Thursday, August 23, 2012

Mt. Whitney via Miter Basin, Crabtree Pass and the PCT

Day 1 -- Horseshoe Meadow to Soldier Lake via Cottonwood Pass 

10.49 miles
1899’ elevation gain
7:35 hiking time
Starting Pack weight ~47lbs (2L water)

The night before starting the backpack we headed up to the Horseshoe Meadows trailhead, at 9940’ it's a nice spot to get acclimated to the high elevation campsites we'd stay at on this trip.  We set up our sleeping pads and bags in the backs of our trucks to sleep under the stars. Within an hour everything was covered in condensation with the high moisture content of the air from the afternoon's deluge up here.  The Perseids put on a great show a day early for us with one bright fireball traversing the sky much slower than its speedier counterparts. I slept quite well despite the numerous over hydration pitstops but that definitely helps with avoiding AMS so it is well worth the disturbed sleep.

 We woke up to a fine morning, did some final packing and weighed the packs, Barbara’s tipped the scales at over 50lbs!! After the obligatory pictures at the trailhead taken by some fellow hikers we were on our way. I forgot a few things in the truck, most important were my injinji toe socks which would have saved me some pain later.

Horseshoe Meadows TH

The 3.9 mile long trail to Cottonwood Pass is nice and flat for the first few miles, traversing a creek that is spoiled by the grazing cows and pack trains. You soon reach the switchbacks and climb up to 11,100’. The first few miles on the trail with a heavy pack is always the suck for me but near the pass I was getting into a rhythm and feeling OK.

Horseshoe Meadows from Cottonwood Pass
 We paused at the pass and were harassed by big chipmunks (they’re actually technically something else but haven’t looked them up yet). Ate a quick lunch/snack, saw my first grouse,  then got back on the trail.

Cottonwood Pass

 At this point you pick up the PCT so it’s well graded, well traveled and sometimes sandy. If you were to ever get in trouble out here make your way to the PCT and someone would be along within hours. We’d follow this for 4.6 miles past Chicken Spring Lake (nice, but devoid of fish I’m told) with a gradual climb to about 11,500’ then a descent to 11,100’ before the turn off to Soldier Lake and Miter Basin.

Chicken Springs Lake on the PCT

 Just before a mile or so on this trail that heads due North from the PCT you start to get glimpses of the stunning mountains surrounding Miter Basin.

First Glimpse of Miter Basin guardians

After the junction with New Army Pass trail it’s another 0.7 miles or so to Soldier Lake.  A shallow lake that is surprisingly full of Golden Trout, not huge by any means but feisty and willing to chase a Panther Martin.

Soldier Lake and the Major General

 I was barbless here so hooked three trout but they all managed to spit the hook. The ranger out of Rock Creek and his volunteer showed up later on in the afternoon to check our permit. We had a good chat and would run into them again on the way out of Crabtree Meadows.

Soldier Lake

Had some rain on the way over which cleared up quickly but after settling into our tents for the night the wind picked up and we had quite a bit more rain, heavy at times, until probably 11PM. I got up around 2AM to see how the perseids were doing at their supposed peak, the skies were clear again but only saw a couple of quick flashes so headed back into the tent to get warm.

  Horseshoe Meadows to Soldier Lake at EveryTrail

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Day 2 -- Lower Soldier Lake to Sky Blue Lake 

 4.91 miles
 1207’ elevation gain
 5:41 hiking time -- mostly on trail (Lightning delay of 1:30)

Did some early morning fishing and hooked a couple more fish towards the inlet from upper Soldier Lakes. We were all packed up and left camp around 10am. Soon afterwards it was raining again. The skies continued to darken until we were forced off the trail and into the woods by lightning. We dropped the packs and made ourselves comfortable in a grove of smaller trees while the storm passed. The trail flooded then receded, after about an hour and a half we were back on the trail through the meadows to Miter Basin.

Miter Basin meadows use trail

Rock Creek

The rain started up again soon afterwards but without lightning this time. We entered the stunning Miter Basin with its waterfalls and made our way up to Sky Blue Lake.

