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Fall Report: Carson-Iceberg loop on PCT and TYT, Oct 2011 | High Sierra Backpacker

Fall Report: Carson-Iceberg loop on PCT and TYT, Oct 2011

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 27 October 2011


Looping the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness on the Pacific Crest and Tahoe to Yosemite Trails

The Trip

This trip was planned to depart the Silver Valley trailhead on the Eastern side of Lake Alpine on Highway 4 Southbound to follow the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail route South to Saint Marys Pass on Highway 108.

From Saint Marys Pass we were to walk a mile East to enter the Pacific Crest Trail through Sonora Pass, hiking North to Wolf Creek Pass. From Wolf Creek Pass we planned on dropping down the Highland Creek Trail to rejoin the TYT at the head of Spicer Meadow Reservior. From Spicer we were to backtrack the TYT back to the Silver Valley Trailhead.

Silver Valley Trailhead

Above: Silver Valley Trailhead 

This trip had two objectives. First, to provide you with information about Fall conditions in the Sierra Nevada Mountains as we just experienced them in late October 2011, between the 22nd and 26th.

East Sierra Ice setting in for the season

Above: Ice covered all E Sierra Streams

Second, this trip introduces you to the options you have for exploring the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness through this grand 80 mile tour following the TYT and PCT around the Carson-Iceberg. Alas, the best laid plans of mice and men...

This trip, or one of its shorter variants described below, offers multitudes of excellent loops exploring the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness along these classic trails.

The Carson-Iceberg Wilderness is worth getting to know. Let's look at the constraints of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, which are the constraints of this trip.

The Carson-Iceberg Wilderness

The Iceberg, along the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River

Above: The Iceberg, along the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River

The length of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness features the Tahoe to Yosemite route running North and South along it's Western Flank, while the Pacific Crest Trail traces the Sierra Crestline with a decidedly Eastern aspect. The North side of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness is bounded by HIghway 4. The Southern limit of the Wildernes is Highway 108. Let's review the trail guide information I've got online so far...

Trail Guide Index

Big Trail Map

TYT and PCT topo map index

Tahoe to Yosemite Miles and Elevations

Pacific Crest Trail Miles and Elevations

On its Northern side, the Pacific Crest Trail crosses Highway 4 at Ebbetts Pass. 14.2 miles West down Highway 4 sits Lake Alpine. The Tahoe to Yosemite Trail crosses Highway 4 on the East Side of Lake Alpine.

Southbound hikers on both trails cross Highway 4 to enter the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. Northbound hikers are exiting the Carson-Iceberg to enter the Mokelumne Wilderness. The Mokelumne Wilderness begins a bit to the North of Highway 4, and reaches North to Carson Pass.

The East-West route of  Highway 108 bounds the Southern side of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. At the top of HIghway 108 the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the Sonora Pass Highway running North and South. A mile down the Western flank from Sonora Pass the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail exits the Carson-Iceberg through the Saint Marys Pass Trailhead on Highway 108.

Goal: A New Perspective on the Carson-Iceberg

The route of this trip is designed to explore the whole length of the Carson-Iceberg's West side by hiking South along the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail, and, turning North at Sonora Pass, we plan on seeing the Eastern aspects of the Carson-Iceberg from the vantage point of a Northbound hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, back to Highway 4.

I've walked both of these routes many times before, but I've never looped the Carson-Iceberg in one trip. Except for my trips through the rough East Carson and my Wintertime explorations around Sonora Pass, I generally am passing through the Carson-Iceberg on the way to someplace else. The Carson-Iceberg is generally part of a longer hike up to Tahoe or down to Tuolumne or Whitney. Not this time.

Our plan involves circling the Carson-Iceberg along these two main backpacking routes. Our original plan was to head South on the TYT and return North via the PCT. Though we had to shorten the trip a bit due to time constraints, we achieved our main objectives.

Reality vs Desire

Though we did not complete the whole 79 mile loop of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness down to Highway 108, we pulled off a pretty cool 51 mile loop composed of the main elements of the Tahoe to Yosemite and Pacific Crest trails that I wanted to see.

We turned Northeast out of the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River at Boulder Creek to climb up to the Pacific Crest Trail and turn North just a bit South of Golden Canyon.

Our time constraints forced us to turn short of Saint Marys Pass to join the PCT.  

