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TR: Army Pass, Crabtree Pass, and Mount Langley

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TR: Army Pass, Crabtree Pass, and Mount Langley

Postby shtinkypuppie » Sun Sep 20, 2015 12:11 am


Let me start off by saying that I'm directing this TR to people like me: Experienced hikers with little cross-country experience. Crabtree pass was a great learning experience and I want to lay out in detail what it takes so others can try it.

I started from the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead at about 0900 on 9/10. There were a surprising number of people getting ready - refugees from the smoke? - for mid-September. The Cottonwood lakes trail is easy and mostly flat, and I arrived at Cottonwood Lake #4 by 1130. Army Pass was easy. Don't listen to all the warnings about it being 'unmaintained' and 'not the recommended route' - the tread is wide and obvious, and there's only one very easy bit where you climb through some rocks (easy class 2). It took about 45 minutes to get up. I dropped down a good trail to Soldier Lake, which was a pretty spot but was rather crowded.

Next morning (9/11) I left Soldier Lake and prepared to head down to Rock Creek. Luckily, I ran into some people who had just come out of Miter Basin who told me about the following route (thanks guys!):

Walk the trail along the WEST shore of Soldier Lake. This trail comes off the Army Pass trail at a separate junction west of the main (signed for "Food Storage Box/Soldier Lake) junction. Follow the use trail along the lake until the trail swings east to cross the head of the lake. Right where it swings east, you'll notice a flat sandy spot to your left with a string of cairns starting up the headwall. Follow these cairns left (northwest) away from the trail and you'll immediately pick up a good use trail switchbacking up the headwall. Follow it about 100-200 feet up to the top of the ridge.
Looking into Miter Basin from the ridge above Soldier Lake

From here, follow a faint use trail and occasional cairns to the right (north), contouring along the ridge. You don't want to stay on top of the ridge, but you don't want to lose elevation - just stay level and follow cairns where you can. Resist the urge to drop down to Rock Creek. If you stay at about the same elevation, the slope you're sidehilling will gradually level out and dump you out into the wide, flat meadow of lower Miter Basin. A very good use trail leads you upstream through this meadow on the right (east) side of Rock Creek.

Miter Basin from the big meadow

I took a long break in this meadow, enjoying the incredible skyline of Miter Basin. Then I dropped my gear and took a spur hike up to Iridescent Lake. The Miter and Mount LeConte tower over Irridescent, and LeConte has some really cool and unusual stripes in the granite on its south face. To get to Iridescent, I just followed the outlet creek up from the main drainage. It was all easy class 1, with a faint use trail in places. It took about 45 mins up, 30 mins down.
Iridescent Lake, The Miter and the striped south face of Mount LeConte

After dropping back down to Rock Creek, I started up toward Sky Blue Lake. The very good use trail I followed up the meadow started to peter out about halfway to Sky Blue. I lost the trail, but the satellite shows it does continue faintly on the left (west) side of Rock Creek. On the right side, there is an impressive stand of Foxtail pines just below Sky Blue Lake. There are a few good campsites near the top of this stand that would offer some sheltered camping on a windy night.

To get to Sky Blue, approach the outlet waterfall (marked by a large area of black-stained granite in the dry season) on the left (west) side of Rock Creek. A faint use trail leads you to a granite ramp just left of the waterfall. Gain this broad, easy ramp and cut right (east) across the face of the waterfall, and then up to a small sandy bowl. From here, turn left and head straight north over a few easy rises to gain the south shore of Sky Blue Lake. Take an obvious use trail from here away from the shore (the shore cliffs out briefly on the southwest side) toward a tiny pond, and then back down to the west shore. There are one or two campsites here on the west shore. Follow the use trail around to the north shore, where there are about 6 good campsites, some of which have partial wind protection from one side or another.
View from the south shore of Sky Blue Lake, looking north

Sky Blue Lake is an incredible spot and a worthwhile destination all its own. The view of Mounts Langley, LeConte, McAdie, and Newcomb are incredible. The alpenglow on Langley is probably amazing on a clear evening. The route from Soldier Lake to Sky Blue only took about 3 hours, but it's well worth having some time to take in Miter Basin, as well as to hike out to Iridescent Lake.
The view from the north shore of Sky Blue Lake, looking south

After a warm night of stargazing and a little sleep at Sky Blue, I started up Crabtree Pass. To start, head west along the north shore of the lake to a small waterfall at the inlet. There are a few ways up this waterfall, but the best is a ramp that starts west of the waterfall and tacks back east to the head of it ('1' on map). After a short uphill you'll reach a confluence (2). To the east, a gently sloped creek takes you to Arc Pass, to the west, a steeper creek takes you to Crabtree. Turn west and either walk right up the creek or follow a cairned route along the north slope of the creekbed. You'll top out at a rocky, flat basin with a small lake in the middle (3). Walk west on either shore of this lake and find a rocky moraine at the lake's head (4). A tall cairn stands out at the top of this moraine. Scramble up the moraine on one of several routes - it's a little steep with some loose sand, but not hard - and gain the top. Turn right and walk north along the top of the moraine until you can look east into another flat, rocky basin with another small lake (5). Walk east past this lake into a meadow with two decent campsites. From here, a broad granite ramp cuts west and up the slope to the north (6). Walk up this ramp to the outlet creek of the small lake west of Mount Newcomb, then follow this creek up to the lake itself (7). This lake is probably the most important navigational point, so whatever you do, make sure you end up here. From the outlet of this lake, walk east along the south shore until it gets rocky and steep. Gain about 20 feet of elevation above the lakeshore and countour northeast to a saddle on the lake's east side. Cross this saddle and pick up a route of intermittent cairns and use trails. This route wasn't quite well marked enough to follow full-time, but try to broadly keep the same elevation - DON'T drop down to Lake 3697. After a rough contour that requires a few ups and downs, you'll come to a tiny tarn (8). Climb up on the left side of this tarn to a larger one (9). Swing around this tarn on its west side, then head east around its north shore. A granite cliff will peter out as you move east and you'll shortly be able to swing around it into a rocky, bouldery draw. Start up the bottom of the draw until a really good use trail becomes obvious on your left (10). This trail leads you out of the draw, behind a low rock wall, and up to the pass.
Map of Crabtree Pass route

