We woke to birds chirping in the trees as twilight gleamed its first light. We started up the morning ritual, of making breakfast and packing up. The pink sky watched over our labor and as we finished putting away the last piece of gear, the ridgeline to the west lit up in a golden orange lightshow.
We led out from camp and gleefully headed down valley overlooking gurgling meadow streams where cutthroat trout played. The ridgelines towering above were as varied as the faces of the twisted trees we passed trailside.
The Ranger Station soon came into view on the far side of a beautiful green meadow. A creek bubbled and gurgled in its belly and song birds accompanied its tune. The air was delightfully cool and the sun had just started to reach the valley bottom as we passed by. Soon we turned north where the JMT and PCT meet and we rolled with the rising and falling of its hills as we went.
It was interesting to observe the felled trees across the hillside. Thinking about their lifecycles: downed dead trees with branches twisted and broken, thrust from the tree’s body as they fell; to baby trees growing next to their parents, guarded and well fed.
The skies had become overcast and grey as the morning pressed on, yet as we we gained a saddle a window of bluebird sky glimmered some hope in the distance. The landscape was a granite boulder field and the trail was a dirty grey, like ground up granite with a flash of dirt, sprinkled with pinecones and bordered by boulders. As we descended towards Wallace Creek we heard a grouse call, a repeated low wooshing like someone swinging an enormous fan through the air. We finally reached the creek, filtered some water and took a moment to try and clean our dirty socks.
After the creek crossing, we started a long steady climb, and at the top were rewarded with incredible vistas of a jagged ridgeline in the distance. We vowed to look up its name later, as if to get to know it better. We soon found the valley floor and the beautiful crossing of Wright Creek.
We struck out on another long climb, and we watched as trees slowly started to fade out below until finally finding ourselves on Bighorn Plateau. We kept our eyes peeled for bighorn sheep, but we found only expectant marmots waiting for a feed from a careless traveler. Vistas were abound, Mount Whitney to the southeast, Barnard to the East, Mt Williamson and Tyndall to the northeast, the Kern Ridge to the west and Kings Kern Divide to the north. Moments like this are why we started the trail in the first place, absolutely breathtaking!
Coming down from our Bighorn Plateau high, we found Tyndall Creek flowing well and a few hikers sitting nearby enjoying a snack. We joined them, chatting about Forester Pass ahead and where they were from. We were interested to hear the Forester pass was clear of snow, although hard to believe, we would soon find out first hand. We pressed on up out of the creek valley and onto an approach plateau just below the pass. Once again trees began to fade out, and ice covered lakes took their place. We climbed slow and steady up to the pass. We must have already begun to adapt to altitude as this ascent was much easier then Whitney the day before! We found no snow on the trail all the way to the saddle, which was very surprising, indicative of the dry winter this past year.
We found some new friends on top of the pass and chatted on about the low snow, the fires to come, and treks present, past, and future. We soon bid farewill and started down the north side of Forester. There were only a few snow patches to be found and the trail was quick and windy.
We soon passed that magic 10,000 ft altitude and trees immediately sprung up. The valley we were entering was gorgeous, covered in moss, and cut through with gurgling braided streams. It was stark and beautiful, the tall strong granite mountains above fed the streams, like veins of the valley pumping the lifeblood to all the vegetation and animals here.
We continued north, dropping lower and lower into the valley ahead until reaching Golden Bear Creek. We stopped to top off our water before camp and rest our feet. By now some ominous clouds had moved in and the temperature started to drop rapidly. I didn’t suspect rain, but was perplexed by the strange white cloud looming over the peaks blocking out the sun’s warmth, and the distant peal of thunder.
We trekked on and found a gorgeous camp perched just above Golden Bear Creek. The jagged ridgeline lined the sky, beautiful pine trees and granite boulders scattered the landscape. We set up our tent, cooked up our dinner, finished the obligatory pre-dinner stretches before slinking off to our cozy tent in refuge from the cold night that was starting to set in on us. What a magical day.
- Hike Stats
- Miles: 20.1 Total (16.5-36.6)
- GPX Track
- Gear: JMT Backpacking Gear List
11:30 pm and the alarm blasted. The trees were all black now with some stars peeping through as I checked the time, nudged Izzie to start getting ready, and fired up the JetBoil for the much needed coffee to shake off the 3 hour nap we took under the forest at Whitney Portal. We were soon sorted, packs on, taking our first steps on the trail guided by our little bubbles of headlamp light. The town of Independence gleamed behind us to the west in the undoubtedly hot valley below, I was glad we were headed up into the alpine.