Therefore I still have no pictures or videos of the section of the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail between the Bear Creek Junction with the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus up to Saint Marys Pass. A comprehensive report on this section is fourthcoming.

If you have images of the section between Boulder Creek and Saint Marys Pass along the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus, hit me up. I'm just getting to composing the section of the Tahoe to Whitney Trail Guide between Highways 4 and 108. 

The Trip as Planned

This trip started at the Silver Trailhead on the Eastern end of Lake Alpine on Highway 4.

Here the Southbound Tahoe to Yosemite hiker enters the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, until exiting Saint Marys Pass at Highway 108. Our original route was planned to enjoy the length of the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail through the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness.

I have that distance at 34.64 miles.

From Saint Mary's Pass we were going to walk the mile East up to the Sonora Pass, and return North to Lake Alpine via the Pacific Crest Trail. To return to Lake Alpine we would have to reconnect with the TYT from the PCT, rather than following the Pacific Crest Trail to it's termination of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness at Ebbetts Pass.

At Wolf Creek Pass we were to depart the PCT to head SW past Highland Lakes to follow the Highland Creek Trail down to the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail junction at the mouth of Jenkins Canyon, just above the North end of Spicer Meadow Reservoir. Our turning point Southwest from Wolf Creek Pass is about 7 miles South of Ebbetts Pass along the Pacific Crest Trail.

From there we were to backtrack down to our earlier Southbound route on the TYT at Spicer Meadow Reservior, but this time hiking North, back to our car at Lake Alpine's Silver Valley Trailhead.

I have that distance at 43.53 miles.  

Original Trip Miles

Lake Alpine South on the TYT to Saint Marys Pass: 34.64 miles.

Saint Marys to Sonora Pass: 1 mile.

Sonora Pass North on the PCT to HIghland Lakes, back to Lake Alpine via the TYT: 43.53 miles.

The total planned miles for this route were 79.17 miles.


Carson-Iceberg Miles and Elevations

PCT: Ebbetts Pass to Sonora Pass

TYT: Lake Alpine to Saint Marys Pass


Fellow Hiker

The "Ari" I refer to in the following report is Ardalan Yaghmaie, a hiker I met at Tuolumne Meadows in 2009. He and his buddy had more enthusium than knowledge, and the fitness to make up the difference.

I had just finished my fourth 470 mile Tahoe to Whitney hike. My explorations and side routes pushed the mileage up. Hitching North on Hwy 395 from Lone Pine after exiting Whitney Portal, I met a Brit climber at Lee Vining while I was sitting outside the store eating cottage cheese.

Yeah, after 40 days on the trail I wanted cottage cheese. And everything else. The Brit Climber (The Nose route) walked up, and said, "I'll give you a ride to T-meadows." He was correct. I was a backpacker, and logic dictated that a backpacker in Lee Vining wants to get up to T-Meadows to go backpacking. So I went with the flow.

Though I was hitching back home after a monster trip, I figured sleeping in the backpacker's camp at T-Meadows beat the hell out of camping alongside Highway 395 in Lee Vining.

When I got to the backpacker's camp at TM long after dark, and too many hours after exiting the Whitney Portal,  I met Ari and his buddy, who were sporting the biggest fire and party at the camp. I had previously walked into the camp of a Federal Agent. He and his old lady were cool, and invited me to throw-down, but Ari and his buddy would not bust me.

The next day I recounted the mileages, elevations, difficulty, and food requirments of the trip they proposed to complete. We worked out a lot of basic facts about backpacking, and have been fast friends since.

Ari is one of the handful of people I've backpacked with during the past 30 years. He is a sound companion on the trail. I should say he does not make too much noise on the trail, and he can take a real beating. Both are soundness issues, one auditory and the other physical. I observe closely and sneak up on lots of critters. A loud companion makes that impossible.

If my foot went South during this trip, which was a possibility, Ari is capable of dealing with the situation.


The Trip on the Ground

The trip as planned on paper turned out to be different from the trip on the ground. Unfortunately, time constraints began to push in from the beginning and the end of the trip.

Obligations at home and work delayed our departure until Saturday, when we were supposed to hit the trail Saturday morning. On the other end, we still had to get Ari back in San Jose by 2:00pm on Thursday for a business meeting. The end-time of the trip was etched in stone and could not be changed. We had to exit the trail very early Thursday morning, at the latest.

