The Spring Thing
The sun is rising up higher in the sky every Spring day, stretching out the length of the day and heating them up, while within the same time frame the Spring storms are gradually diminishing and finally dissappearing. All of these trends naturally draw the High Sierra Nevada Summer backpacker's attention to the mountains.
As backpackers we start asking ourselves the perennial question as each Spring approaches: "When will the High Sierra Nevada Backpacking Trails open?" Snow across high mountain passes is our top concern, or I should say it is our concern at the top of the mountain. Spring backpacking offers a wide range of concerns at every level of the mountain, and especially between the mountains, where great rivers of runoff rage.
Below the snow-filled mountain passes the trails are emerging from under the snowpack as creeks feeding larger, raging creeks which in turn feed the rivers surging down great canyons between our mountain peaks, and these great thaw swollen rives surge out of the mountains. My point is that the rivers at the bottom of the valleys between Sierra Nevada Mountain peaks can be more dangerous than the slick snow blocking the passes across the tops of the Sierra peaks.
All the terrain is collecting, organizing, and transporting this vast runoff into powerful flows that are often running too high and too fast to cross anytime near the peak of the Spring Thaw.
The peak of the Spring Thaw is a powerful force of nature, and I don't screw around with crossing rivers when nature is pushing its peak flows. Fording is one of the classic situations where the phrase, "better safe than sorry-or dead" perfectly applies.
Saturation in Meiss Meadow and Below
Water does not just run across the surface of the terrain across Meiss Meadow during the peak periods of an intense Spring Thaw. The terrain itself becomes a medium of water transport.
Powerful things start small. At the bottom-edge of the melting snow pack we see the first tiny drops of what will rapidly become a relentless, dangerous, and a life giving force of nature. The tiny water droplets dripping off the shrinking edge of the snow pack gives new meaning to the phrase, "great things have small beginnings."
These water drops form into little trickles, which merge with other tiny flows to become "creeklets," which we will likely first see as we observe that our trail up to the snowpack has become a creek draining the meltwater from the snowpack, as our trail emerges from under the snowpack.
Each section of our trail emerging from under the snow carries water long before it again carries people. Sections of our trail turn into Spring Thaw creeks. It is only during Spring that many aspects of the logic of trail design and construction become apparent.
Meiss Meadow fills with moisture as the thaw progresses on the mountains circling it, eventually overwhelming the capacity of its web of creeks feeding the South Upper Truckee River to drain the meadow. This "back-up" causes the soils of the meadow to become super-saturated, and the weight of this water backing up in Meiss Meadow begins pushing water down the mountain through the soil itself.
Hiking up to Meiss Meadow from Round Lake during the height of a heavy Spring Thaw shows us that flows of Spring runoff waters are not limited to the surface of the terrain. During the height of a heavy Spring Thaw the runoff flows through the soil, moving down mountain without the need for a creek or river. This happens in the terrain below the crescent of Meiss Meadow, wedged in under the surround ring of Sierra Mountains making up the Southern end of the Tahoe Basin.
Crossing these saturated soil conditions pushes us to find the nearest islands of hard rock stepping stones, as each step into these areas of super-saturated terrain threatens to overtop our hightop boots as we sink deep into areas of fully saturated soils. The release of water from the snowpack is not just making the trails run like creeks, super-saturating the soils, and pushing the river levels up.
It's also fueling the launch of massive clouds of mosquitoes.
The same engine of life that is driving the wildflowers, the baby chipmunks and tiny chicks is also driving forward the lives of everything that eats them. Remember: Life Eats Itself to Survive. Spring is driving forward the predators as well as the prey. We're more concerned about a creature that combines the worse elements of parasites with those of predators, the mosquito.
Huge clouds of vicious mosquitoes rise out of these saturated soils and meadows. Thankfully armies of beautiful wildflower emerge from these same saturated soils, countering the mosquito's bite of Spring with its flowering beauty. Thankfully, mosquitoes are not the only form of life blossoming with the rise of Spring!
Birds, squirrels, bears, coyotes, and virtually every living thing in the High Sierra begins feasting and fucking with a hearty gusto and clear joy as this engine of life, this great blossoming of of life is fueled by Spring's rising heat and moisture.
If you have ever hung out with a family of baby chipmunks at 10,000 feet during early Spring, you know what I mean. The baby chipmunks play with the baby chicks, which all play with the baby rabbits. They are all having a great time. Until a hawk eats them. It is really hard not to play with these little bastards, but we must not disturb the natural balance. I figure just hanging out with the baby chicks and chipmunks gives them a break from air and ground attack while I'm hanging around.
The beauty we can see revolves around our observation that the Spring Thaw is a powerful exploding kaleidoscope of cause and effect directly tying together the physical and the biological worlds.
Water+Sun+Life=KaBoom, an explosion of life!
The Spring Thaw is a Unique and Powerful Engine of Life that humans have screwed around with, and screwed up. Bad Humans!
The power of the Spring Thaw passing through the living terrain is an early expression of the rising energy of Summer, and its progression will tell us about the impending character of the upcoming Summer. The Sun rising higher in the sky is melting the water while its increasing solar energy is powering a dynamic Spring Blooming of Life that climbs the mountainsides in lockstep with the retreating snow. The timing and power of the Spring Thaw determines the character of the impending Summer.
