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.
We spend the next day climbing Mount Gould and East Rixford Peak, and are treated to a similar visual phenomenon at sunset.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Coming down off Fin Dome, we proceed to cross the mosquito-infested Sixty Lakes Basin, weaving through the myriad of ponds, creeks, and wetlands.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.