If you know me or read my blog you might already know that this August I’m heading out for a 220-mile 18-day backpack through the Sierras. I’ve never done anything like this before and have no idea what to expect! My planned start is August 14th south of Yosemite near Silver Lake. I’ll be joining my dad, stepmom, and family friend on a couple day loop through the gorgeous Ritter Range in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. I’ll say goodbye and continue along the JMT solo for 10 days before meeting back up with them near Kearsarge Pass. We’ll all hit the trail again, finishing atop Mount Whitney on August 31st. Whew! I hope it all goes to plan!
Update: I wrote this post in July 2016 one month before my JMT attempt. Sadly, it did not go to plan and I was forced to abandon due to wildfires.
As August ticks nearer I’m getting more excited and also more nervous. Suddenly that solo 10 day stretch is feeling like an eternity and I’m wondering what I’ve gotten myself into! I still have quite a bit of stuff to pull together and despite all the trail miles I’ve logged the last few years one thing I’ve done very little of is backpacking. So naturally, I decided to head out for a 3 week trip. Small steps, right?!
Back in March my dad suggested that we take a long weekend to backpack into the Cottonwood Lakes area of the eastern Sierras and climb 14,026′ Mount Langley to get both some backpacking miles AND some altitude training. Langley is considered one of California’s easier 14ers and it would be only my 2nd after climbing nearby White Mountain (14,246’) back in 2008. We secured our permits and headed to the Sierras this past 4th of July holiday for some 14er peak bagging!
The weekend taught me some valuable lessons about my upcoming backpacking adventure and that “easy” is a pretty subjective term when it comes to 14k peaks.
Acclimatization is key.
Thursday we headed for Lone Pine, a small town in the Owens Valley at the base of the eastern Sierra. My dad and stepmom are there so frequently to hike that they’re practically locals. We spent Friday on a 6 mile hike to 11,605′ Trail Peak to get some altitude acclimatization. Just getting to the hike was an adventure. The road ascends a narrow and windy 6,000’ from Lone Pine!
The trailhead lies in a vast meadow at 10k surrounded by beautiful lodgepole pine forest. I stepped out of the car, took a deep breath of pine, and immediately felt the altitude. My breathing was heavy, my heart thumped, and my legs were sluggish. The hike to Trail Peak was a great warmup though and we took it at an especially easy pace to let our bodies adjust. Most of the trail was a gradual ascent until we turned off for a steep off-trail scramble to the peak. At the summit we enjoyed comfortable temps and fantastic views including a preview of Mount Langley.
On the way down our legs moved quicker and my breathing relaxed. This little deposit into the altitude training piggy bank would definitely help with the weekend backpack!
Spring in the Sierras means storms.
Back in Lone Pine it was a blistering 110°F. Up in the mountains it was comfortably temperate but the weekend weather forecast called for a high chance of afternoon storms. We started for Cottonwood Lakes early on Saturday to minimize the risk of getting caught in weather. High altitude with little shelter is NOT where you want to be when thunderstorms come rolling through.
We again headed up the steep road towards Horseshoe Meadows but to a different trailhead for Cottonwood Lakes. Even though we had full backpacks the prior day’s altitude training definitely paid off. My body felt great! It helped that the hike to the Lakes gains only 1,500’ over 6.5 miles on a soft dirt trail through shady forest. It was the most comfortable and easy high altitude backpack we could have asked for!
After 5 miles the trail turned upward into an open basin with stunning views of Cottonwood Lakes and Mount Langley. We lingered only briefly for photos—the sky was darkening quickly and weather was surely headed our way.
We skirted around the Lakes until reaching a short but steep climb up to Cottonwood Lake #5, the furthest lake from the trailhead and also our home for the night. Lying right at the base of Old Army Pass the lake had sweeping views of the entire basin and convenient access to the Langley trail.
