Cross-Country Ascent of Mount Whitney
Subtitle: Climbing Whitney With an Eager and Athletic Ten-Year Old
by Paul Richins, Jr. (9/18/08)
Related Articles--My Mount Whitney Climb by Sierra Richins (age 10), A Ten-Year Old Girl Climbs Red Slate Mountain by Sierra Richins, and Climbing California's 14,000-foot Peaks (by age 13), and Mountain of Solitude.
Page includes article immediately below, Trip Summary, and Photographs
Each year, thousands seek to climb Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower forty-eight states. Hikers and climbers from every state in the United States and many nations in Europe and Asia travel to California to climb to Whitney's lofty summit. Actually, more than 30,000 attempt the peak each year but only about one-third reach its granite-blocked summit perched on top of the sheer east face buttress. A successful and safe trip to Whitney's airy summit takes thoughtful planning, excellent physical conditioning, persistence in your training and on the trail, avoidance of altitude sickness, and a lightly-loaded pack. All these and much more are discussed in depth in the second edition of the popular guidebook, Mount Whitney: The Complete Trailhead-to-Summit Guide. This is the number one selling guidebook for those wishing to climb the peak whether in summer or winter, and contains fifteen different hiking routes to the summit.
Seventeen years ago I first explored this route with my ten-year old daughter, Sierra, and my good friend Gene Leach. On that outing we left Horseshoe Meadow and ascended New Army Pass and climbed Cirque Peak by moonlight the first day (and night), climbed Mount Langley and hiked cross-country to Sky-Blue Lake on the second day, ascended Crabtree Pass, Discovery Pinnacle, and then hiked to the summit of Whitney along the last two miles of the John Muir Trail on the third day. On the last day of this adventure, we hiked down the Whitney Trail from Trail Camp (12,000 feet) to Whitney Portal (8,300 feet). Three associated articles published in the Mountain Democrat and Sacramento Bee newspapers provide additional information on climbing Mount Whitney--My Mount Whitney Climb by Sierra Richins, Climbing California's 14,000-foot Peaks by Paul Richins, and Mountain of Solitude by Paul Richins.
In August 2008, I had the unique opportunity to take my athletic and eager ten-year old niece, Emma, her mother (my sister Penny), and her husband Mark (of Salem, Oregon) to climb the highest peak in the land. Ascending the Mount Whitney Trail (Route 8) is the most popular route but it is more of a social event than a wilderness outing. Even though the Whitney Trail might have been better suited for a ten-year old, Penny, wanted a wilderness experience for her family.
What a perfect occasion to retrace the route I traversed previous with my young daughter. Penny and Mark were experienced backpackers and were ready for the challenge but, being from Oregon, had not spent much time at high elevations. At ten years, Emma had limited backpacking experience so this would be an order of magnitude more difficult than she had experienced in the past. All had trained for several months in preparation and were eager to attack this arduous cross-country route (a hybrid of Routes 9, 10, and 11).
To prevent altitude sickness, Emma and Penny took low dosages of diamox (62.5 mg.) twice a day for two days prior to the start of the trek and during the climb. Young adults are more susceptible to mountain sickness so this prescription drug was taken as a precaution. This drug, along with climbing the mountain in stages, allowed them to acclimatize to the high elevations above 10,000 feet and prevented them from having to battle mountain sickness.
In all, to complete the round trip from Horseshoe Meadows to the summit and return, we would hike about 43 miles of which 17 miles were cross-country without benefit of a well-maintained hiking trail We ascended three passes (Army Pass, Crabtree Pass, the shoulder of Discovery Pinnacle near Whitney Pass) on our way to the summit gaining 6,800 feet. On our return hike back to Horseshoe Meadow, we ascended three passes (the shoulder of Discovery Pinnacle, Crabtree Pass, Cottonwood Pass) and climbed 2,100 feet. This was no small feat especially for Emma but it did not take her long to get into the hike and recognize the supreme effort and suffering it would take to accomplish this Herculean task.
