I needed a mountain that I could climb solo, and Langley fit the bill. Not too difficult, and lots of other people around in case I needed help.
After reading the Langley trip report by Jon Meek, “Perfect Fall Weather”, where he writes that “if you’ve never seen a shooting star in the Sierras, you haven’t been to the Sierras”, I took up seeing a shooting star from there as a challenge, too.
I also decided that the best place to see any shooting stars would be from the summit of Langley, so I decided to camp up there, if possible, or at least as high up as I could reasonably get.
Lone Pine to the Trailhead
I got to Lone Pine around 5:30PM on Monday, August 22nd, 2011. It was too late to get my wilderness permit, but I decided to drive up to the trailhead anyway and sleep up there to begin acclimatizing. (The trailhead is around 10,000 feet high, as opposed to Lone Pine at around 4,000 ft.) After reading stories about mountain sickness in some of the other trip reports, (e.g., Mt. Langley, My 1st 14er), I decided it was worth giving myself any advantage that I could.
Once I saw what the road to the trailhead was like, I was sorry that I didn’t arrive in time to get my wilderness permit that day so as to avoid another trip down the mountain to get it. The road up there is 22 miles long, climbs 6,000 feet, and takes around 40 minutes to drive. Why drive that twice if you don’t have too?
The drive up is spectacular, though, an interesting trip in its own right. The road cuts first through the scenic Alabama Hills (actually a jumble of rocks) where dozens of western movies have been made. Then there’s a moderate climb through sage brush country (watch out for rabbits). Then the fun begins as the road switch-backs up the mountainside to gain the high country. This is real “mountain and basin” country, with views to match. The road is good, but watch out for rock fall!
The movie "Gunga Din" was filmed in this area in 1938.
The Road to Cottomwood Trailhead
The road rises moderately across the sagebrush country then zig-zags steeply up the sheer mountainside.
View of sharp switchback on road up to trailhead. On the drive down this road I saw a bicyclist pumping his way up. On my way back up he was coming down; he looked a lot happier. This road must be heaven and hell for cyclists.
At one place the road is so squeezed by the cliffs and the drop-off that it must narrow to one lane.
Watch Out for Rockfall!
The road must be constantly cleared of rockfall in order to remain passable.
Walt's Point Viewpoint
Major viewpoint on road to trailhead. A good place to stop and admire the mountain and basin country. The viewpoint was named for Walter G. Millet, 1906 - 1965.
The camping areas at the trailhead(s) weren’t quite what I expected. I expected drive-up campsites but it was all walk-in, both at the trailhead for Cottonwood Pass and the one for Cottonwood Lakes/New Army Pass. After driving around for a while I finally opted for the latter as the campsites seemed better defined. I was also the only person camped there. I found out in the morning, though, that the area had a faint smell of urine. I think it came from the outhouses at the trailhead. The horses were exonerated.
From the Trailhead to Long Lake
I took it slow on the hike up to base camp. I figured it was around six miles in to Long Lake. I allocated four hours for the hike, but I took five. I put my pack down at least every half hour to rest my shoulders and back. I was also wearing my Polar heart-rate monitor and never let my pulse reach the training rate. Many decades ago when I rode my bike up from Boulder (with gear) to the campground at Longs Peak (around 9,400 ft), I experienced my worst case of mountain sickness ever. I figured it was from too much exertion at too high of an altitude for too long a time. The next day I got on my bicycle and went right down again. I was determined to avoid that scenario on this trip.
Log bridge over creek on trail to Long Lake.
There were some pretty spots on the trail through the forest, especially at the creeks. (Trekking poles came in handy for one of the creek crossings.) Mostly, though, I found it pretty routine until I got to the first lake and views of Langley opened up.
At Golden Trout Camp, near the John Muir Wilderness border, mosquitoes started to appear. I hauled my bug net out of the pack and put it on. This was the first bug net I’ve ever owned and the first time I’d used it. A hiker I passed coming out said I would be glad that I had it. I was.
