With the coming of Spring and the associated thoughts that Summer can’t be far behind, many climbers and hikers begin thinking of heading into the high country. The lengthening days and warmer temperatures in the lower elevations where most of us live can lure us into thinking - it’s time to begin our summer mountain adventures. But while summer may be coming on strong in the lowlands, the grip of winter can linger well into July in the higher elevations. Because of this, early season travelers face some questions about planning and traveling.
How much snow will you have to deal with?
Will you need snowshoes?
How much of an issue will streams crossings be?
Are the mosquitoes up and about yet?
Are the roads to the trailheads open?
If you are intent on an early expedition, it would be advisable to try to find out the answer to these questions or, at least be able to make an educated guess. A heads-up on conditions can go a long way toward making your trip memorable instead of regrettable.
Iron Mountain from American Lakes, Late June, 1980, elevation 11,200 ft. A heavy snowpack year with a relatively early melt-off.
Because of the difficulties of heading in early, I rarely plan trips into the high country before July anymore. Late summer and early fall have become my prime season. But there was a time when I had other ideas and was eager to “push the envelope.” I wanted to squeeze in as many adventures as I could and looking back on it, that was a good thing. I learned a lot about the variable conditions you can encounter when you head up early.
What constitutes early?
For the sake of this article, lets say anytime before July 1st in general would qualify as early. In heavier snowpack years, you could move it back another two weeks.
My experience draws primarily from the Central and Southern Rockies of Colorado and Wyoming, though most of the information could be applied to other Longitudes and Latitudes, with some adjustment.
Planning an Early Season Trip
Roads can be closed, trailheads can be inaccessible and if these facts don’t come to light until you see them, you might not be properly prepared. It’s always a good idea to check conditions with a reliable source within a week or so of your departure. The nearest district Ranger office can be a good one (if you get ahold of the right person). If there’s an outdoor shop in the area, they could also provide timely info, again, if you can talk the right person. Snowpack measurement sites like Snotel and streamflow sites maintained by the USGS can give some insight on conditions. To properly use these sites, you need to understand the data. The only way to understand the data is by regular monitoring, knowing where the individual stations are in the area you're planning to visit and comparing trends to the statistical averages that the sites provide. Even with all the info you can gather, seeing and experiencing will tell you much more. If things don’t look promising at the start, say after the first day, it might be time to go to Plan B.
Traveling over deep snow above timberline-This time we were prepared enough to persevere in spite of the conditions. July 4th, 1976 - elevation 11,000 ft. Snowy Range, Wyoming. It was actually much easier going over the snow here vs walking over the rocks.
A couple of cases in point, one that turned out well and one that didn’t:
July 4th weekend,1976.
At the start of a five day backpacking trip to Wyoming’s Snowy Range, my wife and I arrived at the turnoff to the trailhead only to find the road closed by snow a hundred feet from the turnoff. I was green, having lived in the west for a little over a year and had no idea there could be that much snow still on the ground in July!! Fortunately, we were young, had some extra time off, and the additional mile or two walk-in didn’t faze us. We went on with our plan and had a fantastic time in spite of spending about 90% of our time on snow. We both had good, waterproofed hiking boots and had some luck on our side in the form of great weather, no mosquitoes and a full tube of a new product called, sunscreen.
July 4th weekend, 1978.
Went into the east side of Mount Zirkel Wilderness on the 1st of July with another couple. About half-way through the first day, snow became a big issue. Made it as far as Rainbow Lake where we were stopped by deep snow. Camped on a point on the south side of the lake that was a marginal site at best.
Multiple problems caused us to abandon our original plan.
The snow prevented us from moving on to our planned destination, Slide Lakes, because we weren’t prepared to deal with it. We were not alone in our plight (the place was packed with people as unprepared for the snow as we were). One of the members of our group was poorly equipped, wearing what appeared to be her husband’s hand-me-down work boots, which were soaked by the time we made camp. We ended up leaving after one day and had a less than memorable, long weekend.
A much younger, skinnier me at Rainbow Lakes, Mount Zirkel Wilderness, July 1st, 1978 - elevation 9,854-A heavy snowpack year. In May of 1978, snowpack levels in the Park Range ranged from 109 to 152% of normal.
