Just the facts, ma'am
This is a failed attempt to link the California 14ers from Langley to Tyndall as a dayhike. I gave up after Russell, but had to "bail" back to Shepherd Pass to meet my ride, making for a long day -- 19h40.
Route: I took a "shortcut" to Langley, then dropped into Rock Creek, climbed to Crabtree Pass, and traversed to Trail Crest to pick up the main Whitney trail. I bagged Muir and Whitney from the trail, then dropped down Whitney's north slope and up Russell's SW chute (left branch). From there, I descended the north ridge, then followed Wallace Creek to the JMT to Shepherd Pass.
Conclusions: Old Army Pass is probably the best way to do Langley at night. With moonlight, the descent to Rock Creek would not be bad in the dark, even without having done it before. The traverse from Crabtree Pass to Trail Crest is slow, but probably faster/easier than the alternatives. Wallace Creek and the JMT are very fast going if you jog, but probably too far out of the way. Adding either Tyndall or Williamson in a day seems doable, but adding both would be extremely tough.
The efficient peak-bagger typically climbs the Sierra 14ers in six outings (listed from north to south): Thunderbolt through Sill, Middle Palisade, Split, Williamson and Tyndall (usually separately or as an overnight), Russell through Muir, and Langley. However, the peaks naturally divide into two groups, Thunderbolt through Split and Tyndall through Langley, and speed climbers have climbed each group as a single, mostrous outing. Since the trailheads for Split and Tyndall (Red Lake and Shepherd Pass, respectively) are much lower than those for Thunderbolt and Langley (South Lake and Horseshoe Meadows), the groups are climbed north-to-south and south-to-north.
I was feeling a bit cocky after my last (successful) epic, and had managed to repress memories of the worst parts, so I thought it was time to try something similar in the Sierra. Thunderbolt to Split would be treacherous this time of year, but Langley to Tyndall fit the bill. My plan was to summit Langley near first light and Tyndall at dusk, making the most of the short day to navigate unfamiliar and/or difficult parts of the route. If I could summit Langley around 6:00 and Tyndall around 7:00 or 7:30, the whole thing would be roughly 20 hours.
I was fortunate enough to arrange a pick-up at the Shepherd Pass trailhead Wednesday night, so on Tuesday I drove up to Horseshoe Meadow, packed, and settled in under a sleeping bag and blanket for a few hours' cold sleep in the nearly-empty parking lot. My attempt was almost prematurely doomed when my cell phone alarm did not go off at 1:45, but fortunately my watch gave a few pathetic chirps at 2:00 before its battery died. I forced down an early breakfast, and was on the familiar trail by 2:15.
Doug had sketched out a shortcut to the right of Old Army Pass (my original route), which would cut out part of the normal sand slog. Taking my bearings from the Cirque-Langley ridge's moonlit silhouette, I headed to Muir lake, then aimed for the next valley to the right of Old Army Pass. While I eventually found a few semi-random ducks and bits of a faint use trail, I probably strayed too far to the left. I endured some nighttime boulder-hopping and bushwhacking, and had a brief scare when I nearly soaked my foot in a partially-frozen bog, but eventually reached the lake at the base of the valley.
The bottom was mostly smooth and stable, and I was pleased with my progress despite earlier setbacks. As the lefthand side steepened and the valley appeared to cliff out, I climbed the looser slope to the left ridge, where things got "interesting." Instead of the expected sand-and-rocks of Langley's south slope, I found a complicated and surprisingly long class 3-4 ridge -- exactly what I was hoping to avoid in the dark. The best approach seemed to be to stay on the ridge or just to its right. At one point I wasted 15 minutes trying to drop down around the right side of a steep-looking gendarme, which I eventually had to climb, descending some unlikely class 4-ish cracks on its left side.
Cold on Langley
For once I picked a good use trail up the sand, and after getting off the ridge at 5:45, was on top around 6:30. This was 30 minutes later than I had hoped, and 15 minutes slower than my predicted pace, but not too bad. I took the necessary pictures (SPS box, myself) and a few more of the foggy dawn, signed the register, and quickly headed north, brushing the hoarfrost off my gloves and hat.
Sheep on Langley
Running down the sand toward the Major General, I was surprised to hear someone else apparently doing the same. Turning around, I instead saw a large herd of bighorn sheep trampling a wide trail in the sand as they ran to get out of my way. They stopped when I did, and I took a few grainy pictures before continuing downhill, crossing numerous sheep tracks. From the saddle, I dropped down a gully to the right on class 2 scree and slabs, and reached Rock Creek around 7:20. I headed straight for the slabs to the left of the Miter, passed Sky Blue Lake on a trail to its east, then headed up the ravine to Crabtree Pass, arriving at the saddle around 8:40. Nearly six and a half hours from the trailhead, it was finally warm and bright enough for me to switch to my daytime garb.
Upper Crabtree Lake and sandhill Traverse below Marsh
As I shed layers and had a snack, I studied the route ahead. From what I had heard, most people climbing Whitney from this direction (amazingly, some do!) drop down the other side of Crabtree Pass, then climb the "dreaded sand hill" to Discovery Pinnacle. A more appealing alternative would be to contour around below McAdie and Marsh, then follow the ridge to Trail Crest. I saw what looked like a continuous broken shelf north of the gash in the ridge before Marsh and, by angling across some slabs, managed to avoid most of the dreadfully loose sand and scree. A class 3 scramble north of the gash got me to the shelf, and after dipping into a couple of chutes along the way, I climbed to the ridge near a low point south of Whitney Pass.
