Mt. Whitney - 14500' or so
High point of the lower 48

Mt. Langley - 14,026 ft

Mt. Whitney East Face - 14,497 ft/14,505 ft?

This trip really started in 2007. I had a good climb up Shasta's West Face and wanted to do more that summer. I sent Bob Ayers some email saying "OK, I've climbed all the non-Sierra California 14ers, time to do one in the Sierra."

See all the pictures.

Mount Langley is one of the easiest California Fourteeners to climb if the Army Pass route is chosen. Langley provides a great view of the south Sierra in all directions from the summit, including the Mount Whitney group, the Great Western Divide, Olancha Peak, and Owen's Valley. It is the southernmost fourteener, and the most desert-like of the Sierra Nevada fourteeners. Some people do it in a day from the 10,000' trailhead, but that wasn't our idea of fun. Bob has climbed a lot of peaks in the Sierra and most of the 14ers, but not Langley - so I knew I could sucker him in.

We had planned to go up Langley in 2003, after climbing White Mountain. That didn't work out for a number of reasons. We figured we could take the long Labor Day weekend to drive down and knock it off ... we should know better by now.

Horseshoe Meadow camping
Things started OK. The plan was to drive down to Lone Pine, pick up a permit for the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead, and sleep there one night (10,000'). Hang out there till mid-day the next day, breathing thin air, then move up to a higher camp near Army Pass. Then it was just a matter of up and over and out... we figure that an early start and a long day and we'd be back in Lone Pine for an afternoon beer and possibly drive all the way home.

We got to the ranger station in late afternoon, had a nice dinner at Margie's Merry Go-Round, and wandered our way up to Horseshoe Meadow. The trailhead camping was largely deserted, which suited us fine. The only stove we brought was my Jetboil, by prior agreement - Bob was willing to do no-cook, but I wanted morning coffee. I was willing to carry an extra pound for that.

The weather was great, no threat of rain, a little chilly at night. We spent a pleasant evening under the stars and a relaxed morning trying to get a little acclimatization. I had brought a small ham radio but didn't have any luck making contacts ... oh well. After lunch, we started walking into the Golden Trout wilderness, headed for (Old) Army Pass.

This Army Pass thing is fascinating to me. Apparently the Army built the old pass and abandoned it within 10 years because it faces the wrong direction and thus remains snow covered well into the summer. That would have been in the 1930s - the trail has not been officially maintained since then and is apparently in great shape, despite having disappeared from all known maps. New Army Pass is the replacement, considerably further south; the main disadvantage of New Army Pass for Langley is that you have to walk past Army Pass to get to Langley - which means losing about 250 feet of elevation. That's why we chose the Army Pass route.

Cottonwood Lake #3
We camped above Cottonwood Lake #3 (11,077ft), where we found a nice little campsite with good wind protection. We found a good place for our Ursack, laid out our sleeping bags, admired the alpenglow, and planned on an "early" morning. That meant after the sun hit us, so we probably didn't get moving until about 8am.

Army Pass trail
Looking at Army Pass from our campsite, the trail seemed obvious. There's an obvious ramp going from left to right starting about halfway up. So we packed up our summit gear and headed around the south side of the lake to find the start.

We spent about 3 hours scree scrambling before deciding that we had completely blown it - there was no trail here. Worse, we had seen someone walking along the north side of the lake on what seemed to be an easy trail. But no, we were stubborn, the trail must be here. Eventually, we figured it out. Around noon. So we went back to our campsite, packed up, walked out to the car and started driving home. We wandered through Whitney Portal, had dinner at Harris Ranch, and got home in plenty of time.

