How dangerous are High Sierra conditions? Even experienced hikers say ‘stay out’

Most people never will tackle the wilds of the Pacific Crest Trail. Now, even experienced hikers are among those staying away.

And while I’m usually the one encouraging people to venture into the wilderness, here’s a different message for the next three or four weeks: Keep out; it’s too dangerous.

Search Facebook (using the hashtag #PCT2017) and other social media and read some of the harrowing situations hikers have faced, including:

▪ A 31-year-old woman who stepped off a partially submerged log while crossing a swollen stream and was instantly swept under by the current.

▪ A male thru-hiker, saddled with a 60-pound pack, who lost his footing while wading through swiftly moving waist-deep water. Above a waterfall.

Both survived, but it’s a measure of how treacherous conditions are when even those who’ve trekked hundreds of miles through the High Sierra are at a risk of dying.

“If you talk to the real experienced people, they’ll all tell you it’s crazy stupid out there,” said Jim Clement, owner of the Vermilion Valley Resort at Edison Lake. “I’ve never seen it like this. And the creeks haven’t even peaked yet.”

Anya Galina Sellsted was one of the lucky ones. Two weeks ago, the Seattle resident was trying to cross Rancheria Creek (sometimes labeled Kerrick Creek) in northern Yosemite National Park on a partially submerged log. Halfway across she got to a branch jammed in the log that she couldn’t climb over, decided to step down into the water and instantly got swept beneath the log by the current.

“It was a miracle that I didn’t jam or get stuck under (the log),” Sellsted wrote in a Facebook post. “It spit me out on the other side and I went downriver. I was gasping for air and trying to swim out as I felt some bush branches. I kept holding on to them, the kept breaking so I had to constantly grab new ones. I eventually managed to hold on and pull myself to shore.”

Fellow PCT thru-hiker Marcus Mazzaferri survived a similar ordeal. Mazzaferri described losing his footing in swift, waist-deep water while crossing a creek above a waterfall. He quickly ditched his 60-pound pack, which probably saved his life, but lost all of his possessions and survived a harrowing ordeal without food or shelter before encountering a snow-removal crew plowing Tioga Road in Yosemite.

High-elevation hiking and backpacking in early summer typically requires a tolerance for snow and swollen creeks. Except conditions this year in the Sierra Nevada, with last winter’s giant snowpack starting to melt, are anything but typical. They’re treacherous and potentially deadly – even for the most experienced and best equipped wilderness travelers.

“In a normal year going out in mid-June would still be challenging,” said Jack Haskel, trail information specialist for the Pacific Crest Trail Association. “This has not been a normal year at all. It has been challenging, dangerous and there have been a lot of serious incidents that are deeply concerning.”

Haskel’s primary source of concern is this year’s class of PCT thru-hikers, the 3,000 or more hardy souls attempting to complete the 2,650-mile trek from Mexico to Canada in one push.

A snowpack measuring 164 percent of average in the Southern Sierra already has been responsible for a couple of fatalities, both along the PCT and on Mount Whitney, and several near misses. At a time when backcountry rangers in the High Sierra are still being mobilized – they’re not immune to the conditions, either – there will almost certainly be more.

Heavy-snow years like this one require a skill set above and beyond normal backpacking. That’s especially true if you plan to venture across avalanche-prone slopes or surmount 12,000- and 13,000-foot passes. But an even greater danger lurks in the canyons and valleys: creek crossings.

Creeks and streams that will be mere trickles by late summer are currently raging torrents fed by snowmelt. Crossing them requires a great deal of experience and nerve. Some are simply impassable.

Because of the extreme conditions, many PCT hikers are choosing to skip over the High Sierra for the time being. Sellsted, for example, returned home to Seattle following the incident and plans to return in a few weeks.

“It’s probably the smart thing to do this year,” Haskel said.

Others are forgoing segments that contain some of the most notorious crossings such as Bear Creek in the Sierra National Forest between Florence and Edison lakes. Of the 18 thru-hikers that passed through the VVR last weekend, most of them left the trail near Florence and opted to walk to Edison via the road.

Once there, they told Clement stories of crossing Evolution Creek in Kings Canyon National Park with backpacks balanced atop their heads clutching with both hands.

“The water was up to their shoulders and necks,” Clement said. “Sitting on my picnic table across from me, it’s like ‘Did you think that was a wise decision?’ ”

The VVR is a key resupply point on the PCT. For those that don’t exit the trail it’s their first taste of civilization since Kennedy Meadows, some 175 miles to the south.

In recent weeks the families of eight thru-hikers contacted Clement expressing concerns that their food packages wouldn’t get collected because the resort had yet to open. No bother. All eight gave up before reaching Edison Lake.

Clement also spoke to the father of a thru-hiker with little wilderness experience that insisted his son would be OK because he was carrying the proper gear.

“Gear doesn’t count this year,” Clement warned. “It’s experience and skill and the ability to practice safety and good judgment.”

That advice applies not just to PCT hikers but those planning on hiking the 211-mile John Muir Trail (which overlaps the PCT for much of the High Sierra) in early summer or any number of shorter excursions into our national parks or wilderness areas.

Planning to hike the popular Rae Lakes Loop in Kings Canyon? Know the bridge over the South Fork of the Kings River at Upper Paradise Valley has been severely damaged and is unsafe to use. So you’ll have to cross on your own.

Dreaming about the majestic Silver Pass area? Know that section of the Sierra was walloped especially hard by Mother Nature. Meaning the North Fork of Mono Creek could be impassable for weeks.

These are but two examples. The point is to never go out into the wilderness following a heavy-snow year without a clear understanding of the potential hazards. And if those hazards prove unsafe or unsettling, don’t be reluctant to turn back or alter your itinerary.

It’s a decision that could save your life.

With a prolonged heat wave about to engulf California, creeks in the High Sierra will be at their swiftest over the next few weeks. By mid-July and through August, once the snow melts and water levels taper off, wilderness conditions will be glorious. Right now, though, probably best not to wade in. If PCT hikers are avoiding the dangers, the rest of us should, too.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee