A backpacking trip from Horseshoe Meadow to Onion Valley, along the Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail, with ascents of Mount Guyot (from the Pacific Crest Trail, class 2), Mount Whitney (via the John Muir Trail, class 1), Mount Muir (from the John Muir Trail, class 3), Caltech Peak (East Ridge, class 3), Junction Peak (West Ridge, class 3), with Claire Wacziarg, July 22-28, 2020.


July 22, 2020. We left Mammoth at 7:15 and dropped off the car at Onion Valley at 9:00. A taxi was waiting to take us to the start of our hike at Horseshoe Meadow. We left the Cottonwood Pass trailhead at 10:42. We hiked through very dry terrain to Cottonwood Pass and on to Chicken Spring Lake (13:45), where we replenished our water in anticipation of a long, dry stretch of trail. Indeed there was no water until Rock Creek. We found a campsite not far from the Rock Creek Ranger station at 19:00 and spent a comfortable night in the woods. (An 8:18 hour day, 14.50 miles, 2,000 feet of elevation gain).

July 23, 2020. We packed up camp, departed at 9:34 and headed toward Guyot Pass. There, we dropped our packs and went up the easy class 1 Northeast ridge / slope of Mount Guyot. Some class 2 rock was encountered near the top, and we reached the higher, middle summit at 13:30. We took pictures, signed the register, and enjoyed the outstanding views of the Kaweah range, of the Whitney group, and of the Great Western Divide. I went to tag the farther, lower summit at the Southwestern end of the summit ridge (where a USGS marker is located), and we settled on a sandy terrace for a lunch of salami and cheese. We then headed back down to Guyot Pass (15:30) and hiked along the Pacific Crest Trail to beautiful Crabtree Meadow. We continued on toward the ranger station and came across the crowded camp located not far from there. Not wishing to be in a social environment, we continued for a short distance toward the Crabtree ranger cabin. We found a campsite in view of the cabin around 18:30, but a ranger came to tell us that we were too close to this "private residence" (in fact, the taxpayer-financed dwelling of a public servant on public land), and asked us to move. We went a short distance further up toward Timberline Lake and found a nice, isolated campsite in the trees, on the Southern shore of Whitney Creek (19:15). Far enough from your "private residence", ranger? We spent a nice evening in camp, played cards, and went to sleep early. (A 9:41 hour day, 11.25 miles, 3,500 feet of elevation gain).

July 24, 2020. The plan was to set out late to climb Mount Whitney, as we intended to bivouac on the summit. We left camp at 11:03 after a leisurely morning, and hiked up to Timberline Lake, and from there to Guitar Lake, a crowded location. We stopped for lunch at 12:22, near the stream flowing down from Arctic Lake. I filled a tank with about 5 liters of water to last us the evening and morning, and we headed up the trail that rises steeply toward Mount Whitney. On the way, we met a pair of rangers (including the ranger from the day before) who informed us that it is illegal to spend the night on the summit of Mount Whitney (after we returned, I was unable to find any indication that this is in fact the case – but lots of evidence that many people have spent nights on the summit). They told us of some alternative options, including some comfortable bivy sites not far from the intersection between the Whitney Trail and the John Muir Trail. We reached this spot at 15:45, dropped our packs there, took a break and continued on toward the summit of Mount Whitney with daypacks. Some grey clouds were gathering to the West, but seemed unable to cross the Sierra crest. We reached the summit at 17:40, and had the entire area to ourselves, as the crowds had long ago left the area. At that point, I was a bit more worried because the clouds had thickened and the possibility of thunder and lightning was real – not a good prospect on a ridge at 14,500 feet. We took pictures, signed the summit register, and proceeded down to the relative safety of the trail. We met a pair of climbers descending from the Harding Route on Keeler Needle (proud achievement – it made me envious!), and descended without problems to our bivy site. We were back at the packs at 19:00. Shortly thereafter, a lawyer and trail runner from San Francisco named Vince showed up. He asked me if I thought he should go up to the summit, and considering the late hour and weather I advised against it. He had just hiked the High Sierra Trail in a ridiculously fast time, with a ridiculously small pack, but it was getting late. He settled for the night in an adjacent bivy site, and visited us during dinnertime to chat. The weather cleared in the evening, as it usually does in the Sierra, and our perch offered incredible views of Mount Hitchcock and of the mountains to the West. We settled in our sleeping bags as the sun went down and spent a rather comfortable night at 13,500 feet. (A 7:57 hour day, 9.25 miles, 4,000 feet of elevation gain).

