TR: Miter Basin (Cottonwood Pass, New Army Pass, Cirque Peak) 7/12-7/14

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TR: Miter Basin (Cottonwood Pass, New Army Pass, Cirque Peak) 7/12-7/14

Post by grutman » Sun Jul 21, 2019 3:40 pm

This is a more or less detailed (focused) trip report on a solo backpacking trip from to the Miter Basin (Sky-Blue Lake, Arc Pass Lake), using Cottonwood Pass on the way in and New Army Pass and Cirque Peak on the way out. I went in on 12 July 2019 (high snow year). I dedicate this TR to Wandering Daisy and the other HST forum members for their GOLDEN advise, given in January 2019. Thanks!

Check the photos here:
(give me a PM when the link has expired/malfunctions)
GPS tracks: ... sp=sharing

Day 1 – Horseshoe meadow to Chicken Spring Lake

I drove a long time from San Diego (I left at 6am) through the Mojave desert into Owens Valley and stopped at the Lone Pine visitor center to pick up my permit and bear cannister. After taking three PCTers hitchhiking from Lone Pine to Horseshoe Meadow, I started out at 3pm to Cottonwood Pass and Chicken Spring Lake. As everyone was saying New Army Pass was still a mountaineering endeavour, I was playing with the idea of camping at Big Whitney Meadow (to avoid double tracking on the PCT). I decided not to because of the high mosquito risk (lower altitude) and went straight to Chicken Spring Lake (got there just before 6pm). Very nice place (better than expect, more forested than expected). There were six tents that night at Chicken Spring Lake. I enjoyed sunset at the ridge south of the PCT near the lake. There are some good camping spots as well (south of the trail).

Day 2 – Chicken Spring Lake to Miter Basin

First snow was encountered on the PCT just east of the Sequoia National Park boundary (see photo, nothing special). After a short sidetrip towards Siberian Outpost (quiet place), I got off the PCT and went north towards Soldier Lake. I hit (Lower) Soldier Lake before noon (I was on the trail at 7:20am). The trail gets you towards the east side of the lake (my map showed otherways), towards the southeastern inlet. After a water treating break, I got up to ascent the western slope of Soldier Lake (off-trail). I started off almost half-way the western shore of the lake and took a direct northwestern approach. It only took me 10 to 15 minutes. Multiple other ascents are possible I presume, e.g. starting off from the north end and going straight west (you would hit a col than). I passed the col and took off NNE from there, right into the Miter Basin. What a splendid view! I was there, my envisioned destination, so peaceful. The fun on this route is that the landscape enfolds magnificently.

I thought of setting up camp at the last ‘forest’ in the valley (below Sky-Blue Lake) (I got there at 1:15pm) or a bit more downhill at the meadow east of Erin Lake (where the creek enters its gorge). This last option would give me a headstart exiting the basin. Up to the slope leading to Sky-Blue Lake (including this), the whole Miter Basin was free of snow. I took a nap at my ‘last forest’ and left my backpack there just before 3pm for a short hike up to Sky-Blue Lake and further. I hoped I could get to the lake south of Arc Pass and to Arc Pass itself (gentle grade to the col and good view onto the Whitney Trail). Still some ice in Sky-Blue Lake and multiple snow fields around the lake (on the trail on the northside of the lake). At the northernmost point of the eastern arm of the lake, I decided to go straight uphill to avoid the snow. I got to the small Rock Creek valley (running between Arc Pass Lake and Sky-Blue Lake) and decided to go east and then north towards Arc Pass. The only snow-free zone towards this lake was right with the running water of the creek, more safe than it seems. Halfway you get to a flat zone (the lake isn’t there yet), after which you could more easily circumvent some snow fields. I got to the lake, but there was snow all around it, now safe way (for me) to get past it. I was feeling the elevation as well and decided to go back. I was “on the Ibuprofen route to combat AMS” (quote from another forum user) and this worked very well for me. I made the detour by following the creek to its inlet into Sky-Blue Lake, thus having to deal with the snowfields at the northern edge of the lake, not a good choice. I got back at the ‘last forest’ at 6pm, more than three hours after I left. Time to set up camp and go to bed. A second very cold night followed, pools were refrozen the next morning.

Day 3 – Miter Basin to Horseshoe meadow

After this second night, I decided to get out today; this would give me warm instead of cold night ánd give me sufficient time to make catching my plane in LAX the next day not a stressful attempt. The evening before I got a visit from ranger Chris (from Rock Creek Station) and she told me she saw some guys descending the talus slope at New Army Pass (if you’re standing at the pass, to your right) and it looked OK. Although I was alone, I thought I could handle some talus slope and headed for New Army Pass.

