I’ve had some of the peaks in the Miter Basin at the back of my mind for several years. This region of the Sierra Nevada is slightly south of Mt. Whitney, nearly at the end of what is called the High Sierra. The Cottonwood Lakes area closer to the car is extremely popular, as is Mt. Langley, due to being one of only 15 peaks in California that are higher than 14000ft.
On the other hand, the areas further west are not as popular, being used mainly as a throughfare along the Pacific Crest Trail, to get to places like Crabtree Meadows. Part of this is the lack of lakes along the main trails which leads to very dry conditions as the summer progresses. The peaks we climbed can go days or weeks between ascents.
I’m not sure exactly why I chose these peaks. However the plan I put together seemed like it would allow us to climb them over 6 days without being too exhausting. We were originally supposed to do this over the 4th of July week, but had to push it out after getting COVID-19.
We drove from the Bay Area on July 17, making use of the Sunday to do most of the 7 hour drive. We spent that evening in Mammoth Lakes, sleeping in the car on the outskirts of town. The next day we worked from the Mammoth Lakes Library, which is a real gem. In the evening we drove another 2 hours to the trailhead near Lone Pine. We stopped for some last minute food shopping, and bought a large pizza for dinner + the next day’s lunch. I had forgotten to cut my nails, so I also got a nail cutter, thinking I would only buy one if it was around $10. To my surprise, it was just $1.29 which is possibly the cheapest thing I’ve ever purchased in the US. Score!
For inexplicable reasons, the White Mountain Ranger Station in Bishop has removed its water tap. The Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center was also closed by the time we got there at 8pm. This was frustrating and I was very dehydrated. However, there was plenty of water at the trailhead. The trailhead was pretty quiet that late on a Sunday. We ate dinner and settled in (in the car) for the next day.
The map shows the original plan, while the table and following post explains what we actually did.
July 19 - July 24, 2022
|Day||Distance (mi)||Elevation change (ft)||Camp location|
|1||12.00||+2538, -2155||Rock Creek Lake|
|2||9.74||+2881, -2970||Guyot Creek|
|4||6.10||+1405, -985||Soldier Lake|
Day 1 - Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead to Rock Creek Lake
We started from the car at 8:20 a.m. I took the wrong way at the very first intersection. Fortunately all the trails in the Cottonwood Lakes area intersect at various points and the distance doesn’t change much, so no harm was done. Clouds started building up around 10:30. By the time we reached High Lake at noon, the cloud cover was at 50%. The weather forecast called for a 40% chance of thunderstorms, and we didn’t want those right as we cross New Army Pass. New Army Pass, at 12,200ft was the high point of the first day. It is an exceptionally well engineered route, taking wide, gentle switchbacks to the top. We spent 30 minutes at High Lake deciding whether to continue or stop here for the day. We also had our lunch of left-over pizza. The heavy packs of the first day, as well as the altitude were slowing us down. We didn’t want to be almost at the top and then have to rush up or down if it started to thunder. We had to do that last year on Kearsarge Pass and it was unnerving. After some faffing, we decided to start around 12:45. The clouds were mostly avoiding the pass itself. Fortunately, the weather stayed clear and we were at the top by 1:36. We were both feeling a dull altitude headache, so we didn’t spend too much time at the top. On a weekday afternoon there were hardly any people going up Mt. Langley. We saw 4 people come down and just one solo day-hiker go up.
The wide plateau of New Army Pass/Mt. Langley houses a lot of fat marmots. The rare Sierra Bighorn sheep are also quite common here. We saw one not too far into our descent on the west side. We headed down the Rock Creek Trail eager to get to camp. We were pretty tired by now and the descent seemed to take forever! We finally made it to the Rock Creek meadow after some really terrible trail in the last half mile. We found a nice tent spot on a little uprising just south of the junction with the Miter Basin. It was away from the lake but had a view of it. There was a small creek flowing down from Miter Basin for water. We had that area to ourselves, and even the mosquitoes didn’t really come out that evening. Dinner was purple noodles in chile-lemon flavor. These noodles are found at H-mart and are our current favorite. They were accompanied by some tea and miso soup. We were pretty refreshed after that!
