This is normally the time of the year when I’m planning my first few backpacking trips into the Sierra for June. But it’s snowed well into April up there, adding to an already very deep snowpack. This is a good thing for water needs, but not so good for backpackers stoked for their first trips of the season. Push the trips back further into summer? Find somewhere else to go? Learn how to deal with adverse conditions?
We put these questions to Andrew Skurka, pro backpacking guide and expert in all-season backcountry travel and camping.
AJ: With the Sierra and big chunks of the West having a huge snow year, what are your thoughts on early season backpacking in those areas? Just forget it and find lower elevations? Or bring crampons and expand your snow camping capabilities?
AS: There are a few viable reactions. If you stick to your original plans for trips in the High Sierra or Four Corners states, you should probably learn to ski. A more practical solution is to pick another location where the snowpack is more normal (per this map), to push back your dates, or to change your route to avoid the higher snowbound elevations.
Are there good options people might not think about for alpine backpacking trips this summer that don’t get as much snowfall?
In May there are still some good options in the Desert Southwest — things will have melted out, but it’s not prohibitively hot yet. I’m specifically thinking of the North Rim in the Grand Canyon, the upper watershed of the Escalante, Zion, Bryce, Dark Canyon.
In June you can normally get up into higher mountains near the Four Corners, so Colorado’s San Juan’s and Utah’s Wasatch or Uintas. But that won’t be the case this year—those areas won’t’ really open until July. And other mountain ranges in the Mountain West (e.g. northern Rockies, PNW) don’t open until July normally. So June is going to be tough this year.
How does a big snowpack year change the calculus of what backpacking season will look like, in general? A crush of permit applications for a shorter window in busy places? Long bug season? Areas that will be mostly off-limits the whole season?
I’m only speculating on the effect on permits because I’ve never worked in a permit office. But I bet it affects applications less than you’d think—permits for places like Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, and other popular areas can be reserved starting in the winter, months before anyone really understands what the snowpack will look like. The conditions probably create a headache for rangers once the season gets underway, though, because people will try to change their reservations when they better understand what’s going on.
There are a few significant effects of big winters:
•More lingering snow at higher elevations and on shady, leeward slopes
•A delayed start to the bug season, but a longer season overall because breeding areas stay wet
•Even more intense sun exposure, due to snow reflectivity
•Wet feet are more the norm than the exception
•High water can make creek crossings very dangerous
Are there benefits to the backpacker when the snowpack is so thick? For example, Yosemite canceled permits for their High Sierra huts — do you think there are fewer people back there who are put off by the conditions?
It may make permitting easier, and things stay greener later into the season (wildflowers in September, awesome). But it makes early-summer trips tough. Rewarding, but tough.
What things should backpackers keep in mind as they plan trips this summer? Try new areas of the country maybe? Just alter their gear list? Embrace low elevation trips?
Spring is a dynamic time in the mountains, as the snow melts off and things transition from winter into summer. Normally this process happens before most backpackers get up there. But this year they will experience it. It’s a neat time of year, but you need to be flexible and be willing to adapt to the daily and even hourly changes.