Day 1--After spending the night at the lovely walk-in campground in Horseshoe Meadow, we packed up and started our hike ascending the trail to Cottonwood Lakes. Mark enjoys fly-fishing and was anxious to try his luck/skill with the golden trout in these waters (California's state fish). With this fishing agenda, we planned to camp at Cottonwood Lake #3 and ascend the abandoned Army Pass Trail rather than New Army Pass, which was several miles to the south.
Our packs were heavy as they were laden with 8-days of food. Each had more than we wanted to carry plus heavy hard-shelled canisters to protect our food against bears. Although it was unlikely that there would be any bears at the high elevations of our route, we would be camping above the tree line between 11,100 and 12,100 feet, it was a Forest Service regulation. Emma, weighing in at only 70 pounds, was carrying more than her allotted fair share, about 20 pounds. Emma's pack was full of her gear and personal things plus some food for her family including bagels, cheese, Pringles, cookies, candy bars, and M&Ms. The 6.5-mile hike that first day went smoothly as we took our time to work out some of the glitches in our heavily-loaded backpacks. After about 4 miles, Emma seemed to be having more difficulty than expected due to the thin air above 10,000 feet and a heavy pack. Her pack was lightened slightly as mom took on some of Emma's payload. This energized Emma and she hiked with renewed vigor the rest of the way to the Cottonwood Lakes basin.
We found a lovely spot, overlooking lake #3, to camp. It was convenient for Mark to hustle down to fly fish. The lakes were beautiful, especially Cottonwood Lakes #4 and #5, and remote lake #6 nestled beneath the sheer cliffs of the south-southeast face of Mount Langley. The fish were jumping that evening but most were fingerlings.
Day 2--The next day, the ascent of Army Pass would be the first real test of the strength of our group. But for a couple of small rockslides, the old trail was in good condition. We would be ascending steeply for 800 vertical feet to about 12,000 feet and then continuing on to 12,400 feet before descending to upper Soldier Lake and Rock Creek, before hiking onto Sky-Blue Lake. The morning dawned with a beautiful array of light on the granite cliffs above our camp and the individual blades of grass in the meadows around the lakes were damp and lightly-coated with frost. After fishing and photography interests were partially satisfied, we headed to Army Pass and our eventual camp for the night at Sky-Blue Lake.
Everyone was in good spirits and happy to be heading one step closer to Mount Whitney. However, Emma seemed sluggish and tired. She seemed fine in camp but on the trail was moving slowly. After several stops for water and rest in the first quarter mile it appeared we would never make Army Pass let alone the much more difficult climb to the summit block of Mount Whitney many miles to the north. After a discussion and a challenge to Emma, she realized that to climb Whitney it would take large amounts of suffering, pain, and discomfort, and a level of commitment to persistence that she had not mentally expected heretofore. Emma was driven to climb Mount Whitney and accepted the challenge and literally ran up the trail with her pack leaving us all far behind. As we neared the pass we slowly caught up with her but she spurted ahead. She and I raced the last several hundred yards to the top. She was the first one over the pass and the first one to our lunch break spot just beyond the pass in beautiful Sequoia National Park.
From that point on Emma seemed to realize that hiking and climbing at these high elevations was as much a mental exercise in persistence as it was a physical experience. From then on Emma became stronger and more adept at hiking, climbing, and scrambling over large talus boulders and cliffs. Each day her scrambling skills improved and she became more energized.
From our lunch spot we ascended a hikers use trail toward Mount Langley ascending to a red sandy saddle (near 12,400 feet). Here we descended a use trail to upper Soldier Lake, traversed around the right side of the lake staying 100 feet above the lake to a small tarn above lower Soldier Lake, and then traversed into Rock Creek. Rock Creek is a beautiful steam and lies in a marvelous valley ringed by soaring peaks to 14,000 feet. In the Rock Creek valley we picked up another on-again off-again use trail that followed the stream to Sky-Blue Lake.
Everyone was tired by the time we reached the lake but were energized by the awesome beauty of the lake and the surrounding peaks towering overhead. Mark was too tired to fish but after setting up camp I went around the lake to take photos of the sunset's alpenglow on the peaks surrounding the lake. Emma began imitating the sound of a marmot and was able to get several to respond to her faux marmot calls. In response to my statement that marmots are not active during the night, she said she was a 24/7 70-pound marmot.
