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Ascent of Keeler Needle on 2015-07-23

Climber: Phil Robinson

Others in Party:REI Adventures - 3 guides
9 others and a pack animal man
----Only Party on Mountain
Date:Thursday, July 23, 2015
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Keeler Needle
    Location:USA-California
    Elevation:14239 ft / 4340 m

Ascent Trip Report

I wanted to hike a special peak this year to celebrate turning 60, so I looked for a way to hike Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 49 states. I put both my name and my son’s name on the Whitney lottery in February. We found out in early spring that we were not chosen in the lottery to hike the peak. I have heard that only 1 in 3 make the lottery. The hikers that make the lottery come in from another direction and it is only about 22 miles round trip. I looked for another way to hike the peak and decided to go through REI Adventures. It is a much longer hike, about 64 miles, and entails camping for 6 nights and hiking 6 days. They take pack animals and we were able to hand off 20 pounds of weight, but still carried a 15 pound pack with water, coat, lunch and emergency items. I got up at 2:00 AM on Sunday July 19, 2015 and drove to my son’s home, in Albuquerque. We left his house at 3:00 AM and drove on interstate 40 west to Barstow, California then continued west on highway 58 for a short ways then north on highway 395 to the town of Lone Pine. From Lone Pine we turned left on Whitney Portal Road for 3.2 miles then left on Horseshoe Meadows Road for 20 miles to Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead Campground. It took us 13 hours from Albuquerque. We were a few hours early so we just looked around a bit. We met the rest of our group at 6:00 PM and set up tents as it began to rain. That night was my favorite meal of the trip, a delicious hamburger dinner. We all ate under a tarp as it rained. There were 12 of us; 2 guides, an intern and 9 of us that had come from all over the country to hike the peak. There were 4 ladies and 8 men. We had a nice feeling of comradery from the start. It rained for about the next 16 hours and all through the night. My heart sunk when they said that no one on the last trip make the peak because of lightening on the ridge.

Day 1 - Hiking to Chicken Springs Lake - Our first day of hiking was only 5.3 miles to Chicken Springs Lake. It was a short testing hike to make sure everyone was in shape and had the right gear for the completion of the trip. It rained so much in the early morning that we talked about not going until the next day, then making a very long hike. Our pack animal man, Dale, looked straight out of the 1800’s. He rode a horse with 6 mules following him. He knew every nuance of his animals. He carried the food, stove, tents and part of our gear etc… It was wonderful having the animals carrying most of the load, especially after going over the top of 10 peaks last year with a full backpack. The rain let up in late morning and we were on our way at 11:45 AM following Cottonwood Pass Trail. It was great to be hiking! We entered the Golden Trout Wilderness in the Inyo National Forest . We had camped last night at an elevation of 10,400 feet then dropped to an elevation of 9925 feet before climbing over Cottonwood pass. In a short time were at the lake, elevation 11,280. It took us 3 hours and 35 minutes, our elevation gain for the day was 1405 feet. It was nice having a short hike the first day. We set up tents and my son Garret Robinson fished in the lake but did not see any sign of fish. We had a nice dinner and went to bed early.

Day 2 - Hiking to Rock Creek Crossing - We got up and I enjoyed my favorite breakfast of the trip, French toast with fruit and syrup. We left at 9:50 AM, circled the lake looking for my camera, it later turned up in an unexpected place, and we were on our way. We were now starting on the Pacific Crest Trail and in a short distance entered the Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness in the Sequoia National Park. The Foxtail Pine (regular bark) and Lodge Pole Pine (bark that looks like cornflakes) were beautiful, but I was surprised how much more lush it is at ground level and above in Northern New Mexico in the summer! Chicken Springs Lake was at an elevation of 11,280 feet and today we were loosing elevation. We went up to a pass, then headed down to the lowest elevation of the hike, 9525 feet, then up a little to Rock Creek Crossing, elevation 9550. The hike was 11 miles, we had a climb in elevation of 620 feet and it took us 6 hours and 40 minutes. Each day’s hike time included rests and a lunch stop. Rock Creek Crossing is a very beautiful area and it is very lush near the stream. We saw some grouse while hiking and deer, including a big buck, when we arrived. Garret bought a fishing license before the trip, had an ultralight pole that only weighed 2 ounces, yet expanded to 12 feet long. He tried a Japanese style of fishing where the line is allowed to float down stream with a barbless fly. He makes many of his own flies. He caught one after another of the native California state fish, the Golden Trout. They are a beautiful fish. He did not keep any during the trip, rather had lots of fun with catch and release. Each night on the hike we had a nice dinner and went to bed early.

