PCT: Creeks and Fords

Instead of posting lengthy articles on FB pages of PCT Class of 2017 and 2018, I have decided to instead use my blog as a format for posting articles on topics that I think will be helpful to future hikers. I am NOT an expert of any kind. I am simply a PCT thru-hiker and I took Ned Tibbet’s course through Mountain Education called PCT Snow Advanced Course (if you are not already familiar with Mountain Education, check out the webite at: www.mountaineducation.org). The article and information below relays the things I learned and what my experience was on my 2016 PCT Nobo thru hike. 

This first topic I am talking about is on Creek Crossings and Fords in the Sierras during your PCT thru-hike. I was intimidated about these and found little information while preparing for my hike. In fact, the creek crossings actually influenced my decision to start my hike in March, and try to get through before too much snow had melted, causing the creeks to rage. I am only 5 ft tall and weigh about 115 pounds, so I was definitely a wee bit anxious about crossing the waters up there. 

This information about my experience will apply mostly to Northbounders who enter the Sierras early enough in the season to witness the thaw, that can differ from year to year, but usually is sometime in the ballpark of mid May to early June. It also applies to all Nobos who leave Kennedy Meadows around the popular window of the week of June 10th, as you are bound to encounter a lot of water by then, hence my early start to try to beat the thaw. This may also be useful to Southbounders who encounter snow and its thaw in the North Cascades at the beginning of their hike. Some of you may not have gotten the permit date you wanted, maybe after reading this article you will consider an earlier start. There are several benefits to an earlier start, but thats a separate post.

This year (2017) as we all know by now, there is a lot of snow up in the Sierra’s right now, so I am going to guess that creeks will be higher than normal this year once the thaw begins, or at least higher than they have been in quite some time. Last year (2016) was my Nobo thru-hike, and I entered the Sierras (left KM) on May 13th in what was determined to be an “average” snow year. It seemed like the thaw really got going by the end of May, and by early June I hit some pretty intense water. 

Creek crossings and fords are a serious thing, do not underestimate the power of water! Anyone out there who has ever surfed knows what I am talking about. You must be humble! That’s not to say you can’t do it, I did it and many people smaller than me did it too. However, it was in thanks to some great tips I learned thorugh the class with Ned Tibbets from Mountain Education -and my hiking partners and I worked as a team to get through the more daunting ones together. You guys were awesome, you know who you are! 

1.) Remember you do NOT have to cross the creeks right where the trail passes through. In fact, this is often where it is the deepest and most dangerous. Scout out up or downstream to find a safer place to cross if you are unsure. My hiking  partners and I would often take packs off and have a look around. A few times we even went into the water with no pack first, and tested around with our trekking poles to see how deep the water was and where, it was like dousing! It helped a lot actually, because we were not entering as blindly as we could have been. Assesing the depth and especially the current are tricky at first. What I learned is that deep water is VERY strong, even when it looks languid or even inviting. Rapids are obviously powerful, but if shallow, can be easier to navigate than a deep, powerful current. The best example in the Sierras is Evolution Creek, where the trail crosses it was about 4-6 feet deep, some places even deeper. The water was languid and deceptively deep. Lastly, if the water is just too high and it is getting near the end of your day, camp nearby and cross the creek in the early morning when the water is lower. It can drop by as much as 6 to 12 inches overnight. The creeks will be highest in the afternoons and early evenings. 

There are alternatives to fords: If you can find a log crossing, great, just be aware if it is early in the morning that there may be ice on the top of that log (like black ice on a road) that you cannot see. TEST out the log first before stepping on it if there is any chance of ice. If you can find an alternate, even better. It might be a ways off trail, but at least you will be safe. Sometimes there are alternates that still require you to ford water that is thigh high, but is flowing more mellow and therefore not so dangerous, you just get a bit wet. Sometimes the creeks can split into two or three sections with islands in the middle, in these flatter (wider) areas, the water can get more shallow and therefore easier to pass through. You may have to hike a mile or more up or down stream to find these places. It is worth it. Talk to the people you cross paths with, especially when they have just hiked through where you are going, it can be immeasurably helpful.

