Ice, heat and flood­ing drive up the stakes for Sierra Nevada hik­ers

A wet win­ter blan­keted the Pa­cific Crest Trail in snow, mak­ing ex­cur­sions in Cal­i­for­nia’s back­coun­try more risky than usual

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Meg Bern­hard

Waist-deep in a swift, frigid creek, Indigo Cat­ton lost her foot­ing. Be­hind her, hik­ing part­ner Caitlin Ol­son was too far away to help.

They’d had a long day hik­ing through the snow­cov­ered Sierra Nevada on the Pa­cific Crest Trail, had al­ready crossed two dif­fi­cult creeks and were rush­ing to get to the next moun­tain pass by night­fall.

By the time the ex­hausted pair had made it to the third creek, around 7 p.m., the wa­ter was swollen with melt­wa­ter from a mid-June heat wave.

In­stinc­tively, Cat­ton lunged for­ward and grabbed onto reeds hang­ing off the side of the bank to keep from fall­ing into the cur­rent.

“I didn’t have time to think,” said Cat­ton, a re­cent col­lege grad­u­ate. “It was scary when I look back at it.”

This win­ter’s heavy rains buried the Sierra Nevada with snow, blan­ket­ing trails and flood­ing rivers — mak­ing sum­mer­time hikes in Cal­i­for­nia’s back­coun­try more treach­er­ous than usual.

The sto­ries are har­row­ing. Some hik­ers have slipped into fast-mov­ing

creeks and been swept away by the cur­rent; a few have drowned. Oth­ers have slid down steep, snowy slopes packed white with ice far later in the sea­son than in typ­i­cal years.

Some seg­ments of the Pa­cific Crest Trail — the iconic 2,600-mile route that runs up the West Coast and draws thou­sands of longdis­tance hik­ers each year — are so ob­scured by snow that hik­ers have lost their way and spent hours try­ing to re­cover ground.

On July 24, the body of a 32-year-old hiker from Japan, Rika Morita, was re­cov­ered from the Kings River af­ter she dis­ap­peared nearly a month ago.

Over the week­end, Yosemite res­cuers re­cov­ered the body of Chi­nese na­tional Chaocui Wang, 27, from a river in Ker­rick Canyon.

In June, 31-year-old Anya Sell­sted fell into a rag­ing creek in Yosemite Na­tional Park while cross­ing over a log, and res­cued her­self by grab­bing hold of branches hang­ing over the bank. Fright­ened by the ex­pe­ri­ence, Sell­sted left the Sier­ras for a month be­fore at­tempt­ing them again.

In early July, seven hik­ers in Yosemite wan­dered from the trail, hid­den un­der thick snow, and spent hours lost as dark­ness fell.

While many long-dis­tance hik­ers have not been de­terred, hun­dreds of oth­ers have skipped the Sierra range this year to pick up the trail on eas­ier ter­rain.

In a post to a 15,000-mem­ber trail Face­book group in June, Pa­cific Crest Trail Assn. in­for­ma­tion spe­cial­ist Jack Haskel warned hik­ers to be care­ful.

“Re­ally, it’s dan­ger­ous out there. Don’t un­der­es­ti­mate it,” he wrote. “I’m wor­ried that some­one will die. It’s no joke. Be safe. Do you have the fit­ness and skills to do this type of stuff safely? Most peo­ple should wait for much of the snow to melt.”

Rivers across the Sierra Nevada have flooded and swollen to treach­er­ous lev­els, killing swim­mers and prompt­ing of­fi­cials to close trails. About a dozen peo­ple have drowned in the Kern River alone this year.

Haskel and other trail of­fi­cials be­lieve the worst of the danger is over, with creek and river flows peak­ing in mid-June, and most north­bound through-hik­ers now out of the Sier­ras.

But haz­ards re­main. “Ex­ten­sive snow” will linger on the trail well into Au­gust, Haskel pre­dicted.

“We are past peak danger, but it is still chal­leng­ing and risky to be out there,” Haskel said.