Day 3 - Hiking to Guitar Lake - Our third day hiking’s goal was to get close enough to Mount Whitney to make the assent the following day. We left at 8:40 AM and planned to spend the night above the timberline near Guitar Lake. For the first time it felt like we were ascending the peak! Near Crabtree Meadows we turned and began hiking on the John Muir Trail. It was exciting today because about half way along the hike we got our first glimpse of Mount Whitney. It looked challenging and majestic in the distance. At lunch we saw yellow-bellied marmots. The color is very different from New Mexico marmots. We also saw more deer and continued to see them through most of the trip. Guitar Lake is in a massive rock basin with little vegetation. We arrived after hiking 10.3 miles. It took us 7 hours and 10 minutes and we had an overall elevation gain of 2985 feet. So far we had hiked 26.3 miles from the start. We were camping at an elevation of 11,560 feet. The sunlight was magical in the rock basin as it shown in and out of the clouds and on the mountains nearby. We got our tents set up, had dinner, and went to bed early planning to get up in the dark to reach the peak before possible afternoon thunderstorms set in.

Day 4 - The Assent to Mount Whitney, Keeler Needle then Crabtree Meadows! – Most people got up at 3:00 AM. It was enchanting to see a cloudless star-filled night, the white streak of the Milky Way in the center of the sky, and a trail of other hiker’s headlamps heading up to and along the ridge. At one point I was a little concerned seeing some clouds come over the ridge. We started the hike at 5:00 AM. It was dark and most people were using head lamps. We did not have to take down our tents. The guide that was my same age, SP, stayed behind to take down camp with Dale and moved us to a lower elevation for the next night. Again it was a very magical hike as it began to get lighter and lighter with changing rich colors on the mountains all around us. My down jacket felt good as it was near freezing at this early morning high elevation. After lots of switch backs, we met the Mount Whitney Trail and that trail merged with our John Muir Trail. Our hike continued along the ridge as the sun came up. There were “windows” along the way where you could look to the east and see lakes and misty clouds mixed in with the canyons below. It was exciting seeing the peak getting closer and closer. They let a group of us, self included, charge ahead. It was thrilling to make the top of Mount Whitney, 14,505 feet in elevation by some estimates! It is a very popular peak goal and there were lots of people. There is a rock hut with a tin roof near the top. We arrived at the peak Thursday July 23, 2015 at 10:20 AM. We had hiked 32.2 miles to get here. I took lots of pictures, signed the peak log and for the first time had phone reception. I gave my wife a victory phone call. I asked them the night before if I could hike some of the other 14K peaks on the way back. There are a total of 7, 14 K peaks along the ridge and if I had gone with just my son Garret, I would have arrived at Whitney a couple of hours earlier and done all of them that felt safe on the way back. We had a time line, and I needed to stay with the group, so I was delighted when they asked me if I wanted to do Keeler Needle on the way back. No one else wanted to go so I went with the guide Jessica. She was near my son’s age. We hiked down the same trail and then back to the south. Keeler Needle looked wondrous with all the misty clouds surrounding it. We started up from Whitney trail and climbed over boulder after boulder to reach the top. It was the first time today that I got a little tired because of the rock scramble to the top. I had to stop a couple of times to catch my breath for a moment. The last little bit is especially exciting crossing a little gap then climbing on a small boulder with a 1000 foot drop on three sides. I am glad I did not think much about it, or read a few of the trip reports where people turned back right before the final gap. It took about a mile hike from Mount Whitney and 35 minutes. Cloudy mist was all below us and Jessica said it felt like we were at the edge of a volcanic caldera. My adrenaline was really going, excited to make Mount Whitney, Keeler Needle, and extra pumped from the jaw dropping view on 3 sides of the small boulder on the needle. We could see the rest of our group coming in the distance and we headed down to meet them. We continued along the ridge, down the switch backs, back close to last’s night camp, then on another 3 miles or so to a lower elevation camp along Crabtree Meadow Trail. The camp elevation was 10,475. It was great to see our tents and camp already set up. The guides have done this hike so many times and they know special places to camp away from others. The camps each night gave us the feeling that we owned the mountain. We arrived back at camp after hiking 14.6 miles for the day. We hiked 12 hours and 5 minutes and had an elevation gain of 3605 feet. (This included 200 feet in elevation gain and 1/3 mile more doing Keeler Needle from the trail.) The total hike from the start was 41.3 miles. Each day when we returned the guides set out snacks before dinner. This was much appreciated! After a little rest Garret went to the beautiful oxbow stream meadow and fished. He caught then released lots of California Golden Trout. We went to bed again before dark excited to have made our goal!

