The Main Trail Alternative


So, you didn't make the cut in The Main Mt. Whitney Trail Lottery. NO BIGGIE!!!! That is, if you carry a light pack or have the treasure to acquire a light pack, have a large skill set, are in good but not necessarily great shape and have 4 days, one being the move the cars and acclimatization day.


The genesis of this trip was a member of our group who doesn't have all the time in the world or the patience for a week in the woods. We found out it was doable, a lot of work and a lot of fun condensed into three days. A couple of the things we did weren't exactly Kosher when it comes to the rules of both the Inyo and SEKI but what they don't know won't hurt them.

Acclimatization and Move the Cars Day


9/23/04 - We headed up to Lone Pine early to get our permits and position a car at Whitney Portal for trip's end. We did not make a reservation figuring we have never been shut going up the day before for a trip into the Cottonwood Lakes Basin. The only problem we figured we might run into was getting shut out on the Trail Crest exit permit for Sunday but we had a plan.


We requested and got the Friday entrance and requested a Wednesday exit which we also got, even though we planned to be eating burgers and fries; and drinking beer at the Whitney Portal Store  Sunday afternoon. We just didn't want the hassle of explaining why a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday exit would be ok, too. We then got into a conversation with the clerk about exiting. Our position was we come out of the forest both late and early from a lot of trailheads and the Inyo doesn't seem to care but they do at Mt. Whitney because 3 or 4 extra people might populate their precious trail on the wrong day and it would make all the difference in the world in preserving the integrity of the wilderness experience for the 160 people who are starting from Whitney Portal, at least this was the Inyo position. You have to love the logic.


We all got together late in that afternoon and headed up to Horseshoe Meadow for a course in S'mores building by Professor S'more and a warming fire of Santa Ana Winds downed Eucalyptus wood.

It's Always a Good Day When Deer Outnumber People
New Army Pass Trailhead to Lower Rock Creek Crossing via the South Fork Trail
Starting Elevation: 10,040' Ending Elevation: 9,560'
Distance: ~14 miles        Hiking Time: ~9.5 hours
Maps: Cirque Peak, Mt. Whitney and Johnson Peak 7.5' USGS Quad


9/24/04 - This was the day we all anticipated and feared a little bit. It was getting to the top of New Army Pass with the heavy pack, well not all that heavy compared to the last Whitney trip over this pass. Once we wheezed our way to the top of the pass from High Lake it was literally all downhill.  We saw very few people and only interacted with 2 of them but we saw approximately 19 deer including 12 bucks, mostly between New Army Pass and the Siberian Pass Trail Junction.


We stopped at the Rock Creek/Soldier Lake Junction to reduce the width of our feet in the creek and to have something to eat. This gave us our second wind for the 4.6 mile trip to Lower Rock Creek Crossing Trail Camp.


After arriving at Lower Rock Creek, it was time for 800 mg. of Vitamin I, a washing of the undies, socks and a frolic in the icy waters of Rock Creek.

The totals for the day were 14 miles traveled during which we saw 8 people and 19 deer. Everyone was in the tent by 7 PM fast asleep and awake by 5.

Sit on the Throne Day
Lower Rock Creek Crossing to The Tarns above Guitar Lake
Starting Elevation: 9,560' Ending Elevation: 11,640'
Distance: ~11 miles        Hiking Time: ~7.5 hours
Maps: Johnson Peak and Mt. Whitney 7.5' USGS Quad


9/25/04 - Across the creek and a heart pounding climb to start the day, oh what joy! The hardest part of this day is the first 2 hours where you climb to 10,940 before your breakfast settles. After this climb, it's a pretty easy day where you will get your first glance at an unimpressive Mt. Whitney, it do look different from the west side.


Based off past experiences with some really heavy packs, we anticipated this to be the hardest day but it turned out to be the easiest, funny how cooler days and lighter packs changes you perception of what is hard.


