Notes on Cox Col

17-22 Aug 2009 - by Gerry Czamanske

I am writing this trip report largely because I consider Cox Col, the only reasonable route between Little Lakes Valley and Lake Italy, to be dangerously under-rated and/or poorly described. Aside from my own misadventure, I am encouraged to write because of the experience of others.

When I searched the web under Cox Col, Sierra Nevada before my trip, I noted an entry suggesting that the uppermost 150 ft. fits the definition of Class 3. After my trip, an entry was posted on the web on 9/3/09 entitled The Mystery of Cox Col. This entry reported on a party that approached the Col from the west, determined the descent too steep for safety, and elected to add 3 days to their trip by going over Gabbot and Mono Passes to reach Mosquito Flat. This should never happen in attempting a Class-2 pass!

My own trip with my 74-year-old wife and 13-year- old granddaughter (a veteran of 5 earlier trips in the high Sierra) began on Aug. 17, 2009, with an overnight at Heart Lake. On the 18th we made a mistake by following the Morgan Pass trail to the Gem Lakes trail. Having done so, we encountered a couple of miles of nasty talus enroute to Dade Lake. A party of four climbers that we met at Dade Lake befell the same fate. As a consequence, one of them, (Rocky Johnson, I believe) spent a day marking a route down the long ridge which separates the Treasure Lakes and Gem Lakes. Except possibly for x-country skiers, this ridge or an approach via the Treasure Lakes is preferable.

I had wanted to cross Cox Col for over 20 years and, despite the look of things from Dade Lake, believed in the route description and classification given by Secor and Roper. On August 19 the two steep couloirs that embrace the stubby pinnacle between the two lowest notches still held steep snow. Thus, using the route outlined by Secor required that the notch closest to Bear Creek Spire be accessed across hard snow. Yet my 1992 edition of Secor says nothing about an ice axe and his later editions merely add parenthetically that an ice axe may be required to engage seasonal snow and ice.

I strongly suggest that all backpacking parties attempting the Secor/Roper route carry an ice axe for safety. But is that the best route?

What about the three climbers who climbed down to us at Dade Lake, having climbed a route on Bear Creek Spire and (1) could not advise me regarding the best route down; (2) said they had not crossed snow; and (3) said there were a number of use tracks leading down from the ridge.

As suggested also by Rocky, I am led to believe that aside from the route outlined by Secor and Roper (who has never been there) there may be easier crossing routes along the ridge north of the two low notches, which are not nearly as compromised by snow. I would like to hear a report on this! I have begun to surmise that communication is lacking between the myriad Bear Creek Spire climbers and the backpacking community.

My experience in the high Sierra spans 50 years and I was a Valley climber in the late 50's. My wife and I have crossed Lamark Col, Milly's Foot Pass, Lucy's Foot Pass, Echo Col, and unnamed ridges. There is, indeed, a mystery about Cox Col.

I might add that while x-country skiers may find difficulty with avalanche-downed timber in the lower part of the Second Recess, there is no impediment to backpackers following the good use trail.

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