Trip Report: Miter Basin to Mount Whitney

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Trip Report: Miter Basin to Mount Whitney

Post by Harlen » Wed Jun 07, 2017 2:11 pm

From New Army Pass to Miter Basin involves dropping down 1,510' to the lower Soldier Lake, and then up just about 750" to reach a very nice place to camp, right in the center of Miter Basin- Sky Blue Lake (11,545'). Earlier in the same day I went up New Army Pass (12,310') from that first Cottonwood Lake at 11,000," so add in another 1,310" up or so, for a day's total of just over 2,000 feet. Note that anywhere on the stretch between Soldier Lake and the bench just before Sky Blue Lake would be a wonderful place to camp (although in summer, it could be a marshy mosquito zone?).

There were coyote and marmot tracks in abundance, so many tracks so close together that I wondered if I might come across the two converging, and ending in a bloody dead marmot?! As some of you know, I usually have my dog "Bear" by my side, and I did miss him. So I began following the coyote tracks in hopes of befriending one, and perhaps getting him to come along with me for part of the way. I never caught up with them though, so I plodded lonely on.

More photos:

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Sky Blue Lake is set above a rock terrace, and there are scrambling routes up near the cascading outlet. Once there you are surrounded by mountains. It's a mountainous setting comparable to that of Dusy Basin or the upper Evolution Valley, but without the crowds.

The great 1000 foot cliffs of Mt. Newcomb in the image above, and the cliffy peaks, of Mt. Pickering below- due west and southwest from Sky Blue Lake.

eagle cliff.jpg

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I got my water from this melted edge of the lake. I had to break the frozen crust in the mornings, and then toss in my water bottle attached to a cord. It was a bit of an effort to fish it back out again, but I have no interest in early morning dunkings in icy lake water, so I practiced caution. When I set out early to climb the passes and the big mountain, I was very tempted to cross the lake, like I commonly do in mid-winter on skis, but I could see that there was only about a foot of frozen ice left over this very large lake. I practice discretion over valor when alone in the backcountry, so I walked the long shoreline most of the way around. However, when I was nearly around, I recalled that the theme of this trip was "A Fool's Errand," so I decided to nip ever so lightly across the last few hundred feet of probably frozen lake. What a Fool indeed! Three quarters of the way across and I experienced that dreaded sound/feel of the lake ice cracking! I blasphemed the rest of the way across, and then counted my blessings. I promised myself to reform this sort of errant behavior in the distant future.

What a hell of a way to go, thrashing about to get out of the pack, and usually skis, as one sinks ever deeper into a freezing lake! I've lain awake contemplating that form of death.

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Here is the brazen Marmot that I found snuffling about my campsite, looking to chew some socks to pieces. Believe it or not, this carnivorous herbivore (?) took an interest in my heel, and took two exploratory bites at it. Perhaps I can finagle a "service dog" permit for "Bear," saying that he is needed for marmot protection? When the marmot started to nibble on the shoulder straps of my backpack, I chased him off with sand and small gravel. There were also a few pika about, and more of my favorite mountain bluebirds.

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My next visitor of note was a single bald eagle, who soared in over the western cliffs, which from then on I called the "Eagle Cliffs." Was the eagle casing the valley for fishing spots? I did see one very big trout in the melted out portion of Rock Creek (10,600' elev.) on my hike out. The rest of my bird friends up at the high camp were the usual guys: rosy finch, water pipit, and junco.

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A glacially erratic landscape, with "The Miter" on the right, and Mt Mallory and Irvine to the left.

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This is the view to the west-northwest into the cirque of great cliffs of Mt Newcomb.

My final submission will show the route up to Crabtree and Discovery Passes, and on to Fishermens Peak/Mt Whitney.
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Last edited by Harlen on Sun Nov 08, 2020 3:12 am, edited 9 times in total.

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Miter Basin to Mount Whitney

Post by Harlen » Wed Jun 07, 2017 5:25 pm

On the third day of my trip I got an early start from my wonderful camp above Sky Blue Lake, and headed off in crampons over very hard snow fields.
The snow was in great condition, with the melt freeze cycle still in action. I would be more wary of descending some of these slopes (the ones on the south side of Discovery Pass) later in the season when the nights are above freezing, and more rainfall destabilizes the slope. The route up Crabtree Pass comes in three easy stages. The step up to Sky Blue, then the larger step up the bench that holds the higher lake, (Lake 12129') and finally the last short step to the actual Crabtree Pass. The first step to Sky Blue is 400', the second step: 400," and the last: 480."
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Looking north from the south end of Sky Blue Lake. The great sweeping central mountain ridge separates the upper basin leading to Arc Pass, on the right, (east) from the upper basin that leads to Crabtree Pass, and on to Discovery Pass, which can be seen in the far distance; it's the snow slope capped with a bit of rock seen far left in the frame.

