Sunday, August 1, 2010

Mt Langley, 14,042 ft, South South-East Ridge, Class III-IV

It's a three day weekend. Ruth's at work. Dave Rivas has the weekend off as well (or so he thinks). It's the height of summer, the weather window looks good, and I've got a little itch. A 14,000 foot kind of itch. Mt Langley, I'm gunnin' for you.

Rivas made a colossal error in scheduling, leaving me having to decide whether to abort or to proceed with my plans solo. The idea of soloing a fourteener is not a new one for me as I've done it twice before, so obviously I chose the the later option. My plan was good and I'd done all the route research and, I thought, I have the fitness, gear, and experience so why not. Thursday night after work I pulled the trigger.

I made it to the Lone Pine ranger station in time to pick up a permit before they closed for the day, which meant that I could proceed up to Horseshoe Meadows knowing I had my papers in order. The backpacker campground at the end of the road was overflowing with humanity so I just slept in the bed of the truck. By 05:30 I had left the trailhead behind.

I had, until this weekend, only heard about the natural beauty of the Cottonwood Lakes and Golden Trout Wilderness. It's all true. Airy forests. Emerald meadows. Cobalt lakes. Barren peaks. It feels high, alpine. Even the air felt as if winter was far away. On the 8.0 mile hike to my chosen base-camp I saw deer, pika, eagle, marmot, raven, magpie, and numerous small birds. I reached my 11,000ft base-camp by 10:30am.

I wanted to position my camp for a quick and efficient AM launch so I settled for the night at Cottonwood Lake #5, the northernmost of the group. I found that I had the entire lake to myself, and spent the rest of the day either resting, reading, or sleeping. With nothing else to do I was knocked out for the night by 8:00pm.

I woke after a full night of good Zzzz at 04:00, chugged coffee, and headed up under moonlight. The talus fields under Langley are not fun and I spent the next hour negotiating every form of talus the world could create: pea gravel, walnut gravel, barbie heads, baby heads, shoeboxes, microwaves, refrigerators, houses, etc..., all shapes and sizes imaginable, all granite, and every bit of it was loose. It took a couple hours of this to reach the small saddle at the east end of the SSE Ridge. I thought that if that was the tough part, then I'd have a hard time calling that class 3. It was more an unremarkable talus slog. Turns out that the chute up the SSE Ridge is just the warm-up.
I found the actual ridge to be the most difficult part of the day. The ridge I was on was rugged, steep, and came at a high cost in both energy and time. I slowly picked my way around the numerous jagged towers that hang over the edge of the south face. Finding a consistent line was complicated by the terrain, as in, "Do I go around or over this huge serac of granite?". Some I went around, some I went over. I'd say that the ridge was solid class 3 and I frequently found myself pulling exposed class 4 moves. This ridge run was pretty tough. Not something I'd be eager to do again. I know I wasn't in love with it enough to use the ridge as a descent.
It was during this two hour scramble up the ridge that I began experiencing waves of nausea. I couldn't decide what to do about it, "Should I eat something or will that make things worse?". In the end, I stuck to water. I also experienced several dizzy spells, the kind that make one take pause for a bit. I decided that these symptoms were the altitude reminding me that I had been at sea level just 20 hours ago.
The final step to the summit was interesting. This is just a small cliff with no single best route. Now, I'm not known for taking the path of least resistance so in keeping with that character flaw I just went straight up the damn thing. Mt Langley has a big, rounded summit plateu which resembles nothing so much as the lunar surface. Soon I was on the summit and staring down the sheer north face wall (This wall boasts some of the best mountaineering routes in the Sierra, however, it is a true pain to get to.). As I topped out the dizziness and nausea just went away.

I spent an hour on the summit completely by myself before getting my head around the idea of going down. I knew I didn't want to go down the way I came up so I gave some thought to descending via the class 2 "standard route", however, I was feeling pretty good so I opted for an interesting variation of my own making. Just below the south portion of the summit is a 200 foot cliff that puts one pretty much above the rim of the middle of the south face. I walked right to the edge of this cliff, looked down, and went for it. I would put my bail-out route in the class 4-5 range. the one thing this chute had going for it was that it probably saved me a half hour of walking off the other side of the mountain. I cut a straight line for the edge of the south face and, once there, I followed the rim to the west, eventually picking up Army Pass and descending that into the Cottonwood Lakes bowl. So in the end, I figure it had been a 5 (or so) mile day, with over 3K feet of elevation gain, and included a circuit of the south side of Langley.

By 1pm I was back at my base camp. I felt it would be better to just go out to the trailhead that same day, though I knew it wouldn't be any fun at all. I figure that if I lay down for a while I would never get back up so I started throwing my kit together. After 1.5 liters of gatoraid and a couple of ounces of chocolate I was able to achieve a semi-upright posture, though I'm not sure how I got my pack on. The rest of the day was a smooth roll downhill. I let the lizard part of my brain decide where to put my feet while the rest of my mind wandered into a dream-like haze of unconnected thoughts punctuated by pain.

I got back to the truck and just took off for home. I knew that in four hours I'd be trying to stand under my showerhead, ready to stagger the last few feet to bed. Yesterday, Sunday, I hardly moved from bed. I don't drink anymore but I can still remember what the mother of all hangovers feels like, and she had come back to pay me a visit. I could feel my kidneys trying to excrete all that lactic acid. I couldn't really convince myself that food would be of any benefit so I just stayed in bed all day.
Trip stats:
Friday: 7.5 miles to Cottonwood Lakes, 10,800ft
Saturday: Base camp 04:45am to summit 10:30am to base camp 1:00pm to truck 5:30pm,
estimated 14 mile day, over half of which was above 11K ft.
This is my 3rd CA fourteener of the summer summited by a Class III or better route.


  1. I love your story, and your pictures. My new husband and I did Mt Whitney just after 911, it was brutal:but we can say we did it, thats what its all about! Good luck on your next hike. G

  2. You should try the man's route up that peak sometime.. Tuttle Creek, in winter. It's kind of cheating if you start at over 10000 feet, no?

    There's a reason they call Langley the "easy 14'er"

  3. Anonymous howdy,
    Admittedly, Langely is too easy. I have a friend from Colorado who always asks why we start are 14ers so damn low. As for Tuttle in winter... That's tougher than me mate.

  4. Absolutely laughing my @$$ off "Baby head" sized talus!!!

  5. Also whenever I get that nauseous feeling at altitude, I always eat, I never actually yak, and many times the nausea wont go away if I DONT eat.

  6. Baby heads and Barbi heads, an old mountain biker's descriptor.
    Nausea at altitude can screw your whole day. It just plain sucks. Water and aspirin or Advil are the key to batting down the queezies, that and going to a lower altitude. Add solar glare and a jagged headache to the nausea and you've got classic mountain sickness. -DS