Mt. Whitney via Cottonwood Pass
Note: we also have a trip report for a longer version of this trip via New Army Pass.
Well, sometimes unexpected, quick trips turn out just perfect.
Trying to summit Mount Whitney on Labor Day weekend, one of the busiest weekends of the year, plus making it back to L.A. in time for a concert? While having only 48 hours to prepare? Writing this now, it sounds even crazier than it did when we came up with the plan.
Here’s how it happened: on Monday, September 4, a dear friend of ours who leads backpacking outings in the Sierra, asked me to go with her on trip to the Mono Pass area during the upcoming Labor Day weekend. I was to be an assistant leader as the assigned person had to cancel because of an emergency. When she first came up with the request, I had to decline as I had some work-related obligations on Thursday and Friday. Also, for Sunday evening, we had concert tickets to see John Williams at the Hollywood Bowl – something I didn’t want to miss.
However, the idea of the trip really appealed to me, so I sat down next morning to make some phone calls. By the afternoon, I had my schedule cleared, the only part to figure out was how to get back in time on Sunday, but I was sure that will work out somehow. Just before I was about to call and confirm my availability, she called me, saying the original assistant solved his problems and can go on the trip.
After all that effort, I had a clear schedule, Em didn’t have to work, either, and now we were both stoked to get out of town. Also, the weather forecast said Friday and Saturday will be around 110°F in L.A.
Somehow I came up with the borderline insane idea to go to Whitney. Em and I talked about trying to climb the mountain again in the next year or so, but no specific plans were made. We only knew that going up the main trail is out of the question, as we don’t like the crowds and that type of distance and elevation in one day is not our style. The conversation was always about starting from Horseshoe Meadows again, doing a longer version via Onion Valley, or something like that.
This time, Horseshoe seemed like the best option. The plan I came up with was a slight variation on our 2012 trip, but on a much tighter schedule: drive to Whitney Portal, leave the car, “teleport” over to Horseshoe Meadows. Hike up Cottonwood Pass, down to Rock Creek, up to Guyot Creek, camp there. Then on to Guitar Lake, camp there, summit early next morning, rush down to the car, drive back to L.A., go to the Hollywood Bowl. Oh, my...
This was Tuesday evening. We had several major problems: one, the permit. Every reservable trailhead quota has been chock full for months. Solution: try to get a walk-up permit for Cottonwood Pass, but keep Trail Pass in mind as a plan B. There’s no quota, but it adds a few miles to the trip. The exit quota for Trail Crest was full, too, but I remembered a ranger once telling me that there are almost always walk-up spots available.
First thing Wednesday morning, I called the Visitor Center in Lone Pine and inquired about the situation. The ranger said there’s a good chance we’ll get an exit permit, but as far as entry goes, he can’t guarantee anything as Thursday afternoon a large group might pick up all walk-ups for Friday. All he could say was to show up Friday morning and wing it.
Problem number two: how do we get from Whitney Portal to Horseshoe Meadows? Hitchhiking would be time consuming, and commercial services operating in the area are very expensive.
There’s an awfully nice gentleman who is a trail angel in the Onion Valley area and I talked to him once about giving rides to people even from Whitney Portal to Horseshoe Meadows - all this without charging an arm and a leg. He doesn’t want to advertise his services or his contact info, so I’m not going to publish it here, but if you’re truly interested, email me.
I called him and got lucky, he said he’s available and he’s willing to shuttle us from Whitney Portal to Horseshoe Meadows on Friday morning. We agreed that I’ll call him as soon as we got (or didn’t get) our permit.
Next problem: the weather. The forecast was 20-30% chance of thunderstorms. We don’t mind a bit of rain, but lightning is something to take seriously up there. Plus, we’ve had bad luck in the area with “20% chance” of rain. It hailed and thundered and rained for hours. See here.
I also had work to finish, but that was relatively easy and while Em was still at work Thursday, I packed everything as best as I could.
