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#56011 - 08/15/19 03:08 PM Whitney via Cottonwood Pass 8/4-8/6
timisimaginary Offline

Registered: 12/13/18
Posts: 11
Loc: MD
This was my first trip to Mt. Whitney. Last year I hiked a couple of Colorado 14ers, including a traverse of Mt. Elbert via the Southeast Ridge and down the East Ridge and across the Colorado Trail to Twin Lakes, a trek of nearly 15 miles. For Whitney, I wanted to take my time and be able to take in more of the Sierra scenery, so I entered the lottery for an overnight permit, but failed to win one. That's when I heard about some of the other, longer backpacking routes that would allow an attempt on Whitney, and the Cottonwood Pass route sounded like the shortest, easiest approach to the mountain. I initially got a permit in September, but I kept checking and was very lucky to see a Whitney Portal exit permit for Aug. 7 become available, and at the same time that a Cottonwood Pass entry permit for Aug. 4 was still available, so I snagged those and began planning my trip. My initial plan was:

Day 0 - camp at Horseshoe Meadow hike-in campground
Day 1 - hike Cottonwood Pass and camp at Rock Creek
Day 2 - hike from Rock Creek to Guitar Lake and camp in the vicinity
Day 3 - Mt. Whitney summit, hike back down MWT and camp at Outpost Camp or Lone Pine Lake
Day 4 - hike out to Whitney Portal

I flew into Reno a couple days ahead of time, spent a day hiking around Lake Tahoe and Donner Pass, up to about 8000', and sleeping at 6200', to kick off the acclimatization process. I did not use Diamox.

Day 0: The next day I drove to Lone Pine, picked up my permit, dropped off my rental vehicle at Whitney Portal (it was a Saturday afternoon, and I had to wait about an hour for a space to open up in the overflow parking lot before I could park). Then I caught a shuttle from Whitney Portal to Horseshoe Meadows. I'm more comfortable hiking on cliffs than driving near them, so I was glad I chose to leave the car at the Portal instead of the other way around, because the drive up to Horseshoe Meadow was much worse than the drive up the Portal road. At the Horseshoe Meadow walk-in campground, by the time I got dropped off, all the numbered sites were full, so I picked a clear-looking spot of ground on the outskirts and pitched my tent there. Another backpacker came by to ask me if that was allowed, and I told her I didn't know but since my ride was already gone, I didn't have much choice. I paid the $6 fee so I hoped it was on the up-and-up, and nobody came by to make me leave so I guess it was OK. The campground was crowded, busy and pretty loud, but thankfully it quieted down early enough so I could get to sleep without earplugs.

Day 1: Started the hike up to Chicken Spring Lake, where I would take my first break. After Chicken Spring Lake, it's about another 9-10 miles to Rock Creek without much shade or water, so I loaded up on water at the lake. There's enough trees that you can find shade when you want it, but the trail itself is mostly in the sun, and this particular day was about as clear a day as I've ever seen, one or two small clouds in the sky and that was it. I had a very mild headache for most of the day - mild enough to where, if I had been at home, I would have just ignored it, but being between 10K and 11.5K pretty much the entire day, I took some ibuprofen to hopefully prevent it from getting any worse. The ibuprofen helped, but didn't knock the headache away entirely. Passed a sooty grouse and 3 chicks who crossed the trail just behind me. I got to the first campsites at Rock Creek between 3 and 4pm, and there was a small group already set up in tents, but with a few sites a bit further out on the other side of the trail, so I took one of those sites. Unfortunately, this area was pretty bad with mosquitos. It was a shame, because it was a great site to sit outside under the shade of a tree and read, but after a while the bugs got to be too much. I ate dinner, filtered some water for the next day, and then got inside my tent early to get away from the bugs. Also, the obvious "bathroom" area near this campsite was littered with used toilet paper, just sitting out in the open, not even attempted to be buried. Really gross. I get that people don't want to pack out used toilet paper, but if you're not going to, at least TRY to bury it, and if there's nowhere to bury it then do the right thing and take it with you. My mild headache had come back that night, took some more ibuprofen and it was gone by morning, never to return.