2.) To wear shoes or not to wear shoes? It depends on your preference for getting your shoes wet, vs. carrying a pair of sandals or Crocs and changing into them often. No matter what, do NOT go barefoot. This is dangerous because you can easily step on a sharp or unstable rock and that can cause you to loose your balance or turn your ankle. So, wear some form of foot protection. I was hiking in leather boots, so I switched into my Crocs at all the major creeks, to keep my boots dry. It took more time, but I didn’t mind and  actually grew to enjoy the ritual of it all. It’s not a race anyway. Those hiking later in the season (mid July through August) often choose to hike in trail runners and so just walk right through and count on shoes drying out overnight. There are so MANY small creeks that make this method worth it. I did this the further North I went (I hiked in trail runners from Mammoth onward) and I liked the freedom of walking through the water. Plus, when temps got hotter (like in Norcal and OR), it was super refreshing. So it all depends on what time of the season you are entering and hiking through the Sierras in and if you don’t mind hiking with wet feet a lot.

3.) Before entering the water, do these things: 

A.) Loosen and unbuckle your hip belt before crossing (and after you have gone pee) I am serious about peeing first, if you have to go at all, it is very distracting and you can’t concentrate, just go before you cross if you have even the slightest urge. Have a small snack too while youre at it! Back to the hip belt-If you fall in the water, you must get away from your pack, or it can drag you under. If you don’t unbuckle the hip belt, be prepared to do so at any time. If it’s already unbuckled, you are one step closer to safety if you fall. 

B.)  Strip down! Creeks can easily be hip high, if you are up there in early season when there are snowbanks on the sides of the creeks and icicles hanging down, you probably do not want your pants going into that water. I crossed several creeks in my undies, and I was sure grateful to have dry pants when I got to the other side!

C.) If you choose to switch out your shoes, be sure to secure your boots or shoes to the top of your pack and make sure they are not going to fall and throw you off balance or hit you in the head or face. 

D.) Put your phone in a zip lock bag or waterproof housing and put it inside your pack or somewhere you feel it will be safe. It bummed me out to not be taking  photos of the creek crossings and fords, but given the dangerous nature of it and the amount of focus and attention it took, there was no way my camera was coming out. Also, if you do not want to get your clothes wet, strip down to your underpants.

E.) Be careful where you enter the water. Often you will  be standing on a snowbank a couple feet above the water level, and you have to step down onto rocks and maybe ice. Use your poles for balance and take it slowly, make sure your footing is solid before you go all in, and know that the snow bank you are standing on might crumble under you. 

3.) When you do cross a creek with rapids and you are walking over large rocks and boulders, you must not loose your balance. I heard too many stories this past year about people who fell in, lost gear, got dragged, got injured and almost suffered from hypothermia afterward, not to mention shock. The water is FRIGID! The best way not to loose balance is to shuffle your feet across, like you are searching out in front of you with your leading foot, for a secure place to rest it and then transfer your weight. Also, if you have trekking poles, use them. It is best to lengthen them first, an extra 8-12 inches perhaps, depending on the depth of the water. (Lengthen trekking poles and use them also when doing log crossings or rock hops to help your balance). You will use them at an angle away from your body and most of the time, you will have to wedge them into a space between rocks to hold them in place. The power of the water will make them vibrate heavily, just hang on to them and keep pressure on them. When you move them, pull them UP out of the water and then stab them DOWN into the water. If you try to drag them, the current is often too strong and it won’t work, it will just throw you off balance. Be sure that you are not leaning on your poles too much, your weight should be on your feet, keep your knees slightly bent. Having a trekking pole (or better yet, two) or a staff helps amazingly. This allows you to have a third point of balance so that shifting your weight from one foot to the other is much more secure. While crossing, lean into the current and face slightly upstream to completely upstream, depending on how strong the current is. Do not turn your back to the current. 

4.) Partner up: I linked arms for two powerful crossings, Evolution Creek and Mono Creek. This requires you to put away one of your trekking poles, and use the other one on your outside hand. It is up to you and your partner to decide who goes up or down stream, or if you want to go sideways. I found that sideways was not a good way to gain steps, and it felt less stable, so we went at an angle where we both faced slightly upstream so we could lean into the current together, and then could slide our feet one in front of the other and move forward. This all took good communication. You have to be able to tell your partner if you are okay to go or not, so you do not move in opposite directions when one of you isnt ready. Overall, this was a good experience for me and I am glad we did it. 

Tips for after the crossings: If you can get into the sun, DOiT! The sun makes all the difference in the world. If sun is not an option, get yourself dry as soon as possible, eat a snack, and get moving again or get into camp and get warm. So many post crossings were full of shivers, chattering teeth and numb limbs!

The Creeks: There are WAY too many creek crossings to name up in the Sierra along the PCT, but these are the ones that were either memorable or the most challenging for one reason or another in my experience. South to North.

