| Mount Langley and the High Sierra
Mount Langley (14,042ft), stands tall in the Eastern Sierra located just southeast of Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, west of Lone Pine in California. This is another mountain I’ve wanted to climb for a while, but the logistics just never panned out. This time I would focus on it and get it done or give it my best shot trying!
In the below image taken driving towards the Sierra Crest, Mt. Langley is left of center and far left of the closer Lone Pine Peak (12,944ft) in the middle which has a similar shape and appears larger. Mount Whitney is off the right in the photo.
Mount Langley is in the heart of the wilderness areas in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. To climb Langley you’ll enter in through the Golden Trout Wilderness, nestled between Sequoia National Park, Inyo National Forest and Sequoia National Forest. Topping out on New Army Pass, you’ll enter Sequoia National Park within which the mountain and summit lies.
In short, I underestimated this mountain.
Mount Langley should have been easier than Whitney, given its stats and apparent terrain. However, while climbing this peak and certainly when finished, perhaps due to my lack of proper acclimatization, lack of sleep, the *extra* miles I tacked on due to a stupid error or just the fact that the peak is tough, I felt more tired than I ever did after any of my five summits of Mount Whitney, including those done in the snow and on the Mountaineers Route.
I scouted out the trailhead on the day before my expected climb, aiming to get some acclimatizing in and was shocked that even during a weekday that all parking spots were full and I wasn’t even able to park to walk around for some last minute recon. The overflow lot was full and what wasn’t full was being worked on and/or was blocked by huge trailers with several horses in them, so basically no spots were available. Was there a Langley party going on??
I sat in the my car idling for 2-3 minutes deciding what to do while looking at my map, when a Ranger pulled up and said I cannot park there, please move and abruptly left. “No kidding” I am thinking, who would park *on the road* right in front of the Restroom and Trailhead. I was polite and drove away looking for a spot to park, though everything was full.
Since both lots were full, I figured I’d park someplace else and walk back up. I parked on the side of the road further down in gravel clearing well off the pavement, when a Forest Service Ranger scolded me, telling me he would ticket me if I left the car there. Don’t these guys have anything better to do? …perhaps ticket the idiots who double parked, preventing me from getting a spot? Or maybe address all of the horse manure that’s all over the trail.
Disgusted, I just left, drove back down and walked around the Alabama Hills a while and went back to Lone Pine for the night and planned to get a start around 4:00AM. So much for acclimatizing. I figured I’d find my way in the morning and was hoping that coming directly from Sea level would not cause any issue this time. The Alabama Hills is a really cool area or rock formations and hiking trails with some good bouldering options, but on this day I wanted to stay higher up rather than hang out at 4500-5000ft which wouldn't confer much in the way of acclimatizing benefits.
As luck, or lack thereof would have it, even at 4:00AM the next morning, every single spot in the standard parking lot was full, so I needed to park in the overflow lot a ¼ mile back down from the trailhead proper, which this time had some spots left. There were more cars here than I ever saw at Whitney Portal or even at Longs Peak trailhead lot on Labor Day weekend. What was going on up on Langley??
I would imagine that if the Overflow lot didn’t have any spots, I wouldn’t be able to climb it, since the Rangers probably would have impounded my rental car if I had parked anywhere else.
There are a few different routes to get to the summit of Langley, all of which are long, Whitney-esque and make for long day trips or overnighters. I opted for the relatively standard way from Horseshoe Meadow parking area to the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead.
Starting from Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead, you have to climb over one of two passes to get to the top; Old Army Pass or New Army Pass; both routes converge high on the plateau at around 12,000ft. As I've heard mixed reviews on Old Army and the quality of that route, without having ever been to this area I opted for New Army Pass, which is a bit longer, provided you stay on the established route but apparently in better shape.
The temperature in the morning was a pleasant 35 degrees, just perfect for hiking up in a couple layers. Quite the contrast from the 95 degrees from the day before mid day in the valley below.
The first several miles of the hike into Cottonwood Lakes is uneventful (especially when it’s pitch black in the dark). The trail here is pretty flat and actually descends a bit over the first couple of miles before finally starting to rise with any degree after the turn off to New Army Pass. Shockingly, despite all the cars in the lots, I saw zero people on the way up. False Dawn rapidly approached.
A thin sliver of crescent moon soon appeared on the eastern horizon beating the sun by an hour.