Spring backpacking trips offer glimpses into the unique beauties of the operation of this engine of life driving fertility across the High Sierra. It will tell us much, once we figure out how to withstand and enjoy the difficulty of fording, the muddy and wet trails flowing with runoff, the hard to cross snow, and the relentless mosquito attack.
Early Spring Sweet Spot
Our real question is, "where do I fit into this cycle?" There is a sweet spot for early Spring snow backpackers when the Spring snow storms moderate, the temps rise, but the thaw has not yet begun to surge the rivers or collapse meadow snow cover in earnest. Spring snow backpacking in the High Sierra during this sweet spot is a real delight. Then the Spring Thaw begins in earnest.
The power of the Spring Thaw drives raging rivers, pushes tributary creek crossings to levels and speeds too dangerous to ford, saturates the soils, makes trails flow with water like creeks, breeds mosquito populations thick as a dense fog, all while softening the great expanses of high altitude snow into a quagmire of slow, difficult, and a very draining experience to travel across. Post-holing sucks. The height of the Spring Thaw is a dangerous and difficult time to backpack the High Sierra, yet it offers a ringside seat to the revving up of the engine of life up and down the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. The Spring Thaw is an engine of life that not only recharges the webs of life in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but delivers life-giving water all over California.
It could be the engine of life that restores your spirit, too.
Late Spring Sweet Spot
As the Spring Thaw tapers down the rivers recede, the meadows and soils harden up and the trails stop flowing like creeks. The mosquito population stops climbing, and the snow remnants in the mountain passes shrink down and become predictable to their enevitable end.
This is when we are happy to be postholing while crossing steep sections of snow-covered mountain passes along the trail. The wet snow sucks us into it, rather than sliding us off it slick-frozen surface. That's preferable... The Spring thing is still cooking, but the deadly river crossings and dangerous mountain passes have moderated into manageable experiences.
During this period we can still observe the massive blossoming of life, but have to deal with fewer life-threatening obstacles to get there to see it. The mosquitoes are still deadly during this period, but their domination stretches deep into Summer long after the Thaw has ended.
Spring to Summer Transition Information
Snow Backpacking Videos
Snow camping in the High Sierra High Sierra Mosquito Cycle Camp and Trail
Let Summer Begin!
After the last super-saturated soils dry out Summer begins, bringing easy fords, hard trail surfaces with no pesky patches of snow clinging to steep sections of trail, and diminishing mosquitoes until the wet meadows finally dry out to effectively draws mosquito populations down to zero. Oh, happy days!
Every Spring Thaw cycle is unique. Its timing, duration, and intensity are dependent on the specifics of each interlocked seasonal transition of the High Sierra climate.
I have been observing and tracking the annual transition from Winter to Summer through series of Winter and Spring backpacking trips from the early 1990s until injury in 2006 knocked me down until 2009. In 2009 I resumed my schedule until frostbite in early 2011 knocked me down again. Damn. My normal reporting on the progress of the seasons should resume in 2012 with my 5th Tahoe to Whitney backpacking trip. I frkn hope.
In the meantime I've tried to use injury time to build this guide as I rebuild my body, as possible.
Meiss Meadow's location just below the surrounding ring of the Southern end of the Tahoe Rim mountains hemming it in makes it a collection point for a huge amount of snowmelt off these mountains.
As the Spring Thaw begins in earnest the drainage of the South Upper Truckee is insufficient to carry all of this water away, and it backs up into Meiss Meadow. The weight of the water can be sufficient to push it down mountain through the soil itself, without the help of surface flows.
This is an amazing force sculpting the soft terrain from within.
We notice this movement of water through the terrain itself while hiking this particular section of trail from Round Lake to Meiss Meadow during the height of heavy Spring Thaw seasons. We plainly see that in many locations the water is flowing down mountain through the saturated soils, pooling up in strange pools in low spots on the terrain while flowing down mountain through the mountain itself.
In other places along our trail South, such as the East flank of Raymond Peak and the South flank of Sonora Peak we can see this same type of super-saturated soil actually moving the terrain itself as water and soil all flows down the mountain together during each Spring Thaw.
This is why the trails are built up where they cross seasonally saturated meadows.
The Bottom Line
The beauty of life blooming out of the intensities of Sun and Water during the height of the Spring Thaw make it a dangerous, difficult, and delightful time to backpack the High Sierra. Don't ever let the calendar determine the date of your High Sierra Backpacking trip. Only the conditions on the ground can do that.
The key is to avoid dangerous river crossings during the peak of the Spring Thaw. The timing of the peak of the Spring Thaw varies each year, so it cannot be predicted by a calendar, but only by observing the progression of each year's specific Spring Thaw.
Don't try to ford rivers that can sweep you to your death.
The High Sierra Nevada Backpacker's Weather page is tailored to track the changing water and weather conditions in the High Sierra through the seasons.
If there is a better collection of High Sierra Backpacker Weather Resources, I have not seen it.
At some point in time the Weather Section of the trail guide will get some more love.