Hiking Snow

I've received some emails with questions about the snow conditions at Mt. Rainier National Park. Indeed, the Park Service reports that approximately 1000 inches has fallen on the mountain this past winter. Once I posted a video podcast showing how much snow is still there, with a trip to Summerland and Panhandle Gap, people have been surprised that there is still feet of snow on the trails. Whilst the rest of the country has had hot weather and started into summer, we've been experiencing "Junuary" here in the Pacific Northwest, with abnormally low temperatures and overcast and rainy days. So, what follows is an email response I sent to someone who had purchased our DVD on the Wonderland Trail and is hiking this month. Anyone attempting the Wonderland Trail might be interested in my humble opinion concerning the snow conditions:

Dear Your Hiker Handle Here, first I have to put in a disclaimer that any advice I put forth is just what I do, that each person is responsible for their own well-being based on their abilities and knowledge. That said, as of a few days ago the NPS had advised that only two parties had attempted the Wonderland Trail and both abandoned the attempt in the first day. If you haven't checked out the site do so here:


Essentially the trail is covered with snow. All the myriad problems with this condition are present: foot care, route finding, sleeping and camping on snow, etc. Since the trail crews essentially haven't been able to work on the trails, any blow downs, destroyed bridges etc will not be fixed. Although my update to Panhandle Gap showed great snow conditions and beautiful skies, there are spots where consolidated and/or frozen snow could be dangerous to cross without employing mountaineering techniques, such as ice axes (and knowing how to self arrest) and step cutting. You might also assume there will be some creek/river crossings due to bridges being out. As of last weekend (June 14) Sunrise, White River campground, and Mowich Lake access were closed, leaving fewer options for bailing out for trail access with a vehicle. Also, the Carbon River road is closed at the entrance, meaning it's a 5 mile hike out from Ipsut Creek campground just to have vehicle access. Add in the route finding problems, as you will be essentially "off trail" and, frankly, this hike becomes a whole different animal....much more difficult with many more problems.

It's up to the individual to decide whether he/she is prepared and experienced enough to attempt this hike under these conditions. Were I to do it right now I would have extra clothing, some ability to cross creeks and immediately change into something dry, like perhaps some sandals for fording or a dedicated pair of hefty wool socks for wading. Extra food for itinerary problems, like backtracking or bailing. Extra padding, full length, for snow camping. The ability to stake a tent in snow, like snow stakes or baggies to fill and bury. An ice axe for navigating snow slopes; I would avoid travel across dangerous slopes when the snow was firm or frozen. A GPS with loaded topo map for navigation help. Perhaps some mini strap-on "crampons" for footing help on firm snow. Sunglasses become essential for snow travel, as well as skin protection....reflected rays can cause burns even inside your nose or under your chin. A backup plan for bailing out is essential, especially since road access to the trail is extremely limited. And a stove with extra fuel might be required since many creeks will be buried and you may have to melt snow for water.

If one is adventuresome and enjoys these sorts of challenges, good luck. But if you just want to hike the Wonderland Trail without so many complications you might want to consider delaying if possible until more snow has melted and road access is restored to the major spots. Understand, we are not talking a few sections of limited snow travel right now, you're looking at the exact opposite; a few spots where you might actually be on muddy trail instead of snow. All I can say is be realistic in your assessment of your abilities and desires.