Try, try again

I turned 50 this year, and it seemed obvious that I should celebrate by climbing peaks. There was an abortive plan to visit Europe and do some climbing in the Alps; but I also had the idea to enter the Whitney lottery. That slowly morphed into signing up for an East Face climb with Sierra Mountain Center mostly to allow them to deal with the permit hassle and also to make it a climb, rather than just a hike. Since it's such a long drive, I proposed to Bob that we make another attempt on Langley - that would be a good warm-up for me, and I'd be well-acclimated before the Whitney climb. He agreed. (He has climbed Whitney several times, including the East Face ... long ago. And having done the pack-in to Iceberg Lake in the 1970s and in the 1980s and in the 1990s, he decided not to go for a fourth decade. After the fact, I can hardly blame him!) There was some back and forth with SMC - at first, they had more clients than permit slots, so I was going to go in a day early - OK with me, more time to breathe thin air. Ultimately, all the other clients cancelled, some the day before! Good for me - no one to make me look bad. But no matter how it got sliced, it was a solid week in the Sierra, from Sunday to Sunday.

The basic strategy for the East Face is to leave the Whitney Portal trailhead (8340') early in the morning and climb all the way to Iceberg Lake (12000') by afternoon. This amount of climb with a heavy pack ... concerned me. So I was up dreadfully early two or three mornings a week to chug around a local loop - 3.5 miles, about 700' gain - with a heavy pack. I started at 30# and worked my way up to 50#, always under an hour ... my knees didn't like that much, but ibuprofen is my friend.

Bob & I decided on the same basic plan ... but gave serious consideration to going over New Army Pass, just to be safe. Even though we were now certain of where the trail to Army Pass is, it seemed better (less likely to lead to embarrassment!) to follow signs. And, at the last minute, that's what we did.

So, another night at Horseshoe Meadows. This time, the campground was crowded and we had a hard time finding a pad. The weather was questionable - it had rained up there before we arrived, and there were threatening clouds. Bivy sacks all around.

It was a chilly, clear night, but we didn't get wet. The crowds mostly cleared out after their breakfast - the majority were a work party from Friends of the Inyo that was headed in to do trail maintenance for several days. We hung out until lunch, packed up slowly, and started walking around noon. We followed the signs to New Army Pass - looking at the map, we decided that the right place to camp was Long Lake (11,120'), or possibly the lake higher above it. We had threatening clouds all day, but no rain. We found our way to Long Lake, dropped out gear, and walked up to the final lake (South Fork Lake at 11,400) but decided that there weren't good campsites there. Early dinner, slide into the bivvy sacks to get away from the mossies, fitful sleep.

Mt Langley from Army Pass
Up the next morning, fill bottles, pack too much gear, start walking. It's a glorious day, not a cloud in the sky. We get up to New Army Pass in good time, wander down to Old Army Pass to take a look, and just keep walking. The entire path isn't at all obvious - there are far too many use trails - but as you get closer and closer, the next phase becomes obvious. The only objective difficulty is getting through the block band around 13,000' - as best we could tell, there's no good way, they all involve 50 to 100 feet of 3rd class scrambling. We took about 4.5 hours to reach the summit, had a pleasant lunch on top, and 3.5 hours to get back to camp. After a short rest, we packed up and went back to the car - we'd had enough nights on the ground!

We spent the next couple of days in and around Lone Pine - mostly trying to stay above 9000' during the day but still eating and sleeping in modern comfort. We visited the Onion Valley, Baxter Pass and Big Pine trailheads, and I got my first relatively close look at the Palisades. Next trip.

I was to meet the guide at the Whitney Portal trailhead at 7:30. Bob & I figured that I certainly should sleep the last night at elevation. A quick survey of the Whitney Portal camping led us to realize that sleeping there was a bad idea. We drove back up to Horseshoe Meadow, snagged what seemed to be the last available campsite (where did all these people come from on a Thursday night?) and prepared ourselves for an early morning.

We weren't the first up at the campsite, but it was chilly and dark by the time we had the car packed. We trundled off to Whitney Portal, believing the web site that indicated that the store would open at 7am - I wanted a hearty breakfast. It's a good thing I had a backup plan, because nothing stirred in the store until 7:30 and I wasn't able to get coffee until 8:00!

I hung around at the designated meeting spot, waiting for the others to show up. At this point, I was still looking for another client - no one likely was around, including no likely guide. Eventually, Chris Simmons showed up alone, and told me that the other client cancelled. It would be just the two of us.

