Mount Cotter (12,713′) via South Ridge (Class-3 Scramble)

Looking northwest at the King-Cotter massif from Gould Pass during sunset. Mount Cotter is the twin-peaked summit on the left, backlit by the sun.

Looking northwest at the King-Cotter massif from Gould Pass during sunset. Mount Cotter is the twin-peaked summit on the left, backlit by the sun.

Mount Cotter is a 12,713-foot (3,875-meter) peak located in the Sierra Nevada of California. It stands prominently along the dramatic granite ridgeline that extends from Mount Gardiner north to Mount Clarence King. The south summit is the higher of the two twin peaks that compose the Cotter massif. It is named after Dick Cotter, a member of the early California Geological Survey in the 1860s who often served as the climbing partner of Clarence King. Cotter is therefore a key character in King’s Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, in which the exploits of the early Survey are recounted in melodramatic fashion.

The amazing summit fin of Mount Cotter can be approached via the talus slopes flanking the entire south side of the mountain. The difficulty can easily be kept at class-2 until the summit block; keeping strictly to the crest makes for an exciting class-3 finish along a narrow blade of picketed granite.


SUMMARY: I climbed Mount Cotter with Giselle in late June of the year 2015 during our 50-day northward romp along the crest of the Sierra Nevada with Max. We crossed into Sixty Lakes Basin on the fifth day of our ten-day traverse between the towns of Independence and Bishop, climbing Fin Dome on the way in. Making camp at the base of Mount Cotter gave us the opportunity for a morning scramble to the summit via the southeast talus slope and south ridge. We rapidly descended back to camp, roused Max from his slumber and continued overall northward progress through the range.


FIRST VIEWS: Our first view of Mount Cotter could not be more memorable. Coming over Gould Pass at sunset, the western sky is ablaze with fiery orange colour. The sun drops directly behind the main summit of Mount Cotter, framing the aesthetic pyramid in glorious fashion.

Looking northwest at the King-Cotter massif from Gould Pass during sunset. Mount Cotter is the twin-peaked summit on the left, backlit by the sun.

Looking northwest at the King-Cotter massif from Gould Pass during sunset. Mount Cotter is the twin-peaked summit on the left, backlit by the sun.

We spend the next day climbing Mount Gould and East Rixford Peak, and are treated to a similar visual phenomenon at sunset.

Looking northwest at the King-Cotter massif from the west side of Gould Pass during sunset. Mount Cotter is the twin-peaked summit on left.

Looking northwest at the King-Cotter massif from the west side of Gould Pass during sunset. Mount Cotter is the twin-peaked summit on left.

Looking northwest at the King-Cotter massif from the west side of Gould Pass during sunset. Mount Cotter is the twin-peaked summit on left.

Looking northwest at the King-Cotter massif from the west side of Gould Pass during sunset. Mount Cotter is the twin-peaked summit on left.


 

27 June, 2015

Max, Giselle and I spend the morning descending past Dragon Lake into the heavily used Rae Lakes basin, which contains the John Muir Trail. All the while, we frequently stop to gaze across the deep valley at the magnificent King-Cotter massif standing on the opposite side.

Looking west across Dragon Lake at the King-Cotter massif. The peak on far left is Mount Cotter, while the pyramid on far right is Mount Clarence King.

Looking west across Dragon Lake at the King-Cotter massif. The peak on far left is Mount Cotter, while the pyramid on far right is Mount Clarence King.

After spending three whole days in the delightful solitude of the Dragon Peak area, we’re a tad reluctant to return to the busy lowland trodden by the John Muir Trail. This particular area is one of the most popular backpacking destinations in the entire Sierra Nevada, and the multitude of voices echoing through the valley is a strange sound to us. But our return to the JMT is a short one; we need only walk along it for a few hundred yards on our way into Sixty Lakes Basin.

Looking southwest at Max on a shelf above Rae Lakes basin.

Looking southwest at Max on a shelf above Rae Lakes basin.

Looking northwest across Rae Lakes at Mount Cotter (left), Fin Dome (center; near), and Mount Clarence King (right).

Looking northwest across Rae Lakes at Mount Cotter (left), Fin Dome (center; near), and Mount Clarence King (right).

Max hiking westward on the JMT/PCT between the two main Rae Lakes.

Max hiking westward on the JMT/PCT between the two main Rae Lakes.

The three of us take the secondary trail that leads up to Sixty Lakes Col, on the far southeast edge of the namesake basin. The King-Cotter massif stands on the opposite side of the basin, beckoning us forward. But a stronger beckoning comes from Fin Dome, of which we decide to make a quick ascent – documented here in this article.

Panorama looking northwest from Sixty Lakes Col. The cluster of peaks on the left is the King-Cotter massif, while Fin Dome stands on the right side.

Panorama looking northwest from Sixty Lakes Col. The cluster of peaks on the left is the King-Cotter massif, while Fin Dome stands on the right side.

It’s worth including here that from the 11,693-foot summit of Fin Dome, Max and I get an awesome viewpoint on the King-Cotter massif towering above Sixty Lakes Basin.

Max looking west over Sixty Lakes Basin from the 11,693-foot summit of Fin Dome, with the King-Cotter massif standing above. Mount Cotter is the peak on far left.

Max looking west over Sixty Lakes Basin from the 11,693-foot summit of Fin Dome, with the King-Cotter massif standing above. Mount Cotter is the peak on far left.

Coming down off Fin Dome, we proceed to cross the mosquito-infested Sixty Lakes Basin, weaving through the myriad of ponds, creeks, and wetlands.

Giselle looking south from the midst of Sixty Lakes Basin.

Giselle looking south from the midst of Sixty Lakes Basin.

