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Why heavy snow could make hiking in the PCT more difficult this year

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It was a great year for snow in the California Sierra. Statewide snow levels are 141% higher than usual. Some areas have been hit even harder: Phillips Station near South Lake Tahoe recently reported snow levels of 202% for this time of year, while Lake Tahoe broke a 50-year record with 193 .7 inches of snow at the end of December, according to the Central Sierra Snow Lab at the University of California, Berkeley.

But while the bountiful snowpack is good news for drought-starved reservoirs and the communities that depend on them, for aspiring hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail, they could be a real problem.

In a standard year, the Sierra snowpack peaks in April. But it is not uncommon for the region to experience snowstorms until May, which means that the snowpack could still increase significantly. Arriving in the Sierras in June is took into consideration early, and this could lead trekking through heavy snowfall and alpine conditions. A mid-season hike typically puts hikers heading north into the Sierras in early July, when high water levels from melting snow can make rapid and hazardous crossings.

Snow depth in the Sierra is heavier than usual for this time of year. (Photo: Gaia GPS / NOAA NOHRSC SNODAS)

Over the past decade, the Tahoe area has experienced an average 272 inches of snow per season. By comparison, in December 2021 alone, the same region saw 212 inches of snow, making it one of the snowiest months on record. The Sierras haven’t seen such a spectacular display since 2019, when Lake Tahoe received 221 inches of snow in February. In the same year, this region saw approximately 580 inches of snow during the season.

The consequences for hikers are not insignificant. In 2019, many hikers left the trail to get around the snow, and some of those who pushed through found themselves so far behind that they later threw in the towel. In 2017, another heavy snow year, the PCT recorded several hiker deaths, including two drownings in swollen rivers, one in the South Fork of the Kings River, and one in Yosemite’s Kerrick Canyon.

Although fatalities are extremely rare on the PCT, extenuating circumstances such as high snow levels and slippery trails can make them more likely. Less serious injuries are also more likely to occur, along with a higher incidence of search and rescue operations, as hikers fall on slippery trails or end up suffering from hypothermia. (The flip side: More snow could mean a less severe fire season, which means fewer detours as hikers try to find their way around fires.)

And after all that, that record snowfall might not be enough to pull the state out of its long drought. Sean deGuzman, the head of snow surveys in California, says he’s optimistic about early-season snowfall, which he hopes will boost the state’s water reservoirs. But he also noted that California is still in the grip of a drought, as 90% of the western United States is.

With months still in the season, it’s too early to say for sure what kind of snow hikers should expect to see this season. But given that some of California’s heaviest snowfall occurred between January and March, they might want to start sharpening their ice axes.