There's a trail here somewhere
We commiserated about gear, decided not to take a tent, and planned to pick up stove, fuel and utensils from another team that was headed down the same day. I got the rope (an 11mm, 60m monster) and food and Chris took the rest.

The hike up is a long slog, punctuated by a few items of note. The Ebersbacher ledges are notorious to some - they're wide enough (about 18") and straightforward to walk across, but have glorious exposure that stops some people in their tracks. We stopped for lunch below Upper Boy Scout lake, after following an indistinct trail through waist-high wildflowers in bloom.

Up to Iceberg Lake
The worst part, though, is the section from Upper Boy Scout to Iceberg Lake. Chris S. divides it mentally into four uneven parts; we took a small break in the "middle". It's loose scree, talus, high stepping, all in the direct sun. The only redeeming factor is that you can actually see Whitney for much of it. We climbed about 4020' total in seven and a half hours. My training paid off, but I was toast when we got there - and then Chris gave one of those "this is the difference between you and the guide" demonstrations: we stopped at a likely campsite and dropped our packs. He wandered off to check out a few others and came scampering back to announce that he'd found a better one. I started to pick up my pack and he said "Nah, you worked hard, let me take that" and hoisted it over his head and carried it to the new campsite...

We spent a pleasant afternoon and evening breathing thin air, cooking dinner, getting settled in among the rocky windbreak, swapping stories, arguing about gear (and daisy chains), and speculating about the other climbers in the immediate area. It's quite a cirque up there, with quite a lot of interesting rock to climb. We crawled into our bags early, planning a crack-of-dawn start, I in my bivvy sack and many of my clothes, Chris in his Feathered Friends "elephant's foot" (at 70", it was really the whole foreleg) and pretty much everything in his pack.

The climb is well-described in many places on the web: the Loma Prieta Climber's Guide is certainly a good place to start. I found the climb to be just perfect: hard enough, especially combined with the altitude, to be a good challenge, but never so hard as to seem impossible. I admit that the last corner/offwidth stopped me for a few seconds - we hauled my (too big) pack and that made it a whole lot easier mentally. Everyone builds up the Fresh Air Traverse as the most difficult portion, but I didn't find it so bad - the exposure is thrilling,, but it felt very secure (if you're comfortable with friction, I guess). I found the first pitch, both the long-step traverse and the corner/chimney at the end, to be much more daunting. There was no one else on the route except for one soloist - he passed us just before the Fresh Air traverse. He had already done the East Buttress, and was planning to do (I think) the Keeler needle next!

14,495' on this sign
We didn't intend to set any speed records, nor did we, taking seven and a half hours to ascend the 1860' to the summit. There was rather a lot of wandering around during the final pitches - we topped out the East Buttress route. After eating, drinking, signing the summit register and taking the requisite photos, we headed down the Mountaineer's Route. The first section is good fun - big granite blocks, mostly third class with some fourth. The second section - "the chute" - just plain stinks: there's a looong section of gravel and scree that pretty much demands that you glissade down it rather than try to walk. I hate that stuff. Took us about two hours to get back to camp.

We crashed, ate, sunned, filled water bottles, cooked supper, had a visit from another climbing team, swapped stories, fell asleep. I woke up early for some reason (oh yeah, our neighbors had an alarm set for 4:30), so I tried to capture Whitney as the sun hit it. I got at least one reasonable image, but my friend Karl Bralich (aka Karlee Baba) did a much nicer job of capturing the area around Iceberg Lake.

That's about it - the next morning was the hike out, uneventful and reasonably quick. We traded some of our gear with another group on the way down, thus lightening our loads. The Ebersbacher ledges passed pretty much without comment. Burger and beer at the store tasted grand; putting on clean(er) clothes and different shoes made a huge difference. Bob & I were on the road by 13:00, had dinner at Harris Ranch, took a detour through Mendota and Firebaugh to avoid a backup on I-5 and were home ... pretty late. But in plenty of time to be at work the next morning!

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