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Access to Mt. Whitney – a List of Passes

The Mt. Whitney and Eastern Sierra Hiking blog covers almost all things related to hiking/climbing Mt. Whitney. A post (“Mt. Whitney From Horseshoe Meadows“) covers some alternate approaches for those who either can’t or don’t want to use the usual Whitney Portal approach.

I’ve been over almost all of the passes mentioned, including Army Pass, New Army Pass, Kearsarge/Forester Passes and I’ve approached from the west over Kaweah Gap and up the Kern River.* The only pass that the article mentions that I haven’t done is Cottonwood Pass. If I’m not mistaken, this is a more southerly route and doesn’t go quite as high. Here is a quick summary of some of my experiences on these passes:

  • Army Pass is an old route out of the Cottonwood Lakes area that ascends to the Sierra Crest near Mt. Langley. It is really quite a wonderful and direct route, but it has not been officially maintained for decades. The last time I travelled this way – a couple times over a several day period – most of the trail was in good shape, but a few key spots had been obliterated by rock slides. I recall at least one that made me nervous about the exposure. So, doable, but not for the faint of heart or the newbie.
  • New Army Pass more or less replaced Army Pass and now seems to be more heavily used than the older, unmaintained trail. The ascent of New Army Pass from the east side is one of the most steady and “gradual” of any east side pass I’ve been on. Despite the fact that it crosses the crest (in sight of Cirque Peak) at over 12,000′, it really isn’t a very hard route at all, and you are rewarded by some incredible and open panoramas at the top.
  • Kearsarge Pass and Forester Pass afford a route to the west side of Whitney that starts at Onion Valley. This isn’t an easy route, nor is it a short one, but it travels through some very scenic and alpine country. The trail ascends from the Onion Valley trailhead to cross Kearsarge Pass (just below 12,000′) and then descends to Kearsarge Lakes, a popular first night destination. From here you drop into the Bubb Creek drainage and then ascend to Forester Pass (over 13,000′) on a route that wouldn’t be overly difficult save for the very high elevation. The trail drops quickly from Forester and then travels a number of miles above timberline before finally encountering trees again near Tyndall Creek.

In all three of these cases, once you cross the Sierra crest you typically make your way by one or another route to the standard west side approach to Mt. Whitney, though variations are possible, especially if you come over one of the Army Passes.

I notice that the authors of the post don’t mention some other approaches. For one thing, they don’t consider the starting on the west side of the Sierra. It is possible to come in over Kaweah Gap and then go up the Kern River before ascending to the Muir Trail. This is a long route, but not that much longer than coming from Kearsarge/Forester.

More interestingly, there is no mention of Shepard Pass. Maybe this is a good thing. I’ve been over Shepard once, traveling from west to east at the end of a trip, and I am well aware of why this pass has a fearsome reputation. It starts virtually in the desert of Owens Valley, almost literally at the base of the Sierra, and then it climbs and climbs and climbs, with the depressing exception of a several hundred foot elevation loss midway along the route followed by additional unmitigated climbing. The climbing is often rather steep, and the terrain becomes quite rough in the upper reaches of the pass. Oddly, once you complete this brutal climb and cross the crest near a small stagnant lake, the remaining hike down to the JMT is a lovely little cakewalk through nearly flat and wide open alpine meadow with stupendous panoramic views.

* I’m doing yet another Whitney trip later this summer – despite my “decision” a year or so ago to not “do Whitney” again. I’m still not that enthusiastic about ascending Whitney – “been there, done that” – but the rest of the trip retraces a pack trip I took many years ago from Sequoia across the Kaweahs, and I do look forward to covering some of that terrain that I haven’t seen in many years.


May 28, 2008 Posted by | Commentary | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments


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