to our ski gear. We spent hours at the bootfitter and then went for a trial run to make sure the ski boots wouldn’t hurt our frostbite. The weather stayed sunny and warm and we knew we had to make good progress to try to get through the Sierras during this weather window. High avalanche danger and wallowing in fresh snow lurked at any moment if a storm came in. The extended forecast kept predicting storms in Week 2. Things looked ominous but kept being pushed back. We got some clouds, snow showers, and wind around Sonora Pass but nothing major. In the High Sierras we had three high wind days. One of which actually picked Pepper up like a kite and threw him against a rock. Two other days, one going over Muir Pass and one over Forester Pass, we had snowy conditions and low visibility with 2-4 inches of fresh dust on crust/rock. It was just enough to hide the rocks and make the skiing even more dangerous. We made it over Forester, and the next morning over the Bighorn Plateau was another ferociously windy day with blinding snow. It cleared by the afternoon but remained cold and windy. We had made it through the Sierras!
The weather in Southern California dwarfed in comparison to anything we had faced even though we had to deal with several storms. Ironically many of the storms happened while we were in some of the driest places on the trail. We had rain between Walker Pass and Mojave, around I-10/Banning Pass, and from Mt. Laguna to the border. The day after we descended from the San Bernardino Mountains they received fresh snow and the same with Mt. Laguna. We hit about six inches of fresh snow and low visibility conditions on Mt. San Jacinto. Some of the days in So Cal felt so warm, even though they were probably only in the mid 50s or low 60s, that we doubted how we had ever done the PCT in the summer. Suddenly we were carrying 30 miles worth of water – even 44 miles at one point.
It seems that we hit the worst of the winter in many places before it turned drier after we passed through. It’s been an interesting and record-breaking winter in many locations of the West, but when you are traveling from Point A to B, and not in one location, you are also passing through the weather of many areas. The Sierras were disappointingly dry, even though a dry winter in the Sierras is still more annual snowfall than a harsh, record-breaking winter in Boston (as of March 2, 2015 – 104.1 inches in Boston and 179 inches at Sugar Bowl near Lake Tahoe). The relatively dry conditions in the Sierras were both a blessing and a curse. Avalanche dangers were lower due to the low snowpack and lack of additional snowfall. Any additional snowfall would have led to very dangerous avalanche conditions since the snowpack resembled a continental snowpack. Fortunately we did not experience that “next big storm” while we were in the Sierras. In fact a multi-foot storm happened just as we got to Walker Pass. On the other hand, due to the low snow we had to negotiate rock bands, downed trees, and talus. We even had to walk some of the downhills in our ski boots carrying our skis because there wasn’t enough snow to ski safely. Hidden landmines lurked under the snow waiting to wrench our knees. Numerous times each day we hit hidden rocks and downed trees below the snow uttering “wow that was close” or “that could have been really bad” as we negotiated the heinous snow conditions. Every condition that a skier dreads from unedgeable ice, to breakable crust, to wind slab, to sugary, bottomless facets remained, sometimes negotiating all in one turn. I had 6-8 good turns in 450 miles.
We kicked around the idea of this trip for about 5 years. Finally this year we felt ready to set out on it – after years of testing ski gear, Pepper feeling comfortable with his skiing ability, and logistics and planning.
Despite all of the planning we still had a last minute change of direction. We had even purchased our plane tickets to head down to San Diego to go northbound. Ultimately, with less than a week before we departed, we changed to southbound – and the rest is history. Initially it made sense to break in slowly with easier desert miles and then get in a groove through the High Sierras.
The main reasons that we made the last minute switch:
- We are most familiar with the Sierras since that is both of our home areas and we have hiked through there countless times. It made sense to hit that in the middle of winter when conditions would be the hardest and worst.
- We researched weather patterns, as previously mentioned, and the Sierras had dry Januarys in 6 of the last 8 winters, now 7 of the last 9. We thought there would be a chance, if we made good time through Washington and Oregon, that we could be in the Sierras in January, and hopefully the pattern would continue. We hoped for a decent weather window in the High Sierras in order for the avalanche danger to stabilize.
- We knew we would have bad weather in the Cascades, but we wanted to deal with the bad weather and snow before there was a base of snow. The Cascades are very steep and can be avalanche prone. For avalanche conditions snow on bare ground is safer than snow on top of snow because there are anchors.
- With the forecast for an El Nino year, we figured that Central and Southern California would have above average precipitation. We hoped to head into good snow coverage to ski on and have miles under our belt when the weather and conditions got the hardest.
Ironically with the weather this year we probably could have done it in either direction.
My mantra came true once again “proper prior planning prevents piss poor performance”. Naysayers called our trip a “death wish”, “death sentence”, and “I don’t want my tax money going for their rescue”. It was a potentially dangerous trip but it’s all calculated risks based on a lot of experience and practice. Experience should tell you when the time is to pull the plug before you get in over your head. Ironically with the weather and conditions that we hit there were 4 or 5 search and rescues (that we know about) that took place in nearby locales on the trail. Proper prior planning prevents piss poor performance.