Day 2: Left Rock Creek headed up Guyot Pass to Horseshoe Meadow. Very quickly came to the Rock Creek crossing, as I was approaching the creek a guide leading a group of about 4 was coming back, and she asked me if I wanted to join them crossing the log crossing upstream, which I took them up on. Fortunate timing, because the log crossing was much easier (and drier) than the creek crossing would have been. The log crossing consisted of a pair of downed trees side-by-side, and then just the one tree (but much wider at this point), it was very wide and flat enough to easily get across. Back on the path to Crabtree Meadow, after a few miles a ranger came by and asked if I had seen a sick woman back on the trail. At first I couldn't remember seeing anyone other than the female guide, then I remembered a girl I had seen sitting by a tree a couple miles back, with another man talking to her, but she didn't appear in trouble, just resting, and the snippets of conversation I overheard passing them were innocent so I didn't think of it at first, but I told her about where I had seen them and she took off, really booking it. At Crabtree Meadow, I crossed Whitney Creek which was a shallow easy crossing with a sandy bottom, so easy to get across barefooted and keep the boots and socks dry. Saw a couple marmots here, one of which was chirping at a coyote who was trotting about out in the meadow. My only routefinding issue occurred here. After the creek crossing, the trail splits, with one route going more directly towards Whitney alongside the creek, and the other continuing up to meet with the JMT. I took the more direct route. Eventually, that route crosses back over to the other side of the creek, but at that point, another trail appears to continue straight. I didn't expect to have to cross back over the creek, so I continued on the straight trail, which eventually faded to a lightly-worn use trail. I realized I should have crossed the creek earlier to stay on the actual trail, but at this point, I didn't see the sense in crossing that creek again. I had expected to stay north of the creek the entire trail, since I would eventually pass Timberline Lake and Guitar Lake, where the creek originates, to the north. I knew there was a connector up to the JMT a little further east, though, so I stayed on the use trail until I got there and then went up and joined the JMT to continue east and avoid any more creek crossings. In retrospect, it would have been better to just continue up to the JMT in the first place and go east from there. Eventually I got up to Guitar Lake, which still had plenty of camping spots left, but I had read about more spots near the tarns further on, and continued on up to those. There are a pair of tarns at 11,600' that have a couple camping spots near them, one was taken but the other was available so I took it. I had heard about some other possible spots higher up near 12K but this spot was too good to pass up, with good water access. Luckily, because only about 15 minutes later some more hikers came by probably looking for the same spot. This day had a few more clouds, but overall it was another spectacularly clear day and a very mild night, I was prepared for temps down into the 30s but it felt like they barely got down into the 40s that night. Not much sleep, but not because of altitude, just from anticipation of the next day.

Day 3: I had considered leaving early for a sunrise on Whitney, or at least on the ridge, but since I hadn't slept much, I decided I didn't want to be going up the mountain in the dark on such little sleep, so waited a few extra hours. Made good time up to the JMT junction, and dropped my pack where a number of others had already dropped them. Unfortunately, I got to watch some idiot who was there at the same time dropping his pack, throw a rock at a marmot and hit it. I wanted to ask him how he'd feel if someone came into his home and threw rocks at him, but I'm just not a confrontational person. Still, I really wish I'd seen a ranger at that point. If you don't want marmots looking inside your pack, then don't drop them there. Anyways, the rest of the way to the summit was about 2 miles and took me about 1:15, reaching the summit around 10:15am and staying there close to an hour. The windows were no big deal, the first one is the only one of any significant length, and only maybe 20' at that. I used microspikes for the snow crossing, which made getting up them a breeze. Coming back down, the snow was slick and slushy and microspikes helped some but it was still a bit tricky. I was the only person I saw using spikes. Summit weather was gorgeous, mostly clear skies, slightly breezy but never felt a need to put on my puffy jacket, just my hiking shirt on top of a thin base layer was warm enough. Then it was back down to Trail Crest and the long downhill trek to the Portal. This was the hardest part of my hike. Coming down the switchbacks wasn't much of a problem, no significant snow to speak of, and the cable sections was completely snow-free. Towards the bottom of the switchbacks, some runoff was making the trail wet. This would get worse further down. By far the least enjoyable section of this hike is between Trail Camp and Outpost Camp. This section is long and rocky, and there were lots of places where the trail had flowing water running over it. Had to take it slower through here, and it just felt like it would go on forever. Finally reached Mirror Lake, took a break here, reloaded on water, and the rest of the hike down was on much easier trail. I had initially planned to camp overnight one more night, but I was making good time coming down, and the promise of a cold Coke and a big fat cheeseburger spurred me on to hike the last few miles out to the Portal. Overall, I finished this day in 10:30 and it felt good to be able to have a cooked meal and a shower and bed to look forward to that night.

#56014 - 08/15/19 04:55 PM Re: Whitney via Cottonwood Pass 8/4-8/6 [Re: timisimaginary]
MikeH Offline

Registered: 04/05/18
Posts: 67
Loc: Escondido, CA
Excellent write up Tim. And perfect timing as I'm planning essentially the same trip (except I'll be making it a round-trip) and just ran into a snag.

While trying to pick my Day 2 campsite on the reservation site, there is no option for Guitar Lake.