Mount Langley from Lake 1
At last some views of Mount Langley and the high country. The marker in the foreground of the picture is used to measure snow depths.
I got to Long Lake at last and wondered where all the campers were. I found that the obvious camping places were further on at the head of the lake, where the creek enters into it. I made camp, ate, and brushed my teeth. I found that spitting out tooth paste works a lot better if you lift up the mosquito netting from your mouth before you spit. I’m still getting the hang of this thing.
I stashed the food canister up the hill on the other side of the trail, hidden in the foliage of a dwarf sub-alpine tree. It was a lot of extra work, but it won’t be me giving any bears an incentive to rummage through the camp.
Long Lake to New Army Pass
The next morning I left my food canister and one can of pepper spray (I had two, for bears) under the tree and headed out for New Army Pass and beyond. I took enough food for a couple of days and figured that at the elevation I was going to there wouldn’t be any varmints that I needed to protect my victuals from. I figure this lightened my load from about 35 pounds down to less than 30 and it sure was welcome.
I chose to take the New Army Pass route because I assumed that the trail was better than over Army Pass. I had read that New Army Pass was maintained and therefore assumed that the Army Pass trail was not. However, I found out that New Army is no picnic, either. There is a gently-graded trail most of the way until near the cliff bands at the top, but then the trail devolves into a “route” and you must find your way through the cliff bands by paying careful attention to the cairns and using your hands as well for balance (class 2). This might be okay for most people, unless they happen to be carrying 30 pounds on their back as I was. However, it was a thrill to reach the alpine zone at the top and look out at the broad expanses of the high country.
In talking to another hiker up there he informed me that Army Pass is still a pretty good route; a little dusty, perhaps, and a bit hard on the knees (fairly steep), but OK. In reading other trip reports it now sounds like the main problem with Army Pass is if it has snow on it. In that case it may be rather slippery and exposed and dangerous. From what I know now I think I would choose Army Pass if it were snow free and New Army if it weren’t. I would check with the rangers when picking up my permit for the latest information.
Trail to New Army Pass
Trail to New Army Pass, between Long Lake and High Lake.
Cliffs Below New Army Pass
A bit dicey route-finding challenge through the cliffs below New Army pass.
New Army Pass to High Camp
Mount Langley from New Army Pass
From New Army Pass you can see a path going up from Old Army up towards Langley. You simply cut cross country down towards Army Pass and pick it up from there. I found the path fairly easy to follow. On the ascent, at this point, I was climbing mountaineer style, counting from one to four seconds with each step, depending on how steep it was, continuing to keep my pulse rate down.
After a full day (about eight hours) of slogging, I arrived in sight of the highly-fractured cliffs that guard the upper reaches of the mountain. Here there was good news and bad news. The bad news was that from here the route was a bit steep for carrying a full backpack, especially as the hour was getting late. The good news was that there was a level spot here to pitch the tent. It was still over 13,000 feet high with great views, it was safer from lightening than it would be on the summit ridge, and I was picking up good “vibes” from the place. Up until then I had no idea what my sleeping conditions might be. I had envisioned having to role myself up in the tent on some narrow, slanted, uncomfortable ledge bivouac style. Being able to stretch out in a roomy, comfortable tent seemed like the height of luxury compared to what might have been.
Life at High Camp
I was glad that I had decided to do the extra work to establish a high camp. So nice to tarry in the alpine zone rather than just tag the summit and head right down to the low lands. I enjoyed the light at high altitude, the sky, and looking down at most of the surrounding scenery, rather than up for a change. As well, the incessant wind stopped blowing from the evening until sun-up the next day – a welcome respite.
View Out Tent Door
The view out the tent door reminded me of a movie title, "Room With a View". The movie, based on a novel by E. M. Forster, first came out in 1986 and won three academy awards. Who could fail to be intrigued by a movie with a heroine named "Lucy Honeychurch"?
I pitched the tent, crawled in, and enjoyed the view out the door – one that a luxury hotel might charge hundreds of dollars for. The words “Freedom of the Hills” came to mind. (The book that I cut my mountaineering teeth on, which I’m happy to see is still in print and going strong.) I also remembered the Canadian Forces recruiting slogan, “There’s no life like it”.