The ridge from here to Trail Crest was slower than I expected; the top was blocky, and the rocks on the east side were covered with hoarfrost. I eventually made my way carefully to the main trail, and passed a few hikers struggling up the last switchback. I cruised along the trail and scrambled up the short slope to Muir, arriving at 10:45.
Looking back from Muir
Given others' times, I knew at this point that I had a very long day ahead of me, but thought that I might at least be able to do either Tyndall or Williamson.
Only slightly discouraged, I dropped back to the trail and trudged on toward Whitney. I had never climbed Whitney by the trail, and just as when I passed the hikers near the top of the switchbacks, I was struck by how long the climb feels this way. The summit is visible for hours as you struggle up the slope to trail crest, then along the endless ridge, finally turning left and coming at the hut from the west. I finally arrived at the hut around 11:30 feeling slow and tired, and had some pop tarts, hoping they would revive me. Unless I recovered, it seemed unlikely I could complete the traverse, so I tried to take advantage of the cell phone reception to arrange an early pick-up at the portal. Unfortunately I could not connect, so after resting a bit and studying the Wallace Creek drainage and Barnard's south side, I headed for Whitney's north slope.
The day to come
I was still feeling a bit slow, and what I saw of the top of the Mountaineer's route was not encouraging: the hoarfrost I had encountered earlier was (not surprisingly) thicker on Whitney's north side, making the slabs treacherous and nearly useless. I headed farther west to a section that had received some sun and headed down, moving carefully on the slabs and trying to stick to the unpleasant but predictable scree where I could. Far too much later, while walking carefully across the scree near Whitney-Russell Col, I had my second bighorn sighting of the day, this time in skeletal form.
Bighorn below Russell
Still feeling slow as I made my way up the climber's trail in Russell's southwest chute, I decided to cheer myself up by trying out the class 4 left fork rather than slogging up the rest of the right. After negotiating an awkward crack at the bottom and running into tough climbing to the right farther up, I zigzagged left then right, and came up between Russell's two summits around 2:20.
Topping out on Russell
I had heard people on the summit as I climbed, and seeing that they were still there, I hurried along the ridge to meet them. They turned out to be Kurt and two clients, summiting via the east ridge from Upper Boyscout; I'm not sure what they thought of my route choice. We stood and talked for awhile, and I again failed to contact my ride. Then they headed off down the southwest chute, while I began the approximately 24 mile return trip down Wallace Creek, along the JMT, and over Shepherd Pass.
Rest, conversation, and some jerky-based trail food mix donated by one of Kurt's clients gave me new strength. I scrambled quickly down the unfrosted north ridge, then made my across the talus to Wallace Creek for fresh water.
Wallace Creek drainage
The trip down to the JMT is long but fast, especially after dropping down off the hump between Wallace and Wales lakes and picking up the use trail on the north side. Walking and jogging along while admiring the scenery, I even briefly contemplated climbing Tyndall. However, reaching the JMT junction at 5:00 with 19 miles to go, I decided that heading straight home might be best.
Sunset on Great Western Divide Unusual view of Whitney
I was treated to an unusual view of Whitney as the sun set behind the Great Western Divide, and I made relatively good time to the turnoff to Shepherd Pass. I kept up the pace on the gentle but unrelenting climb to the pass itself, but seeing the same view of Tyndall's northwest slope and the nameless peak by the pass, I began to feel my fatigue. I put my headlamp back on at some point, plodded on, and reached Shepherd Pass around 7:30.
While struggling with my camera near the sign, I was surprised by my phone, which I had forgotten to turn off, telling me I had voice mail. I quickly called my ride, who miraculously had reception at the trailhead, and told her (optimistically) that I should be down around 10:00. Having set the bar for myself, I donned my headphones and set off down the pass at a shuffling 5-6 MPH jog. The upper section was in surprisingly good shape, and other than the rocky section in the pothole, I was able to jog most of the trail down to the evil sand hill. The moon rose spitefully as I climbed, silhouetting first the false saddle, then the real one.
I resumed my jog at the saddle, determined to be back by 10:00. With my mind entirely focused on relaxing, maintaining the pace, and not tripping, I actually enjoyed the late-night jog. At least, my total focus kept me from thinking about how long it was taking to reach the creek, and kept me awake. When I tried walking some stretches, my mind began to wander. Maybe it was just the late season, or maybe someone had done some work, but the creek crossings were easier than I expected. I jogged into the parking lot at a respectable speed at 9:52 PM, too pleased at my time down the pass to be tired. I had failed, but it was still a good epic. I eagerly consumed the sandwich and beer -- not trail mix! -- then immediately passed out in the car.
Could I have done the whole link-up? Given warmer weather and more sunlight (and maybe better nutrition), I feel confident that I could add Tyndall in at most 2 more hours. However, I would need to take some cross-country shortcuts and significantly improve my pace on existing sections to add Williamson in under 24 hours.