Big Winter Means Summertime Snow: Tips & Tricks

Spring has officially sprung in the Owens Valley

The Tungsten Hills have blooming wildflowers, the daytime temperature high in Bishop reached the upper-eighties last week, and the snow line is creeping up the mountains. All of these factors may conspire to create a false sense that snow-free high alpine days are right around the corner. But the fact of the matter is quite a bit different.

Courtesy of NOAA.

As of May 1, there is still over 10-20 feet along the Sierra Crest, meaning that there is still a good deal of thawing that needs to be done before the high country is completely snow free. Particularly because these areas are between 10,000 to 14,000 feet in elevation. It’ll be a minute before things begin to really open up. Expect it to be early to mid July to be when the majority/all of the Sierra trails will be completely clear.

Courtesy of the CA Statewide Summary of Snow Water Content.

In our next graphic, and you can see that there is a good deal of water content in the snow. When peak thaw does begin, the streams and rivers in the backcountry will begin swelling significantly, making for potentially dangerous crossings.

So, what does this all mean for us who enjoy recreating in the backcountry? Safety will be a key concern, and patience will be a key virtue.

Here are some tips for safe travel in a high snow summer (with links to useful information from the Pacific Crest Trail Association):

  • Consider pushing your trip back a couple weeks (or more). We know that often your trip may have been planned months or years ahead of time, and that your time off, travel schedules, and time with friends and family is valuable. But if you can reschedule to later-summer or early-fall, your experience will likely be much more enjoyable.
  • Be prepared for snow travel. If you go ahead with your trip, be well-versed and experienced in traveling through snow in mountain environments. Carry an ice axe and crampons, and know how to use them and self-arrest. Be very familiar with your route as snow will obfuscate the trail, making getting lost a possibility.
  • Cross streams and rivers with caution. Cross with care, one at a time, and try to time large water crossings early in the day (if near the beginning of the runoff), as that is when the sun is melting the least amount of snow.

There you have it! Enjoy and be safe out there.

The mountains are a complex ecosystems for travel, particularly when snow is present. Be sure that you feel comfortable with your decision-making, as you are on your own.
Don’t be afraid to end a trip if conditions are making you uncomfortable; the mountains will be around next month and next year!