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 snow-covered 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 melt off 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 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 long-distance hikers each year — are so obscured by snow that hikers lose their way and spend 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 went missing 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 Association 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. The trail will see “extensive snow” 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-year-old 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 mid-July, 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,” Hiltz, who hiked the trail 10 years ago, said. 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 thought of 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 Nevada 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 range 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.” She was afraid of the mountains.
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.”