Then Em got her period later that afternoon and was feeling awful. We were expecting this and were fully prepared to abandon the trip. However, she said it’s not that bad this month and we should try.
Day 1 – L.A. to Guyot Creek
This will be a looooong day.
I got up a bit before Em, ate a bite, packed the car. Woke up Em, put her in the back seat with comfy blankets and a pillow so she can get some more sleep, and drove to Lone Pine. Em got up and said she’s feeling pretty good and well rested.
We got to the Visitor Center a few minutes before 8am. When there’s a big crowd for permits (almost every day between Memorial and Labor Day), a ranger comes out before opening time, and one person per group picks a random number (from a bear canister, fittingly). This number is the order they serve people once they open. I’ve seen this before and the drawing was at 7:45. This Friday, we arrived at 7:55, and I was sure the process was already over. I didn’t want to believe it when I saw that everybody is still waiting. The ranger came out a minute later, and my luck continued, I drew number 5 out of 40-something. To give you an idea, once I drew number twenty-something and it took over an hour and a half.
This time, I was in front of the ranger in less than 15 minutes. He was very nice and efficient, and within minutes, he gave us a permit to go up Cottonwood Pass that same day (yes, there were spots left) and exit Trail Crest on Sunday. By 8:35, we were out of there!
Update: the process described above changed since. To make sure you got the latest info, check online ahead of time.
Another half an hour later, we were driving up to Whitney Portal. Just the afternoon before, a huge deluge drenched the mountainside, and there was a lot of debris on the road. In a few places, it looked doubtful whether our low-clearance car can make it, but in the end, we got over OK.
The parking lots were almost full, but not completely, so we had a few choices. In the end, we parked the car by the main road, in a shady spot.
Our trail angel said he had some issue to take care of in the morning and will be up there at around 10am, meaning we had some time to bear-proof the car, double-check our gear, eat a sandwich, etc.
True to his word, he was there on time. A very, very nice guy with a lot of knowledge about and area and local hikes. We drove to Horseshoe Meadows, arriving just before 11am. Funny enough, the ranger who gave us the permit was up there, and he knew our driver well, so some additional banter was inevitable. Great guys.
We left the trailhead at 11:20am. Em said she was feeling a bit weak, but otherwise OK and she was sure she can make it.
First we walked across Horseshoe Meadows, this huge expanse of sand and grass and shrubs. It’s not the most scenic meadow I've ever seen, but certainly one of the most impressive.
At the far end, the trail enters the forest, crosses the creek a few times, then starts climbing towards Cottonwood Pass. The trail is in good shape and nicely graded, presenting great views of the meadow below.
We took it slow, even stopping for a quick snack break, arriving at the top of the pass a few minutes before 1:30pm. The vista to the west opened up, with Big Whitney Meadow below. The pass itself was relatively crowded, with at least a dozen people milling around or hiking in some direction.
Turning right (north) on the PCT, we climbed another bit, past Chicken Spring Lake (can’t get over the name), the site of our first camp while on the hike-with-food-poisoning A16 PCT-challenge trip.
For the next few miles the trail loses almost a thousand feet in elevation, but there are many small ups and downs, making it a bit frustrating. The scenery compensates for this, though. Around 3pm, we sat down for a late lunch. Em was doing pretty well. Clouds started gathering, and it looked like it's raining around Mt. Guyot. That's where we were going.
Past the Siberian Pass junction, the trail crosses a small plateau with great views of Whitney Crest, then drops more sharply, eventually descending into scenic Rock Creek. We've been to this place several times and can't get enough. The cloud cover looked ominous, and a very light drizzle started, but stopped after a few minutes.
It was late. We got to the crossing at 6:15pm. This was around mile 14 for that day. There were still about 1.5 miles to go, uphill towards Guyot Creek.