We were a day and a half down from the beginning of the trip, with no way to extend the end-time of the trip.

No big deal. I calculated our mileage and time constraints daily. I used these figures to modify our route to get us looped back to the trailhead at the proper time. Thus on day three I shortened the Southern extent of the route by cutting up to the Pacific Crest Trail via Boulder Creek rather than heading all the way South to Saint Marys Pass and turning onto the PCT at Sonora Pass. On day four we had to decide to forgoe cutting back to the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail via Highland Creek, instead opting to exit at Ebbetts Pass and hitch the 14 miles down to our car.

Though our trip started with clear objectives, I also brought along a whole set of alternative route options for just such circumstances. I have backup plans for my backup plans...

Trail Conditions

I can honestly say that I've never seen the trail conditions I just saw this October 2011.

If you followed my Spring Thaw 2011 page, you understand that the Sierra did not clear of snow sufficient for Summer Backpacking Conditions until late August. Though last year was a close second, this year's late opening was the latest in recent memory.

I called "open trails" for the Sierra Nevada on August 21 2011! My hike South on the TYT and North on the PCT revealed the effects of the last two very shortened hiking seasons on trail conditions.

Mole Casings

Do you know what a "mole casing" is? Moles live at all elevations in the Sierra, including the crestline. They do not retreat down mountain during the harshness of Winter. They are snug in their tunnels. Except that the Fall rains and the moisture from ocassional heat waves mess up their tunnels. The moles respond with some serious housekeeping. I also figure they do lots of additions to their tunnel networks during the Spring thaw.

During Winter the moles dig tunnels through the snow above their in-ground tunnels. When they tidy up their in-ground tunnels and do their Spring-time "house" additions, they deposit the resulting soil remnants in their above ground snow tunnels. The moles tightly pack their construction and cleanup dirt into these snow tunnels

When the Spring Thaw melts the snow these "mole casings" become exposed threading through the collapsing snowbanks. When the snow melts, these tubes of dried soil are deposited on the ground.

Mole Casing in the middle of the Pacific Crest Trail in October 2011

Above: Mole Casing in the middle of the Pacific Crest Trail in October 2011

Both the Tahoe to Yosemite and Pacific Crest Trails were fully decorated with mole casings. This is remarkable for the PCT in October. The mole casings are always trod into dust by hikers and riders before early July. I've never seen mole casings on the trail during late Summer, let alone late October.

Mole casings are generally only observable by early Spring backpackers who venture out on the trails before the main bulk of hikers trods them into trail dust. Not this year. Mole casings littered the Pacific Crest Trail between the Boulder Lake junction and Ebbetts Pass.

This indicates just how few hikers and riders ventured onto the trails this last Summer of 2011. So few that the mole casings laid by the melting snow across the trail are still intact. Remarkable. Other indications of the lack of Summer backpackers and horsemen on the trails were also apparent.

The trail bed on the Pacific Crest Trail has diminished. The PCT is the "superhighway" of trails, with a trailbed that can be seen from orbit. (just kidding to make a point...) It is literally cut into and through the terrain. You can see and follow it in the dark, if you have good night vision. It is so distinct that it glows in the dark. Not this year.

The frozen and mud dried trailbed left by the Spring Thaw was not trod by enough hikers during the Summer of 2011 to break it to last year's depth and width in many places along the trail. Many sections of the PCT between Sonora Pass and Ebbetts Pass were lightly trod narrow trail traces. The hand of nature was healing the trails far faster than the boots of men opened them this year.

Trust me, the Pacific Crest Trail has not been lightly treaded for decades. The trail conditions this Fall were a throwback to an earlier era...or the product of a couple of seasons of incredibly late thaws.

In practical terms, I followed the trails of the very few travelers who passed through these sections of the PCT and TYT during the past 10 days. Some tracks were earlier than that, but unreliable to read. Tracks were actually sparse on the PCT and non-existant along great sections of the TYT. The lightly trod trail is easily swept clean of tracks by frosts. Here's how it looks on the trail.

The trail below looks normal, but it is not.

2 inches of frost under decptive trail surface.

 Closer inspection revealed that all of the surface, including good-sized rocks, is suspended up to 2.5 inches off of the actual surface of the ground.

Two inches of growing ice crystals have raised the trail surface.

Two-plus inches of growing ice crystals have raised the trail surface.

