This trip was one of those outings where nothing goes as planned, but then it turns out even better than expected.
I remember first hearing about Mt. Langley at Adventure 16 (by far the best outdoors store, by the way), in a lecture by Ken Murray about places in the Sierra that are not so frequently visited. He said that because it's a bit shorter than Whitney, way fewer people are interested in climbing it.
We went by the mountain twice in the last two years, once when going down towards Cold Creek on the Mt. Whitney trip, and then when coming back towards New Army Pass on the "big" Trans-Sierra trip. There was no time on either trip to go climb it, though.
After coming from from the Two Kings Loop, relaxing a bit and letting my knee rebuild itself for a few weeks, we decided on a whim to go to Langley, in line with our usual "why not?" attitude.
The weather forecast looked great, we still had all the dehydrated food we needed and more - we just had to take care of a few logistical issues. I even resolved to carry my long lens up the mountain. It's pretty heavy, but with the crop sensor, it's 160mm - 640mm. The autofocus was broken, I didn't have time to have it repaired, but I hoped will be worth it.
This was a tough day, as Em was working until noon. The night before, we prepared everything as much as we could, and the next day I was lucky enough to have taken care of all of my work quickly, so I packed both backpacks in almost trail-ready condition. As soon as she got home, we jumped in the car and tried to beat traffic to get out of the city - with pretty good results. The race was on to reach the visitor center in Lone Pine, open until 5pm. We got there by 4:20, and this without breaking too many speed limits.
Originally, I wanted to get a permit online, then have them put it in the night-drop box (this only works with reserved permits, plus the trip can't go into Sequoia National Park). However, all the reserveable permits were spoken for. I called them and they told me I have a more than realistic chance for obtaining a walk-in permit, so that's what we had to do. Plan A was to reach the center in time, pick up the permit, drive up to Horseshoe Meadows, and then hike up towards South Fork Lakes as much as daylight permits. Plan B, in case we didn't reach the center, was to camp at Horseshoe, and then while Em is packing up in the morning, I would drive back to get the permit. Not a good thing. We had no choice and to do this once from Onion Valley, and it's just a huge waste of time and fuel.
But, as I said, we got lucky, and this didn't happen. We picked up the permit - the ranger warned us to look out for thunderstorms Sunday - got to Horseshoe Meadows around 5:30pm and were on the trail by 6pm. The whole place was glowing from the setting sun, and people were getting ready for dinner in their campgrounds. We trotted up the main trail, then took the shortcut after the creek crossing (see about this in the Whitney trip report). In about 45 minutes and 2 miles, we got to the edge of a meadow and after a bit of searching, we found a very nice campsite in the forest, far enough from water and the meadow to be legal, and far enough from the trail to have some privacy. This place is the first meadow on the shortcut trail. If anybody knows the name of this place, shoot me an email, please.
By the time we set up camp, it got dark. We cooked a nice dinner, and went to bed early (for us, that it - around 10pm). All would have been nice, but after only about an hour of sleep I woke up with a start, feeling like somebody just pepper-sprayed me. My whole nose was on fire. I have this stupid allergy to some plant that blooms in late summer in the L.A. area. Generally, as soon as I get out of there, it's gone. But pollens can get stuck on our clothing, and I guess that's what happened here, because after we vigorously shook off everything, I was much better. This did not, however, prevent the issue from ruining my good night's sleep. I was sneezing and blowing my nose until the wee hours of the morning, by the time the alarm went off at 6am, I must have slept 2 hours grand total. Great start for the day.
I was really upbeat, however. We enjoyed the sunrise, had a nice breakfast, then started up towards South Fork Lakes. The plan was flexible: go up to Long Lake, set up camp, leave most of the gear, then head up towards Langley, see if we can make it. Or just loiter around Long Lake, maybe catch some fish, walk around the area, and go up Langley the next morning.
At South Fork Lakes, I ended up directing us the wrong way again. I don't know what's with this place. I proud myself on being relatively decent with the maps and directions, and I never, ever got seriously lost, but we've been here three times, as each time we went the wrong way, at least for a bit. On the Whitney trip, we ended up way too north. Coming down in 2013, I lost the unmaintained trail and we ended up doing more boulder-hopping than necessary.
This time, I wanted to see whether the trail that goes around and up towards Cirque Lake will have a spur towards the unmaintained trail that goes to Long Lake. Well, it didn't. It's very nice, though. We kept on it until it turned towards Cirque Lake, then cut across some minor builder fields, going down a bit in the drainage, but then I again misread the map (it was the lack of oxygen, yes, sure) and we ended up on the south side of that little hill that separates Long Lake from the other drainage.
When we climbed that hill, we saw we're way higher than the lake, and to the left, there's the trail going up towards High Lake.
To make the best of the situation, let's go to High Lake. That time we had no idea what a good decision that was. High Lake was very close and only a bit higher, so we settled down on the shore, had a nice snack, and decided to camp there. We removed all the non-essential, non-smelling gear from the packs and left them along with the bearbox in the shade of several rocks. We did not set up camp, however. There was a very nice spot, almost on the beach, but far enough from the water, and we both agreed that this is our camping spot after we return.
