Mount Langley: Above the Clouds in the South Sierra

7 Jun 1997 - by Tony Cruz

At 11:30 a.m. on Friday, June 6, 1997 Mark Burhenne drove his Toyota Land Cruiser to my home in Cupertino. Phoebe Couch and I piled in and we set off for the Sierra. We crossed the mountains on a road out of Porterville that I had never tried before--Hwy 190. It took us over Sherman pass at 9,200 feet. I believe that Hwy 190 is the first paved road over the Sierra Nevada south of Hwy 120. It is in good condition and very scenic. You don't need a four wheel drive do it. However it is a narrow winding road and it takes much longer than Hwy 178 (by Lake Isabella) or the Hwy 58 (over Tehachapi Pass). Just after the pass we got a good view of Olancha Peak. On our Forest Service Map of the Golden Trout Wilderness (available at REI for $6) we found a shorter approach to Olancha than Sage Flat which saves 2,000 feet of elevation gain. The route starts from Monache Meadows, which is accessible from Hwy 190 on a jeep road that begins at Kennedy Meadows.

We lost a couple hours going over Sherman Pass and didn't get to Lone Pine until 8:30 p.m. Even thought we are not in the quota season for the Cottonwood Lakes region, there were no self-issue permits available (this is to prevent those wanting to hike up the Whitney trail from self-issuing themselves a permit). So we proceeded without a permit. We drove a little way up the Whitney Portal Road and turned left on the road to Horseshoe Meadows, which is 22 miles from Lone Pine.

We decided to hike in for an hour and camped after the first stream crossing, in the Golden Trout Wilderness just shy of the Golden Trout Camp. Mark set up his lightweight Chouinard tent, which he shared with Phoebe, while I unrolled my pad and sleeping bag on the ground.

At 5 a.m. on Saturday we awoke, piled our sleeping gear in the tent and at 6 a.m. or so set off. We crossed a log over a stream where in a previous hike my daughter and I saw many golden trout. We passed the nice meadow on which the Golden Trout camp is situated. The first big peak visible in the distance was Cirque Peak, which is just under 13,000 feet. I had climbed it a few years ago.

Continuing north we made a couple of easy stream crossings until we reached a fork in the trail. To the left is the trail to New Army Pass, which is one way up to Mt. Langley. I decided not to take this fork, because there is a large cornice at the pass which is sometimes dicey at this time of year. So we took the right fork, which leads to the Cottonwood Lakes and Old Army Pass.

The trail had been virtually level from the parking lot until we reached the fork, but here it got steeper. After about a mile and a few switch backs, we reached a platform from which we got our first good view of Langley. We stopped there to rest, snack and take pictures. In front of us was the first of the Cottonwood Lakes, a meadow, some trees and the peaks in the distance. The trail veered to the west and we passed a metal cabin next to which was a portable shower bottle sitting on a rock. We hopped over the first large snow patches of the trip and hiked near but off the trail, which was rutted and wet.

Soon we came to the fourth and fifth Cottonwood Lakes. Mark stopped to filter some water and I hiked ahead, lay on a rock next to the trail and took a nap. About a half hour later, at 9:30 a.m., I heard Mark yelling my name. We regrouped and talked about which way to go up. Our choices were to continue on the trail and go up the gully to New Army Pass. It was steep and the switch backs on it were completely covered with snow. Just north of the gully was a large boulder field and gentler snow leading up to the plateau below Langley.

We decided to stick to the trail and hiked between the lakes, up the snow gully to the pass. About half the way up, Mark and Phoebe decided to climb the class 3 rocks to the left of the gully. Phoebe did not have an ice ax (just two ski poles) and none of us had crampons. I also went up the rocks for a bit but decided the snow was easier. I kicked steps and slowly climbed up the gully, which got to over 45 degrees near the top. Eventually I was able to stand upright and walk over to Mark, who was the first to the pass. Phoebe struggled without her ax and joined us in a few minutes.

After a snack we left our packs behind us in the early afternoon. Mark carried his camera gear and Phoebe and I took some water. None of us carried food. I went up with shorts but we each took our parkas. We hiked north to a rocky formation on the near hill on the horizon. From there we had a good view of the peak, which was still far away, perhaps a mile or two! But the terrain was fairly level and gentle. On the way Phoebe spotted a rabbit -- I think it was a huge cottontail and not a jackrabbit -- hopping in the snow at about 12,000 feet! I have never seen a rabbit at such an elevation. Mark said that according to his daughter, the rabbit would bring us luck.

As we approached the moderately steep section below the summit plateau, some weather came in. First a little hail, then more. The top of the mountain got foggy and eventually we were enveloped in mist. It hailed for over an hour and we became disoriented in the white-out and didn't find the easiest way up. We even talked about scrubbing the climb. But we pushed on and as we approached the top the storm passed and we were treated to spectacular vistas to the west, north and east. Especially impressive was the view to the north; within a small arc four fourteeners were distinctly visible: Muir, Whitney, Russell and Williamson.

