Peak(s):  Mt. Whitney - 14,505 feet
Mt. Langley - 14,026 feet
Keeler Needle - 14,260 feet
Mt. Muir - 14,012 feet
Date Posted:  09/18/2012
Modified:  09/24/2012
Date Climbed:   08/01/2012
Author:  JosephG
Additional Members:   jf32, ngoodnight
 Six Days in the Sierras  



This is Part Two of a weeklong excursion into California's Sierra valley. Part One is HERE. While Part One addresses only one hike"the behemoth known as Williamson"Part Two will quickly run through two additional day treks: Mt. Langley and Mt. Whitney, Mt. Muir, and Keeler Needle (a Whitney sub-peak).

Posting a Whitney TR seems akin to posting a Bierstadt, Quandary, or G&T TR. Nevertheless, because you can't describe Muir without Whitney, because it's in CA and not our backyard, and because it was part of the week, the tallest in the continental finds its way into this report. That's what power-skimming's for.

Because these routes, for the most part, are well-defined and self-executing, I will limit undue explanations (e.g., and then the trail continued on and on, and there were trees, and our feet hurt, and we were excited for dinner, etc.) and primarily use pictures to tell the tale.

The entirety of this Part Two was to be impacted by our success on Williamson. Williamson had been the goal from the moment we failed our summit bid last year. Had we failed Williamson again, no matter how many peaks we collected would not have been enough to fill the gaping void of Williamson. On the other hand, anything beyond Williamson this year would be gravy. As you will see, we enjoyed a decent bit of gravy.

Mt. Langley

I need to reiterate that information about any California mountain not named Whitney is not the best. We long ago learned not to fully trust such route descriptions"particularly for anticipating route vagaries. Langley was no exception, although by all accounts the route seemed straightforward enough: 20 miles roundtrip, hike a decent trail until you see Langley, then ascend and hike a long way more.

The vagary, however, was that there are two "standard" approaches. One is via Old Army Pass, which used to be the normal way but is, theoretically, falling into disuse. The other is via the creatively named New Army Pass (or just "Army Pass"), which has a more defined trail, but appears to have significantly more elevation gain. This extra elevation gain is because it gains the Langley ridge well before Old Army Pass does, and it has to drop around 600' of elevation before it gets to Old Army Pass. For this reason, we opted for Old Army Pass, even though we were on notice that the trail was reputedly difficult to find as it ascended Old Army Pass.

We also were wary--unnecessarily as it turned out--because less than a week before some poor soul had fallen to his death descending Old Army Pass (R.I.P. friend).

We camped at the trailhead, which proved enjoyable except for a crackling electric storm that blew through about an hour after we turned in. These late night storms turned out to be a theme for our camping the next several nights.

Hanging out at camp.

We also noted this sign on the way out.

Mountain lions: they stalk hikers now (or again).

Apparently, several hikers had reported being followed by a mountain lion in the area. It was just fine by me that we saw no mountain lion, thank you very much.

We hit the trail (obvious, wide, well maintained) just after dawn. Several nearby campers ridiculed us for (1) starting so early (California's weather is nowhere near as volatile as Colorado's), and (2) doing the 20+ mile trip in a day ("What are you guys trying to prove???" "Nothing, we're just having fun!").

After three-ish miles, we came to the fork in the trail that would either direct us to Old or New Army Pass. After all our waffling, the choice was easy: Old. We were not concerned with route-finding and, by all accounts, the six Cottonwood Lakes below Old Army Pass were stunning. We just didn't want to be willow-whacking through wet marshes. Needn't have worried there.

We left the forest, and the views were stunning:

First view of Langley (upper right) and its loooong ridge line after breaking tree line

Mt. Langley above one of the six Cottonwood Lakes.

We quickly made our way to Old Army Pass. The route could not have been more obvious.

Old Army Pass and Cottonwood Lake #6. Note obvious ramp on upper left.

Old Army Pass. Perhaps the ramp, traversing upper left to center, is more apparent?

A very ill-defined trail.

Langley is something of a unique mountain in California, in that once over the pass, there is no vegetation. It's dry and barren as a desert and feels like walking on the moon.

Not close.

It's also a long way to the summit.

A totally barren lunar surface.

Completely unnecessary Class 3 (aka California Class 1).

Mountain Roe. Dangerous conditions clearly exist.

The views were exceptional.

Looking north to Muir (tiny point on far left), Whitney (the big one), and Williamson (the sinister one under clouds).

One of many lakes on the descent, which itself was uneventful but for a few bullying storm clouds that were all puff without huff.

Cottonwood Lake #5. Or possibly 4 or 6. But not 1 or 2.

Mts. Whitney, Muir, and Keeler Needle

Whitney and Keeler from the valley. Whitney is the massive right-leaning point left of center; Keeler is the pointy peak to Whitney's left.

The last targets of the trip were Whitney and Muir. John's fiance and her family were to join us for this peak. However, as the day approached, the forecast quickly became suspect. John had summited Whitney and Muir two years prior (and had been exceptional about corralling permits this year), but neither Nolan nor I had summited either, and we wanted both.

The original plan called for packing in to the base of the 99 switchbacks on Day One then summitting and hiking out on Day Two. However, as the forecast turned, it became apparent that Day One provided a much better weather window to ensure getting both Whitney and Muir. Also, if you know me at all, you know my feelings on packing in when a one-day endurance trek will suffice. After some conclusion-foregone debating (i.e., completely unnecessary), Nolan and I settled on a one-day push to collect them both. John et al. remained on the two-day plan, with Muir hitting the chopping block.

A storm in the valley made for an interesting three hours of sleep.

Nolan and I woke at our campground (not at the Whitney Portal) at Zero Dark Thirty, drove to the TH, and were on the trail before 2 a.m. The parking lot, including the overflow lot, was packed already.