Whitney Creek (near Crabtree Meadow). This was easy wen I crossed it, flat sandy bottom, not an issue, but I am not sure how deep it can get in a heavier snow year. It was my first shoes off crossing.

Wright Creek: challenging because it was icy cold, thigh high, powerful water, and I had not yet learned to take my pants off!  

Tyndall Creek: crossed it twice, both times at the end of the day because there is good camping on the other side. It wasn’t scary, just very cold and icy with snow banks. If it were deeper (we crossed prior to thaw) it would have been much more intimidating, at this point it was just thigh high on me, knee high on the taller guys. This was my first pants off crossing.

South Fork of the Kings River: This was the one that I heard about people falling in often. When we forded it it was the end of the day. We spent about 30 minutes looking for a better place to cross and ended up crossing at the trail after determining it was not dangerous, just challenging. It turned out fine, just took a lot of concentraion and balance, especially at the end of the day after coming off Pinchot Pass, being pretty wiped out. I heard of others finding a log to use downstream. I also heard others fell off the log. Do what makes you feel the safest.

Evolution Creek: There was an alternate through Evolution Meadow, I took the actual creek, and I partnered up. This creek crossing looks benign but is super strong and deep! I would never have made it if I did not go in with a partner. Several hikers took the alternate and said it was fine, but they were still thigh high in slow moving, cold water. There were also a GaZillion mosquitoes here!

Bear Creek, north of Muir Pass was one of the ones that was deceptively deep and strong right at the Trail. I couldn’t believe the difference of hiking there from Fall to Spring, the water level had risen from a rock hop to an 8 foot deep torrent! Fortunately, we heard through the grapevine, and especially through Sobo JMT hikers, some tips on going downstream where the creek split and there was an island. There was also a lovely litle note on a rock near the trail indicating where to go and somebody put a pink ribbon on the other bank to indicate where to climb out, super helpful. That was the coldest creek crossing because we did it first thing in the morning, and even with the alternate, it was still hip high on me, very strong and double the distance because of the split. It took me a full 45 minutes to be able to feel my legs again after that one!

Mono Creek: Super narrow, short and POWERFUL! This creek has fast moving rapids, and it was very difficult to tell how deep it was, so this was one of the ones we doused in first. Fortunately there were some places that were less deep, so we went that way, avoiding the deepest sections. This was the other creek that I partnered up for. No regrets. This is a photo of a Sobo hiker who struggled to cross alone, I was worried for him, he almost lost his balance a few times, but he got through unscathed.

Silver Pass Creek (waterfall): this was something a lot of Southbound JMT hikers were talking about. It was all “the waterfall this and the waterfall that”. I kept thinking what waterfall? Because I had hiked the JMT twice before and I could recall no such thing. When we got there, it was like this “oh, that waterfall”. Enormous, raging, stunning. The years I hiked the JMT (’13 & ’14) it was bone dry. The trail crosses the base of the waterfall, and was full of rushing, raging, pounding water. I did not feel it was dangerous at the time, the water on the trail was knee to thigh high on me, there was a lot of spray from the waterfall so we got soaked, and there were a few rocks to climb on top of that were precarious at best. By this time, though, we were all getting the hang of this, so it was actually my favorite, because the waterfall was so incredible!

Paiute Creek: fortunately there is a bridge there! But there is a great place to camp near the creek nestled in the manzanita. This will be just before you get to the bridge, as you exit Seqouia/Kings Canyon Nat’l Park. The Paiute Creek was INSANE this year. Here is a photo, we had to get water here, too!

Above all, always exercise wise choices, and never ford a creek alone, wait for other hikers to come along, if you are unsure of your safety. Every year will bring a different set of circumstances. What you see here may look totally different next year, but at least you have an idea what you can expect. Remember, there are always alternates, you can always turn back, wait for help or wait until morning. You always have choices, make the right ones! 

I think that wraps this up. I hope this is useful, please feel free to comment or let me know if you have any questions or need clarification on anything. 

Happy Trails

~Mary Poppins ’16

8 thoughts on “PCT: Creeks and Fords

  1. Excellent post! Lots of really good info and I agree a much better method of delivery vs fb.

    I’d also recommend looking at blogs from 2011. That was the last big snow year. Walking with Wired has details.

  2. Nice. I’ve read a lot of this kind of information scattered around different sites. This covers it concisely and to the point. I’m going to have my boys who are going with me read this.

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