The emerging royal blue sky coupled with the burgeoning vermillion on the horizon was stunning. The pre-dawn scene within the stands of pine was beautiful and together with the crisp air and fresh pine scent of the forest, helped alleviate my lingering frustrations from the prior day. I sat down for a moment and just took it all in and calmed my mind…while hoping a mountain lion hadn’t been stalking me, waiting to pounce on what would appear to be an easy, now motionless meal.
I understood the roundtrip for Langley was normally approximately 21-24 miles from New Army Pass with about +4,500ft net elevation gain. I’ve seen different reports showing different mileages depending on which route you choose from Cottonwood Lakes (Old Army is a bit shorter and there is a shortcut from New Army which takes some of that additional mileage off if you opt for that). Even two Rangers at the Visitor Center told me two different distances for the standard New Army Pass route. Does anyone know the roundtrip distance from New Army Pass??
Depending on how long the standard route from New Army Pass is, I estimate my actual mileage on the day was 25-28 miles roundtrip with +5,500ft net gain (including my off route error of +4 miles; see below).
While in daylight it seems impossible to miss, in my early morning stupor in the shine of my dim headlamp as I was hastily moving up, I failed to see the ARROW pointing "RIGHT” on this sign, only seeing the "LEFT" arrow…and as such, turned left here. Rookie Mistake. While the trail on the left follows just north of a nice alpine meadow and brings you to a pleasant basin under Cirque Peak (as I soon would discover), it also leads you almost two miles OFF the proper route to get up New Army Pass.
For any “Would-be” climbers, take note of this trail sign; turn RIGHT here Duh
I saw three deer shortly after this signed junction. At the Lake, I ran into another climber (Roddy) the first person I saw up until this point, who confirmed my suspicions that this indeed was not the right way towards NAP. I contemplated just hiking from where I was at Cirque Lake and dead reckoning on a northwest bearing cross country to New Army Pass. Looking at the topo, it seemed doable as I would only be traversing over a contour line or two, with nothing seemingly too steep or insurmountable in between; However, after mulling it over, I figured one wrong turn was enough for the day and that it would probably be better just to do the added mileage and stay on the known route rather than getting into another unknown area and then taking the rest of the day to get out of it and lose any shot at a summit due to lost time or worse.
This meadow you walk past here was wonderful and I couldn't help imagining watching a foraging Grizzly here...had they not been extirpated from the region.
While I was here, I figured I’d take some shots of the stunning Foxtail pines here. Their vibrant colors and gnarled trunks made a wonderful contrast against the deep blue classic Sierra summer skies. Note, you won’t see these exact trees and scene on the standard route…
Serene moment with Cirque Peak, reflection in a high lake.
It was around this spot near the last stream I saw, that I filtered and filled all my water up, assuming there was none higher up and topped out all four liters I was carrying for what I was projecting to be long day.
Once you start climbing up into the area North of Cirque Peak up to New Army Pass, there is no water, so you need to fill up lower down (this is assuming there is no snow higher up and that you are not melting snow). The route today was snow free. There is one last spot in a marshy area just as you enter the Basin just north of Cirque Peak, but the water there is more stagnant than this running stream was, so I filled up here, earlier in the route rather than the latter area, which on the way back appeared to have more animal traffic.
I might also note that given the impending change in weather that was coming to the Sierras, I was seeing some wonderful cloud formations today. It was as if I were in a walking Meteorology class. Below is a shot of what appears to be altocumulus clouds above the Cirque Peak Basin; New Army Pass is off to the right in the photo.
After admiring Cirque Lake and Cirque Peak looming above above and realizing my error, I retraced my steps back up to the turnoff some two miles back, then moved up the right path enroute towards New Army Pass. The roundtrip for my little sojourn cost me a little over two hours. I was tempted to turn around at this point, thinking for sure I blew my chances at a successful summit attempt. As the weather looked great, and I was feeling good, I pushed on.
From this spot on, I double-timed it, wanting to make up for lost time; took off all but my base layer, downed a pint of electrolyte drink and pushed on, hiking hard, though keeping my pace just under sweating point. The route moves across a level section paralleling one of the lakes where Mount Langley becomes visible in a stunning moment. What a place to camp.
Langley closer up. Its profile looks very similar to Whitney.