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This is the view from the top of Crabtree Pass back down the way I've come. That is frozen Lake 12129, and ~400' below that is Sky Blue Lake. A very straightforward couple of miles to this first pass. Note Mt. Langley's great bulk in the center background.

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This is the view west from C.Pass, down the amazingly cliffy valley of the Crabtree Lakes- some of those cliffs are 1400' high! In the next valley north, the cliffs above Hitchcock Lakes are even taller!! It would be very easy, in any season, to descend down that great valley from C.Pass.

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These are the cliffs over Hitchcock Lakes. Note Kaweah Peaks on the skyline at the center. Sawtooth Pass area is in the upper left, in the far distance.

The greatest challenge of this hike was to get up the longer, steeper Discovery Pass, which is about 1,240" above Crabtree Pass. The slope is over-steepened at the bottom, where it is also studded with rocky bits that one wouldn't want to bounce over in a fall- so just don't fall! The angle is not greater than 50 degrees at any point, so I managed it fine with an uphill axe, and a downhill ski pole, and of course the crampons. I made a mistake taking the more direct route at the bottom of the Discovery slope, and became committed to a route that passed uncomfortably above some of the rock. In the early morning the snow was very hard, and I think most climbers would prefer waiting till 9:30 or so, when solid steps can be kicked into the surface. Neither of those conditions worried me as much as the thought of descending such a long and somewhat complex snow slope late in the day, as I am more comfortable climbing up slopes than riding avies back down.
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You'll note in this photo that I've drawn a circle around the major convex area of the slope. This area concerned me, and I stayed off of it, due to the fact that convex slopes will be less well-anchored than concave areas. A matter of physics better explained in a book, or by someone who really knows his avalanche stuff, such as our John Dittli (*see below). Basically, the convex slope is in part hanging over space, and is more susceptible to the force of gravity. The concave slope is pressing down against the base of the slope, and therefore much better supported. The photo I just added above the marked-up one better shows the convex versus concave slopes, as I took it from Crabtree Pass in the afternoon light on the return trip.

A second point I considered carefully on the way down, when the snow had softened such that many of my plunging heel steps were putting me under to above the knees, was whether it was wise to stay close to the where the snow slope met the bedrock. My understanding is that warmed rock can be the nexus for wet snow avalanches, and so, one should not pass to closely beneath large rock areas, however, rocks-especially bedrock- can also serve as "islands of safety," that anchor the snow slope near them. So on the way down from Discovery Pass, (as seen in the dashed red line) I first descended the safe talus, and went too far, to where it was cliffed out, and full of unstable rock. Then I returned up through the talus, and crossed over to the concave snow slope right up against the bedrock, a route that dropped me just above (northeast) of the highest of Crabtree Lakes. It was safe and easy going across the slope back to some solid rock and flattish snow slopes to the top of Crabtree Pass.

[Full disclosure here: I get my avie knowledge out of fairly large amount of personal experience (Fool's Errands in mountains on 4 continents), and wise words from older climbing partners here and there, and also from many books, very carefully studied. I have never taken a formal avalanche course in the field, which admittedly, is a superior way to gain the knowledge.]

*John Dittli was kind enough to provide the following clarification and insight:
Hi Ian,

Convex weakness are more associated with slab failure due to tension at the apex, this is less of a concern with wet slides that often start as point releases.
As for "rock islands of safety", this is something we all used to think, but it's not accurate. The temperature variables at rocks can actually cause faceting of crystals forming a weak bond in the pack at that point. We are learning now that often slides actually propagate from these points. Again this is for slab type avalanches.

This isn't to say wet slides won't start at convexities, they like to let go at steep angles.

I hope that helps.

I am getting ahead of myself here, discussing my return route. The next wonderful part of the trip was the view from the top of Discovery Pinnacle, both off to the north and west, and over to Fishermen's Peak / Whitney.

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Above (also taken from the top of Discovery Pin.) is an interesting perspective of the Muir Crest- from Trail Crest to Fishermen's Peak, with Mt. Muir's summit over-topping Whitney's- how fitting.

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Looking down the snow slope above Lonepine Creek, and all the happy climbers. If you zoom in on the snow fields in this photo you'll discover at least 5 tiny climbers.

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The colorful rock of Discovery Pinnacle. Be very sure to pass around this pinnacle on the east side, the west is decidedly treacherous! There is a vague trail that leads one down to Trail Crest, and the mule trail to Fishermen's Peak/Mt. Whitney.
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Here is a look at the route over Crabtree from the north. It is very secure and easy from the northwest, wrapping fairly high around the snow bowl above the last Crabtree Lake. I hiked over that interesting circular feature near the center of the photo, which I will call a small rock glacier until Bill tells me otherwise. From there it was level going across the last snow slope to the stable rock of the pass.