Was it an average year or something else? What it looked like in January or February may be completely different from May or June. In some years, heavy snows late in the season can transform an anemic snowpack into a monster. Conversly, a heavy snowpack in March can fade into the opposite by June, if a warmer, drier weather pattern takes over. Even cooler, cloudy weather over long periods of time can extend the snowpack’s life.
Case in point:
In 2009, heading into May, the snowpack in the Central Rockies was looking healthy, at or slightly above normal in most areas. But warm, dry weather in the first half of May suggested an early melt and a less than average snowpack come June or July. Around mid-May, a cooler, wet weather pattern moved in and stuck around pretty much through the month of June which completely reversed the prospects for an early melt-off. June and early July travelers found themselves dealing with a heavy snowpack and high water conditions. Depending on latitude, complete snow-cover extended down to 9,000 ft in some areas heading into the latter part of June.
Conditions are subject to drastic change from year to year and even from month to month. Monitor them closely and know that next year will be totally different from this year.
Snowy Range, July 3rd, 1977-elevation 10,700 ft - a light snowpack year.
A Light Snowpack
Can hold promise of some snow-free ground to 10,000 ft by mid-June. Access roads to many trailheads and the trails themselves could be clear in some areas. Even with a light snowpack, lakes above 10,500 ft will likely be frozen or just beginning to thaw by mid-to late June. Early hikers will face few snow issues. Finding a decent campsite will be a little easier though a lot of the ground will still be wet. Less snow to deal with means less equipment - no snowshoes or skis required! Other than good, waterproof boots, your equipment needs would be standard, depending of course on what activities you are planning. Mosquitoes will start to become an issue.
Not a good time to cross without a bridge! West Branch Laramie River Flow chart from May 27th to June 3rd, 2010 on the Upper Michigan River. The vertical lines represent 12 midnight. Note the time of day of the highs and lows. Flows bottom out in late morning and, in hot weather, skyrocket from there till mid to late evening. On May 28th temperatures reached 90 degrees F in Fort Collins, which accounts for the dramatic spike on the graph. While the flows on this stream are relatively low, the pattern for headwater drainages is unmistakable. If one crossed this stream at 10 in the morning on the 28th, they would find drastically different conditions upon their return at 4 in the afternoon.
An Average Snowpack Thunder Pass, June 28th, 1981 - elevation 11,300 - A light snowpack year.
Moves it all back a little, depending on which side of average, roughly two to three weeks. Conditions around the beginning of July would be similar to above. Early arrivals will spend a fair amount of time dealing with snow and the difficulties associated with it. Dry campsites will be tougher to find. South facing aspects will hold the best possibilities, north facing the least. Mosquitoes will probably be absent before July 1st.
With more snow cover comes lower temperatures, plan on carrying a bit more cold weather gear. A ground cloth or footprint for your tent is essential. Spending more time on snow also means having more sun protection - hat, sunglasses & sunscreen at least.
A Heavy Snowpack
Can move it back another two to three weeks, so you could be looking at the 2nd or 3rd week in July before finding a lot of open ground above 10,000 ft. Those heading in to elevations above 9,000 to 9,500 ft before the 1st of July will be spending almost all their time on snow. Dry campsites will be difficult to find, camping on snow may be your only option. Be prepared for cold temperatures when the sun is beyond the horizons. Mosquitoes will be non-existent.
Spending most of your time on snow means maximus sun protection required, glacier glasses might be advisable in addition to the usual stuff. Snowshoes or skis might make traveling easier and faster, especially if you’re covering a lot of miles. See the equipment section below for more detail.
If you get to the trailhead and find these conditions, it might be a good time to go with Plan B if you think you’re not prepared.
Some Specifics to Think AboutStream Crossings
It’s a given that all will be running high early on. In some areas like the Wind River Range, where glaciers and drainages are large, early season stream crossings can be downright dangerous!
I learned the hard way that there’s another issue which can arise when crossing relatively small, headwater streams. Early in the morning, the flow mirrors the cold overnight temperatures and is at it’s 24 hour lowpoint. As the day warms and temperatures in the snowpack above you rise, flows can go from manageable to out of control in a few hours. That little creek you crossed in the early morning could turn into a raging torrent by mid afternoon and stay that way into the night.