We were sprinkled with intermittent light rain and hail while setting up camp but it eventually stopped long enough for us to cook a meal. We then wandered to the base of Old Army Pass to survey the steep climb we’d be taking in the morning on our way to Langley. After a brief time the skies again darkened and forced us back to camp. As we casually strolled along I glanced back at my dad and saw a huge sheet of rain quickly rolling across the lake. I yelled at him to run and we somehow managed to dive for our tents seconds before the the hail and rain storm hit us. Talk about perfect timing!
We spent the next two hours hunkered down in our tents, buffeted by rain, wind, and hail. I neglected to put out the guidelines of my ultralight Big Agnus Fly Creek and the first few wind gusts were scary! My tent flexed so much I worried the poles would bend but she held up great and I stayed completely dry! The Fly Creek passed her first real weather test with flying colors. My dad and stepmom, on the other hand, found out their nearly 12-yr old tent was no longer waterproof and spent hours furiously wiping water from their tent walls. They’ve since bought a new tent for August.
When the thunderstorm finally blew over I peeked out and was reminded of the Wizard of Oz. You know that moment when Dorothy opens the door and finds herself inside the fantastic technicolor world of Oz, colors bursting everywhere? It was just like that! The sky was painted with brilliant colors and I couldn’t believe my own eyes! It was the 4th of July and I guess nature decided to put on the best natural fireworks show I’d ever seen!
As my folks dried their wet gear I sat on a nearby knoll for over an hour watching the colors fade to black, completely mesmerized by the beauty of this place. I suddenly got goosebumps when I thought about my upcoming backpacking trip. John Muir was right to nickname the Sierras the “Range of Light”. Never before had I seen such color!
The best laid plans…
Although the evening was quiet and beautiful I barely slept. Altitude has a funny way of disrupting your sleep. Sunday morning we woke at dawn determined to get an early start on our 7 mile round trip hike to Langley. We wanted plenty of time before afternoon storms fired up.
The day before we talked to other hikers who told us that although the route up Old Army Pass was mostly clear of snow, there remained one small dicey snow field near the top. The trail was basically a rocky goat path carved into the mountain with steep drops in places. With snow present it could be dangerous and has been the scene of a few accidents and fatalities.
We had no traction gear so we made a plan to hike up, survey the snow field, and gauge how comfortable we were with the crossing. Our altitude acclimatization paid off again as we all moved at a quick and steady pace and finally reached the snow field near the top of the pass. It stretched maybe only 20 yards but was a definite “no fall” zone. If you were lucky, a slip would send you careening into the rocks a few hundred feet below. If you missed them, well… it would be bad news.
The snow was soft but firm and level steps were kicked in all the way across. Our friend Herman crossed easily and before I thought about it too much I shocked myself by following him. I took each step deliberately and carefully. Heading this direction you couldn’t see the exposure, but once on the other side I looked back and could only see a huge slide into nothing. Coming back across this would be scary as hell.
My dad and stepmom have a number of scrambles and technical scree ascents and descents to their name but they were uncomfortable with this crossing and chose not to do it. Having already done Langley a few years ago they opted instead to do an alternate hike. It was disappointing to continue without them but I applaud them for knowing their limits and making a sound decision. Too many of us can push our boundaries and end up in trouble. This wasn’t the place to do that.
There’s no such thing as an “easy” 14er.
Reluctantly waving my dad and stepmom goodbye, Herman and I continued over the pass and marveled at the lunar like landscape as we passed into Sequoia National Park. We spied Langley’s long sloping ridgeline in the distance and kept slowly climbing upwards. Somewhere around 12k my vision went a little fuzzy and sparkly. We took a short break, grabbed a snack, and I focused on taking long deep breaths. The vision fuzziness went away and I immediately felt better.
The forest service has built new large cairns to mark the preferred route up Langley’s long flank. Actually, large would be an understatement. The new cairns are huge! We still had some confusion with all the existing boot tracks and paths but generally pointed ourselves upwards, doing our best to go from cairn to cairn. At one point we spied a cairn that looked as if it were on the ridge line but alas, it wasn’t. We crested the ridge only to see more cairns stretched out ahead of us. They were surely teasing us.
