About once or twice a year my friend Frank and I get together for either a longer hike (+15miles) or an overnighter. Luckily, both of us had some extra time at the end of July 2009, so Frank asked me what I had in mind. Mt. Langley sprung to mind, as it was listed as one of the “easier” 14’rs, as far as technical difficulties anyway.
With that, we decided we would leave Los Angeles on Monday, July 27, 2009, and make for Horseshoe Meadows. This would be Frank’s first fourteen-thousand foot peak, so we were trying to put the odds in our favor. Our plan was this:
Monday – Drive from LA to Lone Pine – Get permits
Tuesday – Hike to Long Lake, almost at the base of New Army Pass
Wednesday – Hike to Langley’s summit, pack out, and return to Los Angeles
We had called the permit office prior to leaving and was told all the reservable permits were taken for Tuesday. However, the Cottonwood Lakes area saves 40%, or roughly 20, permits for “walk-ins.” Seeing as it was early in the week and not a weekend, we decided it would probably work out with the permit situation.
We arrived in Lone Pine around 2:30pm, well after we thought we would get there (walk-in permits for the following day are available at 11am). Luckily, there were permits left, and we grabbed our permit for the following day, Tuesday, and took off for Horseshoe Meadows.
About 45 minutes after leaving Lone Pine, we arrived at Horseshoe Meadows. It was our first time at this area, and it was amazing to say the least. After breaking off from Whitney Portal Road, you fly out across the valley and ascend the switchbacks that take you up to 10,000 feet. The neatest part is after you break the crest and see the forest in front of you. A unique experience, to say the least.
We drove over to the Horseshoe Meadows campground and found at least 5 or 6 campsites available, chose one with a firepit, paid our $6.00, and set up camp. We then drove back to Lone Pine (30 minutes), and had dinner at Bonanza, my favorite place in Lone Pine.
That night, sitting at the campfire and drinking some Mammoth Paranoid Pale Ale, I was thinking about our mileage and plans for Mt. Langley. I really wanted Frank to reach his first 14’er, but I was realizing that even if we left the following morning at 9am, we would probably be at Long Lake, our camping destination, around 12-1pm. This would leave us with around 7 hours of downtime, which at the base of New Army Pass would seem too enticing. And while we had both allotted until Wednesday for our hike, both of us agreed that getting home possibly a day earlier might be a good idea.
So around 10pm, rather than pack in our tent, sleeping bags, etc., we decided to dayhike Mt. Langley. We decided to wake up at 3:45, be on the trail by 4:45, summit by noon, and take it from there. Even though both of us had planned on being back in Los Angeles late Wednesday night, at the least we would be able to get home earlier, even if we camped Tuesday night. By 10:30 we were in bed and ready for the morning….
Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead to Long Lake
The next morning actually woke up on time, a big surprise to both us, and were headed out on the trail by 4:45. We were immediately surprised to find out we were either going slightly downhill or walking on level ground. This section of the trail is very well marked and easy to follow, even in the dark.
About 45 minutes in we stopped to shed some layers, and I wanted to check and make sure my GPS was tracking our progress. Something had gone awry with the GPS, so I had to reset it, and then we were on our way. By now the sun was coming out and we didn’t need our headlamps.
At this point we were following the trail along the river. I was amazed at the meadows and forest in this area. It felt more like we were on an afternoon stroll, as opposed to heading up a 14’er. We then started to see an extremely long electric fence. It turns out this was the boundary of the Golden Trout Camp. A couple of meadows later we came to the trail split for New Army Pass or Cottonwood Lakes (Army Pass).
We took the fork left towards New Army, climbed a short hill, and then the views really opened up and we got our first good look up at Langley, still a ways off.
We saw two people camped at the lake, which were to be the only 2 people we were to see all day until coming off the summit. Mosquitoes weren’t a problem, unless we stopped for too long, and we took some photos of the area. It’s at this point it’s a make-or-break to either New Army or Army Pass because you start to bear left around the rock escarpment that divides the two.
We had already read the reports of Army Pass having snow at the top, and while people were saying it was passable via some Class 3 sections and crossing some snowfields, we didn’t want to chance it. (I was in trail runners, and this would be Frank’s first time above 12,000 feet).
Our goal had been to reach Long Lake by 8am, which would put us roughly 4 miles from the summit of Langley. We had settled on a turn-around time of 12-12:30, as the weather forecast had called for the possibility of thunderstorms (20%) after 12:00pm for Tuesday and Wednesday. We were figuring as soon as we hit the base of New Army Pass our pace would be slowing dramatically, so even an 1mph we could still hopefully be at the summit by noon.
When you bear left around the second lake on your way up to Long Lake you pass through this enormous boulder field. It looks like there used to be a mountain there, but somehow it exploded into about a million pieces. The trail kind of meanders way out to the left, and just when you think you’re going the wrong way, it heads back to the right in the direction of New Army Pass.
Long Lake to New Army Pass
It was now 7:45 and we had arrived at Long Lake pretty much right on schedule. Our eyes kept looking forward trying to decipher where exactly New Army would get us onto the plateau, while taking a peek to see if we could spot any fish in Long Lake. (We didn’t see any).
Another hour and we were at the top of New Army Pass, which probably has some of the longest switchbacks ever. From here we could still see our objective far off in the distance…
New Army Pass to Mt. Langley
Our route from New Army Pass
It only took about 15 minutes to descend down to Army Pass from New Army. At first we started on the trail, but we quickly figured out it was taking us way out of the way, so we cut cross-country towards the trail we saw leaving the top of Army Pass.
After descending to the top of Army Pass, the rest of the hike can be essentially broken into 2 significant bumps you have to surmount, followed by the summit ridge of Langley. There are many use paths, some with cairns, and some without. You basically just pick whichever one you fancy the best, as it seems most of them end up at the same place.