While we had originally planned to climb Mt. Pickering and Joe Devel the next day, we decided to take it easy the next day. It was nice to be out in the wilderness again. We slept without our rain fly on nearly every night of this trip. At one point I just peaked my head out of the tent to see the stars. That first night we had the best view. After that the waxing moon would drown out most of them.
Day 2 - Rock Creek Lake to Guyot Creek + Mt. Guyot
Today’s plan was to hike another 5 miles west to set up camp at Guyot Creek. This was a sorta-random stopping place, but it would put us close to Mts. Guyot, Chamberlin and Newcomb. The trail was very boring. It was entirely in the trees and the dust, heat and dryness wasn’t helping. I was glad to be at the end of it. Guyot Creek had very minimal flow midway through a very dry year. We could only fill up a cup at a time. No depth to even dip our feet. The campsite was in the trees and didn’t have any views. Oh well, there wasn’t a more convenient place to camp!
We put up the tent, ate some lunch, then took our day packs and started towards Mt. Guyot. Ah! The pleasure of leaving those 15kgs behind!
First we followed the trail to Guyot Pass. Shreya wasn’t a 100% certain if she was going to come up the mountain. However, once we got to the pass, she couldn’t help herself, and up we went! The hike up Guyot was straightforward. Slightly sandy use trails meandered through solid rock. However the 2000ft of elevation seemed to take longer and feel harder due to the exertions of the previous day. The summit is all the way to the south of the long summit ridge. There is a very wide, sandy path on climber’s right of the summit ridge. No ridge traversing required. We were soon at the top and enjoying the fantastic views. The deep and long Kern River Canyon is clearly visible in the west. Beyond that are the peaks of the Kern Divide, none of which I can identify. In the North, Mt. Whitney is very prominent (follow the Guyot ridgeline to the peak on the skyline), as it is from every peak in this area. We were also paying close attention to Mt. Chamberlin, Pickering and Joe Devel, to discern how we would travel through the area. However there was no lake in sight, which was a bummer!
We were back to camp by 5. We used the time to freshen up to the best of wildnerness standards. Tonight’s dinner was couscous and lentils. To spice it up we had Puliogare powder. This is a spice powder with the primary flavor being tamarind and peanuts. We eat it reasonably often at home, but this was the first time taking it backpacking. This stuff was the bomb in the backcountry! I’ll be carrying it on future trips.
Day 3 - Mt. Chamberlin
Another day, another peak! Today’s plan was to climb both Mt. Chamberlin and Mt. Newcomb. We didn’t have much info about the traverse between them, except that it wasn’t going to be easy. We had been flip-flopping yesterday between going up Chamberlin first, or going down the valley to Newcomb first. The former would let us finish one peak first, while the latter would give us more information before we started up. We settled on the latter approach this morning. If it looked unappealing from the valley below Newcomb, we could always backtrack a bit and climb Chamberlin. We left camp around 7:10 and followed a gentle ridge, through widely spaced pine trees to the foot of Mt. Chamberlin. Then we contoured north east into the valley. The terrain quickly got rough. Newcomb is far inside the valley.
It was 9:30 by the time we got above the final series of tiny lakes in that valley. Yikes! Newcomb from the valley is not my idea of fun at all. This looked so sucky! A few years ago, I was open to dealing with long slogs through shitty scree and pushing through it. However these days it is extremely unappealing. I’m sure there was some specific way that would be the least worst approach, but I didn’t care enough about this peak. Shreya’s tolerance for scree is even less than mine, so this was an easy choice. No Newcomb.
There were several chutes on the east side of Mt. Chamberlin that seemed to offer access to the summit, so we didn’t have to backtrack at all. We started up the east slope just below the summit. We followed sandy slopes that got steeper about 2/3rd of the way up. Then we transitioned to solid talus. This was harder work, but much more pleasant. We were soon on top of Chamberlin walking along the wide summit area to the top. Knowing that we were done with the objectives for the day, we spent a long time at the summit. Cinnamon bread and Trail Butter was the meal of the day. It was slightly cloudy and a few drops fell on us on the way down, but nothing concerning. The view of Middle (Upper?) Crabtree Lake from the summit was fantastic! That is a lake worth camping next to. Wide sandy beaches and crystal blue waters. Too bad it is 15-20 miles from anywhere on trail. We could also see the uppermost lake in that valley, though I believe that is not called Upper Crabtree Lake. Chamberlin had last been climbed June 26th, and we were only the 12th party this year. Not a very popular peak.