At Upper Crabtree Meadow we decided it was time to dip the feet in the icy waters of Whitney Creek for width reduction and all, save one of us, to take a shot at the faux porcelain which, is hidden in plain sight. After these pauses which refreshes, it was on to Timberline Lake for lunch, the most beautiful spot on this trail made even more beautiful by the solitude afforded by this early fall trip.


After lunch, it was time to go above the treeline into the land of thinner air and hardy marmots. At this point, we hadn't seen anyone but since the reservable Trail Crest Exit Permits were sold out we figured to see a group or two at Guitar Lake; we didn't. It was then onto The Tarns, the end of this day's trip.


We set up camp and frolicked in the largest tarn.


It's always a good day when you don't see anyone on the trail while you are hiking!


We were in the bags by 7 all but one of us was up and tossing  n' turning well before the 1 AM wake up call. The fitful sleep was the result of sleeping at 11,640', anxiety about summiting and the marmots knocking on our tent doors telling us to quiet the one member of our group who did sleep and wasn't so quiet about it.

Sunrise on Mt. Whitney
The Tarns above Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal
Starting Elevation: 11,640' Ending Elevation: 8,630'
Distance: ~16 miles        Hiking Time: ~11.25 hours
Maps: Mt. Whitney and Mt. Langley 7.5' USGS Quad


9/26/04 - We were all up, save the snorer, before the 1 AM wake up call. This was the warmest wake up of the entire trip, unfortunately it didn't stay that way. After breakfast and all the other wonderful things you do in the morning it was up trail. The start of this day was similar to the day before, that is, it's a quick steep up before the trail mellows out as it moves toward the final 11 switchbacks to Lower Trail Crest. Although it was not a full moon night the almost full moon was with us until the crest.


We dumped our packs, some of us added a layer and it was off to the summit. Those of us who did this before found traveling a bit disconcerting in total darkness knowing what would happen with a misstep at the wrong time, our Whitney virgin had no such apprehension. By the time we reached the lower part of Mt. Whitney we were started to feel the cold and a hard wind started to come up.


Within 20 minutes of reaching the mountain we were on the summit with 8 other hardy loons gazing out to the east watching the start of the sunrise while freezing our rear ends off. A couple of us had had enough of the cold and wind and; retreated to the hut for a warm up and five minute snooze. We walked back out a moment before the sun poked it's head over the mountains and lit up the Sierra Crest. It made the 1 AM wake up call worth every minute of lost sleep. After some pictures and signing the register it was off to "The Whitney Follies".


All Mt. Whitney veterans know about The Whitney Follies. Usually, as you descend there will be a couple of folks, sometimes a lot more than a couple of folks, who are doing somethings so outrageous or saying somethings so silly they will stick out like sore thumbs, like people trying to visit Mt. Whitney by way of Guitar Lake, asking which way is the peak at Trail Crest and traveling the windy subfreezing west side trail in cotton shorts and a t-shirt without a pack and one quart of water in their right hand. This year was no exception. All you do is shake your head and keep your mouth shut, except to say hi and you know you are heading down to Guitar Lake, don't you.


Our descent was uneventful with a long stop at Trailside Meadow to soak our feet to get them ready for the last 5.5 miles to Whitney Portal and its food, shower and beer. Did I mention the beer?

Trail Notes


Since this trip, I've been over Army Pass. This is my pass of choice for an approach to Lower Rock Creek. However, it on a north wall which means it can have snow into August and September, we passed through some inconsequential snow in September 2010 on this pass. My second choice would be New Army utilizing the South Fork Trail. This cuts off a mile and eliminates trail undulation you find on the Cottonwood Lakes/New Army Pass Trail but you have to feel comfortable going cross country from South Fork Lakes to Long Lake. My least favorite is Cottonwood Pass because it roller coasters from pass to Siberian Outpost, is beach sandy in spots and offers very little protection from the sun until you drop off of Siberian Outpost.

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