The winter of 2018/19 is on its way out and spring is here. Despite the media hype, this was not the biggest snow year ever. But looking at monthly totals from Mammoth Mountain, where the snows came early — February was the biggest February on record

Nov 55 inches
Dec 26 inches
Jan 93 inches
Feb 207 inches
March 68 inches
April 7 inches up to 4/11/19
Total: 456 inches

Although winter has not yet fully gone, compare this to winter of 2016/17 where Mammoth reported 617 inches and 2010/11 with 668 inches. What is different is where the snow fell. This winter there has been more snow at lower elevations compared to other years. When we look along the JMT we see the following comparison:

                                        2018/19             2016/17
Tuolumne River             149%                   191%
Kings River                     160%                   203%
Kern River                      182%                    226%

What does this all mean to backcountry users?
Basically, it is not a record year, but it is significantly above “normal”, whatever that might be.
It does depend upon what happens in the spring and where temperatures go. Thus far, spring temps have been variable with what seems to be the climate change-affected new pattern: small storms keeping things cool interspersed with periods of warm to hot weather.

Snow Depth
There are a variety of backcountry sensors out there that let you know what snow depth is at a given location. The most useful for JMT/PCT hikers might be:

PCT mile 740   Crabtree Meadow
PCT mile 749   Upper Tyndall Creek
PCT mile 763   Charlotte Lake
PCT mile 804   Bishop Pass
PCT mile 870   Mammoth Pass
PCT mile 917   Tuolumne Meadows
PCT mile 932   Virginia Lakes Ridge
(PCT miles are approximate since the sensors are not always along the trail, but close enough to give you an idea of snow depth. All sensors may not be working and they often go down.)
Bottomline is that there will be snow at high elevations until late in the summer so be prepared for snow travel.

Some suggestions for safer travel:

  • Have snow skills and know how to use an ice axe and self-arrest.
  • You might want a heavier pair of boots than normal. high sierra snow skills training
  • They will keep your feet dry and give you better traction and footing on the snow. In  2016/17 when we did the JMT in early June the Evolution drainage was solid snow for many miles and the biggest problem was cold feet. Just because you are following where others have walked does not mean you cannot plunge through to your knee. Popular boots such as the Altra Lone Peak might be wonderful on a dry trail but they are not in deep snow conditions.
  • Travel when the snow is firm. Try to hit steep snow when it has softened some but is not so soft that you wallow in it. Plan camps so that you don’t hit pass crossing when they are icy in the early morning.
  • Consider a pair of gaiters to cover that gap between the boot top and sock.
  •  Be prepared to carry an ice axe and light crampons or microspikes. Is going Ultralight worth dying for? There are lightweight axes out there such as Camp Corsa at only 7oz. For hiking where you will be using it for short distance go shorter than for mountaineering. A 50cm or 60 cm for most people.
  • If you have the gear know how to use it. Learn ice axe use including self-arrest. If you need more skills then consider a snow travel course. These are not just for climbers and mountaineers. We offer courses out of Bishop, California. For PCT hikers, we are just blocks from the Hostel California — at the least come stop by and say hello to the locals who are in these mountains year-round. Sign up for a Snow Skills Course today! 

River Flow Data
The climate has changed despite what politicians might say. We see earlier snowmelt after a winter of unpredictable accumulation. Generally, high flows can continue into June, but in years with less precipitation, the runoff can wind down as early as May. As had been said “Predictions are hard to make, especially about the future,” but it seems as if stream flows will peak in mid to late May, but they will still be high early May and early June. Most flow gauges are not in the high country but here are some sites that can give you some applicable stream flows: Remember that cold weather will delay runoff; warm weather will accelerate it.
The Merced River in Yosemite at Happy Isles
The San Joaquin at Devils Postpile
The Marble Fork of the Kaweah near Lodgepole
The Kern River at Kernville

As of 4/13/19 the Department of Water Resources anticipates peak flows for:

Tuolumne River at Hetch Hetchy      June 4             Tuolumne Meadows are PCT mile 917
Kings River at Pine Flat                        End of May    Woods Creek is at PCT mile 774
The Kern River                                        May 25            The Kern at Monache Meadows is PCT mile 690
The San Joaquin River at Millerton   May 30
The rivers will be ramping up all May and the peak flows are generally sustained for at least 2 weeks. 

River Crossings
Growing up in New Zealand large river crossings are encountered often – it is a way of bush life there. Be careful and be safe out there. Evaluate the risk before doing a water crossing, and please study the tips below. The desire to make miles must be tempered by the potential for an accident which might eliminate any further travel – forever.

Tips for river crossing

  • Don’t be afraid of river crossings – but yet be very respectful and do not take them lightly.
  • If you are unsure of a crossing then do not do it.
  • Wait and link up with other people. Two deaths in the Sierra last year were people who attempted solo crossings.
  • Leave your shoes on; never cross in bare feet. Maybe take off the socks and put them on later. Yes, you will have wet feet but better that than swept away. If you are concerned about blisters wear one pair of socks for a bit, then change to a second dry pair once the boots dry out some. Dry the first pair on the pack. Flip-flops are marginally better than bare feet – but not much. Another option is a light pair or tennis shoes that can double as water shoes and or camp shoes.
  • Select your crossing place carefully. Just because it is where the trail goes does not mean you have to cross there. Scout around. You might even find a fallen tree — a log crossing. Sometimes, not always, it helps to wear microspikes to cross wet logs.
  • Trekking poles help a lot.
  • Cross in shorts or even underwear. Long pants significantly increase drag.
  • Put items in the pack into waterproof bags to keep them dry and also to increase floatation.
  • Unclip the waist and chest buckles so you can dump the pack if you get swept downstream. But think about what will happen if you do dump the pack. Everything will be gone, and you will be cold and shivering in the wilderness. (Best not to get into this position to start with.)
  • In the high mountains, flows are likely to be lowest in the early morning before the days heating melts snow. This may not apply further down the river well away from the snow where a time delay may mean increased flow later.
  • Some people think that taking and using a rope will increase safety. If you have to go to that extreme you probably should rethink what you are doing and back off. Ropes if not used correctly can increase the danger rather than reduce it.
  • Take a river crossing course. We do these too. Sign up and be prepared. 


SMC SP Parker

This post was written by SP Parker transplant Kiwi and owner of Sierra Mountain Center. SP has over 50 years of experience in the mountains and is well accustomed to the high river flows in New Zealand and the Sierra Nevada.