Two inches of ice crystals lifting and cleaning the trail.

The net effect of the above process is to sweep all tracks from the affected portions of trail. Therefore it is always good practice to note "trail frosts," so that you can estimate the age of a track from the reference point of the last time the trails were cleared of tracks by ice crystal growth.

In practical terms the low backpacker traffic during the last two hiking season means that the next "good" Summer is going to be a big year for backpackers, if the weather ever lets them back in.

This year's short season has built up a lot of backpacker's desires to hit the trail, which has been seriously truncated during the last two very short Summers. The next "normal" Summer in the Sierra is going to bring record traffic and visitors up and down the Sierra Nevada. You heard it first here. Backpackers are ready to go...

The Tahoe to Yosemite Trail through the Carson-Iceberg

The TYT was devoid of recent trails until we picked up the signs of the cowboys who pack in to clear their stock. I found two camps that they worked out of, and tracked their progress (through their tracks) as they had used the trails to sweep the mountains of their stock. They departed 10 days to two weeks ago, as their tracks and previous history tell it. But indications of their activities were apparent. Their degrading hoof-prints, and the tracks of the mules that packed them out, were plainly visible, though fading with each day. There was no indication of recent through traffic on the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail through the Carson-Iceberg. The PCT showed slightly more activity.

Two hikers crossed between Sonora and Ebbetts Pass on the PCT in the 10 days before my trip, along with one mounted traveler. Though the nightly freeze was clearing huge parts of the trail of all tracks, protected areas and  shealtered sandy areas revealed all. The trail showed me that three travelers passed between Sonora and Ebbetts Passes during the past 10 days, two single backpackers and one single mounted.

Trail Buddies

As we entered the Clarks Fork Trailhead at the top of the paved road, I noticed a familiar truck parked there. A Toy with the licence Dipper Fly must be Brendan Steinman's truck. Brenden is a backcountry hunting and fishing guide that picked me up hitchiking at Tuolumne Meadows after I completed a Tahoe to Yosemite trip in 2009.

Strangely enough, this was the first of three rides out of TM that gave me a ride from my exiting trailhead directly to my doorstep over 200 miles away. That is incredible luck for an exhausted long-distance backpacker coming off the trail. I kept a keen eye out for Brenden as we looped through the Clarks Fork to the PCT via Boulder Creek, but there were no indications of his presence on the trails.

I contacted Brenden when we returned from this trip, and sure enough that was his truck and he was running around the mountains around the Clarks Fork with guns looking for deer. There were virtually no deer up in the mountains for the circumfrance of our loop, which is significant. I did not see any tracks at all until the second day, and deer tracks were rare around the whole length of my trip.

Brenden Stienman hunting the Carson Iceberg near the Clarks Fork

Above: Brenden Steinman hunting the Carson Iceberg near the Clarks Fork

Check out Brenden at Dipper Fly Fishing


Tahoe to Yosemite Trail

No one crossed the whole TYT section we crossed during the past 10 days, though indications of day hikers out of remote trail heads were apparent near the trailheads. No consistent tracks marked the passage of recent travelers.

Though the TYT revealed little recent traffic, the last two year's shortened hiking season really affected its already degraded trail conditions.

Once we headed South past Rock Lake (4.7 miles S of Lake Alpine on the TYT), the trail became very faint and blocked by many fallen trees and recent growth from the last couple of seasons. Ari and I took this extra work in stride, as just another part of this remote trail route.

 I had to really pay attention to follow traces of the trailbed through too many sections to recount. The trail was gone crossing all meadows and sections of moving soil. Gone. Meadows and moving soil eat trailbed, as you know. The last two year's heavy Winter snows and late Spring snowpacks have degraded the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail across these surfaces, and fallen trees have not been cut for a couple of years. No big deal. The faint trail is easily followable, though it causes a bit more pondering time and a bit more work.

The heavy Winter and Spring conditions for the last couple of seasons will make the opening of the 2012 Summer Backpacking Season happen on the most virgin trail conditions that the Pacific Crest and Tahoe to Yosemite Trails have seen for 20 years. These trails will be as faint and as exciting as they have been for decades. Good hiking conditions are ahead!

Terrain and Trail Logic

When I encounter these faint trail sections I follow the logic of the terrain, and look to the far edge of the meadow or mudflat where I expect the logic of the terrain to bring me and the trail next. This is part of my "map in hand" oriented stlye of hiking.

