Way back in the ides of last March, I began planning what was to be the sequel to a 3-day group backpacking trip in the Ansel Adams Wilderness of the Sierra’s the previous year. I had been able to couple that trip with some business in Los Angeles for a win-win in as far as expense reimbursements go. This year’s trip would not have that benefit, so I began to think up ways to increase the return on investment of my own travel dollars. Naturally, a worthy summit of some type seemed the obvious choice and I was lucky enough to have Michael, a member of last year’s Ansel expedition, encourage the idea for the two of us to have a go ahead of the backpacking trip.
We sort of defaulted to Mount Langley. At 14,026 feet, it is the southernmost 14er in the US. A friend had climbed it several years back and recommended it based on scenery alone. The Summitpost route description calls it a walk-up and “one of the easiest California fourteeners”. And given that the other Sierra 14ers are crowded (Whitney), off limits at this time of the year (Williamson/Tyndall), require skills and experience beyond what I possess or possessed at the time of planning (Russell/Palisades group) or are just plain boring (White), Langley seemed an obvious choice.
I didn’t know then that by the time I would hit the trailhead at Horseshoe Meadows, I would have eleven CO 14ers under my belt. And t was only when I sat down a few weeks beforehand to find info on the climb that I would I realize that I had grown accustomed, nay, addicted to the route-info-manna-from-heaven-at-a-click-of-your-mouse at 14ers.com. Getting even fundamental info on Langley such as precise approach length and gain, trail conditions, etc. seems to evade my lax googling efforts. After trying for another five or so minutes, I am able to figure out that the standard route is 20-22 miles long with about 4K’ of gain, which I calculate to be a gentle average gradient of 7%. Reward for the most obvious bit of info has to go to the Summitpost description: “Time Required: A long day”. For 22 miles of hiking? You don’t say.
The standard route is Army Pass, aka “Old” Army Pass. Since apparently Old Army was prone to retaining snow late into the season and subject to occasional large-scale rockslide, enterprising hikers had blazed a newer trail to the southwest and dubbed it, surprisingly, New Army Pass. The knock against New Army is that it is a mile longer, has more total elevation gain and bypasses the Cottonwood Lakes area, a scenic highlight of the Southern Sierra. Endeavoring to cut down trail miles and maximize scenery, we decide that Old Army would be the way to go, but concerned about dire reports of its condition, we seek out advice at the Eastern Sierra InterAgency Visitor Center— sparkling and yet as dubious a use of taxpayer dollars (complete with a sweet bookstore!) as it’s name is a mouthful. The ranger there speculates that Old Army will still have a good amount of snow and advises us to bring along our ice axes. Great idea. except neither of us have one. We briefly consider picking up a pair in Lone Pine, but as I have long ago over-stretched the annual gear budget along with my wife’s good will, we decide instead to head up New Army and scout Old Army on the way back down, opting to use it as our return leg should conditions favor it.
We depart Horseshoe Meadows at 6am into the pre-dawn gloom of a Southern Sierra forest. The trail is sandy and rolls gently. The ground is strewn with large, sun-bleached boulders. We cross two streams over narrow log bridges and through the Foxtail pine canopy we can see the morning sun hitting the high sandstone formations to the west. The sky appears to be completely cloudless.
As the rising sun begins to pierce the forest, we peel off layers and soon arrive at the New Army/Old Army junction:
Which way, asks Michael? Both, we hope.
We begin to head west on New Army. The trail climbs gradually and we soon reach 11,000’ as the trees start to thin out. We’ve gained 1,000’ in an easy five miles.
Rounding a corner only 200 yards later, we are stopped in our tracks as Langley and it’s southern “massif” suddenly come into view above Cottonwood Lake #1:
Almost every time I have climbed a high mountain this summer I have had an “oh, sh*t” moment of hypnotic awe where the summit looks very high and/or very far away. This is definitely that moment on Langley.
The trunk of a departed Foxtail, as if turned to stone by Medusa herself, stands as a monument to my awe:
Eventually we are able to shake the trance and proceed onward. After 2+ hours on the trail we pass the first people we have seen since the previous afternoon, a group of four backpackers heading back to the trailhead.
With Cirque Peak (a ranked 13er) as our beacon, we pick through a huge boulder field:
And move past the vague treeline as Cirque begins to dominate the background:
Rounding to the north, the trail up to New Army Pass can be seen switch-backing lazily up the side of the ridge which creates the east-facing cirque that give Cirque Peak its name. Before tackling the switchbacks, we stop at High Lake to marvel at the crystal-clear water and sheer cliffs beyond:
In sharp contrast to the tundra of the Rockies, this scene is pure desert to me and conjures up imagined scenes of the middle-east or north Africa. In fact, I can almost picture the columns and entrance of the Treasury of Petra, AKA the Canyon of the Crescent Moon featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. At any moment I expect Indy himself to walk by mumbling “the penitent man shall pass, the penitent man shall pass”…
Certainly we are penitent as we climb the meandering trail up to New Army. It’s an easy grade but the sun is getting higher in the sky and the air is breezeless and hot. A woman with full pack on the trail ahead cuts the switchback and slowly climbs into loose, steep terrain. We continue past her and after rounding the switchback, come upon her again several minutes later–this time below–seemingly dazed and losing her footing on loose stones. Michael stands the post, encouraging her up and lending her a hand to regain the trail, where she promptly turns the wrong way and begins heading down.
