Fryin' on a Fourteener

8-10 Feb 2002 - by Steve Eckert

This trip was announced as "Freezin' on a Fourteener", but given the weather we had that title seems out of line...

Nine hardy souls set out to brave the chill and deep powder of winter, only to find spring conditions and sunburn instead of winter and frostbite. Those who drove Hwy 395 from the north endured a blizzard (no kidding) to get there. Those who drove Hwy 395 from the south found completely dry roads after escaping the Bay Area drizzle near I-5.

The Horseshoe Meadow road is "closed" at about 5500', but the gate is no longer locked and you can easily drive around the Road Closed sign. Rumor has it that people kept breaking the locks off the gate because the road is so often snow-free. With a bit of spinning and a few stops to shove rocks out of the way, even regular passenger cars got within a quarter mile of the saddle (to 9500'). That cut a full day off our 4 day schedule, and we finished in 2.5 days. 4WD with chains had been over the top and down to the creek but there was one drift that looked dangerously soft so we clumped down the road in our plastic boots and switched to skis when the road levelled off about 300' below the saddle.

Route finding is non-trivial in shallow drainages filled with trees, but Clement had been there enough times to basically do the right thing. My intuition was corrected by my GPS at least once and we made no wrong turns following the South Fork up toward Long Lake. Fresh snow stuck to our skis in places, but MaxiGlide or Skin Wax seemed to cure it nicely. Because we drove higher than expected, we didn't leave the cars until 9am and we didn't quite get to our intended campsite... lunch at 10200' in a clearing, past the unnamed lake at 10600', and after a nice contour to avoid some cliffs we camped just north of the outlet of the eastern-most of South Fork Lakes.

Overnight temps stayed in the high teens and we didn't have much wind in camp even though the carved snow in the meadow proved it had been very nasty there recently. There was actually some dry ground around the trees, and only a couple feet of snow on the level at 11000'. Did I mention there were no clouds in sight all day? Same for summit day! I never put on my mittens, and while walking I just wore finger glove shells with no liners.

We left camp around 7am, having ditched our warm sweaters before the sun touched us. It took a precious 45 minutes to get to where we were going to camp at Long Lake, and we paid for that later, but the intended campsite would have been more exposed and less comfortable. Soon we were at High Lake, looking back at an odd ice flow where water seeps froze in layer after layer on relatively flat ground. We should have left our skis there, but we strapped them to our packs and climbed to New Army Pass in crampons. Austin managed to kick all the tough steps, including some 40 degree stuff right at the top that we knew would be trouble later. Further east, Heather and I found mostly crampon-hard windpack that we didn't break through, and joined the others near the top. We topped out about 200' east of the New Army Pass sign.

Once on the summit ridge/plateau, we regretted lugging our skis up there. It was barren. Over 12000' in early February and there were just patches of snow between mostly bare rocks and sand. Two miles each way. 2000 feet of gain and loss. It was supposed to be a cinch on skis, but it turned into a bit of a slog in plastic boots.

Our token snowshoer had originally intended to skip summit day, but wound up leaving camp a bit after us and climbing onto the plateau for a look around. One other person called it quits part way to the summit, saving his strength for the return. Curl, on the other hand, had lugged his full pack up there and was planning to keep going solo for a few more days (eventually coming out at Whitney Portal). Suddenly the group inverted, with Curl dropping his pack and shooting to the front and the rest of us trailing behind.

We reached the summit of Mt Langley (14042') just before 2pm without further ado. There had been some strong winds at the pass and along the first part of the ridge, but the summit was quite calm and we plopped down to enjoy the view. Neighboring ridges had more snow, but everything on the crest near us was as bare as late spring. A bit of a queue started up to use my cell phone, which had perfect reception from the summit, and the nonbelievers started down while we weren't looking... a good choice, as it turned out, but I would have liked to spend more than half an hour at the top after all the time it took to get there. We were the first to sign the register since November.