When I enter a valley I use the best overlook to view the terrain with my map in hand from my vantage point to sus out where the logic of the terrain is going to bring the trail into and out of the valley. Once I have this information, I can, when backed up by my map and compass, point myself in the correct direction once I'm stuck in a trackless forest in the depths of the valley. When I depart the valley I look back at my route to correct my perceptive errors when I was first observing, and then crossing the valley.

Once we started down through Woods Gulch towards the Clarks Fork via Arnot Creek, things were cool with the trail down to the paved road. Reentering the trail at the end of the Clarks Fork Road we found fine conditions until we cut up Boulder Creek to join up with the PCT.

Though it is a good route, the trail from Boulder Lake to the PCT fades into informed guesses a few times prior to linking up with the PCT South of Golden Canyon. (This is bordering on one of my favorite locations in the Carson-Iceberg, the East Carson River) If you have good information, intuition, and route finding skills these faded sections on this trail will present no problems at all. And if they do, your route finding skills will bring you to your destination, if not the trail itself.

East Carson River Valley from the Pacific Crest Trail

Above: East Carson River Valley from the Pacific Crest Trail

Ari's National Forest Carson-Iceberg map from 2009 does not depict the trail from Boulder Creek up to the PCT, though my NF map from 1988 does. It's a split decision: parts of the trail are gone, but the unmaintained trail bed is still there.

Are old maps better than new ones? Only when your comparison and contrasting of the two reveal the nature of the trail and terrain that confronts you, with the old maps revealing routes omitted on the new. The Boulder Creek/Lake connector trail between the PCT and TYT is just such a place.

Ari's map informed me that the trail may not be up to snuff, while my map told me that there was a trail through there at one time, which means that there is likely a followable route there now.

I depended on my experience to show me where it was. And it was no big deal. But I was informed of the potential for a bit of cross-country by the discrepency of the maps.

Let's get some definitions straight.

Trail: Maintained with current trailbed visible and marked with ducks, sign posts, and/or blazes.

Unmaintained Trail: Though not maintained the majority of the original  trailbed is visible or findable between sections swept away by the power of snow and thaw within nature.

Trail Route: After a decade or two of unmaintained status with light backpacker traffic the trailbed of an unmaintained trail will revert to Route status. The only remnants of the trailbed are maintained by animal traffic and these trailbed remnants no longer connect to other bits of ancient trailbed, as the animals destinations differ from our goals. Yet a viable route through the terrain remains, but crossing these sections of terrain are dependent upon your navigation skills and a crossing cannot be made by following trail, ducks, or blazes.

A route requires you self-navigate without outside help.

Paper Weather

On paper the weather looked good for the whole span of the trip. A moderate high was scheduled to pass over us from North to South on Tuesday-Wendsday. This high was passing through the high that was already sitting over the Western US. It was a high on a high.

I did not gain this information from weather forecasts, but from the weather maps. Viewing the maps in conjunction with the forecast gives a higher degree of understanding of the underlaying logic of the forecast.

I figured a bit of light rain or snow might accompany this high as it passed over our high elevation position. So we had two things to look out for. First, route modifications to keep us within our schedule. Second, we had to keep a close eye on the weather, to make sure it stayed within the predicted parameters.

Trail Options

Besides watching the excellent weather conditions for degradation and unexpected turns for the worse, we also kept an eye on shortcuts back to Lake Alpine. We carefully checked the looping options we had for heading back North on the Pacific Crest Trail at any time after departing South from Lake Alpine on the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail.

There are numerous trails that connect the TYT and PCT through the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. I always like to have all my options on the table. 

This is no problem. I calculated our daily mileages, projected our progress along our planned route, determined our deficiency, then noted our potential route modifications to end the trip at the appointed time, or bail out quickly if the weather turned bad.

We were constantly calculating our options in the face of the changing situations.

Modifications on the Fly

As we lost a whole day on Saturday, and as our Thursday morning departure was unchangable, I began to consider route alterations from the very first steps South out of Lake Alpine. As the Tahoe to Yosemite and Pacific Crest Trails run parallel through the Western and Eastern sections of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, we had a few options for shortening our loop to fit within our time constraints.

