Cartago Peak, Mount Muah
By: Mark Adrian
After climbing Trojan and Barnard during the previous three days with appealing weather, I decided to head over to Horseshoe Meadows for an "easy" overnight saunter to climb SPS's Muah and Cartago. I stopped in the Mt. Whitney Ranger office Monday afternoon to obtain a Wilderness permit. They couldn't tell me if the road was open all the way to Horseshoe Meadows, so I was a little anxious about an extended approach hike. Odd that they couldn't since that road's virtually right under their noses -- your government in action. Anyway, the road was plowed and snow free all the way to its end, but I did pass a CalTrans work crew that was busy sweeping away rock debris. If you're wanting to use this road, there shouldn't be any problems as it was entirely clear when I drove down May 16, 1996. Apparently, you can't depend or rely on the Mt. Whitney Ranger for accurate road information to "their" trailheads. Maybe the permit folks at the 1-888 number or CalTrans directly are more credible agents to contact for east side approach road conditions.
Traveling, dayhiking and especially backpacking alone, can often be a bitter-sweet experience. Surely one's confidence and self-reliance must be intact. Like so many times before, I found myself, alone, at yet-another-trailhead, ready to plunge into the "great unknown".
Tuesday morning, just past 7 AM, under fair skies, I headed into the forest from the eastern-most parking area in the Cottonwood Pass trailhead campground (this is the small l0 car parking lot just east of the picnic area on the north side of the road). I was searching for the unmarked trailhead for Mulkey Pass which would connect me with the PCT. Wandering south of the road for about 0.25 miles, passing several corrals, I spotted the trail that heads south along the east side of Horseshoe Meadow and Round Valley. Patches of snow obscured the path, but I eventually found my way to Mulkey Pass where I connected with the PCT and headed south towards Muah. There were still many patches of snow remaining on the PCT, mostly on the northern slopes, as expected. Since my boots were getting soaked, I opted to climb the dryer southern slopes of Muah and stashed my backpack at Ash Meadows. The only water between Mulkey Pass and Ash Meadow was in a marshy area near Diaz Creek. Neither Diaz nor Ash Creek had "good looking" water. I had to filter a liter of water out of the cow-plop cesspit that is Ash Meadow another disgusting legacy to beef production. I don't know what you'd do for water in the Summer or Fall because I didn't encounter ANY "good" water until the upper reaches of Death Canyon en route to Cartago, miles to the south. As it turned out, I had to melt snow.
From Ash Meadow, the climb up Muah took me all of 53 minutes where I found a good ammo-box register. I was the first one there in 1996. Since it was only 11:30 in the morning and I was planning to camp nearby, I took my time enjoying the summit for a couple of hours, pondering the billowing moisture far to the west. My HAM/weather radio reported rain in the forecast, which explained the encroaching clouds.
Leaving Muah's summit about 1:30 PM, I was soon again heading south along the PCT. "Cow-plop" Meadow was just too repulsive to camp near. So, I continued south for about 0.5 miles to a marginal campsite at 10,000' just off the PCT perched on a saddle overlooking Templeton Meadows. Several mounds of nearby snow provided water and plentiful downed wood made for a warming fire. That afternoon, in complete introspective solitude, I had a relaxing time enjoying the views westward and sipping a great '94 CA Merlot while identifying far-off peaks and meadows. My plan for Wednesday was to daypack south, bag Cartago and then, time permitting, get back to my truck before bad weather closed in.
Wednesday morning, the sun, on schedule, was shining on my face by 6 AM. I was up, packed, fed, and ready to go just before 7 AM. My GPS revealed that Cartago was about five air miles from camp. Using the winding PCT and a cross-country route probably added another one or two miles.
"Motoring" south along the PCT the weather had turned cold and windy with some lofty overcast. I was concerned about rain but still focused on Cartago as glimpses of the Owens Valley and the deep and rugged east side canyons darted in and out of my view. I had heard that Cartago was elusive. I had UTM coordinates from the topo, but were those reliable and "close enough"? Only time would tell. I trudged on in speculation, the cold wind swooshing through the trees.
Rounding a curve in the trail, post-holing through a patch of snow, I was startled to meet a PCT through-hiker. Gary had started on the PCT from Campo in March, coincidentally, alone. He was from Hawaii and was destined for Canada. He was hiking in, of all things, sandals and cotton socks. My feet in leather boots were damp from post-holing. guess it takes all kinds. We exchanged platitudes and concluded we were probably the first hikers along this section of the PCT for the season. Parting with regards. we soon went our separate ways.