On the way down we took the much gentler way down to Crabtree pass and then descended several plateaus to our campsite. It was just a question of following our GPS tracks at the end. I spotted a large hare towards the end, and in pursuit of it, lost my sense of direction, ending up a little further down the trail than I would have liked. We hydrated with miso soup then rested for a while before getting to dinner.
Day 4 - Guyot Creek to Soldier Lake
Today was a short day. We would move camp from Guyot Creek to Soldier Lake. When taking down our tent, one stake was stuck so tight that we had to leave it behind. That’s one I haven’t heard before! We took our time in the morning and only started walking at 10 am. It was quite hot today. The heat wave throughout California was making itself felt even close to 10,000ft. When we reached our first day’s campsite, we tried out some Tailwind powder that we had got as swag. It was really good!
We reached Soldier Lake around 1:30. There is an area past the first knoll that has a bunch of good camping, with beautiful surroundings. We found a good site right before all the crowds got there. The lake was pleasant enough, but too mossy to make swimming attractive. Instead, we just used one of the eating pots to pour water over ourselves. By 3pm, a lot more people had showed up at this camping area. It was a complete party! After having campsites and entire mountains to ourselves over the last 3 days, I had predicted that there was a 70% chance we would be alone here as well. How wrong I was!
Tonight’s dinner was messy. We had pasta with paneer chilli masala, which was a tasty combination but an ordeal to clean. We were glad to have this easy day mid-trip, because we had two long days to go. Tomorrow was also going to be a technically challenging day.
Day 5 - Mt. Pickering and Joe Devel Peak
We started from camp around 7am. The first task of the day was to get to Erin Lake, which sits in the cirque formed by the two mountains. We went down the Rock Creek Trail for a bit, and then turned right into the Miter Basin. There is a use trail here that goes next to a lovely meadow. The western side of this meadow has steep sides formed by the granite pillars of Joe Devel, and the plateau extending from Mt. Pickering. Erin Lake was 1000ft above us. We crossed the meadow at an arbitrary point and started up rocky terrain with plenty of trees. This turned into talus, until we reached the base of a series of steep slabs. This is probably slightly right of the lake’s outlet, but there was no water flowing right now. We had a choice of several gullies in the slabs, or going far left and following a sandy use trail.
The dry slabs were much more appealing. The climbing was very easy and fun and we made quick progress to the cirque, where easy talus carried us to the lake by 8:45. Erin Lake was the best lake of this entire trip! Deep blue clean waters amid all this rocky chaos. It was so still, and it had these inviting rocks on the shore that had great places to sit and interact with the water. This was also going to be the last water source until we got back to camp, so we filled up 2.5 liters of water per person and added filtration tablets to them. Ah! I wish I could spend more time at this lake.
From here, we didn’t have too much beta about getting to Pickering. One option was to cross the lake on the north side and go up the drainage. However that didn’t look very appealing. It would involve a lot of up and down, as well as crossing some sandy terrain. Plus we had no idea how easy the uphill from the drainage would be. The other option in Secor says to take a chute near the outlet of Erin Lake to the plateau above. We could see a chute, and we could also see a pillar of solid rock just right of it. This seemed reasonable enough. As usual, we picked solid rock over sand and made quick progress up the mountain. Erin Lake was a constant backdrop. Around 12,200ft it seemed the pillar was starting to get featureless and we would end up too high if we followed it. So we went left and were able to easily escape into the sandy chute. Using the solid right wall as a handrail, we went up the remaining 200ft of sand. From here it was gentle and wide terrain across the plateau. The views were outstanding to the east! Mt. Corcoran and LeConte form a wall of jagged teeth across the sky. Occasionally one could glimpse Primrose Lake.