A review of my Pacific Crest Trail map between Ebbetts and Sonora Passes reveals these connector trails between the Tahoe to Yosemite and Pacific Crest Trail. Our options for shortening our loop were, heading North to South along the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail:

Highland Creek on the TYT up to Wolf Creek Pass on the PCT

Arnot Creek  on the TYT up to Gardiner Meadow on the PCT 

Disaster Creek on the TYT up to Golden Canyon on the PCT (or North up to near Gardiner Meadow.)

Boulder Creek  on the TYT up to Boulder Peak  on the PCT

The first location above is along the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail, while the second location is where the trail connects-up with the Pacific Crest Trail. Each of these options would allow us to shorten our loop while still hiking South on the Tahoe to Yosemite and North on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Note that each of these loops is an excellent potential backpacking trip of increasing distance and difficulty, until you reach the maximum extent of this loop at Highway 108, and cover all of the Pacific Crest and Tahoe to Yosemite trails that loop through the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness.

If you have not explored the Carson-Iceberg one of these loops, or the big loop may be the perfect trip you've been looking for.

The Final Trip

Here's the trip plan as it worked out on the trail.

Saturday: 4:30 arrival @ Lake Alpine, to Rock Lake 4.7 miles. (We stayed up until midnight partying. Then we slept in Sunday morning...to ease the transition from the city to the trail.)

Sunday: TYT South. Rock Lake to top of Jenkins Canyon: 8.95 miles

Monday: TYT South. Top of Jenkins to Boulder Creek on Clarks Fork: 16.64 miles

Tuesday: TYT-PCT North. Boulder Creek to PCT, to N of Murray Canyon: 11.64

Wednesday: PCT North. Murray Canyon to Ebbetts Pass, 3:00pm 9.63 miles


Total Miles: 51.55 miles

Total Time: Saturday 4:30 pm to Wendsday 3:30 pm.

Almost exactly 4 full days.


Real Weather Conditions

I carefully tracked the backpacking weather conditions leading up to our departure date. A six day forecast of clear and warm weather saw us off on our trip. You should understand that the first three days of a forecast are very reliable, while the last four days are increasingly less reliable. Thus I always become especially virgilent for indications of changing weather when the forecasts are three days old.

Fall weather conditions were predicted to be exceptional during the span of our trip between Saturday October 22 and 26 in the Carson Iceberg Wilderness. But I only trusted the forecast out to Monday...then I trust my observations and experiences to guide my actions from that point.

Saturday through Tuesday.

Fine daytime temps in the 60s. Ari and I stayed up until midnight Saturday night, and it was 40 degrees at midnight. Morning also brought 40 degrees. Sunday was another nice day in the 60s, though it hit 40 by 8 pm, four hours earlier than the previous evening. 

Monday morning revealed mositure in the sky. Streamers appeared as the temps rose before Sunrise, a beautiful but ominious sign. The rising sun turned the morning moisture red. The skies cleared nicely towards noon.

Daytime hiking Monday was cooler but still comfortable. Monday evening brought heavy dew. Tuesday morning was still warm, recording 40 degrees at sunrise.

At 11 am Tuesday great thunderheads started to appear rising up the Western flank of the Sierra. They looked exactly like Summertime afternoon thunderheads so common during Sierra Summers. But these rising cumulus clouds were not forming in the same conditions: The radical temp declines they experienced climbing up the Sierra flank were not sufficient to trigger thunder and lightening as they would during the Summer. Nope. During Fall this temp change triggers snow.

This was cold air was becoming colder, rather than warm air cooling.

Hail, Snow, and Cold Temps on the Pacific Crest Trail in October 2011

Above: Hail, Snow, and Cold Temps on the Pacific Crest Trail in October 2011

By noon on Tuesday the thunderheads had dissapated into thick clouds moving very slowly over the Sierra Crest, spitting light snow and hail onto the trails. The temps dropped below freezing during Tuesday afternoon, and daytime temps remained in the 30s for the rest of our trip, through Wendsday.

I suspected we were experiencing the Fall version of Sierra Summer thunderstorms. This means that heated air from the valley was being blown up the West flank, where it would condense in the cool Fall air as snow, instead of rain as would happen during Summertime. As soon as the heat stopped blowing up the Sierra flank from The Valley it would stop snowing and clear up.