This is where the overall elevation and elevation gain really kick in. Most of what you’re walking on is a type of sandy gravel. (Great for going downhill, not so great uphill). You get past the second bump and end up on the bottom of the summit ridge. You’re kind of wondering, “Ok, where now?” When we looked a little closer, you see a faint use trail heading up and left into the rocks.
Pace REALLY slowed down at this point. Even at the top of Army pass you’re barely cresting 12,000 feet, so you’ve still got 2,000 vertical feet to make-up in the last 2-3 miles!
In any case, we start making our way up through the rocks to gain Langley’s summit ridge. This area is really sandy, loose, and steep, but there are use trails to follow. The only class 2 section we encountered was at the very top of the ridge, and this was only for about 15 feet.
From there you make your way across the top of the ridge up and to the top. Much to our surprise, we ended up making the summit at 11:45 am, just 7 hours after leaving the trailhead. Both of us were pretty exhausted at this point, but the weather had held out, and we enjoyed about 15 minutes on the top.
The first thing I saw on the top was the SPS box containing the summit registers. The last person up had left it on top of one of the summit boulders right near a big piece of clear amethyst, which was also very close to the north face of Langley. Man, that view really caught me off guard. It’s like peaking over the edge of a skyscraper! I tried to get a photo to capture this, but was unsuccessful.
View from the Summit
With clouds moving in from all directions, we decided it was time to head out. Going down was infinitely easier, and I was really surprised how good I was feeling considering we had only been above 10,000 feet about 18 hours, which is a much shorter acclimatization schedule that what we had originally planned.
Descending from the Summit of Mt. Langley
Coming off the summit we enjoyed all the sandy slopes we had loathed on the way up, and it was at this point both of us ran out of water. (The last time we had filled up was near Long Lake). Then, for the first time since around 7:30 in the morning, we saw two hikers approaching us. We were now just above Army, right around the first bump you have to crest. They had ascended Army Pass and told us they were able to bypass the snowfields at the top by some easy class 3. They were wondering how much further they had to go, and we told them from where we were it was probably another 2 hours, depending on their pace. (We assured them that we weren’t doing much more than a shuffle-step while ascending).
Off we went towards Army Pass to see if we could save ourselves some mileage on the way back. I head down the Army Pass trail, wrapped around the first corner and found this:
I looked for a way to possibly down-climb around the snow, rather than head up-and-over the snow patch, but it looked loose and exposed. We contemplated hunting along the top of the pass to find an easier way down, but figured it would take just as much time, if not more time, to try and figure it out. With both of us out of water, we chose to just head back up to New Army Pass and suck it up.
Only an hour and 30 minutes off the summit (1:30pm), we were back at the top of New Army Pass. At this point Frank and I thought we were hallucinating because we both saw 2 hikers ascending the pass. We kept descending, but then there weren’t any hikers to be seen. I turned around and asked Frank, “Did you see two hikers coming up?” He was glad I had seen them too. Turns out they had taken a break behind a rock outcrop out of our view until nearly the bottom of the pass.
Finally finishing the last couple of long switchbacks, we took our packs off and filtered some water out of the boggish type of water located just up from High Lake. Along the way back I took advantage of having some extra time and good lighting to snap some shots of Long Lake and some of, what I believe to be, the many old Bristlecone Pines along the trail. (I’m not exactly sure if the trees are Bristlecone Pines, but they sure look like the ones I’ve seen over near White Mountain).
Down past the lakes we noticed clouds had really come in, but it didn’t seem like any significant weather was building. We ended up making it back to the trailhead by 5:05pm, just over 12 hours from the time we started.
By 6:30pm, after a quick jump in the river along Whitney Portal Road, we were sitting The Pizza Factory. Great way to end an awesome trip!
Mt. Langley was a really great hike. It is not technically challenging, but I would consider it a strenuous endeavor at 22 miles. The starting elevation can be a bit misleading with the vertical gain on this hike, as there are some parts when you are descending that you will eventually have to make up on the way out.
I had set my GPS to track our status every 20 seconds to avoid it taking a reading every second, which is the default. By doing this, the total elevation gain came out to 5,578 feet. This was about a thousand feet more than what I had anticipated for this hike.
Another deceptive part about this hike is 75% of the elevation gain is held for the final 4 miles of the hike. This means most of your vertical gain is coming when you are above 11,000.
I should also point out that I could not find any good maps available at REI for our Mt. Langley trip. REI used to have a great mapmaker, but they’ve since done away with that. I checked the Tom Harrison maps, but was only able to find a smidgen of the Langley area on the Mt. Whitney High Country Map, which has a ridiculous scale for hiking anyway.
I decided I would print my maps off my GPS software, even though I didn’t have any waterproof paper, and would be printing off of a black-and-white laser printer. Using Delorme’s Topo 7 software, I was able to print out the USGS maps (customized) of the area. One thing I should point out is the USGS map shows the Cottonwood Lakes trail leaving the Horseshoe Meadows road approximately 1/3 to ½ a mile prior to reaching the Horseshoe Meadows camp.
This is incorrect. There was a pullout on the side of the road, but the main trail that is used now is actually further up the road (clearly marked) and DOES NOT SHOW UP on the USGS maps. (This is easily seen by viewing our tracked data and looking at the “Old Cottonwood Trail” waypoint). I am not sure if the trail on the USGS map is still in use or not.
I should also point out that there are walk-in campsites right at the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead. We camped over at Horseshoe Meadows the night before, then parked in the ample spaces at the trailhead the morning of our hike.
While Langley was technically easy, it was still a difficult hike. If doing it in a day, I would definitely recommend leaving early!