Day 5 - Hiking to Rock Creek Lake – Even though we were about 1100 feet lower in elevation, we were in a temperature inversion area and it was colder than the night before. The cold air sunk into the valley. The meadows were covered with frost and turned to a beautiful mist as the sunlight hit. We packed up, had breakfast, and were ready for 2 more days of hiking. The guides had a nice style of everyone being able to walk at the pace they were comfortable with. There was a guide in the front, middle, and at the end. The people in the front could charge ahead, the people in the middle take a leisure pace and the people at the end could move at a show pace. Every one would catch up at the numerous rests. We hiked on the Pacific Coast Trail then turned a new direction onto the Army Pass trail. We had numerous stream crossing throughout the entire trip. At lunch I was able to get a video of a little bird called an America Dipper also know as a water ouzel. The little bird was fun to watch as it dipped and swam underwater in the stream. We reached the lake and meadow then circled it to a wonderful camping spot in the woods. We hiked 11.3 miles. It took us 7 hours and 10 minutes and we had an elevation gain of 2020 feet. We had been hiking 52.6 miles from the start. The elevation of our camp was 10,465 feet. Garret and I set up the tent, then took it down, deciding to spend the night on a large rock hill, overlooking the valley and lake, sleeping out under the stars. The guides bought light weight stools, only 1 pound 2 ounces. They were great to sit on, much better than sitting on a pointy rock. Before dinner my chair lost balance and I fell knocking the person next to me down, he knocked the person next to him down and he knocked the person next to him down. All 4 of us hit the ground. It was the funniest part of the trip and I named us the “Domino Boys.” It was a beautiful night. The moon was up half the time giving the evening an enchanting feeling and down the other half of the night, showing a sky white with stars and the milky way. I saw about 8 falling stars, even one that broke apart, and numerous satellites. It was great to sleep out under the stars. Most of our group slept out under the stars also.

Day 6 - Hiking Back to Base camp - That night it got in the upper 20s and the sleeping bags were frosty when we got up. We packed up, had breakfast and left for our last day of hiking at 7:50 AM. Everyone had made the peak! The youngest in our group was the intern guide at age 21 and the oldest 74 who had a partial knee transplant . He hiked like he was in his 20s. We had 7 people in the group that were near my age or older and 4 in their 30s and 40s. I was surprised how well everyone did. We headed further uphill on Army Pass Trail then south on Siberian Trail until we reconnected with the Pacific Crest Trail. We hiked past our first night’s stay, Chicken Springs Lake, then over Cottonwood Pass, down the switchbacks and back to the base camp and horse and mule corral. I love planning for a hike. I love the hiking and I love getting back! We hiked 11.5 miles today in 7 hours with an elevation gain of 1435 feet. The total hike was 63.9 miles, 64 to get to the car. (63.7 not counting the needle) We had a total elevation gain for the entire trip of 12,070 feet. (11,870 not counting the needle) We got back at 2:50 PM, cleaned up a little bit, then headed back to Albuquerque leaving at 4:00 PM. We switched off driving for 13 hours, getting into Albuquerque at twilight Sunday morning. This is the first peak I have hiked out of state after hiking 137 of the tallest peaks in New Mexico. This is the second state high-point peak that my son and I have done, and we are considering doing some more western state high-point peaks in other years. It was a wonderful trip with nice friendships made and I highly recommend this as a way to hike Whitney.
Phil Robinson
Note on GPS track - I had to draw in our first two days of hiking because the GPS lost the information. It is still accurate. When I decreased the points to get it on this site the mileage also decreased.
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:200 ft / 61 m
    Distance:0.3 mi / 0.5 km
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Scramble, Exposed Scramble
    Gear Used:
Guide, Animal/Pet, Tent Camp
Ascent Statistics
    Elevation Gain:200 ft / 61 m
    Distance:0.1 mi / 0.2 km
    Route:Whitney Peak then up from Whitney Trail
    Trailhead:Whitney Trail  14039 ft / 4279 m
    Time Up:35 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Distance:0.1 mi / 0.2 km
    Route:Down to Whitney Trail back to Cottonwood Campgroun
    Trailhead:Whitney Trail  
    Time Down:15 Minutes
Ascent Part of Trip: Whitney & Keeler Needle (6 nights total away from roads)

Complete Trip Sequence:
OrderPeak/PointDate
1Mount Whitney2015-07-23 a
2Keeler Needle2015-07-23 b
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip


 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Phil Robinson
Click Here for a Full Screen Map
Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. Peakbagger.com accepts NO responsibility or liability from use of this data.

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