By the time we left it was almost noon, but there was no reason to be concerned about the weather. The sky had no clouds at all, and if there are none by this time, there's a very small chance that thunderstorms will develop in the afternoon. The way up New Army Pass was gorgeous, as always, with a great trail and even better views. Then we dropped about 300' to Old Army Pass and started up the trail towards Mt. Langley. On the NPS website and at the Horseshoe Meadows trailhead there's a message that they removed many hiker-made cairns and marked an "official" route with their own giant cairns, asking people to follow these - so that's what we did.
It was tough going. The first part is very nice, not very steep and with sure footing, but then the grind begins. The rocks on the ground turn to sand, sometimes ankle-deep. Every step takes double the energy as before, and it's very steep. The cairns mark the way very well, though, and it looked to me like they made pretty good route-finding choices.
About halfway up, some hikers coming our way alerted us to bighorn sheep. We knew this is bighorn habitat, but never saw any of them in the entire Sierra (take a look at this Sespe trip, though). This time, we got lucky. At about 13,500' they appeared. One group of four, then another two, and then two more. The bigger group became six and they were leaving the area.
So, finally, lugging that big long lens around has paid off. The wind was blowing, the sun was glaring like crazy, I was a bit dizzy from the altitude, so all these issues together with the broken autofocus resulted in many blurry pictures, but I got a few decent ones. We spent at least half an hour watching them, so after they finally all disappeared, we had a bit more strength to carry on.
Many descriptions call this peak one of the easiest fourteeners. Well... I don't know. When we went up Mt. Whitney from Guitar lake, that ascent seemed much easier. This trail is so loose and so steep in some places, it robs you of energy. There was no need for any scrambling, though. Most people say the last 100' vertical feet before the summit are class III. We were prepared for that and it would have not been a problem. I'm sure that's the case on other routes, but on this one there was only one spot where the trail climbed around 15' and you needed 3-4 moves to get up that section. The next 100' or so after that are indeed the steepest and most loose part of the route, and maybe people without hiking poles would use their hands now and then, but I don't think it's class III.
Anyway, after the really steep part you come to a plateau that takes you to the summit in a very gentle slope. By this time, Em was almost done. She had to stop every few steps to catch her breath and I was worried for a while. The good news was, she did not report any headaches, serious dizziness or nausea. Plus, she could catch her breath after resting for half a minute. At one point, though, she sat down on a rock (where else) and told me to go ahead, she'll wait for me. To me it looked like the summit is right in front of us, less than 100 yards away and maybe 15-20' higher. So I went ahead, and when I was sure I saw the summit (there was an ammo box with the register under a rock), I turned around and we both made our way up, very slowly.
It was very much worth it. There was nobody else there, the sun was still reasonably high and the air was pretty clear. What amazed me most, though, was the sheer drop on the north and north-western side. An abyss thousands of feet deep. We signed the register, had a quick snack, and it was 5pm by the time we left. I would not have thought it would take this long, but with all the breaks for breath and sheep, this is how it turned out. There was no real reason to hurry, though. A few clouds came up, but they were too small to form thunderstorms. The only concern was daylight.
Sure, downhill was much faster. Almost at the same spot where we saw the first group, we took another sheep-break for 10-15 minutes, watching them as they walked by us not far away. From there, quickly down to New Army Pass, then up to Old Army pass. The almost-full moon rose in the meantime, so we took some time to make sure we don't miss the photo opp.
The sun set behind the mountain when we started descending from New Army Pass. After a few minutes, we could see our intended camping spot from high above, and with a sinking heart we realized that we can also see three people scouting that same area, then setting up their tent in the exact same spot we thought of. My only worry was that a guy we talked to earlier said he camped at High Lake and there are only two camp spots, the only decent one being on the beach. When we unloaded, I did not have time to check his facts, so I was a bit concerned about where we're going to sleep. We were tired, hungry, running out of water, and worst of all, running out of daylight.
Everything turned out very well, though. After looking, we realized there are at least 3-4 more campsites, just on the other side of the rock from the beach. We gathered our stash, set up camp, and by 9pm, dinner was ready. It wasn't cold at all, but I was shivering from lack of calories in my system. It took almost an hour after eating to start feeling the warming effects from the inside.
That did not stop me from taking a few nighttime pictures by the light of the moon and of the moon itself, and then we went to bed. At least neither of us had any trouble sleeping, especially with the thought that next morning, we can sleep in if we want to, the only thing we have to do is hike back to the car.
Turns out the decision to go up Langley the day before was a good one. In the morning, clouds appeared and started racing each other all over the place. The sky changed by the minute, blazing sunshine one minute, white clouds a bit later, then gray clouds, then sunshine again, then the whole show started over. I took pictures every few minutes of the rock face west of New Army Pass, the montage shows pretty well how volatile the weather was.
We packed up and headed down towards South Fork Lakes. I was extra careful to look for the unmaintained trail, and found it, then we followed it all the way to the lake, all the time marking the directions so we can find it again. I resolved myself not to go off track here again (though I'm sure it will happen).
There was a marmot photo-break at the lake, then we descended on the shortcut trail and even got a bit of drizzle on the way to the car. By 1pm, we were changing clothes and ready to go home.
There's a message at the trailhead asking people to report bighorn sheep sightings. I did just that and sent them the photos. They said it's a big deal to have pictures of an ewe and her lamb and they're very happy we got these. They even asked me to sign a release so they can use the pictures.
Don't forget to check out the full gallery.