Sky-Blue Lake is one of the more picturesque lakes in the Sierra Nevada. Whether you are photographing the lake and its environs early in the morning or in the evening at sunset, it is superbly beautiful and full of color for your film or digital sensors. Likewise, the stream cascading into the lake and the small flowered-meadows it flowed through were stunning. If only I could build a small cabin and spend my summers (and winters) here. We had the lake to ourselves except for a party of four that planned to climb Mount Whitney and return to their camp the following day. We wished them luck as it was a long way to go in a single day.
Day 3--Each day the route was becoming progressively more difficult and presented new challenges. Today, we would be hiking only 3-4 miles but it would be the most arduous day of the trek because we would be ascending Crabtree Pass (12,560+ feet) and descending to upper Crabtree Lake (12,100 feet). Emma was a champ and negotiated this rugged terrain like an experienced mountain climber.
From Sky-Blue Lake we proceeded around the right shore and followed the inlet stream in a northwest direction. Initially, in the first 200 yards, a stream came in from the right (east). We stayed to the left following the main stream. In a short distance the stream forks twice to the left. We angled to the right passing two small tarns (11,800+ feet) positioned below a large glacier moraine. At these two tarns the streambed makes a sharp turn to the right (north) and heads to another tarn at 12,000 feet. Follow the streambed, which may be dry in the summer, to this 12,000-foot tarn. Continue to gain elevation gradually by heading east-northeast to the outlet of the magnificent unnamed lake at 12,080+ feet. This lake tops Sky-Blue Lake in beauty as the mountains surround the lake in nearly a 360-degree circle.
Hike past its outlet stream and ascend gradually to the top of a long cliff along the right (southeast) side of the lake. When the bluff is topped, descend a use trail along the cliff's base to the shore of the lake and on to the upper end of the lake and an area of decomposed granite sand and a grassy meadow. This was a perfect spot for lunch, rest, and photos. We took off our boots and soaked our feet in the cold water enjoying the moment immensely.
This lake should have a name because of its size and beauty, but it does not. We christened the lake Sierra's and Emma's Lake. Seventeen years earlier I brought my ten-year old daughter, Sierra, to this very spot were we stopped for lunch and soaked our feet in this pristine alpine lake. Now, many years later, another ten-year old, named Emma, was having lunch and soaking her feet in the lake's icy waters at this idyllic spot.
The climb to Crabtree Pass went without problems but Penny was extremely tired. Emma found the perfect spot for her mom to sit and rest and had it waiting for her when she arrived at the pass. The most difficult part of the day's trek lay ahead--the descent of Crabtree Pass' rugged terrain that included steep cliffs, boulders, talus, and granite slabs. From the pass we traversed to our right dropping elevation slowly as we descended narrow ledges, down-sloping granite slabs, and scrambled up and over or dropped down and around to avoid the steep cliffs. We traversed to our right and transitioned from the granite cliffs to the talus field that would take us the rest of the way to upper Crabtree Lake. For about 200 yards I took Emma's pack to provide assistance as we descended the most difficult segment of the cliffs.
We finally reached a perfect campsite at the lower end of upper Crabtree Lake. The site was on a small bluff perched on a granite shelf above the lake with wonderful views. Penny was physically exhausted and emotionally drained, and began to cry. She was relieved to be there at the base of Mount Whitney but exhausted by three days of strenuous effort. After resting a short spell, drinking some fluids, and eating a snack, she began to fell much better.
During the day we kept an eye out for the party of four that was climbing Mount Whitney that day and returning to their camp at Sky-Blue Lake. We did not see them on our crossing of Crabtree Pass and wondered about their fate. That evening while we were eating dinner, our questions were answered. High above our camp we could see four climbers slowly picking their way down the steep slopes toward upper Crabtree Lake. Their progress was tediously slow and we could not understand their apparent lack of urgency. It was dusk and it would be dark in an hour, and they had a long way to go and many hours to reach their camp at Sky-Blue Lake. Finally all four reached the outlet of upper Crabtree Lake. Surprisingly, they stopped and rested for 20+ minutes before continuing. An hour later, we could see them silhouetted on the sky line as they crested Crabtree Pass. How they fared from that point in the darkness and whether they spent the night out, we do not know. However, they had 3 or more hours of hiking over rugged terrain and boulder fields before they could reach their camp and tents.