There's a big camping area right at the crossing. This time, a group of four people were on one side of the trail and two solo guys set up separately on the other side. When we went down to the creek, we realized that it's a no-go with shoes. All the times we've been there before, it was an easy rock-hop, but nothing was "as before" in 2017 with all that snow. One of the guys told us we should go about a hundred yards downstream, there's a good crossing via a log.
That's what we did, following the use trail on the side of the creek, past the next (empty) campsites. There was no log. The trail ceased to exist, but we kept going down, hoping to find that thing. Finally, about a quarter mile downstream, we gave up. No log.
We took the shoes off, crossed the creek, then cut up the hillside to meet the trail. This is a pretty steep section, the trail gains almost 500 feet in the first half a mile or so after the crossing. Actually, it's not that steep, but after such a long day...
Back in 2012 we already camped at Guyot Creek, so we knew what to expect. When we got there, around 8pm, it was almost completely dark. The good sites are among the trees, on the northern shore of the creek, about 30-40 yards off the trail to the east. As we hoped, nobody was there. The creek was flowing very well. I remember it from June 2015 when it was almost completely dry.
Needless to say, we were tired, but in good spirits. It was a clear, calm night with decently mellow temperatures (meaning above freezing). We set up quickly, ate dinner, then went to bed as soon as we could and slept hard and fast.
Day 2 - Guyot Creek to Guitar Lake
We got up at our usual 6am. We only planned to hike about 8 miles that day, but we wanted to get to Guitar Lake relatively early for several reasons: beat the crowds (better campsite selection), beat the weather (set up before any afternoon showers), and have some time to relax (as we planned on leaving for the summit in the middle of the night).
I always gripe about how it usually takes us at least two hours to get going in the morning. I don't know what was up with us that day, but we were off in less than 90 minutes. A record! I know, serious PCT people are now ROFL, and with good reason.
Anyway, we were off. The first mile or so took us to up to Guyot Pass, then down to Guyot Flats. I heard this used to be a lush, green meadow 15-20 years ago, but now it's a big sandy expanse. Still looking good though with Mt. Guyot in the back. There was even some snow left on top. Another favorite view of mine here is that of the Great Western Divide in the distance.
There was another small hill to climb before finally dropping to the awe-inspiring, fantastic, splendid (insert a few more positive adjectives here) Crabtree Meadows. I said this several times before: this is heaven for me. Shangri La. Whatever.
Of course, it was way wetter than last time we were there, now we could barely rock-hop the crossing past the small camping area (around the PCT/Whitney Trail split).
Another mile further up we got to the crowded main camping area where the pit toilet and - further up - the ranger station are. We had fond memories of having camped here twice, but this time, we had to press on. The two crossings here were again almost shoes-off. Despite having experienced these conditions several times all year, we kept being amazed by the wildflowers and how green and wet everything was.
Past the crossing, there's another bear box with some more campsites, and the trail connects to the JMT, turning sharply east. It follows the canyon for a while, climbing steadily. It's exquisitely scenic, but it gets even better about a mile further up at Timberline Lake. I'm not surprised camping is not allowed here. The lake is absolutely gorgeous, but there's not much space on the shore. I'm sure the travelers trampled the area pretty badly before. We sat down to have a quick snack. Then I almost lost my hat as I ventured to the outlet to take a picture. Idiot as I am, I forgot to secure it properly, and a sudden gust of wind blew it off, right into the rushing creek behind me. It was pure luck that it got caught on some rocks a few feet down.
As the name suggests, the tree cover ends around this lake and the trail climbs another mile to a big cirque with Guitar Lake in the middle. This place is a village, with well over a dozen campsites. It was only 12:30pm, and it was almost empty, with one party trying to set up their tent in the wind (the wind wasn't bad, but you could see that they haven't done this enough times. They got it eventually). We knew many more people will arrive, and according to plan, we kept on climbing another quarter mile, to the ledge just east of Guitar Lake, about 150 feet higher. There's a nice meadow up there, partially filled by two tarns (I have a feeling this used to be one bigger lake earlier).
