The trailhead we chose to start on, the Mulkey Pass trail, is totally unmarked. There is a dirt road with a no vehicles sign nailed to a tree about 100 yards before the first paved parking lot appears on the right side of Horseshoe Meadow Road. We parked at this lot, big enough for ten cars, and headed back toward the dirt road. After perhaps 50 yards on the dirt road a trail shoots off to the right while the road goes left. This was our trail. We cavorted along as it wandered through the desert like Horseshoe Meadow before gradually climbing up the slopes to Mulkey Pass and hitting the PCT. We then joined up with the PCT and followed it until it hit Ash meadow, about six miles from the trailhead. This was where we were to set up camp, but still having a bounce to our step we decided to go to the far side of the meadow which would make a longer approach to Muah, but a shorter day tomorrow. We continued down the PCT until we came across a sign pointing to a public corral on the left. We followed this sign, and the subsequent use trail, to the corral. We elected to camp a few hundred yards past the corral on flat ground near the meadows edge. Once we agreed upon a site we set off to climb Muah, water bottles in hand hoping to find any source of clean(ish) water. The climb to Muah is very straight forward. The peak is clearly visible from Ash Meadow and not technically difficult in any way. We wandered across the meadow, which was quite full of cow frisbees I might add, and then up the base of Muah. After a brief ascent we went down into a small drainage before heading up to the peak. Although most of the climb is on sandy ground, the incline is not enough for you to slip and lose ground as you walk. In the last 75-100 feet of the climb, the sandy ground gives way to rocks and boulders which are easily climbed to the summit. The view from the summit is a fine one with mostly unobstructed views in all directions. We stayed on top for a brief while before heading back to camp. On the way back to camp we were finally able to find some water at the far end of Ash Meadow, about a mile from our camp. Although it was clearly not the purest water in all the land, it was all we could find and it did the job.
The next morning we rose, broke down camp, found the PCT once again, and headed towards Death Canyon and Cartago Peak, our goal for the day. After about 6 miles we had made it Death Canyon and found yet another sign pointing towards a corral. We dropped our packs near this sign, refilled our water bottles in the somewhat mucky Death Creek and then headed towards Cartago. We followed the creek drainage for about a mile before breaking away from it and heading up steeper slopes to the east, our right. The slopes eventually mellowed and we found ourselves on the sandy Cartago Plateau. Once we attained the plateau we found a highpoint where we could see all of Cartago's spires and pinnacles. We identified the triple summit if peak 10,495 and scanned the numerous pinnacles to our south for the highest one. With all the pinnacles in plain sight we took a compass reading and headed in their direction. Walking along the plateau it is difficult, if not impossible, to see the pinnacles through the thicket of foxtail pine trees. After about half a mile we came to a small spire which we able to identify on the map. We then went up a small divide and down to the base of many of the spires we had identified from the other side of the plateau. Being the brilliant bunch of hikers we are, we took note of previous trip reports and meandered around the first set of pinnacles until the true Cartago Peak came into plain sight behind them. Cartago offers some fun, although brief, third class climbing to the summit. The views from Cartago were equally, if not more, impressive than that from Muah. The maze of spires and pinnacles were very impressive from on top of Cartago and offered some interesting photo opportunities. We were the first party to get to the top of Cartago for over a year. Steve Eckert was the last to sign the register in the middle of May last year. Many thanks to Steve for wedging the summit register in a crack and then putting a boulder on top of it. The extra challenge of not only finding, but also extricating the register was quite fun... When we left we put it in a much more obvious and easy to manage spot. After lounging on the top and eating jelly beans we headed back towards our packs. On the descent we more or less followed the creek drainage as it worked its way around towards Big Dry Meadow. In retrospect this route was much longer and not at all scenic, thus should probably be avoided. Once we arrived back at our packs we continued on the PCT towards Gomez Meadow. Once we arrived at Gomez Meadow we set up camp and once again went in search of water, which was always a bit of a rarity on this trip. It was not until the far reaches of Gomez Meadow, at least half a mile from our camp, that a small trickle of yellowish water was discovered and readily snatched up in Nalgenes and Platypi.
The next morning we continued on the PCT towards Olancha Peak, what we considered the jewel of the trip. After making our way up the hot and dry western slopes of Olancha we came to small saddle WSW of the peak itself. From here it was a straightforward walk and scramble through the trees before an enjoyable 2nd class romp for about a thousand feet to the summit. After being the first people to sign the register in over a year at Cartago, we discovered that seven other people had beaten us to the summit of Olancha that day. The summit area is large and flat, offering multiple locations for a high altitude nap. The views are completely unimpeded in all directions as it is the highest peak south of Cirque Peak in the Sierra's. The complete lack of snow of this High Sierra's was quite astounding to look at. Langley was almost clear of snow and Mineral King looked pretty bare for end of May. After a brief stay on top we went back to the saddle, got our packs, and headed towards Summit Meadow our final camp of the trip. On the way down to Summit meadow we found our only really good water source of the trip, a cool and clear stream that fed cow canyon and more or less followed the trail for half a mile. Once we got to the base of Summit Meadow we said goodbye to the PCT and walked on the Olancha Pass trail to the far side of the meadow just below the pass itself. We camped here before heading over the pass and down the hot and dusty slopes of the Olancha Pass trail to our car at the end of Sage Flat Road.
This trip is definitely one that should not be done in the heat of summer. Although this was a very low snow year, water was extremely hard to find and what water we did find generally was not of the highest quality. That being said though, if you have two cars it is a fun point to point that is not all that technically difficult or very long!
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