The endless cairns, continual grade, and high altitude created a soul crushing slog. All I could do was turn off my brain and put one foot in front of the other.
That was basically our mantra for most of the 2.5 hours it took us to reach the summit of Langley from the top of Old Army Pass.
When we finally did reach the summit I shook the stars from my head and couldn’t BELIEVE how dramatic it was! Langley’s steep vertical drop dares you to see how close you can get to the edge. We had the entire summit all to ourselves and looked over to Whitney, Sequoia, and the basin below us. I had on every layer I brought because the wind was strong and the temps surprisingly cold. We stayed on the summit only long enough to snap some photos, sign the register, and sit down for a few minutes of rest. Storm clouds were already moving in sooner than yesterday and we had no desire to be on this 14k summit during a storm!
We started our descent and the storm clouds directly ahead of us seemed to move nearly as fast as we were. Despite a mild headache I was motivated to set a fast pace on the way down. The thought of lightning while being on this exposed plateau wasn’t comforting. We raced the incoming clouds all the way down and breathed a small sigh of relief when we reached the top of Old Army Pass. We’d soon be descending to relative safety. But it was short lived because the snow field crossing was next.
The tracks across the snow field pointed straight towards the worst exposed section of trail. Herman asked me if I was ready and I barely nodded. I stayed a step right behind him and pulled down my hat so I couldn’t see anything else but the steps directly in front of me. I looked up right at the point where a fall would most likely be fatal and froze. “Oh shit, oh shit!” I yelled. Herman told me to just breath and take a step. I really had no other choice.
I held my breath and carefully took my last few steps across the snow. When I finally hit trail again I breathed a sigh of relief. The hard part was over!! I carefully descended the remaining bit of the steep rocky trail but with us out of storm danger and over the snow field I felt much more relaxed. My dad and stepmom saw us coming and headed up the trail to meet us, whooping and hollering and hi-fiving us on our summit. There were big smiles all around!
I had hoped to relax in camp a bit, eat some food, and regroup before the 6 mile hike back out. Unfortunately Mother Nature had better ideas and we chose to pack up quickly and get out of there before the next round of storms rolled through. The first few miles were tough for me. I was tired and hungry and being forced to eat on the go wasn’t my idea of fun. It was a good decision though as this storm had much more lightning and we barely stayed ahead of it most of the hike out.
2 miles from the trailhead we finally relaxed a bit and took a quick break before continuing on. We applauded our fantastic timing for the weekend. Somehow we leapt for shelter just in the nick of the time the night prior and barely made it up Langley and back down before more storms hit. I can see now why it’s so imperative to hike early in the Sierras in the Spring.
Once back in Lone Pine we enjoyed a celebration dinner and drinks before collapsing to sleep around 9pm. I’ve never slept so soundly in my life!
Lessons from Langley.
Our Langley adventure gave me a much needed confidence boost for August but also made me realize just how tough this trip is going to be. I’ll be hiking a lot of long 15 mile days and haven’t yet come to terms with the idea of being alone out there for 10 days! I feel reasonably good about my ability to handle it but still have some doubts and a ton of food to sort out. Packing enough food for 18 days on the trail is going to be a challenge and my very first resupply package is due to mail out this week!
So what did I take away from our Mount Langley excursion?
- The Sierras truly ARE the Range of Light. Never before have I seen such beautiful colors!
- Hiking early is a must: high altitude storms are scary!
- Acclimatization is key! Your body will like you so much more.
- My Big Agnus Fly Creek UL 2 is the bomb!
- Even when the temps are 100+ 14k summits are freezing!
- Pringles are the best “most ridiculous and useless but amazing thing to pack when backpacking”.
- I may never upgrade my pack: no backpack is more comfortable than my old ratty 14-yr old North Face backpack.
- August is going to be a pretty epic journey both physically and emotionally. I hope I can do it!
So off I go now to get my first big resupply packaged. I’ll be continuing to post updates on the trip, follow along if you’d like! And send me some good trail vibes, I can use all I can get!