Now that summer is almost here, I can feel the seasonal pull of the High Sierra. Usually, by this time of the year, I am busy laying out my summer trips into the wilderness backcountry of our local national parks.
This year, however, I find myself facing confusion on all sides. Even hiking is getting more complicated these days.
It used to be so simple. All one had to do was wait for the snow to melt and then hit the trail to one’s favorite places. To figure out when the hiking season started, I simply kept an eye on Alta Peak, the 11,200-foot-high mountain visible from my house in Three Rivers. When the snow was gone from the southwestern side of the mountain, most of the trails were ready to be enjoyed.
But these days, the game has changed. In winters like the last few, when there is only a minimal snowpack, the trails may appear to be open well before it is wise to head into the high country.
The last few weeks provide a perfect example. Two months ago, with the snow already mostly gone from Alta Peak, I laid plans to hit the trail this past week with an early season trip to Silliman Pass and Ranger Lakes.
Circumstances intervened, of course. Unlike February and March, this May has proved to be unsettled and damp in our local mountains. We’ve had several high country snowstorms, in fact, which must have challenged those who did decide to make an early-season hiking trip.
Having no particular urge to camp while it snowed, I have put off my planned trip until June, but that brings up another set of new questions.
Not so many years ago, the last thing one usually worried about while hiking in the Sierra was finding water. Early in the summer, most streams surged with snowmelt, and the challenge was not finding water to drink but rather getting across all the streams safely.
But once again, the pattern has been different these past few summers. Even right now, in May, most high country streams are flowing at the low levels we used to think of as typical of late July.
Mid-summer hikers this year are likely to see even major high country streams reduced to bare trickles. Those who do not plan ahead may find themselves in for some long, thirsty stretches of waterless trail.
By now you can see my problem. Picking a time to go hiking used to be so simple – we just waited until the winter snowpack was gone. Now, the trails open much earlier than they used to, but late spring storms can still trap you into uncomfortable conditions if you’re not careful. Wait too long, however, and finding water may well be a problem in many areas.
Summer thunderstorms can add another complication. In recent years, many high country observers have noted what seems to be an increase in thunderstorm activity over the highest peaks. In some recent summers, these storms have dropped enough water to even restart dry streams and green up desiccated alpine meadows.
Should I wait this summer for such storms? Whether they will actually arrive in significant numbers this summer to make a difference is anyone’s guess.
Are you confused yet? I am. Right now, I’m waiting for the current unsettled pattern to work itself out and the mountain sunshine to return. With luck I’ll be up on Silliman Pass in mid-June, but who knows. We live in a confusing world these days.
© Wm. Tweed