Miles went quick to the soundtrack of Lone Pine Creek roaring like a ferocious tiger in the night as we plodded up the canyon. The stars shone high above, blocked out only by the giant stone faces lurking in the dark. The dusty trail slithered through huge foxtail pines, up and around a maze of granite boulders. Sometimes we found millipedes on the trail, or the occasional flash of a mouse all under an amazing blanket of stars.
It was 3pm before we found our first snow patch, and in the dead of night the exhaustion started scratching at the back of our eyes, a stumble here or there shocked us back into alertness for fear of twisting an ankle.
Finally the moon started to rise, and soon behind it the gleam of pink twilight from the rising sun revitalized our steady march. We were soon at the base of the 99 switchbacks and stopped to break out the Jetboil for a round of oatmeal and another instant cup of coffee. We watched the sun rise and stuffed our faces as we looked over the small camp below us, the mirror lake, and the gigantic granite faces coming into light with orange glow.
We were on the move again and as we rose in altitude, so did our heartrates. Even hiking a slow steady pace made you feel your heartbeat in your ears. We slowed, but finally made it to the pass just south of Mount Muir. Peering to the west we were slapped in the face with a sea of granite. It seemed to rise and fall all around us, yet frozen in time. Some great faces looked like a great granite pipe organ, while others looked like a million fingers reaching for heaven.
We trekked on, stopping at the trail junction where the JMT heads west and the Whitney summit trail continues north to drop a pack and consolidate snacks and water. The trail itself was pretty easy, just some boulders here and there to navigate, but the pressure from the altitude felt immense, always trying to hold back your next step, making every inch an effort. It became a game of “not too much”. Not too much speed, not too much water, not too much heavy breathing, not too much food. Felt like making the wrong move would leave you trailside gasping for air. We pressed on, past the Needles, peering down the gaps between to look down on Owens Valley far below. One step at a time, and finally after what seemed like a long 1.9 miles from the junction, we saw the house at the summit.
Relieved we had made it, we plopped down, pulled out our sleeping bags for quick warmth, water to rehydrate from the arid alpine, and snacks to fuel our journey down and north, further along the JMT. We had a quick nap, and finally decided our high altitude life had to be put on pause for the next adventure, and we headed down.
The air was still chilly but the sun warmed you, so we plodded down, back to our packs in hoodies taking in the scenery and admiring the vast granite frozen sea. Little lakelets could be seen from the ridge, and eventually pines down in the lower valleys. We reached our packs, shouldered our belongings and headed north down towards the valley floor.
An oversight we made was not filtering enough water before our Whitney ascent, so now, as we headed down, we began rationing our last liter of water. I had remembered there were creeks below, but every creek bed we came to was dry . . . we plodded on with parched tongues. Soon Guitar Lake came into view and we counted the seconds before we reached its only running stream. We were delighted to see flow, and quickly broke out our bottles for a fill. After the long dry last 3 miles, not to mention the rationing during the miles before, this was a godsend and our stomachs rejoiced.
We meandered over to Guitar Lake, found a nice spot for lunch and had yet another nap, should I be feeling guilty by now? Nah, we had a midnight start after all! We packed up once again and wandered on down the trail until we found a nice group of foxtail pines, singing birds, and a view of the meadow below. Soon with a tent pitched, dinner made, and stretches done, we crawled into our tent for some much needed rest after a very long day.
- Hike Stats
- Miles: 16.5 Total (0-16.5)
- GPX Track
- Gear: JMT Backpacking Gear List
In usual tradition for any Sierra trip, a buddy Mark and I headed out after work on a Friday to drive the 9 hour trek to the trail head where we would try to sleep for a few hours before the alarm sounding signaling the encroaching daybreak was imminent and the start to our Journey up a 14er would begin. The trip to attempt to summit Mount Langley was no different. Tired and exhausted from the drive with a quick pit stop in San Bernardino to pick up Mark’s brother, we pulled up to the trail head to find every parking spot filled, no empty camp in sight.
We searched the area, looking for a suitable camp spot, only to find it took a drive down the cattle road and a short jaunt into the woods among the pines to find something worth calling camp. Exhausted we set up shop, packed our gear away, and were quickly sound asleep in a four man tent under the night sky. Morning came early, too early I thought as my alarm sounded. I hopped up, poked my head out of the tent, and knew it was time to go to work. We packed up the site, got our packs together and drove to the trail head strapped up ready to roll. This would be our 3rd California fourteen for all 3 of us; we smiled like exhausted idiots, knowing this was the price to pay to see the top, and took our first steps onto the trail.