The trail continues on until you enter the aforementioned marshy basin area with water slowly running through it. The terrain really opens up here in what is just becomes a perfect, classic High Sierra landscape. Alpine lakes, the reddish/rust colored bark and rich green needles of the Foxtail Pines and ever deepening blue skies made for a wonderful scene.
Some shots on the Trail
Note in the photo below, some tents set up.
A view looking back:
I should also note that while there are a couple fires burning to the north and the smoke did obscure views the day before, even becoming strong enough to fill the air, it did not cause any issues while hiking all day. The Aspen fire seems to the most prominent; see updates here:
I finally saw some other climbers once I got higher up. Here are a few hikers moving up towards the top of New Army Pass, which is off to the right in this pic.
A view looking at the route up to the ridge which tops out at New Army Pass. It is steep, but well trailed, switch-backing all the way to the top of the Pass, which on the topo seemed to be around 12,400ft. If you look closely, there are two climbers to the right part of the photo. They're hard to see though.
A view along the trail near the top of NAP
A view from near the top looking back at the lakes you just passed on the way up. These appear to be High Lake, Long Lake and South Fork Lakes.
Your first wide open unobstructed view of Mount Langley taken from the top of New Army Pass. The route (not visible here) drops down a few hundred feet (then merges with the route from Old Army Pass) which continues across the high barren plateau to the summit pitches.
Moving closer… This image below is still about a mile or more away from the summit, which is off to the right/back in this photo. From the top of New Army Pass, you will need to descend about 300ft before regaining this enroute to the top, which needs to be reclimbed coming back up. As you drop down, there is a switch backed trail part of the way down towards Langley which meets up with both a trail that goes to what appears to be Soldier Lakes (West) and then on the other side (East) at Old Army Pass.
A nice view of cirrus clouds moving across the sky. Again, a great day for the cloud buffs out there!
The junction of Old Army Pass (note two climbers at the base there towards the right in the photo)
A view looking back at the route across the open expanse of tundra leading up to New Army Pass, Old Army Pass (to the left, not really visible).
A shot showing the remaining 1,200 ft. or so. You must drop down again a bit before re-climbing up. There are many options here from which to gain the summit, some longer, some shorter, some harder and others easier. Pick a line and go for it; if the terrain becomes too sketchy (it will in some spots), move back down and try a different line.
A closer shot showing the terrain you need to surmount and navigate up, over around and through to get up to the top. The easier line appeared to be moving more to the west around the mountain, rather than climbing the ugly boulders straight up. Either can be done, just make sure you can get down what you climbed up; there are more technical lines further to the south/east.
There is no real defined route from this point and you need to assess carefully where you want to move up. This section could easily go back and forth between class 2 loose gravel and talus or exposed class 3/4 rock. There are cairns leading every which way, so if you are following any, pay attention to which ones you are following since a few spots have them leading in 180 degrees from one another.
A close-up view of the terrain you need to get through: For those who have climbed Mt. Whitney via the Main Trail, this section is materially different and will be more stressful with route finding if you're not paying close attention. You won't find the same nice trail here.
After a very long, winding mixed climb up, making my way up as best I could following whatever line worked, the summit rocks finally appear. Once you are on the higher summit ridge, the remaining approach to the top feels very much like you’re on Whitney. I wasn't really sure I was on top until I saw the ammo can and marker!...and the cliff on the other side.
As you will see when standing on the summit, the North face of Mount Langley commands attention as it drops off into the abyss in towering vertical cliffs.
Views from the top, Whitney in the background
Closer view of Mount Whitney to the Northwest
A nice surprise was seeing a few Sierra Bighorns on the way down! There were four Rams at least that I was able to see, perhaps more, though this fellow was the more bold of the group coming pretty close before climbing back up the mountain to join his friends.
One other thing about this climb is that the entire hike from trailhead to summit lies above 10,200ft meaning you’ll be at a pretty high altitude the whole day for over 20 miles. This is unlike a lot of other 13er-14er climbs where you start lower (7000-8000ft), quickly climb and quickly descend lower. So consider this in your trip planning and acclimatization strategy.
In short, this was a long day, but a great climb in the wilderness with classic High Sierra scenery from start to finish and despite the number of cars in the trailhead, really didn’t see a lot of people on the day. Most of the people I saw were on the way down when I passed a few campsites, but to be honest, I probably only saw only a fraction of the people I expected to be there. I assume most of the people were on multiday backpacks in other places or on the other side of Langley, possibly towards Whitney or down by Solider lakes.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):