The Red Zone: No Go in the Snow

by Gillian Larson | posted: April 12, 2016

One of the things I've been obsessed with is watching the snow level along the PCT. This year's El Nino didn't behave as expected, providing less precipitation than expected in the south and heavier snowfall up north than was anticipated. The snow is good news for our drought-depleted reservoirs, but not so good for horseback riding on the PCT.

During my thru-ride in 2014, I quickly learned the folly of attempting to ride where there was snow; it put me in my place every time. Even seemingly small amounts of snow over the trail could disguise dangerous obstacles that might injure my horse if her hooves broke through the surface, making it impossible to know whether what lay beneath was trail, or rocks, or a stream. Just as difficult was the tendency of the snow not to appear as an even blanket over the ground, but instead to accumulate in high mounds and banks which were impossible for us to climb over; there might suddenly been a four or five foot high ice-covered drift blocking the trail, and even if it wasn't particularly long, we still might not be able to cross it simply because it was too high and steep and treacherous to climb onto.

When I got to Idyllwild on April 6th, I learned that there was still snow and ice lingering on Mt. San Jacinto, and the same was true of Big Bear and Mt. Baden-Powell. So I decided that the smartest, safest choice for Shyla and me would be to jump ahead further north to a section of trail with a lower elevation and then come back back and ride the southern sections that we were skipping at a later date, once the snow was gone. It isn't particularly "elegant" to ride in a hopscotch manner like this, and I suppose some purists would take issue with my choice, but it is a decision that I feel I have to make for the safety of my horse. We will still ride all the miles and all the sections, just not always in a completely consecutive fashion.

If I waited to start my ride until all the snow was gone from the southern areas, then I would face a different problem of heat in the desert areas, especially around Mojave, and possibly also run out of time and encounter a potential early snowfall by the time I got into northern Washington later in the year. So this is a calculated decision that I feel I have to make to give my horse and myself the best opportunity to both complete the entire trail in a single season and do so when each part of it is safely rideable. In an ideal weather year, perhaps I would be able to start at the Mexican border early, have no snow in the southern mountains, avoid excessive heat in the desert portions by getting through in the spring, have a snow-free Sierra passage, and make it north to Canada before the fall brought any new snow to block the trail . . . but I think I could grow old and gray waiting for that perfect weather year to arrive--if indeed such a year would ever exist!


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