Looking West from High Camp at Sunset
As night descended I lay in my sleeping bag with my head at the door. The first star I saw was distinctly red. As more stars appeared I saw that it was Antares, the red giant in the constellation Scorpius.
Sunrise in the East
Sunrise on Langley was exciting with beautiful vistas opening up constantly in all directions.
Sunrise as Seen Looking South
Sunrise Looking Towards the West
On to the Summit
In the morning it’s 48 degrees outside, not unlike what it was down below at the trailhead. When the sun hits the tent, it quickly warms up to 62 degrees inside – balmy! I checked my heart rate monitor and my pulse was 80 bpm, fairly normal. I felt fine – no trace of mountain sickness at 13,000 feet - so I figured I was ready to head for the summit.
First Light on Mount Langley
Note faint path up Langley in far left on picture.
A few paths can be seen going up from the shoulder where I’ve camped up to the boulder cliffs around Langley. One of them is more prominent than the others, and that’s the one I take. By this time other climbers have arrived in the area and are leading the way up. (I will count around ten that day.)
The path leads up to a prominent gully, about 150 feet of straight-forward class 2 scrambling. I enjoyed it.
Flowers Growing at 13,000 feet
At the top of the gully purple flowers were blooming in a sheltered crevice in the rock. It’s so pleasant to see beautiful living things thriving in this otherwise rather barren and inhospitable place.
From the top of the gulley the path (mostly boot marks in the sand) veers onwards and upwards towards the summit. I built several cairns to supplement the ones already in place. I really wanted to be able to find my way down off this mountain. I was gratified to have the strength to be heaving heavy rocks around at almost 14,000 feet.
I pass climbers coming down as I’m going up and they tell me I’m almost there and I am. The summit survey marker reads 14,042 feet. The broad summit consists of a circle of rock with a waist deep indentation in the middle of it filled with – what else – sand. Plenty of room for anyone who is so inclined to make their ultimate summit camp.
View Eastward towards Lone Pine
I enjoy the view here from the depths of the Owens Valley and Lone Pine 10,000 feet below, to the massive rock faces of Mt. Whitney 5 miles to the north. To the northwest several high alpine lakes with names such as “Sky Blue” beckon, and Olancha Peak rises in solitary grandure to the south.
Mount Whitney from Summit of Langley (telephoto).
View NW Towards Lakes
View South towards Olancha Peak
I sign my name in the summit registry along with multitudes of others, have a snack, and head down. Impressive as it may be, it’s too cold and windy up there to linger.
High Camp from Above
High camp appears closer and closer as I rapidly descend from the summit, seen here as a small red dot near the center of the photograph.
The Hike Out
After scrambling down from the summit, hiking over and up to New Army Pass with my pack, negotiating the pass and hiking down to Long Lake I’m thankful that I have the time to camp once more and rest for the night.
The next day I truck out in four hours. During the last hour the weather became partly cloudy with a few sprinkles. I’m thinking this is just an example of “changeable mountain weather” and won’t amount to much. Then it gets cloudier and darker with more frequent showers. Then it starts to rain like it really means it with thunder, lightening and hail thrown in. It’s the real deal. Frankly the rain is refreshing and the thunder and lightening are entertaining. They took my mind off the heavy pack when I needed it the most and I had no worries knowing that I had a clean dry shirt waiting for me back at the car.
Almost back at the parking lot, I passed a couple of guys who remarked “it looks like you had some action back there!” That’s one way of putting it. It was Friday and all sorts of people were hiking in as I was hiking out: fishermen, couples, groups of young men, families, fathers and sons, and a party of three on horseback. I wondered how they all made out. I wondered what the horses thought of that thunder. I wondered how the father/son thing went pitching a wet tent on the soggy ground in the rain.
I was lucky.