Day 4--We were up early and ready for the ascent of Discovery Pinnacle and Mount Whitney. The three previous days had conditioned us both physically and mentally for the climb ahead. Emma, Penny and Mark were feeling fit and confident. The most difficult climbing and scrambling were behind us, yet we knew it would be challenging to ascend the steep decomposed sand and boulder slopes of Discovery Pinnacle. We estimated that there would be about 2 miles and 1,500 feet of climbing before reaching the Whitney Trail and another 2 miles and 1,000 feet of gain along the trail before reaching our ultimate goal.
From Crabtree Pass the day before, the route was fairly obvious. From just above the outlet to upper Crabtree Lake we could see a solid band of granite ascending gradually in a westerly direction. At the end of this granite ramp we would ascend steeply on decomposed granite sand and granite boulders to the ridge immediately above (northwest) upper Crabtree Lake. In the morning it was just as we had observed the day before from the pass. We ascended the granite ramp and at its far end we picked up a climber's use trail that had been worn in the decomposed granite sand. What a fortunate surprise for us. We followed this trail, which climbed steeply and appeared and disappeared frequently, to the ridge southwest of Discovery Pinnacle. On the ridge, we stayed near the crest or dropped down about 100 feet on the south side to bypass steep terrain and pinnacles along the crest of the ridge.
Just below Discovery Pinnacle, at about 12,600 feet, we came across the remains of a camp that was used in the late 1800s or early 1900s by the early pioneer climbers to ascend Mount Whitney. Unbelievable!!! Previously, on another trip, I had found a woman's high-heeled shoe of the late 1800s vintage at this camp. Amazing!!!! At this site there were glass bottles, rusted cans, a porcelain bottle, a stove pipe, and the remaining stump of a small tree that had been cut and the wood used for a fire. It was the only tree so high on the ridge. I am not sure but the early route on Mount Whitney was from Visalia, located in the Central Valley, to Crabtree Meadow. From Crabtree Meadow they may have followed the stream past lower, middle, and upper Crabtree Lakes to Whitney Pass and Discovery Pinnacle, and on to Mount Whitney.
We were careful not to dislodge any rocks onto the Whitney Trail as we traversed below the summit block of Discovery Pinnacle on its north side. The rocks and boulders were precariously held in place by soft decomposed granite sand. One misstep and a rock could tumble down on the trail and hikers below. Once past Discovery Pinnacle, we followed the rounded ridge to the Whitney Trail at Trail Crest.
The hike along the trail the last two miles to the summit seemed easy by comparison with the past three and half days of cross-country hiking and scrambling. Emma was geared to complete the last two miles of trail and reach the summit in record time. She set out from Trail Crest like a whirlwind passing many others that were also heading for the summit. Penny, Mark, and I could hardly keep up with her pace especially the last half mile and 300 feet of elevation gain. Emma was the first in our party to reach the summit. We quickly followed her to the granite blocks chaotically assembled at the top of the east face. We were hungry and ready for a hardy lunch along with the resident Whitney marmots.
Emma was pleased with her success. She said that her friends back home would not be able to appreciate the pain and suffering she experienced nor would they be able to comprehend the ruggedness of the terrain and the complexities of the route. And, I am sure she is correct because one must experience the adventure first hand to fully appreciate the skill, suffering, pain, struggle, tenacity, and physical effort it took. Penny and Mark were rightfully proud of their daughter's accomplishment as well as their own accomplishment of climbing the highest peak in the land by one of the more rigorous cross-country routes. It would have been easy, by comparison, to have climbed the peak via the Whitney Trail but they decided to challenge themselves by an order of magnitude when they selected this, the more remote and difficult, route.