What did you use?


#56015 - 08/15/19 05:01 PM Re: Whitney via Cottonwood Pass 8/4-8/6 [Re: MikeH]
Steve C Offline

Registered: 09/22/09
Posts: 7990
Loc: Fresno, CA
MikeH: You can always tell the desk-ranger when you pick up the permit that you want Guitar Lk. Just put Crabtree Meadows or something close.

Also, when you pick up, you might ask if there are any Trail Crest Exit permits available -- just in case.

#56017 - 08/15/19 05:33 PM Re: Whitney via Cottonwood Pass 8/4-8/6 [Re: Steve C]
MikeH Offline

Registered: 04/05/18
Posts: 67
Loc: Escondido, CA
You da man, Steve! thanks like!

#56019 - 08/15/19 09:06 PM Re: Whitney via Cottonwood Pass 8/4-8/6 [Re: MikeH]
timisimaginary Offline

Registered: 12/13/18
Posts: 11
Loc: MD
When I first made the reservation, I was pretty conservative for campsites, I listed Chicken Spring Lake for night 1, SEKI-Rock Creek night 2, and SEKI-Other for night 3. Of course I ended up at Rock Creek on night 1 and above Guitar Lake on night 2. I didn't think to update it when I picked up the permit, I guess that information is useful if you go missing, they have an idea where to start looking. I was using a Garmin Inreach Mini to track my hike each day, so if anything happened the track would show my most recent location.

Also, I find looking at other's gear lists useful in preparation, so here is a partial list of the most important gear I brought:
Osprey Atmos 50 AG backpack
Tarptent Moment DW Tent
Sierra Designs Backcountry Quilt 700 (37F rated)
Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor Fleece liner
NEMO Tensor Insulated Air Pad
Black Diamond FLZ Alpine Trekking Poles
Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Dry Day Pack (for summit; very light and packs down to the size of a golf ball, but more than enough room for extra clothes and summit gear)
Black Diamond Storm Headlamp
UDAP No Fed Bear Cannister
MSR Trailshot Water Filter (for refilling on the trail)
MSR DromLite 4L Water Bag (I would fill this every night, drop in 4 aquatabs, and have all the water I needed the following morning for a quicker start)
Biffy Bags (easier to use than the ranger-provided bags)
Garmin Inreach Mini
Anker PowerCore 10000 (for recharging phone/watch/etc)
Garmin Fenix 5 GPS Watch
Kindle Paperwhite for reading
REI Weekender First Aid Kit with additional meds/bandages/etc of my choosing

La Sportiva Trango TRX Hiking Boots
Vivobarefoot Ultra III Watershoes (for camp shoes)
Kahtoola Microspikes
Darn Tough socks x2
ExOfficio Boxer Briefs x2
Kuhl Renegade Convertible Pants
Columbia PFG Terminal Tackle shirt (great hiking shirt)
Patagonia Tropic Comfort II Hooded Sunshirt
Merino Wool top and bottom base layers (not needed)
Patagonia Nano Puff Insulated Hoodie
Arc'teryx Beta SL Hybrid rain shell
Outdoor Research Foray rain pants
Outdoor Research Sun Runner Cap
Ascension Bay Glacier Sun Gloves
North Face Etip Gloves
Mountain Hardwear Dome Hat (great warm hat)
Mosquito Net (came in handy at Rock Creek)

I did not bring a stove, I ate my own trail mix recipe (lots of nuts, M&M's, granola, dried fruit), beef and bacon jerky, pop-tarts, fig newtons, clif bars, protein cookies, and Gu packets. This helped me save weight and pack space. My pack weight (with food but without water) was around 37 lbs at the start of the trip. Altitude did not affect my appetite, but the choice between camping a fourth night and dining on more trail mix vs. hiking a few more miles to the portal and having a big cheeseburger with fries made that last decision a bit easier.

#56020 - 08/16/19 08:43 AM Re: Whitney via Cottonwood Pass 8/4-8/6 [Re: timisimaginary]
MikeH Offline

Registered: 04/05/18
Posts: 67
Loc: Escondido, CA
Thanks Tim. That information is very helpful.

I enjoy seeing what other people pack in their pack.

Love the InReach devices. Since I hike solo 99% of the time, I always bring my InReach Explorer+. Gives me and my wife a little peace of mind.

Thanks again.

#56031 - 08/16/19 07:53 PM Re: Whitney via Cottonwood Pass 8/4-8/6 [Re: MikeH]
nyker Offline

Registered: 07/26/12
Posts: 219
Loc: New York
Nice job Tim, I've always wondered about climbing up from Guitar Lake.
Maybe next time, a marmot will run off with that other hiker's lunch and leave the, hungry