The trail is not short. Indeed, to collect Whitney and Muir in a one-day push requires around 22 miles of hiking. Suffice to say, our previous Williamson and Langley successes gave us no doubt about being able to do it. But it's still a long way. The first couple miles found me fighting off some nasty acid reflux, but other than that the hike to the base of the 99 switchbacks went without incident. In the dark on the way up, the switchbacks are not terrible. We were greeted with a magnificent sunrise about two-thirds the way up.

Sunrise. We'd been going for about four hours and were 2/3 of the way up the 99 switchbacks. So ... 33 to go.

Muir at sunrise.

Once you crest the switchbacks, you are almost there. Yes ... "almost...."

Whitney: a long way off. Still.

We were on the summit before 8, at which point we opted for some brief R&R to let the Muir rock warm a bit.

Obligatory Whitney summit shot. Langley in the background. Yeah, I need new gloves.

The view north:

Williamson, you are puny and we summited you!

Looking to Muir:

Muir from Whitney. Strange looking so far down on a peak over 14,000'.

A word about Whitney, for those who are thinking of it: with each permit, the forest service doles out poop bags, one per climber, so as not to foul the area with the excessive defecatory functions of the thousands of people who pass through. While most people are quite good about carrying out said bags, there are, of course, some jerks who just leave it strewn around. More and more, I think this is something that should be instituted here in Colorado, particularly on the more popular trails.

On our way to Muir, I suggested we run up Keeler Needle, the nearest, pointiest sub-peak of Whitney. Nolan had been thinking the same thing, so we dropped our packs and raced to the top. The surrounding drop-offs were extraordinary.

Keeler Needle (the one that is clearly pointier, on left). Why not??

That done, we set about looking for the turnoff for the scramble up Muir. A note about Muir: it is along the same ridgeline as Whitney, and, in fact, you pass it as you hike towards Whitney's summit from the 99 switchbacks. Just before a small choke point (on the way back), there is an obvious cairn and some use paths up towards Muir. The first 150-200' are easy talus scrambling (class 2-2+). The last 100' or so are blocky, solid climbing (class 3-4) with varying degrees of exposure.

Muir's west face. We're done with the class one.

There are two options: one breaks to the left (north) and runs up several mini-chimneys; the other breaks right and crawls up large blocks. We went left, and really, there was only one move that was problematic in the least (a quick smear-n-scurry).

Scrambling up Muir.

Muir's summit is large enough for about three or four people tops. The serenity it offers contrasts sharply with the short climbing and throngs of people below. Take it in at your leisure.

Muir summit.

After a time, we decided to face the 99 switchbacks-descent, so we began our descent. Instead of boring you with switchback pics, here are a few more of Muir:

Nothing to it.

Descending Muir. Chossy!

Magnificent Muir.

The plan was to meet John et al. at the campsite, collect some more R&R, and then descend with enough time to be down by sunset. The switchbacks went (yeah, they're long), and soon enough we were at high camp. No sign of the group, so we scouted out an area sheltered from wind and any possible storm, and they arrived shortly. We soaked our feet in the lake, passed off extra food, and conversed for several hours before we finished off the descent. We also enjoyed nap time.

That's how I feel. Except with six more miles to descend.

I won't lie, the descent did not pass quickly, but it was enjoyable to see what we had missed that morning in the dark. Our legs were all too happy to be back at the car and on to steak dinner.

We rounded out the trip with a night in Mammoth Lakes, swapping stories, and watching the Olympics.

Thanks everyone for reading, and thanks again John and Nolan for a superb week! I could not have asked for better partners. While obviously not the most contemporary of TRs, it is my hope that this will help those looking to hike these peaks in the future. If anybody has specific questions, feel free to ask.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

Good effort!
09/19/2012 11:56
Way to bag some more 14ers - California style.
I read this with interest because I plan to hike the JMT next year with my daughter. We may have to try a few 14ers (besides Whitney) along the way. Good info.


Well done, Joe
09/19/2012 17:06
This is a great account of what looks like a beautiful area. It's so cool to see the high peaks of the Sierra's! Thanks for sharing. I now have my resource for when I eventually go for these!


Great trip reports
09/20/2012 00:28
Both of your CA trips reports are great. As a former Colorado resident now living in SF, I can attest to your comment that ”information about any California mountain not named Whitney is not the best” -- so, so true. These reports were among the most complete (+ useful) I've seen and I've done a lot of searching -- so thanks!

I did a solo climb of Langley two weeks later in mid-August via Old Army Pass as well (hope to post a trip report) and I just wanted to also say that it's definitely the way to go if there is no snow/ice, particularly for anyone with prior 14er experience in Colorado. If there is snow/ice, I could see why less experienced folks opt for the extra two miles over New Army. Similar to you, I did it as a day hike (5.5 hours up and 4.5 hours down) but the Cottonwood Lakes campground below Old Army Pass is among the best I've seen for anyone looking for a relaxing overnight trip.

Great work and perserverance (on Williamson). I'll have to get some more beta from you on Muir, Tyndall and Williamson which are on my list for 2013.


Nice Write Up
09/21/2012 03:10
melias - if you are ever looking for a partner on some of these ca trips feel free to let me know - I'm in sf as well.

Joe - great write up - and a nice reminder to a great trip (minus the not seeing lions...). I'm glad this trip was more successful than last years. I'm really curios to see how the next Sierra trip plays out.


Excellent write up!
09/24/2012 02:43
Congrats to all 3 of you on some tough and memorable summits!
I scanned the pics here in an attempt to get a better look at your boots - they're getting worn out! 20-22 mi/day would have them running for cover!
The marmot pic is fun.
Strong work on a superb TR, Joe.

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