Saturday, August 17, 2013

Mt. Langley via Old Army Pass - 8/5/13

**This trip report is for Mt. Langley via Old Army Pass, a route that I absolutely do not recommend trying unless you're 100% certain the trail is completely free of snow and ice. In the snow, the route can be deadly (and even without snow, it's pretty treacherous). If there's a chance there might still be any snow on the switchbacks leading up to Old Army Pass, you should take New Army Pass instead. In other words, please don't die.**

Two years ago, we decided that Mt. Langley should be our second 14er, and this summer, we finally got our chance to give it a go.

Mt. Langley and Cottonwood Lake #1

After getting rejected from the Mt. Whitney lottery, we planned our camping trip around hiking Mt. Langley instead. We couldn't get overnight permits for the Cottonwood Lakes trailcamp halfway up the Langley trail, but we were hoping to be able to get them at the Lone Pine visitor center the day before our hike.

We started our acclimation with two nights at the Onion Valley Campground, which is almost as nice as Whitney Portal. The trees give you lots of shade, and you get to fall asleep to the sound of the waterfall below the lakes on the Kearsarge Pass Trail. The campground is supposed to have an active bear population, but we never saw any. It does, however, have a pretty active human population.

Matlock Lake

Our first acclimation hike started at the Onion Valley Trailhead and followed the Kearsarge Pass Trail about 2.5 miles to Gilbert Lake, the first big lake right off the trail. The second day, we took the same trail, but continued past the lakes to Kearsarge Pass at 11,700'. We were thinking about continuing from there to scramble up to Mt. Gould, but we decided the view from the pass was awesome enough and we didn't want to wear ourselves out before attempting Langley. Make sure to take the 1/2 mile detour on the way back down after passing Flower Lake to get to Matlock Lake. It's definitely the nicest of the (easily accessible) lakes on the trail.

The view from Kearsarge Pass

There were no permits available at Cottonwood Lakes for the night we wanted to climb Langley, so we stayed our final night at the non-reservable Horseshoe Meadows Campground right by the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead that takes you to the top of Mt. Langley. Several of the campsites come with hitching posts, in case you need to bring your horse with you.

Most people seem to agree that Langley is a slightly easier hike than Whitney, but we still made sure to prepare for the hike to take over 12 hours, and got our start at 3:00am. Unlike Whitney Portal, no one else at the campground was waking up when we got up, and we didn't see anyone on the trail at all for the first several miles.

The first few miles of the trail are mostly flat until about 4 miles in when you start gaining the 1000' to the Cottonwood Lakes, but even that is spread out over about 2 miles. There aren't too many activities that are more peaceful than hiking in the dark, and after trying it out several times, you realize that there's not really anything to be afraid of.

The sky started to glow right before we reached the first of the five Cottonwood Lakes. Even though it's not completely necessary to start your hike before dawn, watching the reflections of the sunrise in the lakes is probably one of the most beautiful things you'll ever see.

Sunrise over Cottonwood Lake #1

We got to the area between lakes 4 and 5 just in time to climb up to a spot where we could watch the sky change color behind us as the sun continued to rise, and look above the lakes where the tips of the peaks were glowing orange.

This spot is about 6 miles into the hike, but the final 5 miles of the hike are much harder than the first half. This is also the last spot to filter water, so make sure to fill up enough for the next 10 miles. If you look up to the west of lake 4, you'll see where the switchbacks take you over Old Army Pass. You probably won't be able to see the trail at all from the lake, but there is a use trail that you can follow all the way to the top (there was one when we were there, anyway).

There's a trail there somewhere

Follow the path around the lake and eventually it'll start taking you up the switchbacks where you need to go. Ascending, there arent too many opportunities to slip, but it's still scary knowing that slipping could be disastrous. It's steep enough that you'll have to take it pretty slow, even if you're not completely terrified of heights.

The switchbacks above lake #4

When you reach the pass, the Great Western Divide and Sequoia peaks come into view. This area is a popular hangout spot for marmots (and their token bunny friend). The next 3 miles are mostly pretty gentle, but I definitely wouldn't call them easy since you're above 12,000' by this point. The incredible view stays in sight to your left the entire way, as an added bonus.

Sequoia and the Great Western Divide

The final mile is where the class 2+ scrambling comes in. We were told to stay toward the west to avoid the hardest climbing, but even the route we ended up taking required some arm strength. I had to take my time here to find the route that freaked me out the least. The scrambling section is really pretty short (the one we took was, at least), but the final summit push after that is a really tiring switchbacking scree slope. If you took a route all the way to the west like we did, once you get to the summit, there's still about a 1/2 mile to go before getting to the actual high point.

It's not that hard to find the high point--just keep moving east, following the cairns until you see the summit register. The summit rock isn't that big, and on the north side, there's a ridiculous sudden drop about 10,000 feet down. The view from up there might actually be better than the view from Mt. Whitney. You can see Mt. Whitney and all his buddies, and if it's clear enough, you can just make out the San Gabriels in the opposite direction.

Mt. Whitney
Tiny San Gabriels
On the way back down, the only really tough sections are the class 2+ scrambling section, and the switchbacks after Old Army Pass that take you back down to the lakes. Take your time on the hard parts; you really don't want to slip.

If you started your hike in the dark, you might not have gotten a chance to appreciate lake #3. This was the first shade we found on our descent, and it's a good spot for a break if you can trust yourself not to fall asleep.

Cottonwood Lake #3


  1. Great hike. Loved the pictures of Orion and of the San Gabriel Mountains. And the bunny, of course!

  2. If you ever feel inclined to take this one again, I recommend taking four days and going up Cottonwood Pass, connecting northbound on the PCT to Soldier Lake, and then heading east over New Army Pass, where you can bag Langley and come down into the Cottonwood Lakes Basin. Great 3-4 day trip. Might even be easier to get permits.