I was on the road at 7am and followed the semi-trail on the northern bank of the creek. A very enjoyable walk as I left the gorgeous Miter Basin. The route following Rock Creek was certainly as interesting as the way I got there (from Soldier Lake), especially having the thundering creek in the gorge next to you. If I would have ascended the route I may have a different opinion, you lose some elevation, which you need to regain after joining the Rock Creek trail towards Soldier Lake. Before getting to that trail, I followed the semi-trail downhill roughly following the creek. However, at 36°30’23”N;118°16’33”W (upper end of a meadow) I needed to ford the river (knee-deep, easy on socks with poles). The semi-trail then seems to split, but converges as the most western track along the eastern side of the meadow (which I followed) leaves the meadow as well. It then again joins the meadow at its southern end and stays east of the creek. I lost the track there once, but you pick it up quite easily and it’s not that far to the junction anyway. You then climb steady towards Soldier Lake. As I said earlier, the ‘junction’ (Rock Creek / Soldier Lake / Army-Siberian Pass) is now located 300 meters to the south of the Soldier Creek crossing (at the upper end of nice meadow).

The climb towards Army Pass was quite easy (and beautiful), but I lost the trail on the top plateau. I ended up at Army Pass before noon, with very violent winds blowing from the west to the east. I immediately wanted to check upon the talus slope the ranger told me about (not realizing I was at Old Army Pass). The way down (a death ramp or a suicide mission) and the form of the lakes made me look at the map for confirmation that I was on the wrong spot.

I went straight south towards New Army Pass. I got there just after noon, but what I saw was not really what ranger Chris described. Although I looked carefully, I could not see an easy talus slope going down. The corniches at the northern half of the cirque were quite continuous (and the slopes steep). I did not get where anyone would go down there. Just going a bit to right does not fix this (and the ranger description seems off anyway, because a larger snowfield on the top prohibits you to go directly right on top). I wasn’t 100% prepared to go back to the (boring) PCT, still had plenty of time and looked more carefully to the first ‘accessible’ slope I had seen when arriving at New Army Pass: the northern slope of Cirque Peak. This slope was totally snow free and the safest option to decent. The map confirmed, but it still was quite some distance towards Cirque Peak. This route was quite ‘flat’ (no elevation gain/loss), but consisted of large blocks, which made advancing very annoying. I soldier on and I figure out (the map figures out) that aside from going all the way back to the PCT near Siberian Pass, I could shortcut to the south as well (just west of Chicken Spring Lake). Having multiple backup plans aids for safety, but does not help to get the mood up travelling for a destination you might not need while crossing giant boulders with very strong wind. At two-thirds of the loop around (one hour!), the mood got to an absolute low (not being sure of the doability downhill at Cirque Peak). Getting a good view on the ‘really doable’ / non-mortal slope north of Cirque Peak and approaching the finale, the mood got up and I attacked the final climb to the top. It took me 1,5 hour from New Army Pass to Cirque Peak (got there at 1:45pm). The top has a comfortable kind of flat area. I surprised myself being at 3932 m. The most eastern part of the north slope looked best, as predicted by my analysis from New Army Pass. However, what looked as scree (small blocks, skiable), were actually 2 meter sized blocks. But the slope was ok and as long as I did not see the bottom of one of those blocks, I did well, descending the slope in half an hour.

I was near High Lake on the trail at 2:30pm.
I filtered some more water and got on the trail again. Between High and Long Lake, and especially near Long Lake there was plenty of snow (and lots of water on the trail near Long Lake). At 3:30pm, at the southwestern edge of Cottonwood Lake Two (northern edge of an interesting giant boulder field), I figured out I still had more than 10 kilometers to go. I decided to go for it (for the mentioned two reasons) arriving at the Horseshoe meadow car parking at just before 6pm. Strava gave me a pace of 19:22 to 21:30 per mile, which I was very happy with. That were at least 17 or 18 miles this day, more than I would normally take, but hey, I got to sleep on a dirty, no-potable-water, expensive (but warm) camp site near Lone Pine (Diaz Lake, avoid it!).

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Re: TR: Miter Basin (Cottonwood Pass, New Army Pass, Cirque Peak) 7/12-7/14

Post by grampy » Sun Jul 21, 2019 9:12 pm

Thanks for the nice (and very detailed) report!
I have a similar (though less ambitious) trip planned for late next week, so I now know a bit more about what to expect.

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Re: TR: Miter Basin (Cottonwood Pass, New Army Pass, Cirque Peak) 7/12-7/14

Post by wsp_scott » Mon Jul 22, 2019 8:04 am

Thanks for the report and photos, looks like a nice couple of days
My trip reports:

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Re: TR: Miter Basin (Cottonwood Pass, New Army Pass, Cirque Peak) 7/12-7/14

Post by levi » Mon Jul 22, 2019 5:22 pm

Thanks for the report and pretty photos! I'm hoping to check out this area soon for the first time and this is super helpful in planning :)

And maybe catch you out there, grampy!

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Re: TR: Miter Basin (Cottonwood Pass, New Army Pass, Cirque Peak) 7/12-7/14

Post by adornowest » Wed Jul 24, 2019 9:14 pm

Gorgeous! Thanks for posting.

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