Why are thru-hikers already in the High Sierra?

Last week an alumni, Rod, sent me photos of Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers in the High Sierra, climbing over Forester Pass. The photos were taken May 26, but he didn’t know the party.

(If it’s you, or if you know who it is, leave a comment so we can all kneel before you.)

Below Forester Pass on its south side, the PCT/JMT was blasted into a rock wall. On May 26, snow was still partially filling in the cut.
The chute just below Forester Pass on May 26. The trail — which cuts across the slope and switchbacks to the pass — is buried in snow.
Forester Pass, the highest point on the PCT and JMT, on May 26, 2019.

Based on the absence of tracks on the trail, Rod speculated that this was the first party through the High Sierra this year. But I know of at least one party who was ahead of them, and I only had to look for a few minutes.

Joshua Seligsohn posted photos of Forester two days earlier, on May 24, while resupplying in Bishop, sixty miles further north and 10 miles off the trail. That puts him and his party on Forester Pass around May 20 or 21.

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More deep powder on Forester Pass, great views though few and far between due to snow, hard to access water, white out at the base of Forester, and our hitch to Bishop. Forage (@leechristoph) featured in all photos. A wild week on the trail but now I have boots so I’m stoked to get back at it. After Mule Days and some beer in Bishop, of course. #pct2019

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Meanwhile, an alumni, Paul, is currently on the PCT in northern California, which he skipped to after reaching Kennedy Meadows (at the southern end of the High Sierra) on May 8. The situation appears no different up there.

He started the Pacific Crest Trail on March 24, which seemed too early by four to six weeks. He’s a really strong hiker, and I figured he’d get through southern California long before the High Sierra was in-season.

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When hiking became mountaineering between Siead Valley and Etna (not that one) we went beyond the point of no return so we just kept moving forward. We scrambled, we slid, we occasionally hiked and we took major detours to find safer routes. It’s scary and fun out here. #taketherightgear . . . #pct2019 #pct #pctclassof2019 #backpacking #backpacking #hikertrash #hiker #thruhike #freemanwalks #pacificcresttrail #undersdoginternational #backtheunderdog #hiking #trekthepct #trekking #wehike #takeahike #getoutdoors

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My experience

I last hiked a long section of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2007, as part of the Great Western Loop. It had been a dry winter, and I left Kennedy Meadows on May 13.

The chart below illustrates the differences in snowpack in 2006-07 versus 2018-19, which was an epic winter. The High Sierra received more snow by January 1, 2019, than it had received the entire 2006-07 winter — and then it proceeded to dump snow for another four months!

The California snowpack, 2007 v 2019

Even so, I was weeks ahead of the next hiker, and “the herd” was probably a month back still. Seeing trains of thru-hikers in the High Sierra in late-May 2007 was unfathomable.

What’s going on?

Are these photos one-offs, or do they indicate a trend? I don’t follow the PCT scene closely, but I’m guessing that it’s a little bit of both.

Why are thru-hikers pushing through the High Sierra already? Heck, it’s still ski season up there!

1. Popularity

Per the Pacific Crest Trail Association, 101 thru-hikers completed the trail in 2007. In 2018, there were 1,163! That’s an 11.5-fold increase in successful thru-hikes. I can’t find the data, but the growth in the number of hikers who start a PCT thru-hike is probably about the same.

On the ground, this increase means that for every one hiker in 2007, there are 11.5 today. Relative to “the herd” behind them, these early hikers may be exceptional, but their gross numbers are much larger.

2. Permitting

To reduce impact along the trail, the Pacific Crest Trail Association implemented a lottery system for northbound thru-hikers and capped the number of starters to 50 hikers per day.

For the sake of the trail, it’s a good policy. But it causes hikers to pick their starting date based on permit availability, not based on the High Sierra snowpack. And when the lottery opens in November, not even the world’s best meteorologist can accurately predict what the snowpack will look like in six months. After what has happened this season, I hope that future thru-hikers build more flexibility into their plans.

Good luck!

I wish the best for PCT hikers who are entering early.

Be conservative and stay safe, and don’t be afraid to exit early if the conditions are too much. Completing a long-distance trail is often a matter of willpower. But especially this year, Mother Nature may defy those who try to impose their will on her.

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