Day 22: Rock Creek over Cottonwood Pass to Horseshoe Meadow (≈15 mi.)
August 18: We have options for how to get from here to Horseshoe MeadowóArmy Pass or Cottonwood Pass. Looking at the map, Army may be shorter than Cottonwood, but it is also higher than Cottonwood. In the end, weíd decided last night to go over Cottonwood. But, a ranger showed up and talked us into modifying that decision. Instead of staying on the PCT, weíd take the trail that follows Rock Creek to a beautiful meadow and an intersection with a trail that cuts south to the PCT. The ranger claimed that this route would add less than a mile to our trip, and it was only 12.5 miles to Horseshoe Meadow via this route.
We start hiking some time after 8 oíclock. Given that there are no major ascents today, I estimate my ETA to be 3 p.m. The trail along Rock Creek is quite scenic. It crosses the creek several times, and at one point, we find James cooling his heels waiting for us. There are trail options and no signs. Which way do we go? Eastwardóto the right. At this point, we start to spread out, although I often see Dina and Steve in the distance. I reach the meadows about 10 oíclock, and they are beautiful. At the end of the meadows, the trail climbs steeply through a narrow canyon and comes to the trail intersection where I turn south. (The trail continues on to Soldier Lake.) Itís supposed to be only a little over a mile to the PCT, but it seems to take forever as the trail gradually ascends, passing the New Army Pass trail turn-off. I reach the junction of the PCT at 11:30.
Something is wrong with someoneís mileage estimates. Iíve not been poking along, but if I had stayed on the PCT, Iím sure I would have been here some time ago.
The PCT contours around Cirque Peak, weaving in and out of the timberline and vacillating between about 11,200í and 11,400í. The surface is sandy, the sun is blazing, and the glare is intense. But, the temperature is quite comfortable. The views down into the Siberian Outpost are extensive, and I find Dina and Steve enjoying them while eating their lunch. We all think that given how far weíve walked, we should only have 5.5 miles to go. But a passing backpacker thinks we have 7.5.
At noon, I reach the Sequoia National Park/Inyo National Forest Boundary. At this point, the trail is on the upswing, and thereís a set of really nice steps built into side of the mountain. The trail continues around Cirque Peak in much the same manner. Just beyond a high point, as the trail turns north for a short distance, I stop for lunch. Dina and Steve now pass me, and just before Iím ready to start again, Eric passes me. Soon after I start again, the trail becomes very sandy. Itís like walking on the beach or up a dry wash in the desertóhard work. But, it doesnít last long. Now the views are down to Big Whitney Meadow, and I pass Eric eating his lunch. I finally reach a highpoint and think as I round an arm of Cirque Peak that Iíve made it to Cottonwood Pass. (Remember, I donít have a map.)
Itís 1:40, and I assume Iím on track for my ETA of 3 oíclock. But, where is the trail intersection where I have to turn off the PCT to reach Horseshoe Meadow? The view from the other side of the arm looks to be all downhill. Thereís a beautiful lake (Chicken Spring Lake) in a cirque down at the bottom of some switchbacks. But, when I reach the lake, Iím still wondering where the trail intersection is. Itís at least another half mile until I finally reach the trail junction. Now Iím on Cottonwood Pass (11,200). The sign doesnít say how far, but I can see the meadow down below. Itís huge and stretches for miles.
As I descend, the forest cover increases, and long switchbacks move me from looking down at the north side of the meadow to viewing the south side. Then, the grade eases as the trail heads north again. Finally, thereís a set of tight switchbacks that bring me to the flats and an open area. Itís after 3 oíclock. I think Iím at Horseshoe Meadow and it canít be far to the trailhead. Wrong again! Itís another 2 miles to the pack station, and by the time I reach the last part, which is uphill, Iím very weary.
At the pack station, Iím greeted by Mark, his sons, Dina and Steve. Everyone agrees that todayís walk was much longer than the 12 Ĺ weíd been told, probably closer to 15. They wait around for 15-20 minutes for Eric, but itís about 4 oíclock and they want to get down off the mountain to do their car shuffle. Markís wife has brought their van, and they will drive Steve up to Independence to get his car. All of us are going to spend the night in Lone Pine, so they will book me a room at the Dow Villa when they check in. My car is at the pack station, so I will wait for the luggage.
But, before they head down off the mountain, they will drive around all the parking lots looking for Eric. (His car is also in Independence.) Heís a strong hiker, and I had expected him to pass me on the way down from Cottonwood Pass. Maybe he missed the sign to the pack station or misunderstood where he was supposed to go.
John Summers arrives with a large horse trailer soon after they leave. In another 10-15 minutes, another man from MLPO pulls in with another horse trailer. We talk for awhile, but Iím tired and go sit in the car. Next, Kris and Tony arrive. Their car is also at the pack station, and, since they are returning to Los Angeles tonight, have their luggage with them. Kris changes clothes and gives me some wet ones so that I can clean up a little. I have a few clean clothes in my car, but am unwilling to put them on until Iíve had a real shower.
Meanwhile, weíre getting really worried about Eric. Itís getting on towards 5:30, and heís not here. Kris and Tony never saw him on the trail. Had he missed the turn-off to Horseshoe Meadow and kept going on the PCT? Or, perhaps, Mark found him in one of the parking lots.
Soon our pack train arrives. And, about the same time, Eric comes walking up the road from the opposite direction. He had misunderstood where to go, and heíd missed Mark and the others when they checked the lots for him. He had waited at the trailhead for an hour before deciding to look for the pack station.
The mules are soon unloaded, and Kris, Tony and I claim our gear. Summers will take Eric up to Independence since it is on his way. The other driver will bring the rest of the luggage down to the motel in Lone Pine.
Now all I have to do is drive down off the mountain. Itís about as harrowing as walking down steep switchbacks on scree. As I reach the desert floor, the sun begins to set behind Mt. Whitney. I quickly grab my camera and take a couple of shots while driving. I may not have made it to the very top of Whitney, but, like Bill Bryonís claim vis-ŗ-vis the AT, I can say, ďIíve done the JMT.
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