High Sierra Showers
Altitude, various facts
People become vulnerable to “mountain sickness” above 8,000 feet. One of the symptoms is difficulty sleeping so it’s no wonder that some of the Langley trip report writers reported just that (except for Jon Meek, in “Perfect Fall Weather”, who reported feeling GREAT.) Personally, I slept lighter at high altitude and experienced many entertaining dreams and did not feel the worse for it. I didn’t notice any decrease in my alertness during the day due to poor sleep. (But I was pretty wiped when I got back home.)
Some other symptoms of mountain sickness to watch out for include light-headedness, fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, shortness of breath and rapid pulse.
Incidentally, at 11,000 feet we lose 34% or our air pressure and 28% of air density. I found usatoday.com/weather/wstdatmo.htm to be a good source of information on that.
From the “list of highest towns by country” from Wikipedia, the highest town in the US is Alma, CO at 10,578 ft. However, it looks like the people working at the observatory on top of Mt. Evans in Colorado will normally be the highest land-dwelling residents in the lower-48 at over 14,000 ft. However, the personnel at the University of Tokyo Atacama Observatory (TAO) have us all beat at 18,500 feet on top of a lava dome in the Atacama Desert of Chile.
The highest town in the world may be Whenzuan in Tibet at 16,470 feet according to the Guinness Book of Records. However, the National Geographic disagrees citing La Rinconada in Peru at 16,728 feet. However, they say La Rinconada is built on a glacier, so it may be slowly sliding down the mountainside; you never can tell about these things.
Twelve bear attacks have been listed by the California Department of Fish and Game since 1980. None were fatal. Personally, I think that the food canisters that we are required to carry are a great idea. I also like to carry at least one can of pepper spray in bear or mountain lion country. From what I’ve read, the natural habitat of bears is “forest”. I felt very safe from all types of wildlife on Langley at 13,000 feet.
Big horn sheep
Jon Meek reported seeing many sheep from the top of Army Pass. However, I didn’t see any. For one thing, there’s not a lot for them to eat up there. I’ve read that they usually inhabit grassy mountain slopes from 6,000 to 8,500 feet.
Mosquitoes are cold-blooded and prefer temperatures over 80 degrees. At temperatures under 50 degrees they shut down for the winter. (megacatch.com.) They are attracted to CO2, a chemical called “octenol” in our sweat, heat and movement (they can see you at 30 feet). Based on that, I would expect to be less bothered by mosquitoes hiking in the early morning when its cooler and I sweat less. DEET is considered to be the “gold standard” for mosquito repellents, endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). A product containing 10 percent DEET is said to protect you for up to 90 minutes
According to Wikipedia, “shooting stars” become visible at 40 to 75 miles up. Therefore, it can’t be the elevation of the Sierras that make them so spectacular; I would guess it’s simply the dark and relatively clear atmosphere. I didn’t see any on this trip. I guess I’ll just have to go back to the Sierras again next summer. Darn.
I took REI Merino wool light-hiking socks and Thorlos moderate cushion light hiking with “cool max”. The Thorlos looked like very high-quality socks, but I found they didn’t work with my feet and boots and my feet were too cramped. I used the REIs all four days and had no major problems. It’s a good thing, because I’ve found that moleskin may protect one blister while rubbing and causing blisters on my other toes!
Squirrels and Pikas
Apparently, squirrels occupy a huge variety of habitats. I was impressed to see a ground squirrel at an elevation of 12,000 feet or so. What do they live on up there? - “a broad range of seeds, berries, leaves of grasses, forbs, wood plants, bulbs, tubers and insects” according to sdnhm.org (the San Diego Natural History Museum). At least they have the advantage of being able to hibernate during the winter. Pikas, which one might also expect to see at that elevation, don’t hibernate but instead must gather lots of plant food, dry it, and store it in their burrows to live on.
I used chlorine dioxide tablets to purify my drinking water. I carried a one-quart bottle for that purpose, and a couple of pint bottles for additional storage. I thus had enough water to live on for up to 24 hours at a time at high elevation. I did no cooking and hence needed no water for clean-up, either. Simple. The water tasted fine, too.
Me at Home After Langley Ascent