The latest news on the PCT this year is the “Snowpocalypse”: Extremely greater than average snowpack levels in the High Sierra.
And there have been some legitimate hairy moments.
But why this year? Is it something beyond dangerous conditions?
Is the danger partly from going too early? And is there perhaps a bit of hyperbole?
I think so.
Here’s my nickel’s worth of why…
- People are sticking to a traditional thru-hike schedule despite the conditions on the ground.
Though this year is by most standards a record high, there have been other years in the High Sierra that also saw record snow levels if not quite as high.
The High Sierra saw a very high snow year in 1998 as well. Parts of the Sierra snowpack was floating around 300% of average.
The few PCT hikers of that time walked around the Sierra, flipped, or even went on the Appalachian Trail and south bounded. Only a handful that year did a traditional thru-hike on the PCT. And they had the skill set I suspect. And there was no social media to fan the flames, either.
Which brings me to….
- More people are thru-hiking the PCT and the overall experience level is lower.
Because people are committed to a thru-hike months, a year, or even more in advance, people seem to dig their heels in and affect an “I can do it!” attitude. While mental aspects of thru-hiking are necessary, without the skills, knowledge, and reasonable assessment of the conditions people are going to run into some trouble.
To me, this is the most important part of having the appropriate experience level. Not having the skills to do what is essentially mountaineering or extreme river crossings, but rather knowing when to say “Eh…let me give it some weeks to melt out” instead.
A good friend of mine grew up backpacking in the Sierra. When I mentioned the number of people attempting the PCT in early June, he was incredulous. Those dates are early for a typical snow year, never mind this year.
With so many hiking the PCT in what are early season conditions, no surprise there are many close calls.
No different than if magically hundreds of CDT thru-hikers decided to hike the San Juans in early June for some reason. Even in an average snow year.
- And, oddly enough, I think having Appalachian Trail thru-hike experience can be an issue here, too.
Because a person walked on a trail is pretty much three-season conditions, if colder, most of the year (other than northern New England), having this one thru-hike under the belt may give a false set of expectations. Meaning, a person can do a “plug and play” trip and simply walk from A to B, just follow the trail without having to adapt, be flexible, have more than three-season backpacking experience, and even perhaps choosing alternate plans.
- We are goal oriented when it comes to thru-hikes
The vision of thru-hiking is going from A to B in one continuous line. Flip-flopping? Getting off the trail and making side trips for a couple of weeks or even a month while waiting for the snow to melt? Pah-shah.
Admittedly this is a lesson I only learned myself in the past decade.
The lesson? That it is OK, and needed, to be flexible in outdoor pursuits. Especially when you get off well-maintained trails (which is what the PCT is when there is snow above it!), being flexible with a route is very much needed. And that sometimes the best outdoor experiences are not on an #EPICTHRUHIKE.
The best outdoor experiences can be something as simple as spending time in the redwoods, Joshua Tree, or other nearby areas for a little bit. Enjoy the gift of time and worry about the thru-hiker cred some other time.
- Ultimately, we love a good fishing story
“The smart hiker who made some side trips had a great time outdoors, came back to finish the PCT and told all her friends about it” does not make for good copy.
Nor does the “experienced backcountry skier and mountaineer who enjoyed some time on the PCT this year” make for exciting Instiweb-book posts.
The #EPIC tale of attempting to conquer a popular trail is what gets clicks. Gear companies love it for their copy, the gnarly Instagram photos get shared around, and we can all look like bad asses.
I’m too lazy to be a bad ass. I’d rather simply spend time outdoors and enjoy the gift of time instead. 🙂
Being a bit more serious, be it this year, next year, or for your weekly vacation, being flexible and having alternate plans at the ready is something we should do when spending time outdoors.
The conditions are indeed difficult now and perhaps dangerous without the proper experience and skillset. But so is a late spring ski tour in June of the San Juans in Colorado.
No sense in pushing through with a set itinerary just because that is what you planned a year ago or because of what others have done before. Esp if you don’t have the proper skill set or experience. Wait a bit, enjoy the gift of time, and come back when the snow melts a bit. It won’t be #EPIC, but it will be more enjoyable.
A thru-hike of the XYZ trail is rewarding. But spending weeks or months outdoors and enjoying yourself is perhaps the most rewarding experience of all. Regardless of what was done.