A Few Lessons Learned:
We grew as outdoorsmen more so on this trip than any other trip. It tested us in many challenging conditions. We had to hone our wet weather system, cold weather systems, cold and wet weather system, and winter travel systems. Here are a few things that we learned:
- Do everything you can in your sleeping bag before getting out to start your last minute burst to finish packing up.
- Layer, layer, layer, and keep additional layers handy at all times. Hat layer and hand layers in the pocket of the jacket you are wearing and core layers in the top or outside of your pack depending on weather.
- Layer hands and feet just like you would your core. Layering your sleeping bag system can also be very useful. We used a 38 degree synthetic overbag quilt and around a 20 degree down sleeping bag underneath. This helped to prevent condensation build up in the down bag.
- In the winter a good sleeping pad with a high R-value is worth its weight in gold.
- A sturdy knife is useful to carry when you are skiing on tech bindings. It is really annoying when your boot is frozen in the binding and you can’t switch back to touring mode. This happens in a variety of different snow conditions, so be prepared for it. The holes in the outside of the tech binding allow you to chip out some of the built up ice and snow with a knife so you can release.
- It is a misconception that a tarp and alcohol stove won’t work well for winter camping.
- From a mental standpoint this trip was very challenging. We’d be traveling 25-30 miles one day and then it would snow and we’d struggle to get 10 miles per day in. One day you are thinking you’ll be in Ashland in 7 days and then the next day it’s 21 days away. I really had to mentally slow down and take it one resupply at a time. There were so many unknowns that could affect the trip on any day. We’d have to plan for the big picture and the length of the trail but taking it one resupply at a time was the only way to prevent disappointment and getting in a funk.
- Around 2,660 miles +/- side trips for resupplies and straight-lined areas that were snow covered
- October 21, 2014 – March 1, 2015 (132 days, 16 zero days with 6 being over Christmas to visit family)
- Average mileage 20.15 miles per day / Average mileage not including zeros 22.93 miles per day
- Number of resupplies: 30
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions):
Q: Why did you do this trip?
A: We took on this trip to challenge ourselves in a different time of year and to test and build our skills. We also looked forward to seeing familiar places in a different time of year.
Q: What shelter did you use?
A: We used the Mountain Laurel Designs Cuben Duomid tarp. We had planned on switching to the XL version in the middle of winter for some extra room but never made the switch since it was working so well.
Q: How many miles per day were you able to travel?
A: Our daily distance was greatly affected by the snow conditions. Some days we would push all day and only be able to make it 9-10 miles. Other days on clear trail we could cover 38 miles or so. Our average on snow was probably around 20 miles per day.
Q: What was the highlight of the trip?
A: This is a tough question as there were a lot of highlights. I think the biggest thing that stood out was how supportive and welcoming the trail community was when they heard about the trip. Total strangers contacted us out of the blue to offer a warm place to stay and a hot meal. It was great to have these social interactions since we went over 1750 miles on the trail without seeing anybody, except for during resupplies. A few of the on trail highlights were the High Sierras, Three Sisters Wilderness, and any place that we had fresh snow and then the sun came out. Everything is really beautiful after a storm.
Q: What was the hardest part of the trip?
A: As I mentioned this trip was very demanding mentally as well as physically. I think the mental aspects were almost as challenging as the physical aspects. When you are postholing and traveling less than a mile an hour for 10 hours you are exhausted and frustrated, physically and mentally, and then you have to keep the mental side from derailing and losing motivation.
Q: How did you resupply in the High Sierras and what was your longest stretch?
A: There are multiple road closures in the Sierras in the winter and all of the resorts like Red’s Meadow, VVR, and Muir Trail Ranch are closed. No roads are open from Carson Pass, CA to Walker Pass, CA (with the exception of the dead end Kennedy Meadows road, but the store is only open on Saturday and Sunday from 11-2, so we had a slim chance of making those hours). This is a distance of 387.6 miles (Mile 1031.3 to 643.7)!
We skied out to Pickel Meadows on Highway 108, then went to Mammoth, and then had a friend cache some food that we had mailed him on Kearsarge Pass. This strategy worked well. Our longest food carry through the Sierras was 6 days since we were able to cover about 18-22 miles per day.
Q: How heavy were your packs?
A: Our packs were the heaviest through the High Sierra since we had 6 days of food, full winter gear and avalanche safety equipment. We estimate our packs were around 45 pounds a their heaviest.
Q: What poncho were you wearing at the Mexican border?
A: We were wearing the Mountain Laurel Designs Cuben Poncho Tarp.
Link to pictures from the last 650 miles: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=462371767247666&set=a.462406190577557&type=3&theater
A Few Articles About The Trip: