Cottonwood Lakes to Whitney Portal

Mount Langley, Mount Muir, and Mount Whitney

Route in TPO format
July 4th-7th, 2003

Distance: ~47 miles
Elevation gain: 11420 feet
Elevation loss: 12758 feet


  • Mt. Langley (14026ft. East face from New Army Pass, class 2)
  • Mt. Muir (14012ft. From Whitney trail, class 3)
  • Mt. Whitney (14494ft. Whitney trail, class 1)

Trip Report

Thursday, July 3rd

We drove to the East Sierra early on Thursday afternoon with the hope of beating the holiday traffic. Traffic wasn't that bad (for Bay Area standards), although we found a slow down near Livermore due to a brush fire (we got to see a fire department helicopter dropping a huge bucket of water on the fire). We reached Yosemite at a good time and we drove over Tioga pass. After a leisure gourmet dinner at the Lee Vining Mobile Gas Station (I'm not kidding, they have gourmet food), we headed to the trailhead. Our plan was to sleep at 10000ft at the Cottonwood Lakes walk-in campground. However, just at the top of the hill before Bishop, Peter's car started having problems. He was able to coast down to Bishop, and there he discovered that the "High" gear of his Ford Explorer didn't work and that he could only drive on "Low" gear. Although the car could move, this meant that its top speed was 20 mph, so it was impossible to reach the trailhead. We decided to spend the night in Bishop in a local campground (Brown's Town Campground). Although the campground is clean and well maintained, its location is far from desirable. It's just on HW 395, immediately after the place where the speed limit drops, so the noise from trucks down-shifting all night long is unbearable. If you have to stay there, bring earplugs or try to get a site as far as possible from the highway.

Friday, July 4th

Given that a car shuttle with just one car was impossible, we decided to change plans and just head to Cottonwood Lakes and climb Mt. Langley, and perhaps Cirque Peak. That way, we could be out of the wilderness on Sunday night, so we could be at the Ford dealer as early as possible on Monday morning. We woke up early on Friday and started shuttling the 8 of us to the trailhead (which took a total of 5 hours).

In the way to the trailhead, we went through Lone Pine where we were treated to views of all the peaks that we initially planned to climb: Langley, Muir, and Whitney.

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Langley, Muir, and Whitney from Lone Pine

Johnny, Vicky and I went with the first shuttle, so we had to wait about 3.5 hours at the trailhead for the second group. We spent the time stretching, napping, etc. The person that made the bet use of that time was Johnny who spent hours trimming to perfection the plastic "clip ons" that he bought at the Lee Vining Mobile gas station.

Pictures by Arturo Crespo
Johnny's cool shades

After the whole group arrived, we started getting ready for the trip, but just before hitting the trail, we produced a cake for Marcin whose birthday was that day. After Marcin emphatically declined to be sung "Happy Birthday" in any language (he had English, Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi, and Scottish to choose from), we ate the cake, and started the easy hike to South Fork Lakes. At the trailhead we learned that Marcin had contacted his girlfriend and that she was going to drive all the way from the Bay Area to pick him up on Saturday night (she must love him a lot). Erik decided to go back with Marcin. It was very nice of them to do that as that way we had enough space in a single car for the rest of the group.

Picture by Peter McColgan
Arturo, Johnny, Marcin, Girish, Chris, Vicky, Erik, Peter

After a couple of hours of easy backpacking, we went over an easy pass and into the Cottonwood Lakes basin. This basin has stunning views of Mt. Langley and Cirque Peak. Just after the pass, Marcin took off to one of the ridges as he wanted to clarify to his girlfriend that the pick up place was Cottonwood lakes trailhead instead of Cottonwood pass trailhead. The rest of the group continue to Cottonwood Lakes #2 where we proceed cross country to South Fork Lake. This decision turned to be a mistake as we should have stay on the trail longer (just before Long Lake) to avoid a very annoying and slow boulder field (the shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line). Nevertheless, the boulder field was fun and a good practice for the following day.

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Cottonwood Lakes #2 with Langley in the background

Pictures by Peter McColgan and Johnny Ng
Boulder Field between Cottonwood Lakes #2 and South Fork Lake

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Cirque Peak

Our camp was just by South Fork lake, a shallow lake (probably good swimming later in the season) on the shadow of Cirque Peak. The only problem with the camp was the mosquitoes. July is prime season for mosquitoes in the Sierra and even at the 11300ft, they were thousand of them. Good news is that they went away about 30 minutes after sunset and they didn't come back until late the following day.

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Camp by South Fork Lake

Saturday, July 5th

The following morning, Peter surprised us all by offering to go back by himself and to pick up us at the trailend on Monday night. This way, 4 or 5 of us could continue with the original trip. So, Chris, Girish, Johnny, Vicky, and myself scramble for extra food, set up our backpacks and we got ready to continue with our original trip. Meanwhile, Marcin and Erik sticked with their plan of coming back on Saturday night (Peter was planning to return Sunday morning). Either with daypacks or backpacks, we all got ready and started our climb of Mt. Langley via New Army Pass.

To climb Langley one can approach it via New Army Pass or Old Army Pass. Old Army pass is shorter and ends closer to Langley; however, there is only a use trail that is rough and it was covered by a significant amount of snow this July (crampons and ice axe probably required until softening by mid-day). On the other hand, New Army Pass has a very good trail, it's mostly snow free but ends 300ft higher and 1/4 mile farther to the saddle to Langley than Old Army pass. On a one-way backpacking trip (such as the one we did), I'd take New Army Pass... as you don't need to come back to the pass, the extra 300ft elevation are irrelevant and the extra distance is more than compensate it by the fact that people move faster on a maintained trail than on a use trail. On a day hike from the Cottonwood basin, the decision is more difficult, it is not good to have to climb 300ft at the end of the day... so I'd decided based on snow conditions (New Army pass until late July, Old Army pass thereafter).

Pictures by Chris Jacobs
Top of New Army Pass

At the very top of New Army pass, there was a significant snow cornice, that was easily bypassed by walking 30 feet of snow and then scrambling over some boulders. It took a little bit of scouting, but the route we found was class 1-2 with very little exposure (however, earlier in the season the cornice may be bigger, requiring an ice axe and/or a more exposed scrambling).

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Mt. Langley from New Army Pass

From the top of the pass, the view of Langley are impressive. In the above picture, you can see the top of Old Army Pass (partially obscured by the top corner of the New Army Pass sign) 300 feet below New Army Pass. From any of the passes, Langley (if approached correctly from the West slope is an easy class 1 stroll). However, we got confused by a "old trail" that is printed on some USGS maps, so we approached Langley from the East face. This made us go through some interesting snow field and some class 2-3 scrambling.

Pictures by Chris Jacobs
Snow Fields and scrambling in Langley's East Face

After an interesting scrambling, we hit the summit plateau, a long, sandy area that descends gently to the East. After reaching this summit plateau, it is easy going to the top of Langley (Northeast corner). At the top there was a group of Boy Scouts that we passed in the way up (but having taken the right route, got to the summit ahead of us). The Boy Scouts were very nice and pointed us to the easy descend.

Pictures by Chris Jacobs
Views and the Group at the top of Mt. Langley

The views at the topo of Langley are one of the finest in the Sierra. To the East, one can see the White Mountains, including the White Mountain, one of the only two California 14ers not in the sierra Nevada (the other one is Mt. Shasta). To the North, Tyndall, Muir, Whitney, and Russel are clearly visible. To the West, one can see the forests around Rock Creek, the Chagoopa Plateau, and the striking Kaweah range. To the South, Olancha Peak, considered the Southernmost Sierra Peak and the gentle descend of the Sierra Nevada into the Mojave dessert.

Pictures by Arturo Crespo
Arturo at the Summit Marker. Views of Mt. Whitney

At the top, we missed Erik and Marcin for just 20 minutes as they descended via the West slope (they went ahead of us from New Army as they needed to be by 6pm at the trailhead). As we descended, we found Girish, who stayed behind due to some mild elevation sickness. He decided not to continue on the backpacking trip and he returned to the South Fork Camp with Peter.

From the summit, we descended back to our packs and started hiking to our night camp at Soldier's lake. The descend from New Army Pass is rocky, bare, and long. Not too bad for descending, but it would probably be a long hike on the way up...

Pictures by Arturo Crespo
Johnny at Soldier Lake

Soldier Lake, our camp, is beautiful. By the inlet of the lake there is a small waterfall, that fills the air with the soothing sounds of water. The lake itself is beautiful and fish were plentiful. However, mosquitoes were also plentiful, but by now, we were use to their relentless attacks.

Sunday, July 6th

This was mileage day... Not big climbs, not big difficult stuff, just 14 miles of outstanding Sierra terrain. From Soldier Lake, we follow Rock Creek West down to the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). After the lower crossing of Rock Creek, the trail turns North and starts, steeply, climbing to Guyot pass. At the top of the pass, the trail drops into a very barren terrain, climbs back again, and then drops to Lower Crabtree meadows. The whole time, the views of the Kaweah range are outstanding.