Barbara and Rock Creek Falls

 Our navigation error along here was to not hug the west side of the valley thus missing the use trail. Once close to the granite dam holding back the lake other humans were spotted coming quickly up the canyon, this added a little stress to our ascent as were unsure as to how many campsites were available at Sky Blue Lake but the area is large enough to support upwards of 20 tents so these fears were unfounded. A little bit of class 2 climbing gets you up onto the granite dam with your first views of this very beautiful lake that is surrounded by sheer walls of granite and jagged peaks.

Sky Blue Lake

 We found a nice spot on the south side of the lake, set up camp and got the poles out, Barbara hooked a nice, maybe 14” golden, on a power egg that we released, I only managed to land an 8” golden that I also released. Best camping spot is probably on the Northeast side of the lake providing you get around the 100’ away from water rule. The rangers didn’t visit the lake during our days here. We spent the evening fending off the evil marmots who would eventually overpower Barbara and steal her wheat thins. 

Sunset threw some amazing alpenglow on Mt. Langley and Corcoran and the surrounding peaks.

Mt Corcoran 

 The night stayed warm with the cloud cover, but it started to rain again at nightfall. Without knowing the most recent weather forecast(an issue we’d have for the rest of the week) we assumed some sub tropical moisture was being piped up into the southern Sierra. I treated the first blister of the trip tonight, a toe to toe blister that was a result of me not wearing my injinji toe socks.

  Soldier Lake to Sky Blue Lake at EveryTrail

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 Day 3 Mt Pickering Summit Attempt from Sky Blue Lake

 3.57 miles
 1479’ elevation gain
 5:21 hiking time 0.8mph(off trail)

 I awoke around 5AM to an amazing celestial display put on by the new moon and Venus over the shoulder of the Miter. I hadn’t played with long exposures with this new camera before the trip and didn’t realize that having the camera in continuous focus would restrict the shutter speed to 1/2s... thanks Nikon for putting in a very bizarre restriction on the P7100.

Moonrise over The Miter

Got up at sunrise and headed down to the lake for some fishing but only hooked one without landing it again, another theme for this trip. We got the daypacks organized and left camp around 10am to attempt Mt. Pickering.

Sky Blue Lake

Walking the shoreline to waterfall at the inlet we spotted numerous decent sized Goldens cruising the shore and quite a few wildflowers as we walked the creek that empties into the lake. We moved up to about 12,000’ crossing small alpine meadows and some talus.

Rock Creek above Sky Blue Lake Falls

 The climb up the center chute to the saddle was class 2 with one tricky section for me and my fear of heights.

Chute to Mt. Pickering

Looking back to the North afforded me my first ever view of the hut on Mt. Whitney.

Discovery Pinnacle and The Hut!

This energized us and we found a better line and made our way to the saddle only to be thwarted by yet another thunderstorm tossing its lightning around.

Getting ready to abort,  Mt. Pickering in the background

The summit was still about 1500’ feet away via a 500’ climb away along a very exposed ridge so we aborted. We hunkered down at a low point, got the rain gear on and then made our descent in a quickly developing hail storm which turned to rain at the base of the climb.

Hail covered descent

 Coming back down to the upper lake we watched another dipper and spotted some Alpine Gold. It’s easy to see why Muir called these birds his favorite, they are quite entertaining to watch. Back at camp the clothes were laid out to dry in the sun but soon afterwards more rain came in. Barbara noticed that her purple food bag was gone along with her supply of wheat thins.  Soon after being driven out of camp the evil marmot was back and almost hooked himself when he tried to eat Barbara’s power egg still rigged up on her fishing pole.

Evil Marmot Guy

 While the sunset was not so great for us the the alpenglow on Langley and Corcoran was once again amazing and soon afterwards a bat visited our camp and worked the walls behind us for unseen insects.

Alpenglow on Mt. Corcoran and Mt. Langley

 Amazingly I hadn’t seen or heard a single mosquito up to this point in the trip. This would be the first night w/o beer, I’d brought in two cans of Sierra Nevada Torpedo, but didn’t want the weight so consumed those the first two nights. Tonight’s treat was three capfuls(< than a shot) of The Macallan 12 year old scotch, very smooth and wonderful.