Case in point:
Had this happen once in mid-June in the Colorado Rockies. The first crossing at mid-morning was a little tough but we made it across with no problems. On the way back in mid-afternoon, it was a different story. The flow appeared to have doubled and the creek looked uncross-able. We ended up spending a good deal of time and effort, before finally making it across safely.
Plan ahead for an afternoon return trip crossing before you’re confronted with it. If you think it might be undoable, don’t do it!
Traveling over Snow
If your early season travels involve a lot of snow, all is not necessarily lost. By early June the snowpack is usually firm enough in general, to travel over without snowshoes. In the mornings, especially early, the snow can provide a very solid, consistent surface over which to travel.
As the sun climbs higher and temperatures warm, the snow can soften enough to slow you down considerably. The biggest problem is that the risk of post-holing increases on the soft snow, particularly below timberline. Avoid walking near the base of trees, fallen timber and rocks protruding through the snow. More heat is absorbed by these objects, which creates “hollows” around them. Step too close to these and you’ll go down. If you do, you risk injury by twisting an ankle or knee. A nasty gash could be the result if you go down next to a downed tree, especially if you’re wearing shorts.
Another reason to avoid postholing is dealing with the aftermath. Getting back up will require a good deal of effort, especially if you’re carrying a backpack. If it happens often, you may quickly run out of energy and time. Snowshoes will prevent post-holing but it’s extra gear and weight that you might not need.
Must be up to the test. Keeping everything dry is a major concern. Number one issue is you’ve got to have good, waterproof boots. A synthetic sleeping bag might be a better choice than down at least in terms of dealing with the risk of your stuff getting wet. Be prepared for cold. More snow cover means colder overnight temps. If you feel the need for snowshoes, smaller, trail shoes should be adequate. For traveling longer distances, particularly at or above timberline, skis can be the ticket. A set of climbing skins could come in handy for extended climbs as well.
If this sounds like a lot of weight to carry, it is! Another reason why I avoid going high early.
Advantages of Early Season Travel
Early season travel can have it’s advantages, as long as you’re prepared for it. The more snow there is, the less likely you are, to have dealings with the dreaded mosquito, and that’s a beautiful thing!
Another advantage, if you think of it as one, is lack of people. In the mountains of the western U.S., many backpackers and climbers wait till the 4th of July or later to begin their backcountry adventures. Also, the farther you’re prepared to travel over snow, the less people you’ll encounter.
If you’re equipped for it, snow travel can be easier, especially if you’ve got skis and you’re heading downhill!! For those interested in fishing, some of the best conditions can be found at or right after ice-out.
So, after all this is said: What conditions can you expect on an early trip into the mountains? The answer is - depending on the year, all of the above. Planning for a trip in June in the upper reaches of any mountain range can be a tough proposition. Going early can mean dealing with a variety of adverse conditions.
If you know that, you’ll be better prepared. If you know what type of snowpack you’ll be running into, you’ll be even better prepared. If you can get a last minute conditions update from a reliable source, you’ll have as much information as you can reasonably expect, at least until you see the conditions firsthand.
Be realistic about your plans, be flexible if you have to be and, just in case you need it, have a Plan B in your back pocket.
Links to check conditionsWestern States Snowpack Data
USGS Streamflow Data:
USGS Real-Time Water Data
2011 Snowpack Conditions Update
Generally speaking, this year's snowpack in the Western US was a monster, at least north of the 38th parallel through Utah then angling down toward Southern California. Depths and moisture content of the pack were 2 to 3 times the statistical averages. Lower late spring temps and additional May and early June snowfall pushed the melt farther back. The result is a heavy snowpack, one of the heaviest in recent times.
Thankfully, weather conditions have caused the snow to melt slowly and to this point the result has been high, sustained river flows. In some areas, perhaps because of the higher moisture content, the snowpack is denser than normal which seems to be causing it to melt more slowly. Read one report of heavy equipment being able to drive over the snow in Northern Colorado without sinking.
As stated above, this means you may have to wait until the 2nd or 3rd week of July before finding much open ground above 10,000 ft in the Rockies and Sierras.