At the tarn, some jerks set up right by the water, on the grass. I mean one of their tents was right on the shore when there were plenty of other spots available. Whatever happened to "never camp on vegetation, and at least 100 feet from water"? They were grumpy anyway, not greeting fellow hikers like most people in the mountains.
We found our old spot on the rocks, with a great view of Guitar Lake. However, we decided to look for a more private site. I left Em and walked around, climbing the tiny hill by the tarn. Right on top, there were a few more sites, but they were too exposed to the wind, so I kept looking, and finally found a nice place on the other side, by the far end of the second tarn. It was nicely out of view and shielded from the wind somewhat. I went back for Em and we settled there.
Though clouds were gathering, the possibility of rain still looked far away, so we took our time, eating lunch, unpacking slowly.
After pitching the tent, we took a shower, then a nap. It was a great, quiet afternoon. Looking down from the top of the rocks, we saw more and more hikers arriving, both down by the lake and up around the trail by the tarn.
Around 3:30pm, we took a walk, up towards Hitchcock Lakes. There are some more small tarns here. In 2012, I even took a quick swim in one of them, but this time, the water was way too cold. There were still snow banks on the side, supplying fresh, cold water. Like always, Em started a snowball fight as soon as she got to the snow. She didn't have a hard time provoking a response.
It was getting crowded. Even this far from the trail, we met a group of four people milling around just like us. Down by Hitchcock Lakes, we even saw two tents set up on the shore.
When we got back to camp, the situation was even worse. There were about 10 tents around the tarns (including us), and looking down to Guitar Lake, I counted at least 15 there - plus I know for sure that a few were out of view.
It was a great afternoon, tough. The clouds kept racing back and forth, and it looked like a bit of rain in the distance, but nothing happened around us.
We had an early dinner around 6:30, then took a walk, looking at the sunset and then at the almost-full moon rising from behind Whitney Crest. Then we went to bed as soon as we could. I was afraid that I won't be able to sleep, but I conked out in minutes.
Day 3 - Guitar Lake to Mt. Whitney, then L.A.
The alarm went off at 3am. We looked outside. Beautiful, clear night, no wind. Let's go. We could see a few people ahead of us, even some up on the crest.
We got ready as quickly as possible, then started walking up the trail around 4:15. It was chilly, but not terribly so, and I decided to start hiking in my shirt. Em had her windbreaker/rain jacket on.
This time, we had to use the headlamps as the moon had already set behind Mt. Hitchcock. Back in 2012, the timing was perfect, we hiked this portion in bright moonlight.
I love this trail on the side of the mountain, it's simply amazing. It's not very steep, but of course it keeps climbing relentlessly in the maze of rocks, first going pretty far off to the south before doing about 8 huge switchbacks, climbing cca. 1,500' in a mile. Of course we could feel the altitude, but none of us showed signs of AMS. We took it easy, keeping a slow, steady pace. At 5:51am, we arrived at the junction. Many people were already here, most of them shedding their packs. We did that too on the previous trip, but this time, we decided to take our full packs with us. They were not that heavy and taking them off, putting stuff in a summit bag, etc. would have cost us precious time.
The summit is 1.7 miles and about 1,000' up from here. The trail is OK in most places, with a few big steps and short steep parts here and there. There are the famous "windows", notches in the rock with great views to the east. It was light by this time, and at one of those windows, we got a first glimpse of the rising sun.
Em kept going out of breath, but it was not altitude sickness yet, we just had to take it slow.
There was a small snowfield to cross, then the trail turned east and the though the last few hundred yards before the summit are not steep at all, it's still the hardest part. The full sun hit us there and it was simply gorgeous (and breathtaking, literally). Em had to stop every minute to catch her breath, but she was OK.
At exactly 7:24am, we walked past the hut onto the summit. Amazingly, only three more people were there. Somehow a lot of hikers were behind us, and a lot of them just left the summit before we got up. A few minutes later, we even had a moment at the summit to ourselves.