Regrouping at New Army Pass, without Curl, we looked over the edge and realized we had only about 30 minutes before the sun was off the snow and it would crust up. I tossed a 10 pound rock off the side to see how hard the snow was, and it didn't bounce - a great sign, but misleading. Austin SKIED DOWN, proving that free-heel bindings work just great for jump turns on 30-40 degree icy slopes when strapped to the right person. Paul went down sans crampons but facing the wall and kicking steps. I did a short glissade after everyone told me it was too steep, but gave up and stopped about 40' down when the snow got harder.

So far so good. Paul and I worked our way below a boulder where we could put crampons on safely while Heather methodically kicked her way down the slope (having put crampons on at the top). Then Clement's crampons came off his rented boots. Kai's crampon straps didn't fit around his overboots. Clement got his crampons on again. They came off again. Kelly graciously chopped steps while Clement descended below the hard band (which was narrow enough that I should have kept glissading and skipped crampons - but better safe than sorry) and got back into the steps they had used for ascending. I followed Kai down to keep an eye on his straps. Austin eyed us from the bottom of the slope - he could have already been in camp, but he hung around to make sure everyone was OK.

All in all, we did fine. No falls, no arrests, no errors. The sun was way down by the time we returned to High Lake, and we split up there in a dash for camp. Clement and I made it before headlamps were required, about 6pm, and all were safely back within half an hour. An 11 hour summit day ended with a couple hours of conversation and feasting. We did not get up early the next day!

The pack into camp had taken under 8 hours, going out took about half that. Our lone snowshoer was only about 30 minutes behind the group, even with gentle slopes and lots of miles to glide on skis, but the skiers insisted that he didn't have as much fun. We spent time changing clothes, packing gear, driving down, having pizza, and still got home way before midnight.

Ah, springtime in the Sierra. It starts early some years! The forecast is for a storm next weekend, which would be the traditional President's Day blowout that we avoided on purpose, so the good weather wasn't ENTIRELY an accident.

GPS waypoints - see trailhead page for driving waypoints!

info Download the Waypoint+ data below as a GPX file for your GPS.

Datum,North America 1983,GRS 80,0,-1.6E-7,0,0,0
RoutePoint,D,CARS, 36.4690500498,-118.1290400028,02/12/2002,22:13:15,HOW FAR WE DROVE
RoutePoint,D,SADDLE, 36.4670200348,-118.1323000193,02/12/2002,22:13:05,ROAD SADDLE
RoutePoint,D,SADDLE, 36.4670200348,-118.1323000193,02/12/2002,22:13:05,ROAD SADDLE
RoutePoint,D,COTON3, 36.4594012499,-118.1635112762,02/12/2002,22:13:05,LEAVE ROAD
RoutePoint,D,COTON4, 36.4628398418,-118.1722874641,02/12/2002,22:13:05,LEAVE TRAIL
RoutePoint,D,COTON5, 36.4674425125,-118.1827373505,02/12/2002,22:13:05,LOWER SOUTH FORK
RoutePoint,D,COTON6, 36.4657741785,-118.1989378929,02/12/2002,22:13:05,
RoutePoint,D,COTON7, 36.4823877811,-118.2088084221,02/12/2002,22:13:06,UPPER SOUTH FORK
RoutePoint,D,CAMP, 36.4839199781,-118.2115700245,02/12/2002,22:13:15,CAMPED BOTH NIGHTS
RoutePoint,D,LONGLK, 36.4865022898,-118.2243705988,02/12/2002,22:13:06,LONG LAKE OUTLET
RoutePoint,D,LONGLK, 36.4865022898,-118.2243705988,02/12/2002,22:13:06,LONG LAKE OUTLET
RoutePoint,D,NARMYB, 36.4880579710,-118.2409412861,02/12/2002,22:13:06,NEW ARMY BASE 11
RoutePoint,D,NARMYP, 36.4907991886,-118.2400615215,02/12/2002,22:13:06,NEW ARMY PASS 12
RoutePoint,D,RARMYP, 36.4966410398,-118.2394499779,02/12/2002,22:13:06,REAL ARMY PASS 1
RoutePoint,D,PT3916, 36.5115219355,-118.2365102768,02/12/2002,22:13:06,PT 3916M
RoutePoint,D,LANGLY, 36.5234202147,-118.2394231558,02/12/2002,22:13:06,MT LANGLEY 4275M

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