There’s one question that you were asked if you were on the PCT in 2019. “What are you going to do with the Sierras?”. Due to a high snow year, the Sierras in March looked to be slightly below the snow levels of another high snow year, 2017. And even, in late May, California got more snow and rain which finally took 2019 to a higher level than 2017 in many places.
While I definitely considered entering the Sierras, I chose not to enter the Sierras after long deliberation, flipping up North from mile 650 to Ashland to go southbound instead.
There were plenty of reasons for my choice. One was simply that I wanted to enjoy every single day I was out there (read more on that here) and wading through snow wasn’t my favorite activity. Another reason was financial. Going through snow would require me to supplement a lot of my equipment and switching out some of it. It would require me to buy new shoes, crampons that would fit shoes, probably find a different tent and adding more clothes. Most of my winter gear was in Denmark so I would have to buy duplicate equipment.
I also didn’t own a GPS beacon. I chose not to have one as I wanted to avoid the cost and avoid having another device to keep charged. With the conditions in the Sierras this year the most responsible thing would have been to have a GPS beacon and since it would have been expensive it just made the entire choice to go into the Sierras a much more expensive prospect for me.
I also worried a lot about my visa as I only had a 90-day stay in the US. I knew that I would be slower going through the Sierras than my normal. It would be even slower than if I could have gone through the Sierras without all of the snow. Going through the Sierras would mean that I would face two stress factors with regards to my flight out, one was going fast enough to get through, another was getting to a town where the roads were open so that it would have been possible to get out.
Lastly I didn’t want to go into the Sierras because the risk of death or serious injury was far greater than the level of risk that I could accept. I had climbed a few mountains and in all of those cases I was guided by very experienced mountaineers. They knew the mountains, they knew survival skills in the mountains, they had thought about backup plans and ensured that everyone had the correct gear. And through that experience I knew that the risk for me in the Sierras was too great.
I might have gone if I went with someone experienced but there was just too few with the experience I would have wanted. I heard from too many hikers that they had seen youtube videos of self-arresting with an ice axe and felt that it was enough. Many hikers are great at hiking, but few had experience in winter camping. Even fewer had climbed mountains. I felt there wasn’t enough experienced hikers to form groups with and many inexperienced hikers can’t really make up for just one experienced person. I also felt uncomfortable with the fact that no one knew the area. For me and many others it would be the first time traveling through the Sierras which wouldn’t have been bad except the snow buried trails, signs and landmarks. And then I had no knowledge of the snow in the Sierras. What were the grades on the mountains? How did the melt behave? How was the weather going to be? There were too many unknowns, too much risk for me and even if I had been a more risk-seeking person, I probably would have thought twice about it.
In the end some people chose to go through. And luckily I haven’t heard of any deaths yet. But I saw a lot of mistakes being made and heard of many stories of near-misses and unnecessary hardship. Mainly it was due to underestimating snow. One of the ways snow contribute to a different hike is the fact that one it’s that cold, the body needs extra energy to handle walking in snow as well as the extra energy needed for the body to generate heat.
Another mistake I saw was not accounting for weather change. The late May storms proved this. As snow made travel in the Sierras slower, the weather reports could probably only be relied on for the next 3 days or less, leaving hikers in the mountains without even a clue about weather conditions.
There was also a lack of respect for the snow as I saw a lot of people bring gear made for 3 seasons into a winter environment. Trail runners are not appropriate for snow as you would probably need something much more waterproof than trail runners to keep your feet dry and warm. Thin and light tents are not made for winter conditions and getting your shelter wet leaves you little chance of drying it out as temperatures plummet during the night and you need to spend the daylight moving forward.
Most of all I was a bit scared of the attitudes of some hikers. I get it, it’s “cool” to tackle the Sierras in snow. It shows determination and grit if you make it through. It makes you “better” and “tougher” if you can handle it when others choose not to. But the reports I heard from Kennedy Meadows was of people psyching themselves up before heading in, probably using the same tactics people used to, to get ready for war, carving out names in their ice axes and filling themselves and each other with confidence and aggression. Which is fine, until it’s not and it becomes arrogance and overconfidence. I feared deaths due to this combination, that people started to overestimate their own abilities and underestimate the conditions.
There’s probably plenty of people, both people who went through and those who didn’t, even people who didn’t hike this year, that would say that I’m just being a coward, that I didn’t have the nerve to do it, lack grit and determination, that I wasn’t as strong as any of the people who went into the Sierras and that I shouldn’t criticize people who did something that I couldn’t or wouldn’t do. And that’s fair, I’ve tried to outline why I didn’t want to take that risk as well as the general vibe I got. I can’t single out a person who did all of the bad things that I have mentioned but I believe that everyone is guilty of some of it, in varying degrees. And I’m no saint here either, having greatly overestimated my own abilities in my climbs in the past. But I have come to adopt a mindset that favors a realistic view of the conditions and your own abilities. And I believe calm and rational thinking pared with a realistic assessment and a mind for improvisation and fluidity is the best way to handle any situation. And while I may have underestimated my own abilities and overestimated the conditions, I erred on the side of safety and chose not to enter the Sierras in early May.
In the end everyone has a choice. My choice was to leave the Sierras for another year and hike a different section. Do I have regrets of not doing the Sierras? Yes, from time to time. Do I have regrets of flipping north with an amazing trail family? No, never.