Since nearly every trail, or so it seems, requires a quota these days, I tried to secure reserved permits about a month in advance of our trip. I was unsuccessful, as all 60% of the 60 permits that they hold for reservation were already sold. We were going anyway and decided to take our chances that we could get some of the 40% left for walk-ins.
3 of us, (Kevin, Rick and I), left Bakersfield around 0715 and headed for Lone Pine, where we were to meet Bill who was driving over from Trona.
We made it to Lone Pine a little before 1000, blew right by the Ranger Station, which is located on the corner of Hwy 395 and Inyo St. and had to backtrack. We went into the ranger station, where there were more people behind the counter than were waiting, so we started filling out the required paperwork. Not sure if we got lucky, but we were able to get a walk-in permit.
With the permitting out of the way, we waited for Bill to show up and we were ready for the drive to Cottonwood Lakes trailhead. We figured some fat grams might make the hike easier, so we hit Carl's Jr. before we left Lone Pine.
We got to the trailhead around 1200 and there were approx. 40 cars in the parking lot. We thought the trail would be crowded, but we only saw a few people on the way up. We geared up, and made sure everything that might attract bears was out of the Explorer and we hit the trail.
A little more than an hour into the hike we stopped to talk to a couple from San Diego that were headed to the lakes for some fishing. While we were talking, we heard a loud report as a tree crashed down near the trail.
We continued on through the most pristine and beautiful country that I have ever seen. An awesome hike so far. We made it to Cottonwood Lakes Basin in 4 hours, where we set up camp next to Lake #3 and settled in for the night.
At 11,100 ft. I didn't sleep well at all. None of us did. After some breakfast, we got kind of a late start and headed for Old Army Pass around 0900 and it was already 74 degrees. Kevin had gotten up early and went to the bottom of Old Army before we got up. He thought it looked OK despite the fact that it's not maintained anymore. The trail was in pretty good shape and was mostly Class 2 (defined by the Yosemite Decimal System as: Hiking, mostly on established trails involving some scrambling with occasional use of hands). There were a couple of snow patches to negotiate with the most difficult being a very steep and exposed section of class 4 (YDS: Intermediate climbing with exposure extreme enough that most mountaineers will want a belay. A fall could be serious or fatal.) Someone had kicked steps through the snow, but on this section, if you fell it would've been very serious or fatal. It was especially unnerving for me since it fell away at an angle that made it so you couldn't see the rocks below. Just an open and exposed fall. We passed a guy with his daughter of about 9 that had just come down from there and he said it was her 1st hike. She seemed OK, but it scared the crap out of me. Because of that stretch of snow we decided we wouldn't go back through Old Army. So I'm a wussy boy. I don't have anything to prove.
We made it to the top of Old Army Pass around 1030 and continued on down the trail. That was a mistake, as we should have turned north and scrambled along the ridge towards the summit. We lost 30 minutes figuring this out and finally ended up back on a trail headed the right direction.
At approximately 13,000 ft, Rick decided he'd had enough. As the oldest, at around 50, he'd impressed me that he made it that far. I had already been feeling nauseous for an hour, but kept eating GU and trying to stay hydrated.
Kevin, Bill and I trudged on. And a trudge it was. The trail became very steep and sandy, which made the going slow. With several hundred feet of elevation to gain, we came upon some Class 3 (YDS: Climbing or scrambling with moderate exposure. Angle steep enough that hands are needed for balance.) where the trail zigzagged upward. I had to stash my trekking poles in my pack. No use here.
After the Class 3, it was more of a scramble towards the top, but the summit still could not be seen. This is when we ran into Troop 883 who had already summitted and was on their way down. I was starting to get discouraged (and more nauseous), but one of the guys in the Troop said they had only been headed down for 8 minutes and we should be pretty close. We pushed on.
Finally at 1420, I summitted, followed shortly by Bill, then Kevin who was pretty twisted at this point. Kevin and I were very nauseous and Bill had an extreme headache.
It was about 60 degrees with just a little breeze. The view was incredible. There was a glider floating over the valley just east of us, which looked pretty cool. We all signed the log, took a couple of pictures and left after about 40 minutes.
There were trails everywhere. Bill and I kind of bailed off the side through the Class 3 and Kevin headed back towards the way we came, although he ended up in Class 3 as well. We all headed back to where Rick had stayed and waited on us, rested briefly then headed on down.
Back at the top of Old Army Pass, Bill and Rick decided that stretch of snow wasn't so bad and went down Old Army after all. Kevin and I were still feeling bad and didn't want to make any mistakes trying to negotiate the snow, so we headed for New Army Pass.
The hike through New Army Pass and back to Lake 3 was prettier than through Old Army, but it added an hour and 40 minutes to our time. Rick and Bill got back to camp at 1800, but we didn't get back until 1940.
Rick and Bill had rested up and decided to hike out in the dark. They left camp at 2030. Kevin and I were beat. We stayed and had planned on leaving early in the morning. Despite being completely drained (I'm a 40 year old beer drinker) we couldn't sleep at all. We got up at 0100, broke camp, put on the headlamps and headed back down at 0200. We made it back to Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead at 0430 and I couldn't wait to get home.
This trip was supposed to be a trial run for our planned trip to Mt. Whitney in August, but instead was a learning experience for me. I learned I'm not a peak bagger, just a backpacker.
"After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, which is the most horrible thing in the world."
--Oscar Wilde on Absinthe