July 25, 2020. I woke up at 6:10 to a beautiful sunrise, made coffee and breakfast for the two of us, and set out for the quick climb up Mount Muir. I left camp at 6:55 and reached the summit of Muir at 7:25. It was nice to be back on that summit after 18 years. The early morning light made for stunning views, and I took lots of photos in all directions. I ran down the trail and was back at the bivy site at 7:55 – finding Claire still in bed. We packed up and left camp at 8:35. We made quick work of the switchbacks down the JMT and took a long break near a beautiful tarn above Guitar Lake. We continued on down toward our tent near the Crabtree ranger cabin, and had a nice lunch there. We packed up camp and left at 13:10, intent on going as far as we could toward Tyndall Creek. The weather, however, was again threatening, and we had to stop for about an hour near Wallace Creek to wait out the rain. We found a flat spot, set up the tent, and played cards while the rain fell intermittently. After the clouds moved on, we packed up and continued on for what seemed like an interminable slog. We pushed on toward Tyndall Creek, hiking past Bighorn Lake on the Bighorn Plateau, with stunning views of the Great Western Divide. At 19:45, we found a nice campsite East of Tyndall Creek, near a meadow and some lakes, with flowing water. It had been a long, exhausting day, but we were looking forward to a much more restful time the following day. (A 12:50 hour day, 15.40 miles, 2,300 feet of elevation gain).

July 26, 2020. This was going to be a more mellow day. We left camp near Tyndall Creek at 10:13 and hiked up toward the high lakes just below Forester Pass. Around 13:00, we found a nice campsite close to the outlet of one of the uppermost lakes, at an elevation of 12,250 feet. Claire settled for an afternoon of reading in the tent while I set out at 13:40 to climb Caltech Peak via its East Ridge. This was nice route over a sometimes narrow class 2-3 ridge with solid rock. I was on the summit of Caltech Peak at 14:47 and enjoyed the panoramic views in all directions. I was back in camp at 15:57 and we spent the rest of the afternoon playing card in the tent. Two JMT hikers, Dave and John, had set up their camp not too far away while I was on Caltech, and I chatted with them briefly. In the evening, Claire and I went for a stroll to the northern end of the lake, and enjoyed the bright evening light on the high mountains. (A 5:44 hour day, 6.60 miles, 2,900 feet of elevation gain).

July 27, 2020. This was going to be another hard day as we had to go over Forester Pass (the high point of the Pacific Crest Trail at 13,200 ft), I planned to climb Junction Peak on the way, and we wanted to hike far to be well-positioned for an early exit to Onion Valley the next day. We left camp at 9:35 and made quick work of the few switchbacks to Forester Pass, reaching it at 10:41. Claire continued on down to settle near a tarn on the northern side of the pass while I set out to climb Junction Peak.

I traversed the southern aspect of Ski Mountaineer's Peak, to Ski Mountaineer's Pass, and started up the chutes on the West side of Junction Peak. The description in Secor is largely useless here, except to say that one climbs a series of chutes, traversing ever rightward across ribs to reach each successive chute. There are many ways to go, all of them involving class 3 climbing over mostly solid terrain. I reached the narrow summit of Junction Peak at 11:48. The peak only gets a handful of climbs each year, which surprised me given its proximity to Forester Pass. The weather was once again taking a turn for the worst, so I spent little time on top. On the descent, I met a young climber called Ben on his way up Junction Peak (his father and a friend were waiting at Forester Pass). I was back at the pass at 13:07, chatted with Ben's dad and started down to rejoin Claire.

We stopped for lunch near a tarn on the northern side of Forester Pass, and continued on along the John Muir Trail down the Bubbs Creek drainage. This offered some of the most beautiful scenery of the trip. We took another break at the bear box near the toe of the East Ridge of East Vidette, and pushed on some more to a nice campsite at Vidette Meadow, near a stream (18:20). (An 8:45 hour day, 8.75 miles, 1,800 feet of elevation gain).

July 28, 2020. This was our last day but there was still significant mileage to the car. We left camp at 8:27 and hiked up the switchbacks toward Bullfrog Lake. At a trail crossing we took the high road to the sandy intersection with the Charlotte Lake trail, so that I could rejoin the starting point of my 2018 hike of the Onion Valley-Mammoth Lakes section of the John Muir Trail. This area is a pretty part of the Sierra, and we took lots of pictures. We were at Kearsarge Pass at 11:30. I hiked up some rocks for a photo op, and we had a nice lunch of tuna and tortillas at the pass, chatting with other hikers. The return to Onion Valley was quick: we were at the trailhead at 14:23. This was the end of a great adventure, and we went back to Mammoth to enjoy some well-deserved rest. (A 5:56 hour day, 9.60 miles, 2,500 feet of elevation gain).

Trip totals: 59:11 hours, 75.35 miles, 19,000 feet of elevation gain.


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