Back up to speed, I soon reached an overview where I got my first sight of the Cartago "massif'. This overview is where the PCT just enters the western edge of the Olancha 7.5' 1994 topo at UTM 4024000N at the top of several switchbacks. From here, GPS still indicated two more air miles to the summit. I continued south on the PCT descending the switchbacks to where it "touches" UTM 40230001N. From here I left the PCT and began a cross-country route using strictly map-and-compass. It would be difficult to describe my route other than to say I tried to stay high, paralleling the Inyo/Tulare County line in a "crescent" from at first heading east, to southeast, to south, crossing over the upper reaches of Death Canyon, then finally paralleling the head-stream (drainage not completely shown on topo. seasonal flow) flowing into Death Canyon from the summit area. Here, I confirmed my position with GPS, but the exactness of the coordinates were NOT precise enough to pinpoint the actual summit cluster. The area there is a sort of amphitheater of rivaling rock crag clusters and pinnacles with trees strewn all around for confusion. Unless you had a very detailed hand drawn map, you need good intuition or hints. My only hint was that Cartago "was the southernmost thing". That still didn't narrow it down far enough. So, running purely on intuition (map, compass and GPS virtually useless as this point), I picked what I thought was the elusive Cartago. Proceeding up through some sand and a few class two boulders, the route quickly turned class three. After a move or two I decided to drop my daypack. I was higher than any neighboring rocks and still had a couple more moves to go. Up I went. Good class three (maybe 30 or 40 feet total?) with a little exposure and within moments I'd spotted the SPS cylinder/register -- lucky, got it on the first try. Furthermore, there is an elevation benchmark there just a few feet below: the highest rocks that reads 10.539'.
The overcast had receded somewhat and the views extended from HPS's Red Mountain to Mt. Langley east to the Inyos and Panamints and westward to the southern stretches of the Great Western Divide. Threatening though were some dark clouds far to the northwest. I paged through the register. noting again, that I was the first one there in 1996. After a few minutes of sitting on the top block (Norman says you've either got to sit or stand on a summit to "count" the peak), I scrambled a few feet down to my day-pack. took an EXACT UTM reading on my GPS and downclimbed back to the sandy area out of the wind where I had a snack. It was about 11 AM.
Although It was sunny on Cartago, I knew the Sierra weather could/would quickly change. So, I retraced my steps back to Death Canyon, filtered some water from the clean-flowing creek and retraced my path back to the PCT. The clouds had started to thicken over Cartago as the last views of the peak vanished in my rush back to camp where I arrived at 2 PM.
After repacking my backpack I was soon heading north along the PCT, tromping through the same snow mounds I had confronted on the hike in. Occasionally ] would see Gary's fresh sandal prints that would help me "reconnect" the PCT as it was buried under sometimes huge piles of snow. My boots were soaked from shallow post-holing despite snow seal. The PCT seems to go out of the way to go our of the way. The annoying meanders of its easy grade can be frustrating when you want to beat the weather which was definitely changing for the worse. I made it back to Mulkey Pass by 4:45 PM. It was now sprinkling on and off with howling winds. Down off the pass and across Horseshoe Meadows, I reached my truck about 5:30 PM under totally cloudy skies and a constant drizzle. Nearby Trail Peak was shroud in clouds. I was glad to be back before the weather got any worse. I camped at Horseshoe Meadows that night, parked off the road in the forest, where it rained and blustered most of the evening. Thursday morning I awoke to find it snowing. It was time to go.
But, not so quick, I had another peak to climb in the area. This time, unlisted Wonoga Peak, just off the Horseshoe Meadow road. I just couldn't let the day go by without a peak. So, I parked at the paved turnout at Little Cottonwood Creek, found a use trail, then a cross-country route to the summit which was just out of the storm's roil. It was windy on the summit, but I found a calm niche from which to sign in (another Gordon MacLeod glass bottle register by the way) and observe the clouds pouring over the Sierra Crest. This was an awesome sight from 10,371'. Furthermore. The dust on Owens Dry Lake had really kicked up and the radio (the new 92.5 KDAY jazz/new age station in the Valley) reported a second stage air pollution alert. Figuring the weather wasn't going to get any better, I decided to retreat from the Sierra and bag a couple of unlisted desert range highpoints (a whole other story) then return home.
And, while we're at it :
Keep in mind that current GPS accuracy is documented to be plus or minus 100 meters (328 feet). However, actual field use has shown it is typically half this, or plus or minus 50 meters (161 feet). For more on GPS, reference Richard Carey's excellent overview article "Afoot and Afield with GPS" in the May 1996 Desert Sage.
Cartago's summit structure appears conveniently contained to at least a 328 foot diameter circle and adequately distanced enough from its rivals. So presuming I was in the "middle" of Cartago's summit block, this GPS UTM should put you pretty close to the summit's benchmark. Or at the least, there shouldn't be any hesitation if you use this UTM in a GPS to guide you to the indisputable summit block. I don't mean to take all the fun out of finding Cartago, but, the academics are too intriguing for me to ignore. Anyway. I can't force you to use GPS and I'm sure you'd eventually find the summit as I did.
This hike could be problematic later in the year because of water. As I mentioned, the water source at Ash Meadow was pathetic and possibly toxic because of the low flow and all the cow plops/feces. I was fortunate to have snow to melt. Maybe some PCT hikers can offer advice.
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