Desert Survivors
Mono Pass Backpack
September 19, 2014

“Should we go for Cox Col?”
“Well, we could try it, but...”

The plan for this trip was to cross the Sierra Crest at Mono Pass make a loop that returns to the trailhead by coming back over the crest at Cox Col on the ridge between Bear Creek Spire and Pip-squeak Spire This crossing of the crest is described in the rock climbing literature. There are disagreements on the difficulty of the east side. Some said it was a walk on ledges while others described harrowing adventures. The east side of this ridge is usually covered in snow requiring an ice ax. This drought year there would be no snow. There was not much information about crossing this ridge because local rock climbers usually go up a snow and ice chute.

The challenge of this trip would to see if we could find the best route down the east side of this ridge and if we could do it safely. It would take us a day and a half to get to Gabbot Pass where we would be able to see across the cirque to the ridge. If we could find the best route we would be back to the trailhead from there in a half a day. If we could not it would take two days to return to the trailhead  making us a day late getting back.

We spent the first night at Mosquito Flat Trailhead at 10,000 feet to get a start on acclimation. The trail starts along vigorous flowing Rock Creek then soon leaves Little Lakes Canyon and after several sweeping switchback views of the Little Lakes we pass through a lunar landscape of boulders, gravel, and sand before reaching Mono Pass.

With a background haze from recent small brush fires near Mammoth, cumulus clouds began to accumulate reminding us that the forecast was for a chance of rain for the next two days. And we knew that the temperature could go to freezing at night at the higher altitudes.

We looked down on placid blue-green Ruby Lake that is in a steep irregular shaped basin with several rugged ridges receding in the background. A horse-train passed us as we approached the last series of switchbacks before reaching the pass. Just over the pass the horses paused to drink from colorful Summit Lake. The lake is surrounded by a shallow basin of sand covered by medium to large boulders.

As we descend toward Golden Creek we could see into the Fourth Recess and the receding walls of the next three recesses. Shortly after reaching Golden Creek we came to the Fourth Recess Trail on the left, Pioneer Basin Trail on the right, and the beginning of Mono Creek. Mono Rock, which is part of the west wall of the Fourth Recess, towers 3000 feet above and a half a mile south of us.

While cruising along Mono Creek there were beautiful stands of aspen where each grove is in a different stage of fall colors. The reason for this is that all the trees in a grove are the same plant clones with shared roots.

We pass the trail to Hopkins Lakes and then the trail to Grinnell and Laurel Lakes on the right before coming to the Second Recess Trail. The Second Recess is a broad canyon with steep lateral ridges and has Mills Creek running through it. This is a vigorous stream with white water cascades and water falls. There were several trout in Mills Creek.

We follow this stream on a path that is difficult to follow up steep ramp and through dense brush. There are broad expanses of glacial polished slabs. Some have prominent arc shaped chatter marks where rock imbedded in a glacier gouged the granite slab.

That evening cumulonimbus clouds were building in the distance with occasional distant rolling thunder. As we settled in for the night occasional flashes of lighting lit up the downhill sides of our shelters. There was light rain in the night and again the next morning. There were several Clark’s nutcrackers, usually flying away.

As we passed multiple alpine lakes and streams light rain became intermittent sun then heavier rain. As we neared the summit of Gabbot Pass the rain became light graupel then heavy snow that began to cover the ground.

When we reached the pass the cirque ahead and the ridge we hoped to cross where occluded with clouds. We descended below the ridge far enough to get out of a fierce wind. As we had lunch the clouds parted and we were warmed by full sunshine. Then we could see the Cox Col ridge. From this side at this distance we could only guess at where on the ridge we might find the best route.

Since this weather could make this ridge even more difficult and if we retreated from an attempt we would be late returning we decided to turn around and return the way we came.

That evening there was nearly complete cloud cover with and opening visible far down the valley. A colorful sunset developed which became bright pink and projected a narrow band of alpenglow on the bare rock wall behind us.

Light rain that night froze to a thin shell of ice on our shelters by the next morning. Although the sky was clear there would be no direct sunshine for hours so we packed the wet gear and strung cloths lines to dry everything that evening. On the way to our last camp we saw pica moving long stem flower plants.

On the last day back over Mono Pass the sky were clear, the sun was warm, and there were cool breezes. We returned to the trailhead already thinking of another trip to attempt to cross Cox Col.