In mid-June, Ying Tan was in­creas­ingly un­cer­tain about her abil­ity to forge through the rest of the Sierra Nevada. Tan, who started her trek in late March from Mex­ico, had heard that other hik­ers were strug­gling with river cross­ings ahead of her. And a heat wave was ex­pected in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, en­sur­ing that more snow would melt and creeks would be­come even deeper and faster.

When snow fell on the night of June 10, the 33-yearold heeded the omi­nous signs and de­cided to skip the High Sierra and pick up the trail 280 miles north.

“The wa­ter cross­ing was get­ting bad,” Tan said, ac­knowl­edg­ing the de­ci­sion to by­pass part of the trail was dif­fi­cult to make. “Peo­ple were fall­ing into the streams. I don’t want to be in their sit­u­a­tion.”

Rest­ing off the trail in In­de­pen­dence, Calif. in midJuly, Will Hiltz was pre­par­ing to leave his hik­ing part­ner, girl­friend Stacy Kel­logg, be­hind. She at times felt un­safe cross­ing fast creeks, so she planned to skip the next sec­tion and meet him in Mam­moth about a week later.

“The ve­loc­ity and the amount of gal­lons that are zoom­ing by per sec­ond is pretty as­tound­ing,” said Hiltz, who hiked the trail 10 years ago. He re­called one spot on the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia por­tion of the trail where he and Kel­logg crossed “a churn­ing, crazy rapid.”

“Al­most some­thing that you can usu­ally splash over with­out even get­ting your feet wet was chest-deep at least on me — I’m 6’3” — and flow­ing at an in­cred­i­ble rate.”

Hiltz said he has been trav­el­ing more slowly than he nor­mally would, spend­ing ex­tra days search­ing for safe spots along creeks — a fallen log, shal­lower wa­ter — where he could cross. While he hadn’t con­sid­ered skip­ping any part of the trail, he knows other hik­ers who avoided the Sier­ras.

The snowy year has also pro­duced un­ex­pected prob­lems, such as in­creased risk of sun­burn from the snow.

“It’s hot as hell,” said hiker An­nie Varnot, who suf­fered mild burns from the bright sun re­flect­ing off the icy trail.

De­spite the dan­gers, hik­ers this year have mar­veled at the trans­formed Sierra land­scape, with mead­ows lush and bloom­ing af­ter years of crip­pling drought.

Sell­sted re­turned to Cal­i­for­nia in mid-July af­ter she spent a month away from the Sierra hik­ing on a por­tion of the trail in Wash­ing­ton.

The creeks were lower, and Sell­sted felt safer than she had be­fore. The log she fell from in June is no longer there. She thinks it was washed away by the cur­rent.

For Sell­sted, the Sierra Nevada had been “an ob­sta­cle that was im­pos­si­ble.”

But the in­sa­tiable itch to hike, and the sheer beauty of the Sierra peaks — from glassy lakes to snow-cov­ered canyons — left her pin­ing.

“Now,” Sell­sted said, “I just miss them.”

Jake Gustafson Via As­so­ci­ated Press

WES­LEY TILS crosses a snow-cov­ered trail near Kings Canyon Na­tional Park on June 7. Hik­ers on the Pa­cific Crest Trail have been avoid­ing the Sierra por­tion this year be­cause of per­sis­tent snow and rag­ing creeks.

Wes­ley Tils Via As­so­ci­ated Press

JAKE GUSTAFSON crosses a creek along the Pa­cific Crest Trail on June 6. “We’re con­sid­ered the dare­dev­ils,” said Gustafson, who sends a “Not dead yet” mes­sage by satel­lite to his mother each night.

Wes­ley Tils Via As­so­ci­ated Press

JAKE GUSTAFSON crosses Bear Creek along the Pa­cific Crest Trail near Kings Canyon Na­tional Park. Af­ter more than a dozen drown­ings at lower el­e­va­tions this sea­son, rangers are warn­ing Sierra hik­ers.

Anya Sell­sted Via As­so­ci­ated Press

SNOW cov­ers a sec­tion of the Pa­cific Crest Trail in Ore­gon, where Sell­sted had ex­pected clearer trails.

Anya Sell­sted Via As­so­ci­ated Press

ANYA SELL­STED was hik­ing from Mex­ico to Canada when she fell into a rag­ing creek in the Sierra.

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