Pictures by Arturo Crespo
Kaweah Range. Johnny by Crabtree Creek

After a refreshing stop by the Crabtree creek, we joined the John Muir Trail and continue up to Upper Crabtree Meadow and Timberline Lake. At Timberline lake, we found a very nice ranger that asked the right questions: where are you coming from? how are the trail conditions? do you have any questions? I wish all the rangers would be as nice as her. She checked our permit (every single time I've been in the Whitney zone, my permit has been checked) and asked about our plans. When we told her that we were climbing Muir, she gave us a few tips about the route.

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Timberline Lake

We decided to relax by Timberline lake (no camping allowed) as we where early and we didn't want to spend the time on the exposed Guitar Lake (which is above tree line). After 1.5 hours, we decided to keep going and we arrived at Guitar Lake in a short time. Guitar Lake is bare, but it has good views of the Sierra Crest. I didn't have good memories of the lake from my High Sierra Trail trip as at that time I found the place very crowded and overused. However, being a Sunday night, there were only 3 other parties by the lake (a far cry from the 30+ I found in Sept'99) and we spread out enough that we didn't bother each other.

Guitar Lake is cold... very cold. According to Chris about 38F. Nevertheless, Johnny, Vicky, and Chris quickly jump into the lake and (against all odds) manage to convince me of doing the same. Not wanting to be the only "stinking" hiker, I dip into the lake. If felt good... specially 20 minutes after when I finally stopped shivering.

Pictures by Arturo Crespo and Chris Jacobs
Guitar Lake

After Sunset, we enjoyed views of Whitney by the moonlight and we prepared ourselves for the big day that was waiting the following day...

Pictures by Arturo Crespo
Whitney by Moonlight

Monday, July 7th

This was the day for this trip. Our plan was to reach the trail crest, climb two 14ers and hike back to the trailhead before dark. This meant hiking 17.5mi with 3000ft elevation gain and 6000ft elevation loss.

We decided that we didn't need to start too early, so we wake up at 6:30am and we were ready to go just before 8am. The trail up to the crest is long and, in general, in OK shape. However, there were a couple of spots where the trail is in obvious need of some maintenance. Despite its elevation, there was very little snow on the trail and we only had to cross 2 easy patches in the way up. After loooong switchbacks on a seemingly never-ending trail, we finally arrived at the trail crest. It was a lot colder than I was expecting and I quickly put my hat and jacket. While waiting for the rest of the group, I had a nice conversation with a father/son team from Santa Clarita, CA that were doing a similar trip to ours.

It was time to attempt Muir, the peak that defeated me in 1999... From the trail crest, it takes about 15 minutes to get to the rock gully that leads to the headwall. The point where we left the trail is UTM 11 384427E 4047182N (NAD-27), UTM 11 384349E 4047381N (WGS-84, NAD-83). There was a cairn by the Whitney Trail and an well-defined use trail to the bottom of the headwall. This use trail allows to easily gain about 200ft on a boulder gully.

We had some difficulties finding the route in the way up (see below), but we believe that we nailed the route in the way down. So, although he following pictures were taking during the descend, I'm placing them in reverse order (and I have changed the captions as if we climbed the peak that way), to illustrate how I believe the climb should be done.

At the bottom of the headwall, follow the shallow chimney at the far right (when facing the peak). Don't go around the headwall (or too far right) as this will put you in the very exposed East face of Muir.

Picture by Arturo Crespo

3/4 of the way up the headwall, the chimney will end (i.e., it will become a very hard climb). At that moment, traverse left on a very steep slab by holding to a flat stone lodged inside a crack (excellent handholds). This will place you in a narrow chimney (which some people would call a wide crack) leading to the top.

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Johnny at the end of the lower chimney

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Vicky traversing to the left chimney/crack

Keep climbing the second chimney/crack until you are almost at the top.

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Chris climbing the chimney/crack to the top

Near the top, you will get to a relatively flat area where a big rock is precariously held at its ends. Go to the right of that rock (towards the summit) and mantle up a big step, or move more to the right to an easier climb. At the bottom of the summit rock, go right until you find an easy crack in between the summit rock and a rock on the East face that leads directly to the summit.

Pictures by Chris Jacobs
Getting to the summit (approach is going to the right)

This climb has exposure, no doubt about it. But, it's all Class 3 exposure (i.e., if you fall, you may break some bones, but you won't die unless you are unlucky). If at anytime you find yourself with significant exposure (1000ft or so) that means that you went into the East face of Muir and you are off route. As an example of exposure, the following picture shows Vicky near the top.

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Exposure near the top

So, after all this hard work, you are at the small summit where you will find space for only 3 or 4 people and the summit register (we didn't see a USGS marker).