  Mt. Pickering Attempt from Sky Blue Lake at EveryTrail

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 Day 4 Sky Blue Lake to Middle Crabtree Lake via Crabtree Pass
 6.06 miles
 1581’ elevation gain
 8:02 hiking time
 0.75mph(off trail)

 The scariest day of the trip and probably my scariest experience hiking since being in a similar storm at Moro Rock as kid.

After overnight rockfalls in the area the day started out warm and sunny but with clouds building very early on, we made some errors in routing near 12k lake and wasted some time.

Decisions -- we went west side and cliffed out,  east side might have worked better.

Instead of heading directly to the dam of 12k lake it is best to head up and over the hump towards the unnamed lake to the west and as you get to about 12200’ contour over to the east side of crabtree pass along a nice flat easy section between the lake and a tarn.  Another option is to hug the east shore which may be the easiest of all as we spotted a faint use trail on that shoreline.

Above 12k Lake

As we approached the pass higher up on the west side we found ourselves cliffed out and had to drop back down to the upper tarn above 12k Lake. We did see some Bighorn Sheep scat along here but never managed to spot any during this trip. We made our way up to left side of crabtree pass which would prove to be a more difficult descent than if we had chosen the lower, right or east side which had a couple of easier looking chutes.

Sooz, Me and Barbara at Crabtree Pass

Coming down I fell once and tweaked my knee but fortunately only a minor tweak that wouldn’t really bother me again until the final day coming out.

Barb descending Crabtree Pass,  this almost captures the vertical

 Halfway down to upper crabtree lake the skies opened again and the lightning started with some very close strikes around the canyon.

The Storm at upper Crabtree Lake

 We’d learn later that three people camping at Guitar Lake were struck by lightning in their tent by most likely the same cell that had parked over us.

 We hastily made our way down to the lake and out of the canyon. About halfway down we stopped to change since we were drenched and freezing. By this point there was about 2” of hail on the ground and the stream running down the granite floor of the canyon was fully swollen.

Falls at Middle Crabtree Lake, note the hail.

 We arrived at the granite dam on the west side of the middle lake and set up camp. The skies fleetingly cleared luring us into spreading out our clothes to dry, within an hour it was cloudy and and very windy threatening rain again, this sent everyone into their tents by 7pm.

 I got bored after 30 minutes or so and bundled up to go watch the sunset over the Kaweahs and Kern River canyon. The sunset was literally painted in as we watched, to our left were some large rockfalls on the lower cliffs of Mt. Chamberlin.

Sunset over Sequoia

 Wrote in my journal that I would leave the next day without doing Whitney since we had a close call today with the flash thunderstorm and have absolutely no idea what the weather is going to do for the rest of the trip.

  Sky Blue Lake to Crabtree Lakes via Crabtree Pass at EveryTrail

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Day 5 Rest and Dry out day at Middle Crabtree Lake
3.02 Miles
550’ elevation gain
No time


 Unfortunately Barbara decided to leave on Wednesday to head up to Shasta for a more relaxing break. I was on the verge of heading out as well on Tuesday night but decided during the night to see if the weather would break. We woke up to wonderful clear skies so I decided to press on with my Whitney attempt. After walking Barb down to the lower lake to find the use trail we headed back up for a day of fishing and planning our route up the hillside from our camp. Back at camp everything was pulled out and laid across the granite to dry, sleeping bag, hiking clothes, boots, etc.


 Crabtree lake is really quite stunning with its clear azure waters and some stunning underwater drop offs into deeper water. The waterfall inlet is like nothing I’ve seen, really a jewel of the Eastern Sierra.

More Awesome

 My first cast was met by a large Golden that shot up from a below a ledge to grab my Panther Martin, unfortunately immediately after getting hooked the beautiful fish stripped line from the reel and dove down back down below the ledge, dragging my line along the edge of the underwater granite and chafing the line until it snapped. I hooked one other nice fish on a kastmaster but it too spit the hook. So much for eating trout for a couple of dinners out here. Storms threatened today but for once did not form properly until maybe three or four in the afternoon. Watched some lightning over towards Whitney around 6PM. We hoped for the same for Thursday. At dinner we planned our route and decided to get up by 5AM.