It was cold, though, and there was a really annoying, sharp wind blowing. There was no way we could linger and eat a sandwich like last time. Also, somehow I forgot to pack gloves for this trip. I don't know how I could be so stupid. Em's hands got really cold really quick, so I gave her a pair of (almost) clean socks I had in the backpack's outer pocket and that did the trick.
At 7:50am, we were on our way down. By this time, the sun was blazing and the mountains all around were glowing in the morning light.
It took an hour for the 1.7 miles back to the junction. A fearless marmot was perched on the rocks, right by the hikers. I'm wondering whether he could appreciate the view as we did.
Then there's the short uphill section to Trail Crest where we said goodbye to the interior of the Sierra and started dropping on the 99 switchbacks towards Trail Camp. At least this was easy going, despite the crowds coming up.
One cool thing of note here were the sky pilots (Polemonium eximium). Favorites of ours, these awesomely fragrant flowers only bloom at high elevations and for a very short period. Also, most of the time, they grow in small clusters. We've never seen more than a few dozen at a time.
Here they were covering most of the mountainside. There must have been thousands. Most have already bloomed and only a few were left, but my, what a treat this must have been for the hikers a few weeks ago.
Around 10:15am, we walked past Trail Camp. This is a super-busy area as it's the last camp before with summit. Over a dozen tents were set up, but it was relatively deserted as most people were up on the summit. We even chased a marmot away from a food wrapper somebody left by their tent. Then we placed a few big rocks on the wrapper, securing it as much as we could.
We were really hungry, but hiked some more and sat down for lunch 15 minutes later by the crossing below Trail Camp, an awesomely scenic little canyon with a rapid and tons of wildflowers.
Then it was downhill, downhill, and more downhill. We tried to hurry, but you have to break yourself on this steep trail. It's tiring and not so fast as one would hope.
Trailside Meadow was impossibly gorgeous, with hundreds of shooting stars (Dodecatheon alpinum), so despite the hurry, we had to stop to take some pictures. Same at Mirror Lake (reflection was perfect in the calm weather) and further down around Outpost Camp (waterfall, meadow, creek).
Apropos weather: it kept looking like it's going to come down later in the afternoon.
A quarter mile above Lone Pine Lake, somebody left a pair of crutches leaning against a tree. What???
Lone Pine Lake evoked fond memories, too, the chill-out night before returning home in 2012 is still one of my favorite nights in the mountains.
No stop at the lake this time, but a quick pace down to the car. This last stretch (about 2.5 miles) is very tricky, you keep thinking you're almost there, but then the trail contours around some more and there's yet another mile left.
We got to the trailhead at 1:40pm and quickly weighed our packs. Em: 18 pounds. Me: 24 pounds, including the heavy photo gear. As a comparison, in 2012 Em's was 23 and mine 30, though I had at least 2 pounds of superfluous water then.
No Portal Store break either, it looked like it could rain at any moment and there was no time to waste anyway. We jumped in the car and headed down. At least the road was cleared of all that debris.
Looking back from Lone Pine, we could see that the entire Whitney Crest is sitting in heavy thunderclouds. It started drizzling on us as well, and half an hour later, a few miles down the 395, we got into a very heavy, but brief downpour. We couldn't believe our luck.
At 5:30pm, we were back in L.A. Take a quick shower, put on nice clothes, pack some food, drive to the Hollywood Bowl. We got there just in time to finish our dinner in the picnic area, then go to our seats. The concert started at 7:30pm. Exactly 12 hours beforehand, we were on top of Mt. Whitney.
The concert was as great as ever. John Williams does this every year, and each time, there are more and more lightsabers in the crowd, lighting up the place when they play Star Wars music.
This trip worked out well because many aspects came together by sheer luck. However, being prepared to get going quickly and having flexible plans helped a lot. Also, keep in mind that walk-up permits are almost always available for most trailheads.
Other than that, may the Force be with you!
Take a look at all the pictures in the full gallery.