Rejuvenated by the return of good weather, I bolted up to a false summit a quarter of a mile or so north of the true summit. I peered over the edge and was stunned by the view--a sheer drop of 3 to 4 thousand feet. Quite a contrast to the gentle slope we had climbed! Langley's east face is much more severe than Whitney's. I scurried over to Mark and Phoebe on the peak to take more pictures and peer over the edge. I used Mark's cell phone to call my wife and my mom.

After spending about 10 minutes on the top, we decided to hurry back, since it was already nearly 4:30 p.m. and we had to negotiate the gully below the pass without crampons (and in Phoebe's case, without an ax). We met several climbers on our way down; these were the first others we had seen that day. One of the climbers said that this would be his last California 14er. It wasn't until after 6:00 p.m. that I reached my backpack at the pass. I put on my pile pants and had a snack and some Gatorade. Soon Phoebe and Mark joined me.

We carefully descended the gully, which had hardened and seemed much steeper than when we had come up. Mark led and quickly traversed over to the rocks. I joined him and we waited for Phoebe, who didn't have the benefit of an ice ax and was very uncomfortable on the exposed snow. She used the steps we had kicked and made it to the rocks to follow Mark down. I decided that the snow was preferable and I kicked steps and worked my way down backwards, facing the snow. The other climbers joined us. Most had crampons but soon they were also kicking steps and going down backwards. Eventually I left the snow and moved down some ledges, following Mark's lead. But I quickly returned to the snow and moved down slowly, kicking steps. I was able to glissade the last couple of hundred feet. We had made it back to safety before dark!

The other climbers had camped at the lakes so their day was over. But our camp was still miles away. Mark didn't have his light. Mark had a painful knee and blisters on his feet, so Phoebe loaned him her light and hiked close to him. We were able to stay on route and made decent time down the trail. Mark's new water filter clogged up, so he had no water on the way down except some of my Gatorade. Phoebe used bleach to disinfect her water. When I ran out of Gatorade, I used untreated water from streams, despite Mark's warnings. At about 11:40 p.m., I located Mark's tent and we crashed.

The next morning I left Mark and Phoebe at 6:30 a.m. and got to the parking lot an hour later. They arrived ten minutes after me. We were in good spirits but decided to postpone our planned attempt of Olancha climb because Mark's knees hurt and he had blisters and Phoebe had thrashed her boots. I would have tried Olancha but was secretly happy to postpone it.

We had breakfast at the Mt. Whitney restaurant, got gas and headed north. The sky above the Owens Valley was clear but both the Sierra and the White/Inyo mountains were overcast. The tops of the High Sierra Peaks were hidden by the clouds. Mark pointed out many of the jeep roads he had taken and the best skiing peaks. We got off Hwy 395 and drove into Mammoth Lakes, where Mark bought some fly fishing gear. We drove up to the viewpoint of the Ritter Range and took some pictures, after which we continued north to Bridgeport.

We stopped along the side of the road on Hwy 108 to take pictures of the Sawtooth Range and a lovely stream and wildflowers in the foreground. Last year Mark and I climbed Matterhorn Peak, the highest in that range. We drove over Sonora Pass, observing an unusual amount of erosion and the aftermath of an avalanche which had deposited a large amount of debris on the Stanislaus River. On the way home spotted two bald eagles over the highway, the first I had ever seen in the wild in California.

Rob Langsdorf adds:

Actually the road to Monache Meadows starts by going north on the Blackrock Road, which is 12.7 miles west of the Kennedy Meadows store on the Sherman Pass Road. (There is no jeep road from Kennedy Meadows north of the KM Campground.)

Go north on the Blackrock Road for 3.5 miles to the Monache Jeep Road, turn right and drive 3.6 miles to a junction. Turn left on a dirt road. For 0.9 miles the road is excellent. Then, at the top of a rise, it turns rapidly into a challenging dirt road. It works it's way NE down to Snake Creek. The distance is only slightly less than 2 miles to Snake Creek, but it is mostly low-low 4WD travel.

Once across the creek the road flies east to a track over a saddle in the Summer Ridge and across Round Mtn Stringer. Somewhere east of Monache Mtn the jeep trail crosses the South Fork of the Kern (This crossing can be deep in the early summer.) and goes to the east side of Monache Meadows. Turn left and drive north on the east side of the meadow, when the main road turns west look for a track going north to Monache Creek. This track ends at the trailhead for the Summit Meadow Trail Stock driveway. In about a mile or so this trail hits the PCT, which you follow north to the west side of Olancha.

From the end of the pavement to the trail head is only about 7 miles, but it took me about 50 minutes to make the drive once I knew the route. Allow two hours from Kennedy Meadows. It is a great route for doing Olancha by moonlight late in August or September.

Gary Craig asks:

When I was in the area over Memorial Day, this dirt road was closed by a locked gate just a few feet off the pavement. Signs posted at the Blackrock station gave warning of this, but did not say why, or when the area would re-open. I assume you could walk the road, but that would be a long way.

Birgitte Jensen answers:

Call Blackrock RS (or Lake Isabella, whoever) to make sure it's open; when I was in the area last week it was closed until the meadows dry up, etc. Usually doesn't open to motor vehicles until July sometime.

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