Both of these passes will be easy class 2 in summer.
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Back to my camp at Sky Blue Lake, I took a full rest day. It was not so much that I was worn out, as that I wanted to spend a day just gazing around that amazing basin. I faced my stone chair first west , then east to follow the sunlight. It was a fine day. I saw the eagle, and the pair of camp marmots, (whom I pretended were my two dogs) I washed with snow and warm water, read an awful, but gripping western novel, and dried out my absolutely soaking boots. I also managed to pour boiling water on my foot, and to sunburn my bald spot- Idiot! The marmot or pika had chewed very small holes into the mosquito netting of my friend's brand new "Big Agnes-tiny tent"- so it's mine now [Luckily, he had so convinced me of the greatness of this wee tent (5 lbs. lighter than mine), that I had ordered one myself before I left- so he gets that one.].

Reflecting on this trip, I was very impressed by the high mountain cliffs of Crabtree Canyon. I think it would be a great hike from Sky Blue Lake, over Crabtree Pass, and then down Crabtree Canyon, or "Crabtree Lakes Creek" on the map, and then onward down to the PCT, and back around and up via Rock Creek. It would be 5 or 6 miles down that exciting canyon, after the first 2 miles to C.Pass, and then 3.3 miles to Guyot Pass (so about 11 miles so far.) From Guyot it's 7 more miles to the lower Soldier Lake, and then roughly 4 more miles back into camp at Sky Blue Lake. So, a 22 mile, grueling long day hike by the Hobbesian Ubermen among us, or instead, it could easily be done in two comfortable days with a pack, by regular people, who could stop wherever they like for the night, uncork their bottle of fine wine, to enjoy beneath those brilliant cliffs. I think I'll be back for one of those trips.
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Last edited by Harlen on Sun Nov 08, 2020 3:13 am, edited 10 times in total.

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Re: Miter Basin to Mount Whitney

Post by Bluewater » Thu Jun 08, 2017 7:26 am

Beautiful photos and an awesome winter route! I've been through there a few times in the summer and fall, but never in deep snow. That trip down through the Crabtree Lakes is a lot of fun and worth another visit. Did you climb Whitney?

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Re: Miter Basin to Mount Whitney

Post by Hobbes » Thu Jun 08, 2017 7:41 am

Sh!t Harlen, can I call you "Shred the Gnar" or just "Gnar" for short? I was going to ask you if you learned your alpine climbing skills in the Himalaya?

With respect to your musings about Crabtree canyon, um, yeah, 'they're real, and they're spectacular': ... f=1&t=8131

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Re: Miter Basin to Mount Whitney

Post by AlmostThere » Thu Jun 08, 2017 10:49 am

Enjoying your trip reports. Coincidentally I have a permit for Cottonwood Lakes -> Miter -> Crabtree Lakes -> Rock Creek and back out to Horseshoe for August. I probably even have a space on it by the time the trip rolls around, as there are two maybe people in the group....

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Re: Miter Basin to Mount Whitney

Post by Harlen » Thu Jun 08, 2017 11:21 am

Yes Andy, I walked up Whitney, unlike you who climbed the Mountaineer's Route Yes?
The first thing I did was wander over to the north edge of the summit plateau to check out the top of the Mountaineer's Route (MR), which right now is a nice, steep climb over perfect snow, but it's melting fast. Actually the very first thing I did up there on the summit, as everyone must, was to hang over the south and east edges to gaze down Whitney's rock walls, and over to the loooong wall of Keeler Needle, (which would be a hell of a climb for someone else).

Perched over the MR, I met a lone skier who was contemplating a very scary ski descent of it- can you imagine?! He was already wisely deciding against it because it was so melted out in the lower section, and the last thing I wanted to do was to try to inspire him to go for it. He said it "It isn't going anywhere, I'll be back when there's more snow." Later, I saw his tracks down from Trail Crest, and he is undoubtedly an awesome skier. Interesting that his AT ski gear was wide, and very long- perhaps 180cm?! I would have thought short and wide for such a steep slope.

Here's a photo of the uppermost section of the MR: Thanks for your comments Andy and Karl.
miter basin-081.JPG
BTW, Karl, most of what I did in the Himalaya-Karakoram was to trek to the foot of giant beautiful mountains and gaze up at them- no real climbing.
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Re: Trip Report: Miter Basin to Mount Whitney

Post by DAVELA » Sat Jun 10, 2017 6:44 am

Gawd,what a trip report!The pic below the photo with your poles is just incredible." onclick=";return false;

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Re: Trip Report: Miter Basin to Mount Whitney

Post by Rigormortis » Tue Jun 13, 2017 9:03 pm

Hardcore- Respect

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Re: Trip Report: Miter Basin to Mount Whitney

Post by vinjo » Fri Jun 16, 2017 2:40 pm

Great report! Fun to see it with all the snow.

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