“Are you going up to the pass?” he asks calmly.
“Yes,” she says, the response sounding more like a question than a statement.
“This way,” he says pointing in the other direction.
Up ahead, I encounter her partner taking a break in the shade. I wonder if I should suggest he drop back to keep an eye on her, but refrain.
Soon we reach the pass, which is really only where the trails happens to cross the crest of the ridge. Langley comes once again into a view and we take a break, surveying the moonscape approach to the summit block:
There is a small sign that says “New Army Pass” and goes on to tell you all the stuff that you can’t do. What it doesn’t tell you is that from here on out, there really isn’t a proper trail to the summit. Instead, we follow the continuing trail descending westward, away from a direct overland route to the summit, assuming it will double back at some point.
Just as we’re wondering when we’ll hit this phantom turn, we come upon a backpacker heading up the trail—toting the largest external frame backpack I have ever seen—who informs us that the trail goes to the Rock Creek area of the nearby Sequoia National Park. Having climbed Langley several times, he indicates that the best way for us to get to the summit is to simply go cross-country over the moonscape. Since he seems to know what he’s talking about, we mention our desire to return via Old Army Pass, which we have unwittingly passed coming off New Army. His brow furrows and he tells is that the last time he went by way of Old Army was 20 years ago and that the trail was in very bad condition.
Michael and I about face and head up and over a few low ridges and across the moonscape:
I check the GPS and realize that at mile nine of the 11-mile ascent, we still have 2,000+ feet to gain. We end up following a use trail that runs through deep sand and is barely discernible. To the left we can see through to Sequoia:
After a long, hot traverse of the moonscape, we fight our way up a lengthy slope covered with deep sand. Looking back down across the moonscape, the slope is steeper than it looks due to the featureless terrain:
As the terrain flattens for the final time, we approach the summit block and pause in confusion as a number of faded use trails spoke off in a variety of directions. The expected walk-up option to the summit seems to have been wishful thinking. One thing I’ve learned this year is that when in doubt, directly uphill is often as good an option as any other, even if you face a trial of the soul through the steep rock and sand of Langely’s south face.
Each step is a fight for traction in the sand and the boulders seem to get larger as we gain elevation. I find myself scrambling up some short Class 3 sections and soon I completely lose track of Michael as he moves below and to the right. I wonder if it’s a good idea to let us get separated, but as I can do nothing to avoid dislodging rock and sand down the slope with nearly every step, I rationalize that getting separated is probably for the best.
The gradient eases as I gain the summit plateau and I walk alone to the top. Just before to the unassuming summit, I pass a notch in the rock that reveals the view to the north and I freeze, awed by both the view and the exposure as the north face drops thousands of feet into the abyss below:
The summit reveals a southeasterly view down into the Owens River Valley:
Michael soon appears and we get our summit shots. Michael standing tall over Mt. Whitney:
We drink, eat and I pop a small handful of Ibuprofen–truly the mountaineering miracle drug of our time. As we head off the summit we have the benefit of seeing our intermediary destination of Old Army Pass from above. In a moment of genius, Michael suggests we drop directly off the south face and head straight overland to Old Army. He figures we’ll spare at least a half-mile doing this as our ascent route seemed to have us slightly off course to the west.
We find ourselves at the top of a well-defined rocky chute and begin to climb down:
It’s fun scrambling, never any worse than easy Class 3. I would totally recommend it as an ascent route, although as this next photo will show (looking back up at the route) it might be tricky to find from below:
We head back over the moonscape and arrive at the edge of the bowl that is home to Old Army:
To finally cut to the chase, reports of Old Army’s demise were greatly exaggerated. Other than a few very short sections where we have to hop a few old rock falls, the trail is without snow and in spectacular condition. We make quick work of it and soon we are down at the edge of Cottonwood Lake #4, looking back up at the pass:
As we rest at the edge of the lake, it suddenly occurs to us that we never saw a single person on the approach or return between Langley and either pass. A beautiful summer week day in California on the closest 14er to the second largest city in the country and we had the entire mountain to ourselves. Nice!
The seven miles that remain back to Horseshoe are scenic and blissfully uneventful, so much so that I pretty much didn’t bother to pull my camera out of the pack. So I‘ll leave off with this final shot of me soaking my feet in the crisp alpine waters:
Never a more pleasant sting of cold have I felt…
…that is until Michael’s wife, Mary, and daughter Maddy meet us back at the trailhead with frosty adult beverages. Cheers to them!
Route: South Slopes from Horsehoe Meadows, ascent via New Army Pass, descent by Army Pass.
Distance: 20.5 Miles
Total Gain: 4,100’
Total Time: 11.75 Hours