Until now, the main challenge has been navigation. Nowhere was the train worse than easy class 2. After the pass, the reverse is true. From the top of the pass, find a good use trail that starts down a rocky chute. The very top of this chute is what I would call difficult class 2: It's pretty steep, and there's lots of loose sand in the chute, but there are enough rocks to get good purchase and it's never really exposed. After about 200 feet of descent, the slope moderates a bit and the use trail gets much better; the difficulty eases to difficult class 1, then moderate class 1. This chute drops you out onto a broad granite plateau (11). Once on this, you'll walk northeast and find an easy class 2 route down to the talus below, and then west to the shore of Crabtee Lake #3. Walk a good use trail along the north shore of Crabtree Lake #3, then walk down an easy drainage toward Crabtree Lake #2. Just above Crabtree #2, you'll find a small pond. Turn right (north) at this pond and cross behind a granite knob (12) on the east shore of Crabtree #2 to avoid some cliffs. Drop down an steep ravine just on the far side of this knob to gain the sandy east shore of the lake. Continue northwest over the saddle in front of you to pick up a good use trail past Crabtree #1 and on to Crabtree meadow.

The view from Crabtree Pass itself is not the greatest - to the north all you see is the huge sandslope of Discovery Pinnacle,to the south Miter Basin opens below you but the skyline is not super impressive. You will be compensated by the Crabtree Creek drainage. Crabtree #2 is a lovely lake in a dramatic setting. Crabtree #1 has got to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the Sierra: A stately stand of Foxtails on the north shore, a broad meadow at the inlet, and an incredibly stark granite wall on the south shore. This spot positively demands a night's camping, and offers numerous excellent spots in the Foxtails. From Sky Blue Lake to Crabtree Pass took me about 3 hours; down to Crabtree #3 was another hour, and from Crabtree #3 to Crabtree #1 was about 2 hours.
Moody light at Crabtree Lake #1

The next day (9/13) I hiked the good use trail to Upper Crabtree Meadow to meet my girlfriend, who had just finished the HST. We camped at a nice, quiet site below the ranger station, which we had all to ourselves for two consecutive nights. On 9/15, we hiked around to Rock Creek Lake on the PCT. Rock Creek Lake is a lovely spot with a huge meadow and a great view of Mounts Langley and Leconte. On 9/16, we hiked up to Army Pass, where a photographer on contract with Zpacks got some pictures of me with my Zpacks pack. From Army Pass, it took about 2 hours to get up Langley. The views of Whitney, Miter Basin, and the Kaweahs are well worth it, but it's a hell of a climb. Four hours from the summit of Langley I was back at the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead and on the way to Lone Pine for pizza.
LeConte, Whitney, the Kaweahs, and Sky Blue Lake from Mount Langley.

Thanks for reading. This is my first TR so comments and criticism are welcome.
Last edited by shtinkypuppie on Fri Oct 02, 2015 12:01 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: TR: Army Pass, Crabtree Pass, and Mount Langley

Postby 87TT » Sun Sep 20, 2015 8:50 pm

I thought it was very good. Thanks for posting. I enjoy that area.
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Re: TR: Army Pass, Crabtree Pass, and Mount Langley

Postby Vaca Russ » Tue Sep 22, 2015 7:03 am


Thank you for your detailed report.

shtinkypuppie wrote:
Army Pass was easy. Don't listen to all the warnings about it being 'unmaintained' and 'not the recommended route' - the tread is wide and obvious, and there's only one very easy bit where you climb through some rocks (easy class 2). It took about 45 minutes to get up.

I believe most of the warnings you hear about this pass are regarding the early season. It takes longer for the snow to melt on this pass. Often people will take the NAP to avoid the snow hazard.

Imagine what would happen if this snow field was a little larger and somebody tried to cross it without an ice ax and crampons.

10.jpg (63.49 KiB) Viewed 93 times

:eek: :eek:


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Re: TR: Army Pass, Crabtree Pass, and Mount Langley

Postby windknot » Tue Sep 22, 2015 9:46 am

Great report! I appreciate your details and your introduction regarding audience. I too hiked over Crabtree Pass a few years ago as a relatively experienced hiker with not a lot of offtrail experience, so I found your descriptions to be spot-on.

Nice to see the clear skies down there, too. I was further north in the Sierra a few days after you and we ran into heavy smoke the first day, then a surprisingly large amount of snowfall the next two days (silver lining: the snow and rain washed away the smoke).
A few backcountry fishing pictures:
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