It was 10:30 by the time we made it to the very top of the wide plateau. From here it was a direct shot to the sandy remnant of Pickering. It felt like we were on the moon. This would be the last pleasant walking of the day until we got to Joe Devel. It was only 600ft more to the summit of Pickering, but it was the kind of steep sand where you spend a lot of energy just sinking into the surface. It was a slow and plodding journey to the summit. What would have been 30 minutes on good trail took over an hour. Now that we could see the ridge connecting Pickering and Joe Devel, we were also distracted by this unknown that lay in front of us. Suffice to say that we didn’t truly relax on Pickering’s summit. We ate lunch and took pictures, but I didn’t really absorb the summit. Mt. Newcomb’s easier upper section was visible below Mt. Whitney.
(Pickering’s summit register implied that most people seem to climb from Primrose Lake. I’m not sure why, unless you were already camped in the Miter basin.)
The ridge between Pickering and Joe Devel is only a quarter mile. By all accounts, nearly everyone who climbs one of these mountains does the other by traversing the ridge. However parts of it looked pretty heinous from far away. We also knew from ascending Chamberlin that the western side was just a steep drop. Whatever way we had to find, it would have to be from the east. I also knew in my heart that if I didn’t make it to Joe Devel from here, I was never going to summit Joe Devel. It just isn’t the kind of mountain one makes a special trip for. However, I’ve also become much more conservative, and less summit-hungry, so I wasn’t going to take risks. On the other hand, reversing our route would also be a slow and exhausting process. We decided we would attempt the ridge, evaluating every few steps whether we wanted to turn around and retrace our steps to camp.
It was actually quite straightforward on the Pickering side, till the saddle. There are several sandy ledges between rocks that offer protected paths. It isn’t easy terrain though and it took us an hour to make it to the low point. From here, the route finding was slow and the terrain occasionally loose. There were lots of signs of human activity along certain channels, and we followed that where we could. It was never difficult, but it was nerve-wracking not knowing whether we could go all the way while minimizing risk. I can’t describe every turn here, but here is another look. The route goes, and remains class 3. Just watch out for loose rock. When in doubt, generally stay east of the ridge.
When we finally made it to the wide, flat, safe part of Joe Devel, we were so relieved! It had been a very mentally stressful 2 hours, but we had made it. We took some time to rest and hydrate. Joe Devel is a big and long mountain, and it took a while even from here to get to the summit. Fortunately it was a perfect summit day. We were so glad to be here, done with most of the rigours of the day. Pickering’s south east slopes looked back at us so innocently from here!
The descent from Joe Devel was quite sandy. This peak would be hell to climb up. Nearly 3000ft of going up this sandy stuff would lead to madness. However it made going down so fast! It took us just an hour to drop 2000ft to 11,300ft, where the terrain becomes gentle and splits into several ridges and valleys. We were pretty exhausted by now. However the mountain wasn’t done with us. It took a while to navigate through the trees and occasional talus, maintaining a bearing that would get us closer to Rock Creek Lake. There were several “do you think we will dead end down this tiny valley” moments. Fortunately we never cliffed out, and eventually reached the trail a quarter mile down-stream from the lake. There was a haze in the air along the Sierra Crest by this time. We didn’t know the reason yet. From here it was fast progress back to camp, but mentally it felt like forever. It was so good to be back at the tent. What a long but satisfying day this had been.
We had been saving the easy-to-prepare dehydrated meals for this last day. My Coconut Chicken Curry was so delicious. Shreya had got some weird, Americanized attempt at Veg Korma which was fine as far as taste went, but very sad as far as a Veg Korma is supposed to be. That and some chocolate, and we were ready to get into the sleeping bag. While tomorrow was the final day of the trip, the backpacks were not going to get themselves to the car :( So much work!
Day 6 - Soldier Lake to Mt. Langley and back to Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead
Usually, about 4 days into the trip is when I start thinking of civilization and looking forward to the last day. Despite the long day yesterday, we didn’t feel particularly sore, which was a good sign.
