Wife and I set out to overnight it up to Cottonwood Lakes from Horseshoe Meadows. The adventure did not go as one would plan, however.
The trip started 0ut pretty tyipcal. We departed the 10,000′ trailhead around 3pm, a late start to our hike. Wife had her Gregory Jade 28 pack on, loaded up with water, a couple layers, and her sleeping bag. I had my Gregory Z65 pack on, loaded with the remainder of our stuff. This will come into play later.
The trail itself is absolutely beautiful, well marked, and just a lot of fun. The first two miles are relatively straight and slightly rolling. Around 2 miles in, you will come across one of the most beautiful meadows you will ever see, with a winding creek through the middle of it. If i could build a house here, I would.
After 2.5 miles or so, just past the New Army Trial cut-off, the trail starts to pick up a bit of elevation, but never really surpasses a 500′ gain/mile grade. Finally, after 5 miles, we reached 11,000′ and entered into the Cottonwood Lakes Basin. We hiked over towards Cottonwood Lake #3 and were greeted by a family of 6 deer. I tell you, beautiful.
We set up the tent, bear vault placement, etc… as the sun was setting. Mount Langley and its surrounding comrades glowed pink in the dwindling daylight and created an ambiance that would be hard to put into words. However, something else began to happen as well. The accuweather forecast (and the forecast in the Lone Pine Visitor Center) called for a low of 34 in this area. However, even before the sun had set, the temps had dropped below 30. The wind had begun to pick up and I was guessing temps would most likely bottom out into the teens, something we had not banked on. Lessons learned. We decided to pack up camp and actually head back to the car, something that paid off drastically.
Up to this point, I had not been hungry. It happens with elevation sometimes and usually isn’t an issue. I usually force myself to drink a lot of water, eat electrolyte stuff and “reguarly food” and I monitor my body’s condition. However, this time around, it must have slipped away from me. As we began our headlamp-led descent back to the car 5.8 miles away, I began to feel dizzy and my speech started to slur. I had a feeling that AMS might be onsetting. Typically in this situation, the most important thing is to get to lower elevation. However, because this trail is all above 10,000,’ it’s a little bit trickier. I told myself “just get back to the car.” 2 miles into our descent, Laura (who was ahead of me) turned around and saw me dizzily hiking, struggling to stand. At this point, I felt my stomach doing flips, I could hear my pulse in my aching head, I was not talking much, and I was coughing up some sort of substance. Oh yeah, and I was still bearing that full pack and exhaustion was hitting. However, up in the mountains, there is no time or benefit to making excuses. Whenever Laura would ask me how I was doing, I would say either “more electrolytes,” “more water,” or “just get to the car.” I was doing my best to focus on my steps so we could get off the mountain asap.
We got back to the car after 2 hours of focused hiking. I don’t remember tons of the descent but I do remember almost instant relief upon reaching Lone Pine’s 3000′ elevation. This trip was quite the unexpected adventure and served as a reminder that the mountains always win when war is being waged.
Distance: 11.6 miles r/t
Elevation gain: a little over 2000′
Time: 5 hours of hiking
Calories burned: Maybe 2500, its tough to estimate given what happened
Calories consumed: 600 – combination of Justin’s Peanut Butter, Clif Shot Bloks, and Honey Stinger Chews
Getting there: From Lone Pine, take Whitney Portal Road up a few miles. Turn left on Horseshow Meadows Road and take that to its terminus 20 miles up. Follow the signs to the Cottonwood Lakes TH.
Considerations: A permit is needed for any overnight trip in the Sierras. You can get this at the Lone Pine visitor center or at Recreation.gov