Days 5-7--We retraced our route over Crabtree Pass and down to Sky-Blue Lake. On the ascent of the pass, Emma did not need help her with her pack as she scrambled up the pass and down the other side like a veteran climber. We decided not to camp at Sky-Blue Lake but continued down Rock Creek to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and Rock Creek Lake and meadow where we camped for the night and Mark fished. The next day we hiked along the PCT to Chicken Spring Lake. This segment of trail was sandy with soft and deep decomposed gritty granite particles slowing our progress. It was like hiking along a sandy ocean beach with a heavy backpack in thin air at 11,000 feet.
We passed a grizzled old codger that complained about the sandy trail saying it was the worst trail he has ever hiked. I am sure this was a gross exaggeration as the trail was in good condition and the grade gentle. The only complaint might be the loose granite sand. We responded back that life in the mountains is rough but it sure beats a day at work or home.
The trail passes by thousands of ancient and gnarled foxtail pine trees. Their distinctive red bark, and weather-battered and twisted shapes made the hiking enjoyable. If you are a photographer, you can spend hours seeking out their unique shapes along the trail and surround Chicken Spring Lake. This lake is one of my favorite places to spend a morning and evening in the warm alpenglow photographing these ancient trees that have survived everything nature can throw at them--fire, blizzards, ice storms, avalanches, 120+-mph winds, subzero temperatures.
What a glorious trip. Mark, Penny, and Emma enjoyed their time on Mount Whitney so much that they are making future plans to return to the Mount Whitney region and the High Sierra next summer.
Route: A hybrid of Routes 9, 10, and 11 from the guidebook titled, Mount Whitney: The Complete Trailhead-to-Summit Guide
Starting Point: Horseshoe Meadows, Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead
Ending Point: Horseshoe Meadows, Cottonwood Pass Trailhead
Driving Directions: From Lone Pine, California, on Highway 395, turn west on the Whitney Portal Road. After about 4 miles turn left (south) on Horseshoe Meadow Road and proceed 20 miles to the end of the paved road.
Total Distance: about 43 miles
Cross-country Distance: about 17 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 8,900 feet--6,800 feet on the ascent, 2,100 feet on the return hike
Passes on the Ascent: Army Pass, Crabtree Pass, shoulder of Discovery Pinnacle
Passes on the Descent: Shoulder of Discovery Pinnacle, Crabtree Pass, Cottonwood Pass
Camps: Day 1--Cottonwood Lakes #3, Day 2--Sky-Blue Lake, Days 3 and 4--upper Crabtree Lake, Day 5--Rock Creek Lake, Day 6--Chicken Spring Lake
Participants: Paul Richins, Penny Bidwell, Mark Bidwell, Emma Bidwell (age 10)
Reference Materials: Mount Whitney: The Complete Trailhead-to-Summit Guide, Mount Whitney High Country Trail Map, Mount Whitney Zone Trail Map (Tom Harrison Maps).
Emma Bidwell at the top of Army Pass with Mount Langley in the background.
Our third night camp at upper Crabtree Lake.
Climbing above upper Crabtree Lake toward Discovery Pinnacle and Whitney Trail at Trail Crest.
Emma on the Mount Whitney Trail with Hitchcock Lake.
Left: Foxtail Pine, root, and rocks at Chicken Spring Lake.
Above: Sunset at our upper Crabtree Lake camp with Mount McAdie.
Emma just above upper Crabtree Lake begining the climb to Discover Pinnacle and the Mount Whitney Trail at Trail Crest.
Above: Cottonwood Lake #4 and Army Pass (not New Army Pass) at sunrise.
Left: Sky-Blue Lake at sunrise.
Right: Fisheye view of a Foxtail Pine at Chicken Spring Lake.
Small pool in the inlet stream to Sky-Blue Lake.
Large unnamed lake above Sky-Blue Lake and directly below Crabtree Pass.
Emma holding the world and this rock in place.
Emma and Mark Bidwell in amongst the towers on the Whitney Trail.
Fly Fishing along the Pacific Crest Trail at Rock Creek Lake.
From Crabtree Lake, Emma, Mark, Penny ascending Crabtree Pass.
Sunset on Mount McAdie above upper Crabtree Lake.
Four Foxtail Pine at Chicken Spring Lake.
Foxtail Pine stump and trees at Chicken Spring Lake.
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