Tuesday night I recorded a temp of 24 degrees one mile South of the Murray Canyon trail junction on the Pacific Crest Trail. With the cold, snow, and heavy clouds Ari decided to put up his tent. I urged him to defer until after dark, when I predicted it would stop snowing. If he put up his tent during the snow he would subject it to wetness. I told him that waiting a bit would remove the threat of wetness, and that after the snow stopped it would clear nicely.

Ari decided to use the tent for warmth and wind protection. After dark the snow stopped falling and the skies cleared completely.

I knew this would happen because I correctly identified the snow as local weather, caused by local conditions. In the "big picture," I knew that this was no storm blowing in, no blowing winds, and no indications that a new weather pattern of sustained power had, or was, in the process of blowing in.

I recorded temps in the mid-20s Tuesday evening and Wendsday morning. It felt like it got down to the mid-teens during Tuesday night, though I did not take a reading. Clear dark skies brought spectacular displays in the star-filled skies as well as cold temps Tuesday evening.

Tuesday and Wendsday

24 degrees greeted us Wendsday morning, and the daytime temps did not rise out of the 30s before our departure from the wilderness that afternoon.

Perfect temps turned the creek North of Murray Canyon into slush.

Above: Perfect temps froze the creek North of Murray Canyon into layers of slush.

Weather and Gear


I previously recommended that Summer Gear be reinforced with elements of Fall gear in late September. The next step of gear reinforcement is now upon us.

We have now made the transition to weather conditions and potential changes in weather that demand full Fall Gear, reinforced by elements of your Winter Gear kit as required by conditions.

I was running a "beefed-up" Summer kit for this trip. This means my base-layer was still established for Summertime conditions, but I reinforced it with extra layers of insulation. That time is now past. It is time to employ full Fall gear, with the elements of Winter gear necessary to cover the potential weather changes and issues.

When I say "beefed-up" Summer gear, I am being modest. I am 10 months out from a frostbite injury that threatened to take the front of my right foot, but only got the tip of my big toe. Ouch. This is my first trip out since then. I had many issues to watch out for, including how the still-healing tip of my toe would respond, how my damaged foot structure would deal with the incredible stresses of a full pack over steep miles, and how the rest of my neglected injuries would respond to extended hard work. But first on my list was keeping my damn foot warm.

In pursuit of foot warmth I brought a zero degree bag. Synthetic. 5.5 frkn pounds of warmth in any conditions. I backed that up with down booties for camp. Under that was a fine selection of dry heavy wool socks (I brought 4 pairs) sitting on top of poly foot liners. My foot would not have gotten cold in an Arctic Winter.

From this time in the seasonal progression on I will now run a poly base layer. Ari made the transition during the trip, when the temps plunged on Tuesday and Wendsday. I stood strong with my Summer layering, complimented by a long-sleeved poly upper after the daytime temps stayed in the 30s on Tuesday and Wendesday.

A typical poly Fall base layer is composed of thin poly pants and a tank top. For my Winter base layer I use thick poly uppers and lowers as my base layer over the thin poly Fall layer.

For Fall conditions lIght Summertime gloves need to be replaced by medium gloves. A down coat must be carried. A thicker sock system must be employed, with the option of adding poly liners. The sleeping bag must get down to a minimum of 20 for Fall conditions, though I measure nightime tolerances by what you can take with all your clothes on, in your bag, in your tent. That's the bottom line. 

Though it is not yet time for the full Winter Kit, your Fall setup must be ready for deepening and unexpected snaps of very cold conditions. The possibility of a temp plunge must be anticipated.

When the weather shifts to full Winter conditions this Spring/Fall poly layer becomes a thicker poly layer, the gloves will become heavy, and the medium shell will be traded in for a heavy mountain shell. Snowshoes, snow boots, and poles foritfy the Winter travel gear.

Right now you must use a quality Fall gear kit smartly reinforced with the elements of Winter gear you may find yourself needing.

Check out the Gear List for ideas and recommendations.


Gear Tests

MSR MiniWorks water filter: Failed. It was funny. Ari started cursing at it. He was working like a dog to make Noble Lake's crap water filter. He wanted to spend his energy hiking, or at least enjoying the view. Working like a dog to slowly filter water is not cool, and his curses well described  the MSR water filter experience.