When we reach the base of the east ridge of Mount Cotter in the late afternoon, we deem it a suitable place to camp. The ferocity of the mosquitoes forces us into tent confinement for the remainder of the evening.

Looking northwest over our camp at the base of Mount Cotter in Sixty Lakes Basin.

Looking northwest over our camp at the base of Mount Cotter in Sixty Lakes Basin.


28 June, 2015

Max chooses to snooze away the morning in his tent, leaving Giselle and myself to make the ascent of Mount Cotter as a duo. Mosquito nets firmly cinched around our fleshy faces, we begin rambling up the grassy ledges bursting with wildflowers.

Looking down at Giselle scrambling up the lower southeast slope of Mount Cotter.

Looking down at Giselle scrambling up the lower southeast slope of Mount Cotter.

It doesn’t take us long to get above treeline, and then it’s a rather monotonous slog up the thousand-foot scree slope on the southeast side of the mountain.

Looking down at Giselle scrambling up the southeast talus slope of Mount Cotter.

Looking down at Giselle scrambling up the southeast talus slope of Mount Cotter.

The monotony comes to an abrupt end when we get to the south ridge, a fantastic knife-edge crest of jagged granite soaring above the gentle forests. We stick to the ridgeline in order to maximize the thrill factor of the route. It’s a wonderful array of highly exposed class-2 catwalks and class-3 gendarmes. The clean white granite is dappled with bright green streaks of epidote, a mineral common to the Sierra Nevada.

The author scrambling along the south ridge of Mount Cotter.

The author scrambling along the south ridge of Mount Cotter.

Looking south at Giselle on the south ridge of Mount Cotter. The lakes on right side are Gardiner Lakes.

Looking south at Giselle on the south ridge of Mount Cotter. The lakes on right side are Gardiner Lakes.

The author scrambling along the south ridge of Mount Cotter, with Mount Clarence King on the right.

The author scrambling along the south ridge of Mount Cotter, with Mount Clarence King on the right.

The author (small) scrambling along the south ridge of Mount Cotter, with Mount Clarence King on the right.

The author (small) scrambling along the south ridge of Mount Cotter, with Mount Clarence King on the right.

The 12,713-foot summit block is the centerpiece of a jaw-dropping alpine landscape replete with harsh granite towers and soft blue lakes. All around our precarious pyramid, the earth drops away into thin air. Our ridgeline continues northward over a series of ominous spires to the granddaddy of the region: Mount Clarence King. I’m amused to think of Cotter and King (two best friends in their day) and how pleased they would be that their namesake mountains are not only epic, but also side-by-side forever.

Looking north at the author perched on the 12,713-ft summit of Mount Cotter. Mount Clarence King dominates the right side of the photo.

Looking north at the author perched on the 12,713-ft summit of Mount Cotter. Mount Clarence King dominates the right side of the photo.

Looking north at the author on the 12,713-ft summit of Mount Cotter, with the north summit behind.

Looking north at the author on the 12,713-ft summit of Mount Cotter, with the north summit behind.

The view back toward Sixty Lakes Basin is also beautiful, providing a neat perspective on the small yet sheer form of Fin Dome standing in the middle of it all.

Looking southeast at Giselle on the 12,713-ft summit of Mount Cotter, overlooking Sixty Lakes Basin. The small promontory in the center is Fin Dome.

Looking southeast at Giselle on the 12,713-ft summit of Mount Cotter, overlooking Sixty Lakes Basin. The small promontory in the center is Fin Dome.

Panorama looking south from the 12,713-ft summit of Mount Cotter. The south ridge (center) separates Sixty Lakes Basin (left) from Gardiner Basin (right), with Mount Gardiner on the far right side.

Panorama looking south from the 12,713-ft summit of Mount Cotter. The south ridge (center) separates Sixty Lakes Basin (left) from Gardiner Basin (right), with Mount Gardiner on the far right side.

Giselle and I don’t spend long on the summit, knowing that we should be getting back to Max so that we can make some northward progress along the Interstate JMT. The two of us slide down the massive scree slope and zigzag through the flowery ledges down to our camp in Sixty Lakes Basin.

Looking southeast at Giselle descending the southeast slope of Mount Cotter into Sixty Lakes Basin.

Looking southeast at Giselle descending the southeast slope of Mount Cotter into Sixty Lakes Basin.

Giselle pointing east across Sixty Lakes Basin toward Fin Dome, the small promontory in left-center.

Giselle pointing east across Sixty Lakes Basin toward Fin Dome, the small promontory in left-center.

The persistence of the mosquitoes in Sixty Lakes Basin motivates us to pack up quickly and spend as little time as possible getting out of there. We weave through the basin, passing an incredible amount (ie. way more than sixty) of lakes of all sizes that create mesmerizing reflections of the surrounding landscape.

 

Looking north at Giselle crossing a stream in Sixty Lakes Basin.

Looking north at Giselle crossing a stream in Sixty Lakes Basin.

Looking south from the midst of Sixty Lakes Basin.

Looking south from the midst of Sixty Lakes Basin.

Looking north from the midst of Sixty Lakes Basin.

Looking north from the midst of Sixty Lakes Basin.

Looking northeast down a gully at the northern lip of Sixty Lakes Basin.

Looking northeast down a gully at the northern lip of Sixty Lakes Basin.

Eventually we escape Sixty Lakes Basin by a deep gully on the far northern end, returning to the John Muir Trail and continuing our great adventure. Our next stop is Mount Wynne, a tantalizing black pyramid on the east side of Pinchot Pass.

Looking north along the John Muir Trail as it descends to Woods Creek.

Looking north along the John Muir Trail as it descends to Woods Creek.

 

THE END.

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