Distance: 15.2 miles round trip on trail and cross country
Summit Elevation: 12485' (highest point reached)
Elevation Gain: 2788'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 2.23
Round trip time: 9 hours 30 minutes
Recommended water: 192 oz.
Parking/Fees: Free at Horseshoe Meadows
Difficulty: Strenuous (altitude)
I continue to look for training hikes for my first attempt at Mt. Whitney in July. My friend Rich, who has summited Mt. Whitney many times, suggested a training hike in the Sierras to get a feel for the terrain and to put in some high altitude work. He proposed a trip to Chicken Spring Lake, an 8.2 mile round trip starting from Horseshoe Meadows at an altitude of 9897'.
We arrived at the trailhead shortly before 9:00 AM and set out toward the lake, accompanied by his two Brittany Spaniels, Gracie and Dasher. The early part of the trail is flat and winds through large pinon pines. As you approach the pass, a series of switchbacks gain about 1300' providing great views back into Horseshoe Meadows. We passed a boy scout troop and at the pass, met the first of several PCT through hikers, charging her cell phone and camera batteries with a portable solar panel. Rich struck up a conversation with her, finding she had started the PCT in mid-April. A few minutes later we arrived at the lake and took our first break.
At 11300', I was feeling fine without any symptoms of AMS. I prodded Rich to push on to Cirque Peak, an extra two miles (one way), 1600' of gain, and off trail. My goals were to increase my altitude and bag the closest peak. He agreed to continue with a little less enthusiasm. I had done some research on Cirque Peak, but there was not a lot of beta on it. I relied on poor resolution Google Earth images and the few trip reports I could find. I also failed to fill some water bottles at the lake. Trouble was coming.
We proceeded past the lake on the PCT looking for a way up to the south ridge leading to Cirque. My expectation was for a relatively mild track along the ridge once it was attained. The climb up to the ridge was a class 2 boulder scramble that didn't appear to change as we proceeded down the PCT. I suggested we ascend at one spot, but Rich thought there might be an easier way further down the trail. We parted at this point and agreed to meet back at the lake in 2.5 hours. I headed up over the boulders, resting when my heart rate got too rapid. As long as I maintained my heart rate and ascended at a steady pace, the altitude didn't seem to affect me. I was disappointed when I gained the ridge to find there would be no easy walk. It would be boulder scrambling all the way. Bad beta.
I worked my way another half mile along the ridge, over several unnecessary bumps and around some lingering snow. I was at 12485' and finally had Cirque Peak in sight. To get there, I needed to drop down 100' to the final saddle, then up 500', all over boulders and sand. It had taken me much longer than I expected to get to this point, and a water check told me I didn't have enough to make it without risking serious dehydration on return. I struggled with the decision to continue or turn back, but eventually started back.
As I was returning, I saw Rich coming up the ridge having found an easier path than mine. I told him I was low on water and wanted to return. We both agreed to return on the easier route he found. He had dropped his pack 15 minutes earlier on a boulder, not wanting to carry it up the ridge. When we returned to where he thought he left it, it wasn't there. We split up to search along the side of the ridge for his pack, zig zagging while slowly descending. The entire side of the mountain looked the same, like a ten thousand boulder jigsaw puzzle. We were off trail at 12300' and a good 7 miles from the trailhead. It was getting late in the afternoon, I had less than 3 bottles of water and Rich now had none. He also had none for his two Brittany Spaniels that were along on the hike and getting tired and hot. Since he drove to the trailhead, I started to get a twinge of panic, suspecting that his keys were in the pack and that we might be spending the night on the mountain if we couldn't find his pack.
Twenty minutes later, we met up again and I asked him if he had his keys. To my relief, he said he did, though he desperately wanted to retrieve the pack which had a lot of good equipment in it and some irreplaceable papers. After 45 more minutes of searching, we gave up and started down the mountain. The dogs were panting hard and seeking every bit of shade they could find. Back on the PCT, we met a through hiker named "River" who was moved by the plight of the dogs and donated a bottle of water to keep them going. It was enough for the dogs to make it back to the lake to hydrate and cool off. Once we got back to the lake, it was an uneventful descent back to the parking lot.
I don't think Cirque Peak gets much traffic, so the chances of another hiker finding the pack are probably remote. When I got home, I sent Rich a Google Earth image of my track and the GPS coordinates of the spot we first met. He is planning a search and rescue mission in a couple of weeks to find his pack.