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Vicky at the top of Mt. Muir

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Whitney from the top of Mt. Muir

Pictures by Arturo Crespo
At the top of Muir, holding Carlos' and Kristina's entry in the Summit register

Now, this is how we really did the climb:

We found the rock gully without problems (even without the GPS coordinates) and we went up the use trail to the bottom of the headwall. There, Chris GPS was pointing to the wrong summit, a secondary spire that was about 50ft lower than the summit. It took some talking to Chris, but he eventually recognized that the GPS was wrong. At the bottom of the headwall, there is a hard chimney to the left, a good looking chimney to the right, and a staircase ridge to the far right. The latest looked easy, so we started climbing there... and quickly got stuck. So, we traverse left to the "correct" chimney and continue climbing up. Where the chimney became hard (i.e., turn into a narrow crack), Vicky and I tried to climb the crack, but it was hard so none of us really wanted to do it. We considered traversing left, but we were not sure about the handholds or safety of the rock lodged inside the crack, so we didn't pursue that route. As we didn't know what to do, I decided to down climb to the base of the headwall (realizing how easy the chimney where we were was and making a mental note to descend that way). Then, I tried a crack to the left. This crack was hard (maybe 5.7 if it had exposure), but led me directly to the second chimney/crack. From there, I could see a route, that the rest of the team could follow to get to the place where I was. After we all got to the bottom of the second chimney, we quickly climbed the chimney/crack to the summit boulders. There, I poke through the keyhole under the big rock and I didn't like the exposure, but given that I didn't find anything better, I went through it and traversed around the peak until I found a crack with medium exposure in the South Face that seemed to lead to the summit. This crack was hard (5.9 if it had exposure) but it was the "perfect" size for me, so my foot/hand jams were solid. After 4 moves, I was at the top. I was worry about this crack as I thought that only Vicky was going to be able to do it. However, from the top, I realized that going through the keyhole was a mistake as a trivial route was available to the right of it. I tried to tell Vicky, Chris, and Johnny to head to that route, but instead they came more directly by going up a "big step" on the right of the keyhole. Chris popped out first and then he helped Johnny and Vicky to come up the big step (it turned that Johnny suggested to take the route I was trying to point out, but he was ignored as usual since he is wrong so often...). After the big step, I help Johnny, Chris, and Vicky with the easy scramble to the top and a few minutes later, we were all at the top giving each other high fives!

The way down was much easier as we just put together all the "easy" segments that we did in the way up. The only part that we didn't know was the traverse to the bottom chimney but it was obvious that we wanted to move to that chimney (rather than down climb the 5.7 crack) and the handholds on the lodged rock were a lot more obvious from the right side than from the left side. Only a few days later, I finally realized that Secors' description (in The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails): "traverse left on slopping slabs" was a pointer for doing exactly what we did. With some very effective team work (helping the person behind you to find footholds) we were quickly at the bottom of the headwall. People started giving high-fives again... a sign that the descend was not trivial.

From Muir, Vicky, Johnny, and myself headed to Mt. Whitney, while Chris decided to take it easy and have a leisurely paced descend to Whitney Portal. The trail to Whitney is easy, as long as you had a chance to acclimatize. There was a big difference between us, coming from the West after 3 days of backpacking, and the people coming from the East (day hikers or overnight hikers). You can tell where people were coming from by the tone of their skin and the expression in their face... a greenish tone with a lost gaze: East hiker; a tanned tone with a smile: West hiker. After about 45 minutes, we arrived to the highest point in the US outside Alaska: Mt. Whitney. This was my third time at the top of Whitney. We took the obligatory pictures, signed the register, and just relax and enjoy the views.

Pictures by Arturo Crespo
At the top of the Continental US: Mt. Whitney (with Langley and Muir in the background)

Picture by Vicky Wong
360-degree panorama from top of Muir

Pictures by Arturo Crespo
Mt. Muir from Whitney (left) and from the top of the 99 switchbacks (right)

After spending about 45 minutes at the top of Whitney, it was time to return home. We hike down the Whitney trail and the 99 switchbacks. This was more taxing that I was expecting as it takes forever to go down. Also, the terrain is rocky and requires concentration. After reaching Trail camp, it's still a long way to Outpost camp, Lone Pine Lake, and finally, Whitney Portal. We arrived just after 7pm and we closed this fantastic trip with a cheeseburger from the Whitney Portal store

Do you want more Pictures? Follow these links:
All of Arturo's Pictures
Chris' Pictures
Girish's Pictures (requires Ofoto registration)
Peter's Pictures (requires ImageStation registration)
Johnny's Pictures
Vicky's Pictures

© 2003 Arturo Crespo