Day 6 Mt Whitney from Middle Crabtree Lake via Discovery Pinnacle
10.38 Miles
4040’ elevation gain
12:03 hiking time

 Didn’t sleep very well worrying about how the ascent up to Discovery Pinnacle would turn out and wondering about the ever changing weather. Got up while it was still dark and taped up my feet.  I'd ended up with two toe to toe blisters w/o my injinjis,  a cut on my heel and hotspots on the soles of my feet from my orthotics. Pretty crazy seeing that I'd put hundreds of miles on those boots with nary a hotspot on Bay Area trails.  Just goes to show what a heavy pack and cross country travel can do.

Ouchie feets,  they actually didn't really start hurting until the second to last day's 15 miler

 Had another not very nice oatmeal breakfast, gathered up 3.5L of treated water and headed out of camp by 6AM once the sun had come up enough for use to see without lights.

The route up to Discovery Pinnacle's shoulder

 The traverse up Hitchcock ridge went well and we soon found ourselves at Discovery Pinnacle. The sheer drops were a little freaky but Sooz soon had me up on the summit block for my first 13’er.

Sooz and Discovery Pinnacle

 We dropped down the north face to pick up the Whitney Trail just before Trail Crest. What a feeling to be standing there after so many years of reading trip reports and doing so much research on Whitney. We had a nice young fellow take our photos here, we’d see him later struggling up the summit with AMS.

Trail Crest

 We cruised along the trail at a brisk pace, even jogging at times since yet another cloud had started to bubble over Whitney.

 We made the summit by 12:15, signed the register “For You Dad! Stan Wilson 3/9/36 -- 3/23/12” which was a poignant moment for me since we’d discussed this trip back in January/February when he’d fallen ill with a malignant brain tumor. He’d always wanted to hike Whitney so I'd promised him I would do it this year.

Whitney Summit Register

 After a few tears I composed myself and checked out the hut which four rangers/park staff were painting. We then headed over to summit proper to check out the plaques, benchmarks and stunning views.

Whitney Trail Plaque

I only managed to coerce 14505' out of the gps while holding it above the peak,  at the actual highpoint best I could get was 14501'.  So how tall is Whitney? ;-)

Highest Point in the 48 States, 14505'

Looking back at the Smithsonian Hut from the summit,  notice how everyone has cleared out ;-)

Smithsonian Hut

Sooz in the summit hut,  there are notes now about the floor being an integral part of lightning protection so perhaps it does afford some protection now that it's grounded.  I'd still get the hell out of there with lightning in the area.

The Hut

 After the previous few days of climbing I was a little braver and actually got out to the edge of some summit blocks to check out the sheer drops of the various faces of Whitney.

Looking South

Looking East to the Portal

Looking Down the NE face
 It’s truly a thrill to stand on the highest point of the 48 states which was made all the better by our long 8 day trip and its many ups and downs.

Woooo Hooo!

 I made the requisite phone calls to family members suffering numerous dropped calls on my AT&T phone, while Sooz sent out a bunch of texts and managed to check us in with a picture on FB on Verizon.

 The big cloud was getting progressively darker so we reluctantly packed up and headed back down the trail.

Storms building,  people still heading up into this.

The back side of the Needles
We passed many staggering people that should have been headed the other way instead of up and wondered just how these people survive this hike. Saw little kids ill with AMS and then on the other hand passed a few 70+ year olds happily strolling up or down the trail who had obviously prepared well for the altitude.

Just past Mt. Muir we donned the rain gear again and were treated to yet more hail but nothing like previous storms.

Rain/Hail again... wooo

 We went a little further east on the Whitney trail before heading up the shoulder of Discovery Pinnacle then headed back down towards Crabtree Lakes. On the North face of DP we found the some nice flowering Sky Pilots and plenty of Alpine Gold on the descent.

Sky Pilot!

Alpine Gold

Coming back over Discovery Pinnacle affords a peak back into Miter Basin and 12k Lake, Mt Langley, Army Pass and Cirque across the top,  in the lower center is the top of Crabtree Pass.

