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[pct-l] Cottonwood Pass Trip Report

On Thursday, June 5, Cheryl, Jan and I drove to Lone Pine to hike a segment
of the PCT. We had planned to hike from Cottonwood Pass to the PCT/JMT
junction at Crabtree Meadows and back out the same way (42 miles).

As we drove up the switchbacks to the trailhead at Horseshoe Meadows, we went
through a brief, but hard, rain shower. We commented on it as we passed
through. After we reached the trailhead and we were getting boots and packs
on, it began to snow and hail some. We didn't think much about it as
afternoon thundershowers / hail are common summer events. 

As we hiked in, the snow continued off and on, but didn't appear to be
accumulating except on tree branches. It was one of those wet snows. As we
passed the west end of Horseshoe Meadow, we noticed that the butter cups and
shooting stars were beginning to bloom. When we reached Cottonwood Pass at
11,160 feet, it was covered by a snowfield and too steep to cross safely on
the snow. We expected this and simply skirted the snowfield by going around
it on the rocks to the north. 

At this point, our planned camp was less than a mile away. Then the snow
began again; harder now. As we looked for a site for our tents, snow was
accumulating more rapidly. Jan asked if we wanted to hike out. By that time,
our hands were wet and fingers almost numb so we decided to stay the night
and make a decision the next morning to continue or turn back.

Finally, we managed to set up tents in the blowing wind and snow and get our
overnight gear inside. We found a sort-of-flat rock and placed it beneath a
foxtail pine to hold our stove and provide us some shelter from the falling
snow while we cooked dinner. We all managed a quick cup of hot soup while
dinner took a little longer to heat. Once the dinner was hot, we took it
inside the tents (out of the wind) to eat. Since the wind didn't appear
violent, we left the stove sitting on the rock.

It was cold and windy and we had nothing better to do so we turned in early
for the night. Between gusts, the wind seemed calm but never remained that
way very long. Each violent gust would wake us and have us trying to relate
every sound to the piece of equipment that might be blowing away (pack cover,
hiking stick, whisperlite stove ... ?). Finally, the night was over and Jan
announced "... first light; let's pack up and get out of here." Neither
Cheryl nor I objected. 

Jan lit the stove and got the water on for coffee. (The stove, had NOT blown
away, nor had anything else.) Knowing this decision was truly a luxury, and
not available to thru-hikers, we agreed to wait for breakfast until we
reached PJ's Restaurant down in Lone Pine. 

We quickly broke camp and got all of our gear into someone's (anyone's) pack
for the 4.2-mile hike out. Time was more important to us than dividing the
load. Before we left, we took a moment to look around us at the beauty of it
all. The snow had been a wet one and was clinging to all the tree branches,
even the dead ones. We estimated that 4" - 6" of new snow had accumulated. As
the sun rose, it would cast light on mountain tops lighting them with a
special glow. I took one photo, but when I attempted another, the camera was
just too cold; it wouldn't work. 

We headed out in the direction of the trail, plowing through drifts up to our
knees as we hiked, hoping we could still identify the trail when we reached
it. We knew it wasn't far away. Jan was first to reach the trail and
identified it by the slight depression in the snow and the fact that the
depression led through the trees in the direction of the pass. We arrived at
the pass and skirted the snowfield again by going over the rocks which were
now snow-covered too. From our vantage point, we could see snow-covered
Horseshow Meadow below. We knew it's elevation to be about 10,000 feet. As we
hiked down the trail, we lost elevation quickly, making it easy to keep
hiking. We stopped a few times to remove the extra clothing we had needed to
keep warm back in our camp. As we hiked by Horseshoe Meadows, we noted that
the butter cups and shooting stars were now covered with snow.

Soon, we reached the trailhead and the vehicle waiting to take us down the
mountain to breakfast. There was about 4" of snow on the Explorer, even at
the 10,040-foot elevation. It was warmer there so we changed into shorts and
tee-shirts before starting down the switchbacks. As we drove, we wondered if
they had just plowed the road since it was wet, but free of snow. As we
crossed over the ridge just before beginning our major descent on the
switchbacks, we got the answer to our question. There were chunks of snow
(roughly 18" - 24") along the sides of the road making it obvious someone had
plowed this road. Soon we came across the results of a rockslide and noticed
that it had occurred AFTER they had plowed the snow from the road. 

As we continued, we noticed many rockslides and speculated their cause(s).
Down the road a bit, a huge rock (about the size of the Explorer from the
windshield to the front bumper) was lying in the road. Luckily, it was in the
middle so we could still drive around it. We estimated the snow-level on the
switchbacks to be around 9,000-feet. A little farther down, we noticed the
snowplow had also cleared 18" - 24" of dirt from across the road. This led us
to believe the rockslides might have been caused by heavy rains loosening the
dirt on the mountainside. As we neared the bottom of our 6,000-foot +
descent, we saw a man driving a piece of road equipment. We suspected he was
going to use it to move those rocks off the road. 

From our table in the restaurant, we could see the snow-covered peaks of the
Sierras and commented how we had not seen the snow-level so low for this time
of year. Even the peaks of the White Mountains to the east of the Owen's
Valley were snow covered. White Mountain, the only 14,000-foot+ peak in that
range looked like "Mt. Hood" rising above the others and 30-40 miles north.

We are already talking about re-scheduling this hike for late July when the
weather will be more predictable. We'll post another report when we complete
the trip, as planned.


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