Here’s what this year’s snow record means for Pacific Crest Trail hikers

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California’s record-breaking snowpack has many hopeful hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail wondering if it’s practical or even possible to attempt a traditional hike north this year. And even though the season is just getting started, hikers are not wrong to think there could be trouble.

Statewide, snow levels are currently at 190% of their April 1 average, when snow levels typically peak. To put it more bluntly: California has twice as much snow as it normally would in one season, and there are still weeks to go. While snowpack levels vary across the state, snowpack levels in the southern Sierra are currently the highest, weighing in at 209% from its April 1 average. The central Sierra follows closely behind, measuring 175%.

The biggest question that floats on most hikers’ minds is whether the Sierra will be safe to hike in April and May, when many northbound travelers reach the notoriously snow-capped peaks. When asked how he imagines California’s snowpack will affect hiking this year, Dr. Mark Lubell, a backpacker and professor of Environmental Science and Policy at UC Davis, said it all comes down to access and experience.

“Less will be accessible until later in the season,” he said. “Right now there are a lot of roads that are closed, and a lot of those back roads are probably going to be closed or snow-impacted for much longer. The places you normally get to in June or July may not be accessible until August.” Hikers finding resupply and access may still have difficulty traveling through snow-covered passes and properly navigating the avalanche hazard.

Lubell’s idea comes just days after SAR personnel rescued two 17 year old men of a southern section of the Pacific Crest Trail after a planned backpacking trip was derailed by a winter storm. While hikers were prepared for inclement weather, the scale of the storm: Some areas received more than 10 feet of snow in just a few days, thanks to back-to-back storms that prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency in 13 counties, surprised them. When a rescue helicopter arrived to retrieve the injured hikers, both were hypothermic.

The men’s trail experience could be indicative of some of the impending challenges other hikers may face this season. For the past several years, many members of the PCT community have speculated that it could eventually become impossible to complete a hike from end to end on the way due to climate change and increased wildfire risks. Extreme weather this year could be the focus of that change, forcing hikers who previously would have started a hike in March to delay, change or stop their hikes.

Rapid river crossings could also create problems for hikers. The mountains of California are home to dozens of rivers, many of which are crossed by the PCT. Higher snow cover could cause rivers to rise, which could make those crossings more dangerous.

“If there’s a decent amount of spring runoff from the flood, there might be a knee or thigh high crossing that could be a little dangerous, or a bridge could collapse,” says Lubell.

Although deaths throughout the PCT are very rare, several hikers have drowned after trying to cross swollen rivers along the way in the past. In 2017, during another year of heavy snow, Rika “Strawberry” Morita died on the South Fork of the Kings River and Chaocu “Tree” Wang died on Rancheria Creek, presumably while trying to cross the fast-moving waterway.

What effect will this year blanket of snow have in those rivers? It’s hard to say definitively. Lubell points out that by most accounts, the water content in recent years of snow has actually decreased, which means deep snow doesn’t necessarily translate to deep, dangerously fast river crossings.

There is also the possibility that unnatural disasters could affect hikers heading into town. So far, the state’s unusually high snowpack has caused damage to infrastructure, stranded communitiesand caused at least 22 snow-related deaths throughout the state,” says Lubell.

“I think we have to worry about some short-term impacts,” he said. “Even at this time, there has been some infrastructure damage from too much snow. There could be some flooding, sure. There are some predictions of some warmer wet rivers coming in March and that’s classic rain on snow causing flooding.” In addition to snow and river levels, mosquito season is likely to be worse than normal as increased humidity causes flying insects to multiply.

But the snowy year can also bring some relief to California. The snow could refill reservoirs and increase groundwater supplies to support the state through future droughts. Overall, the snow year will likely help California, even if it won’t fully offset the dry years. The large amount of snow could also potentially increase soil moisture levels this year, reducing the risk or length of the wildfire season, another critical obstacle facing hikers, and result in more abundant water sources.

“More soil moisture is a good thing,” Lubell said. “If it’s a bit wetter later in the year, I think it will be a [wildfire] buffer, but it depends a bit on the [air] temperature. If it stalls and dries up, and gets hot, we’re not likely to have a fire-free September. But it could be that the start of the serious fire season is delayed.”

If anything is certain, it’s that the state of California is experiencing a year of extreme weather. Hinting at the magnitude of this year’s snow season, Andrew Schwartz, a laboratory scientist at the Central Sierra Snow Lab in Donner Pass told the Washington Post:: “We have had the snowiest period from October to February since our digitized records began in 1970.” And across the state, snowpack is on the verge of surpassing the record snow year or 1982-1983. Whatever the historical context, one thing is for sure: this is going to be a wild year in the PCT.

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James D. Brown
James D. Brown
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