Looking South from DP

 We were unable to match our ascent route and dropped into the upper lake area and followed the beautiful granite lined valley back to camp.

Crabtree creek

 The achievement was celebrated with a whole two ounces of The Macallan this time. I hung out outside my tent in the dark for a while writing and noticing how easy it is to pick out the full constellations up compared to San Jose. The Milky Way spanned the valley with a few residual shooting stars coming from the the NE.

  Mt. Whitney from Crabtree Lakes via Discovery Pinnacle at EveryTrail

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Day 7 Crabtree Lake to Camp on Siberian Outpost area on PCT
15.16 Miles
2460’ elevation gain
10:19 hiking time

We packed up early, headed down to lower crabtree lakes and soon lost the trail, I went high and to the North while Sooz followed the wall made up of large boulders and picked up the use trail before I did by dropping down towards her.

Crabtree Meadow and Mt. Whitney, left of center.

 Crabtree Meadows is an amazing place, the creeks are full of goldens and you’re treated to a rare view of the backside of Whitney. I’ll be back to camp her sometime and fish instead of killing myself on peaks and cross country hikes. After a quick break we were back on the PCT headed for the cars.

Cow / Pack animal gate on the PCT

 Our only agenda for the day was to get as far as possible. We ran into the Rock Creek ranger again along here, they were out on a mission to recover an abandoned pack which had been torn apart by the animals. They found a satellite phone, loaded handgun and the trail permit of the owner from AZ. He claimed to have lost his pack while searching for water. The ranger didn’t believe that but didn’t have a theory as to why he’d be way the hell out there with those items. Thankfully he said people like that are in the vast minority.

Rock Creek,  lots of trout right here.

 We refilled the water bottles at Rock Creek and attempted to get out to Chicken Springs Lake but ended up stopping on the high plains of the Siberian Outpost.

Crabtree Lakes to Camp on the PCT at EveryTrail

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Day 8 PCT camp to Horseshoe Meadows via Cottonwood Pass

 8.68 Miles
 753’ elevation gain
 4:41 hiking time
 Ending pack weight ~34 lbs(no water)

One last thrust and we were over Cottonwood pass and back at the trailhead where Rebecca met us with some fresh fruit and ice cold Sierra Nevada Pale. Probably the best beer I’ve ever had.  This ended a tough but wonderful trip with good friends.  The high sierra backcountry is amazing, can't wait to get out again.

PCT marker

Sandy section of the PCT


Siberian Outpost(PCT) to Horseshoe Meadows TH at EveryTrail

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Final Trip Stats from Garmin Basecamp
62.4 Miles
14782' Elevation Gain

Technology on the trip: 

 Garmin eTrex 30 -- lightweight, good battery life(used 4 AAs), reasonable track performance when carried in pocket. Just a few elevation spikes. When placed on a pack or high the signal is very clean.

 iPhone 4S -- used sparingly to put the Spot in Track mode and send out morning and evening check ins to the family. 100% to start, still had 17% battery at the end of the trip. In airplane mode, turned off when not in use, on with bluetooth enabled for max of one hour per day.  Two calls and some texting from Whitney,  the only place I checked for signal during the eight days.

 Spot Connect -- on whenever hiking or doing peaks, off at night after sending the final check in of the day. Consumed 4 Lithium AA’s over 10 days -- was on for two days prior to arriving at the TH. Flashed low power warnings, indicating less than 100 packets to be sent but this would revert to green so don’t change the batteries too soon. Messages were reliably sent to my contact list and track mode worked impeccably. In fact quite a few of my friends followed our progress from their desks. A worthy investment given that you also have SOS capability in case of disaster.

 Fenix LD01 flashlight -- consumed three AAAs, twist on with three brightness settings, used the lowest to read and write in my journal, the brightest is good enough to light up the forest. It’s small enough to be worn on a baseball hat rim or shoved up under a beanie as a reading light. Not sure whether or not I’d revert to a headlamp next trip. Push button instead of twist on or off would be much preferred.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent write-up and quite an adventure! (Karl from Sunnyvale)