July 2, 2016 - July 4, 2016
3 days, 21.6 miles, +9,300’
The Fourth of July long weekend had me searching for a plan that involved mountains, friends, and sleeping outside. After much research, I hatched an idea to climb Mount Whitney via a relatively obscure route. See, this was back in the days before I had submitted the highest peak in the continental United States and I was constantly searching for ways around the shitshow that is Mount Whitney permits. Coupled with the additional fact that I wasn’t yet very confident in my ability to get a walk-up backpacking permit, I was intent on reserving one in advance. So, after noticing that the Tuttle Creek trailhead is both 1) quite near to Mount Whitney and 2) almost always available for reservation, I went ahead and booked a permit for the long weekend.
At the time, the only place names I knew in the area were Mount Langley and Mount Whitney, two of California’s famed fourteeners. Our plan, for which I’ll use names that I’ve since learned, was to climb from Tuttle Creek to Diaz Pass (the saddle immediately south of Mount Langley at about 13,300’), then summit Mount Langley and head southwest to Soldier Lakes. From there, we would head north into the Miter Basin, cross Crabtree Pass and then climb to Discovery Pass before joining the Whitney Trail to the summit of Mount Whitney. Then we’d return the same way, for we only had one car. This was very much above our ability and experience level at the time, but we didn’t know that. I guess it’s somewhat fortunate that we didn’t know better, as I don’t think I would even give this a try after having attained more experience.
We bummed off work a little early on Friday for the long drive over Tioga Pass and south on 395, making it the Tuttle Creek Campground just outside of Lone Pine before it was too late. The small Lone Pine fire burned in sage brush just a few miles north of us, in the Alabama Hills, which made our evening arrival a little bit eerie.
The next morning, we were up early and over to the Lone Pine ranger station to pick up our permit. We had to wait around a while for them to show up and distribute all of the Mount Whitney permits before it was our turn. When we talked to the ranger, she said “I haven’t issued a permit for Tuttle Creek in fifteen years!” Another clue that we probably should have considered!
After the permit song and dance, we drove up to the Tuttle Creek trailhead. I think the road on the south side of the creek is called “Granite View Drive,” but I’ve only seen that name mentioned on obscure Sierra Nevada-focused corners of the internet, so I’m not certain. We parked and headed on the trail towards the ashram.
After about half a mile, we stepped off the trail and headed up the south side of Tuttle Creek. The going was quite brushy (and sharp) for about 30 minutes before it thinned out to a pine forest. We followed the slope up and up as the pine forest eventually thinned out. Unfortunately, the soil underfoot gave way to sand which, combined with the altitude, slowed our progress.
Climbing the sand hill towards Diaz Pass.
Before too long it became obvious that we had very much underestimated the difficulty of this climb and would not make it over Diaz Pass on the first night. That left us in a bit of a difficult situation, as we would need more water to get across the pass. Fortunately, we were able to find some lingering snow fields on the ridge at about 3,900m and made camp there, melting snow for water.
We had a lovely sunset the first night. Here’s Mount Corcoran and Mount LeConte with some beautiful evening light.
The next morning we got off and set out, carrying all of our things, for we didn’t know how far we would make it. The view was just as impressive as on the previous day.
Before long, we had submitted Diaz Pass and climbed some easy class 2 or 3 blocks to the summit of Mount Langley. Here, we had a great view to the north of Mount Whitney, Mount Williamson, the Great Western Divide, and the Kaweahs.
The view south wasn’t bad either, with the Cottonwood Lakes and Olancha Peak.
After resting on the summit for a while, we started heading southwest for Upper Soldier Lake. Based on timing, it seemed like we wouldn’t make it all the way to Whitney, but we were still hoping that Sky Blue Lake might be in reach.
We stuck far south on the sandy slope down to Upper Soldier Lake and had lunch, a swim, and a nap when we got there. Once we were ready to go again, we concluded our best bet was to cross back to the other side of the crest, not head into the Miter Basin. So, we hiked down to the trail at Soldier Lake and then followed it up to Army Pass.
Stopping for a break on the crest.
We crossed Diaz pass and headed back down to the same spot we had camped the previous night. Apparently we could have done the whole outing without our heavy backpacks, but we had originally hoped we’d make it farther.
The next day we sand-skiied all the way down the sandy slope back to the trail and headed into Lone Pine for a diner breakfast before the long drive home.