Saturday, May 1, 2010

Snow difficulties for PCT hikers

“Bacon,” “Yellowstone,” “Skyward,“ “Trailhacker,” “Backtrack,” “Nitro,” “Schroomer” — each year Pacific Crest Trail through hikers known by their trail names stop in Idyllwild not long after beginning their 2,650 mile northward trek to the Canadian border. This year they are challenged by late snow. Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit (RMRU) conducted an April snow survey that found 3 feet of snow still in the Saddle and likely more in the high country.

As a result, some PCT’ers are opting to rent vans to skirt local snow and ice encrusted sections of the trail and return at the end of their 6-month jaunt to complete the section they missed. Of the 300 or so hikers that begin, roughly 60 percent complete the entire trail to receive certification as “2600-Milers.”

Surprised by a six-inch Idyllwild snowfall on Wednesday and Thursday April 21 and 22, many hikers hunkered down in Idyllwild to wait out conditions, rethink next steps and regroup. One hiker, “Trailhacker,” fell down a snow and ice chute and had to be airlifted off Apache Peak, at a much lower elevation than local sections of the trail a little farther on. News of the cautionary episode spread through town and southward to hikers just approaching our local mountains.

“Shroomer,” Scott Williams from Martinez, California, was one who was opting for van rental and returning to the San Jacintos at the conclusion of his hike. He, as had others, had heard about Trailhacker’s fall and rescue. “We’re all talking to each other,” he said. “A bunch of people are still planning to go up [the week of the 26th],” he worried.

The local PCT office notified hikers of the potential dangers but can’t prevent hikers from going on through dangerous sections. PCT representative Sam Commarto acknowledged the risks but said, “It’s their hike and their adventure. We’re advising them that if they do this section they must have snow equipment, compass and maps. People need to be cautious.”

Trailhackers girlfriend came to get him on April 27th — his through hike deferred for this year.

Although bad for hikers, Idyllwild’s late snows are good for the mountain. Still, locals who know how surprisingly treacherous San Jacinto can be with late spring snow, have to worry about those PCT hikers who opt to continue on the mostly north facing high elevation sections of the trail.

Through hiker John Donovan from Virginia disappeared on May 2, 2005, much like this year, in a late spring snow. Donovan, whose remains were found a year later in a box canyon, almost a year to the day he disappeared, apparently lost the trail in snow.

Many hikers, not just those on the PCT, seriously underestimate these mountains. That mistake has too often proved to be fatal.

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