We started from Soldier Lake by 8am and immediately hit the first obstacle of the day. The plan called for following an old trail up the Soldier Lake drainage. That would go up a large gully on Mt. Langley’s west side. However, below treeline this trail is overgrown and hard to always follow. Inevitably, it took us a lot longer than planned to get to Upper Soldier Lake. We filled enough water here to last us to the summit and down Old Army Pass on the other side, as there would be no water beyond here. From here progress was swift across an absolutely wonderful valley. This large valley is filled with expansive meadows and giant glacial erratics. This was such a refreshing 30 minutes. The gully up Mt. Langley has a nice set of switchbacks going up it. This allowed us to maintain a good pace even at this altitude with packs. Soon we were at the junction with the main Mt. Langley trail at 12,500ft.
We dropped our backpacks here, filled a small pack with water and nearly the last of our food and started up Mt. Langley. I had previously visited Mt. Langley on a day trip in 2018, as an extension of a trip to Cirque Peak. Being quite fresh that day, I had forgotten what a slog Langley is because of the sandy terrain. It took us a while to get to the summit. It was nice to finally see people on a mountain we were climbing, although it was less busy than I expected, given it was a Sunday. There was just another couple at the summit when we got there. They took a few photos of us before departing. We spent nearly 45 minutes at the summit, relaxing and being happy that it was at least all downhill from here. We also got rudimentary cell service. Ironically, Mt. Langley’s summit registers were in such disarray, and lacking any writing mechanism, that we gave up on signing them. Who cares when thousands of people are going to visit the top any way.
There was a general haze in the air today as well. The views from Langley are just as fantastic as any other mountain in the area. We could finally see the lakes of the Miter Basin.
From Mt. Langley we began the long walk down. Old Army Pass is certainly much worse than New Army Pass. There is plenty of rockfall damage, and the trail has plenty of stacked granite flakes that are harder on the feet. We were also nearly out of water at this point and feeling quite dehydrated. Fortunately it was time to enter the lands of lakes again. Cottonwood Lake #4 sits right below the pass, where we filled up enough to get us to the car. Now we focused on walking, with no regard to scenery or beauty as we took various trails down the valley. We passed several people with much shorter itineraries who were lounging around, but we had no interest in that. 4 or 5 miles from our car we were feeling on our last legs. We were stopping more frequently and the enterprise was becoming a burden.
We had a much needed bit of levity and distraction about 3 miles from the car. A 20-something year old coming from the other direction asked us if we knew where “Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead” was. He was supposed to meet his friends there an hour ago to start the hike and he was getting late. We told him that the trailhead is where the trail and road meet. He had already started his hike, but his friends were going to be pretty upset with him! After some thought, he turned around and walked back to the car.
We were not too far behind him and rolled into the parking lot around 5:30. What a feeling to be done! After some cleanup we were out of there!
We got some dinner at the Mt. Whitney Restaurant. We found out that the Washburn Fire had started in Yosemite while we were gone. That would explain the haze. We drove south to Bakersfield instead, spent the night in a motel then finished the drive home on Monday.
I give this trip a 3.5⁄5. Mostly because of the lack of lakes and the predominantly sandy terrain. I think the former could’ve been fixed if we had added the actual upper Miter Basin to our itinerary somehow. The sandy terrain on the peaks needed much more effort on the way up and kept accumulating in our shoes. It was nice to check out this part of the Sierra.
Our food and gear choices generally worked out well. We barely encountered mosquitoes. We didn’t end up in anything dangerous.
The two things we brought on this trip that I would not try again is pasta (too difficult to clean) and dehydrated peas (take forever to hydrate) on a backpacking trip.
6 days is a very reasonable amount of time for these peaks. There are lots of people who traverse Joe Devel-Pickering-Newcomb-Chamberlin in a day (and some even tack on Guyot), but that requires a certain acceptance of terrain and risk that we no longer want to face. Not to mention extreme fitness.
Fortunately neither of us experienced any COVID after-effects on the trip.
We carried one BV500 and one BV450 bear canister for approximately 11 person-days of food. This was slightly on the lower end in terms of calories, but got us through until the last afternoon.