I love being among the pines, the padded trail was lined with them, some dead from a recent forest fire, some dead from lighting strikes, other thriving in the sunlight at 10,000 feet. We trekked on weaving in and out along the trail, open green fields in the distance beyond the pine thicket. There were a lot of backpackers on the trail descending the mountain. We stopped to chat with a couple of them. We planned to take Old Army Pass up to the summit plateau which was the only crux that stood between us and peaking the 14,026 ft Mount Langley. The two fellas we stopped to chat with told us there was a way to circumvent the snow covered pass which would most certainly require crampons and an ice axe. They spoke of a short 60 foot scramble just to the left before the snow drift, we decided to go for it and forego the longer more populated New Army Pass route.
Taking the fork towards Old Army Pass we hit some big switchbacks that really got the heart pumping. We climb up and up exiting in a beautiful open meadow that housed the glacier lakes where we hoped to camp for the night! It was gorgeous and wide open, the pines were more space here given the altitude but the grey rocks were still a beautiful sight to see. We pushed to Lake 5, finding a nice flat area to ditch our gear and take a well needed rest. Marmots and small birds were the only animals we found here, that and the few other trekkers seeking adventure. We looked up at the pass curious if we would be able to reach the summit plateau or if our efforts would be thwarted by an impasse.
After dropping our gear we started ascending the pass, hearts were back to pumping the low oxygenated air through our muscles as we pressed to the crux. I was the first to reach the snow and started to assess the situation. The snow bank left in the shade had a nice 400 foot drop below it, the penalty for a mistake here was certain death, and there had been many who attempted it and didn’t come back. Mark and I found the rock chute and took the scramble, while Mark’s brother Michael (who had the ice axe and crampon) decided to go for it. After the sandy rocky loose chute we reached the summit plateau and began to look for Michael who was nowhere in sight. Fearing the worst we hiked towards the exit of the pass. Just as we did, Michael came into sight and was just sitting, waiting. We regrouped and pushed for the peak.
The push for any 14er is always tough. The oxygen is thin, your body is tired, and every part of you says stop, except your will. We pressed on, up the huge cairn stacks and beyond to the rock scramble that lead us to the snow patch, and eventually the summit. The granite rock plastered the higher altitude landscape, not many creatures or plants could survive here, but it was still gorgeous. From the summit we could see for miles and miles in all directions. The drop off from the peak’s really got everyone’s nerves on edge.
I had only been at 14k a handful of times before this, but for some reason (I guess I was having a good day) the altitude didn’t suffocate me, and I took a nice nap after cheering a celebration brew with my friends post peak. When I woke I looked around to the surrounding area in awe, took pictures like a tourist, and signed the registry with everyone. I put a note in the box for HB; it was her hike to summit after all, even though she couldn’t be there. Said my peace and headed down.
On the way back we decided to take the traditional route down the summit plateau down the west ridge. As I walked down the sandy slopes, loose rocks and dirt would try their best to catch a ride in the bottom of my shoes. I had to stop a few times to clean them out, but nothing would deter me from enjoying the view of the incredible landscape surrounding us. We trekked on and finally rounded the corner to the Old Army Pass. There, standing out in the field between us and our route home were 13 Rams. It was incredible!!! The Alpha male was standing out big bold and strong ready to take on any challenger that dared come too close. We (as passive as possible) made a large circle around them attempting to get to our route down without disturbing the herd. I have never seen so many rams in one place, even in pictures; it was truly a perfect moment on the mountain.
After finding the chute we climbed down back to camp, exhilarated by the days trek. We got back, set everything up and chowed down on some much deserved dinner. What a day! We woke in the morning, had breakfast, snapped pictures and appreciating the landscape, and took our time heading back down to the trail head where we camped again for one more night before the long drive home to Phoenix.
- Weather: Hi 60s, Low in the lower 40s, Overcast/Sunny
- Water: 7 liters (2 days)
- Food: 3 protien bars, 3 Clif Bars, 2 via starbucks instant coffee, 2 Quaker Real Medleys, 2 Mountain House, Quinoa, instant mashed potatoes
- Time: 2 Days (approx 36 hours)
- Distance: 20 Miles round trip
- 58 liter exos osprey backpack
- Big Anges Copper Spur UL2 tent
- Flash REI sleeping pad
- Cosmic Down Kelty Sleeping Bag (rated to 20 deg F)
- Jet Boil – Sol
- Black Diamond trekking poles
- Sawyer squeeze water filter
- Smart wool 195 long sleeve shirt
- Arc’teryx hoody
- Smart wool beanie cap
- Patagonia Pants
- Merrell Mid Moab Hiking Boots
- Darn Tough wool medium weight sox
- Giro Mountain Biking Gloves