Ari discusses the MSR while using it in the field

Above: Ari discusses the MSR while using it in the field

I tried and chucked the MSR filter years ago. It's garbage. I told them, REI, and anyone else who would listen that it is not a practical backcountry filter. Back then MSR was bragging about how the US Marines were using the MiniWorks. I said then that the grunts deserved better gear. I hope the government has equipped them with the Hiker

I say that as a long time user and lover of many MSR products, even after Cascade Design took them over. The CD kids are a good bunch, and have maintained the MSR spirit, even during this era, the age of empire...but the filter is sub-par.

Sweetwater: Sucks. As slow as the MSR, and that's an insult. I loan my Sweetwater to people who want to hike but have no gear. I would curse them with the MSR, but I made REI take that back...I won't even hang it on my gear wall, though the Sweetwater stays in my personal gear kit. Don't get me wrong: the Sweetwater is not good enough to use it, though it is good enough to keep to loan it out to my gear-deficient friends.

Hiker Pro: reliable, quick, and cheap for over 10 years. Katadine bought the line a long time ago, and my 25 dollar bomb-proof filter now costs 75 bucks! God knows what replacement filters cost, but I'm guessing it's more than the original pump and filter. Damn.


MSR Reactor Stove System: Good overall performer, though Ari's fuel cannister froze...in Fall! MSR says it's a good stove for cold weather. I call bull on that. That's why I gave up compressed gas stoves for white gas. White gas always burns.

MSR Reactor in Spring Snow field test, Round Top Lake

Above: MSR Reactor in Spring Snow field test, Round Top Lake

Yet the Reactor has proven reliable and effecient in a wide variety of circumstances. The trick is its design as a "system." The cooking pot is tightly fit to the burner for maximal fuel efficiency. Little heat excapes without warming the pot.

The Reactor is exceptional at quickly heating lots of water, but It took Ari a while to figure out how to get it to simmer. But he did, and it now simmers dried foods to perfection.


MSR XGK II (Pre-Shaker Jet): I've used this stove successfully for four season travel for over 20 years. A classic.

MSR XGK II (Pre-Shaker Jet)

Above: MSR XGK II (Pre-Shaker Jet), four-season champ of the field.

For more information on this classic mountaineering stove, check out Adventures In Stoving for a great article on the history of this awesome stove. Yeah, it's heavy. Get over it. Today's "heavy" gear was yesterday's ultralight...

I will write more detailed reports on gear tests during this trip and post them in the gear section.


An Interesting Approach: PCT-TYT LOOPS

From Carson Pass to the the Northern boundary of Yosemite the Tahoe to Yosemite and Pacific Crest Trails split the Sierra Crest. The TYT generally follows the Western Flank, while the PCT sticks to the Crest and Eastern aspects of the Sierra.

Rather than hiking each as a "through" trail, I am going to tie them together in grand regional loops. For example, hiking the TYT South from Carson Pass to Lake Alpine, then head back from Ebbetts Pass to Carson Pass on the PCT.

The PCT covers the Eastern Side of the Mokelumne Wilderness South of Carson Pass, while the TYT explores the Western Side of the Mokelumne Wilderness. Further South the situation continues through the Stanislaus National Forest.

The PCT explores the Eastern side of the Carson-Iceberg, while the TYT passes through its Western half. The same is true of the Emigrant Wilderness, South of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness.

The PCT barely scratches the Emigrant Wilderness South of Sonora Pass, while the TYT passes through the heart of the Emigrant Wilderness on the way to the N boundary of Yosemite.

What I'm getting at is that each wilderness between Tahoe and Yosemite has the PCT on the East side, and the TYT on the West side. Now it's time to I tied them together in grand loops around their respective wilderness areas. The TYT and PCT are like peanut butter and chocolate. It's time to put them together into tasty loops through some of America's most beautiful wilderness.

The Tahoe to Yosemite and Pacific Crest trails take completely different routes through the same Wilderness Areas South of Carson Pass down to the Northern boundary of Yosemite. I've hiked both routes multiple times, and many loops and short trips up and down the Sierra.

But I've never put together loops that tie together the Pacific Crest and Tahoe to Yosemite routes to circle the wilderness areas they share.

Sounds like a long term hiking plan. 

I'm going to pursue a new long-term aspect to my hiking plans: Besides four-season backpacking, occassional Tahoe to Whitney hikes, and visiting my annual trip locations, I'm going to try to hike loops putting together the PCT and TYT trails through their respective wilderness.

This is going to be lots of fun.

 Come along for the hikes...


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