After spending several days in a noisy, front country campground in Tuolumne Meadows, Damien and I were ready to enjoy the tranquility of the backcountry. From Yosemite, we drove south through the desert to the small hamlet of Lone Pine, CA. The town looks something like an old Western movie and it is the jumping off point for folks looking to climb Mt Whitney. However, several months back we were unsuccessful in securing a reserved permit for the tallest mountain in the lower 48. I was able to quickly devise a Plan B and reserved permits for Cottonwood Lakes to climb Mount Langley (14,026 ft) & Cirque Peak (12,900 ft). Both of these climbs individually are an undertaking due mostly to the high elevation aspect. However, both were class 2 scrambles and required minimal technical ability. They share the same zigzagged ridge-line and are sometimes done a linkup. The Linkup option appealed greatly to us as the distance and endurance required to climb two high elevation peaks in a single day would provide a fun challenge. Plus I love tagging fourteeners!

From Lone Pine we turned onto Whitney Portal Road which is the main route leading into the Whitney Range. After several miles we turned off Whitney Portal and headed for the high country on Horseshoe Meadows Road. Normally I don’t describe the roads leading to the TH, but this one is worth mentioning. First of all, I expected a road that went up to 10,000 feet to eventually turn rugged and unpaved. As it turns out, its paved the entire 22 miles! The next feature worth describing is the design of the road. From the 4,000 ft sandy dessert it switchbacks steeply up the foothills into the high country as previously discussed. These switchbacks are all the edges of cliffs with severe drop-offs of thousands of feet! There is also a sign that warms of falling rocks and that for several hours a day you may find crews clearing the random rockfall! To top this whole extravaganza off there is no guard rail, so definitely drive with care! It is a gorgeous road though, unlike any I have ever experienced, and that fact that it journeyed up to 10k feet blew my mind. In WA our highest road tops out at only 7k!

We arrived at Horseshoe Meadows Camp at around 2:30pm. There are bear lockers here for any food/toiletries you may want to leave behind. Leaving these items in vehicles is an invitation for bears to break in! We shouldered our packs and began the 6 mile trek to basecamp on the Cottonwood Lakes/ Army Pass Trail. The trail winds though dusty, open forest for the first mile or so before crossing a creek and entering lusher woodlands. We knew we had 1000 feet of gain and expected it to be all in one place going up a pass or something of that sort as it normally is in WA. However, the gain was essentially spread out over the course of the 6 miles to our surprise. We also expected to find ourselves at various junctions as the map displayed numerous intersecting trails. Going to the basin the only turn we encountered was the signed turn off for New Army Pass.

Many folks climb Langley and Cirque via New Army Pass because it is a maintained trail. Unfortunately, it features lots of sweeping and unnecessary switchbacks up to the pass and adds 1 mile and 700 feet to the trip. We had opted to take (old) Army Pass instead. It was described in the beta as unmaintained with several washouts. However, it was a more direct route and we hate excess switchbacks. Thus, we passed New Army Pass and continued on the trail to Cottonwood Basin.

Upon exiting the forest and entering the open meadows of the Basin we were greeted with our first clear view of Cirque Peak. Directly to the right of Cirque is a massive rock formation that I thought was Langley at first, but it proved to me a minor cliff face. Langley is ff to the right of the cliff and only appears smaller since it is further in the distance. Damien and I followed the trail through the lush meadows passing the signed side track to Muir Lake.

We walked by Cottonwood Lake #1 which has a small ranger outpost beside it. There are five Cottonwood Lakes total. On maps they are unlabeled. Our permit was for lake #3 because our beta suggested it, but even the ranger at the station where we picked up our permits had no idea which lake was which. He said that as long as we camped at one of the lakes we’d be fine. They didn’t care which one. The map at the TH did have the lakes numbered however. Other than that I have found no record. We studied the TH map and decided that lake #4 would probably be better for us.

Damien and I continued on passing through small sections of trees that reminded us of the ones found in Madagascar. Lake #3 is the last of the lower lakes and it appeared to be the most popular camping area.  Several parties were there enjoying the early evening. We continued on toward Lake #4 which is closest to Army Pass.

We climbed up a steep hill about 100 feet and suddenly found ourselves in a more rugged, and alpine realm. We were surrounded by jagged cliffs and the grassy oasis was replaced by rugged terrain. Damien and I found the perfect camp complete with windbreak about 100 feet from the lakeshore (this is a requirement) and set up our home for the next 2 nights. To our delight, we had the entire lake to ourselves!

Damien and I are big fans of the  Alpine Start. Boots were on the trail at 3:30am the next morning. Our headlamps guided us around the lakeshore on a good trail to the rocky base of Army Pass. Here we were surprised to discover a very maintained trail. Every maintained trail in CA we had encountered on the trip ended up being maintained by Washington standards! The good track made a few switchbacks up the talus trending left to get above a cliff band. The tread then follows above the cliff band to the right to gain the top of the pass. The “washout” was one or two large rocks in the center of the trail that were easy to get around. We did encounter some snow patches but they were easy to go around or short enough to take a few safe steps through. We never used the crampons or axes we carried.

At the top of the pass we crossed the border of Inyo NF and entered Sequoia National Park. We turned right here on an unsigned, but obvious trail and followed the broad ridge of alpine vegetation until we reached more rocky terrain and  a big sign. The sign requested that visitors follow the carins provided and remain on the route to preserve the delicate environment. It also asks that climbers avoid making new carins and forbade the deconstruction of the existing carins. I’m not sure who had the time on their hands to disassemble the cairns provided on the route. They were 5-7 feet tall and resembled pyramids!

We followed the cairns through the talus and sand now gaining elevation, though not aggressively. There are good switchbacks and an easy trail to follow. Sometimes there are several dusty trail options to get from one cairn to another. It doesn’t really matter which you take as long as you reach the next carin. At one point we did need to use our hands to scale a short, rocky cliff. There was a class 2 and class 3 option here each with no more than 6 -8 easy moves. The route takes you to the edge of  the nearly level summit plateau. Then is is a quick stroll to the flat, summit block.

We arrived at the summit of Langley at about 8:15am. Of course, Damien and I were the only people there so early. The views spanning from the summit are breathtaking and we were surrounded by some of the tallest peaks in the country. Mount Whitney was even visible from our vantage point. We signed the register and took countless photos in the glow of early morning light. It was difficult to depart, but we still had another summit to climb!

We backtracked to Army Pass. Other climbers were just making their way up Langley. Most were coming from New Army Pass. From old Army Pass we needed to ascend about 300 feet up a hill to New Army Pass. We opted to not take the long sweeping switchbacks which lost elevation before going back up. Instead, we traveled cross country straight up, careful to avoid stepping on the delicate flora. It was pretty easy to keep our feet on the sand and gravel.

New Army Pass is signed and was more of a cliff outcrop than a pass at all. Peering over the edge I could see people sweating as they toiled up the infamous switchbacks from down in the valley. I was glad we took Army Pass instead. Cirque Peak was directly across from us and only 600 feet higher. However, to reach the summit we had to walk the horseshoe shaped North Ridge for 2 miles. There is no trail here at all, only talus. To our delight, the talus is not big and blocky, but consists of large flat rocks. It was some of the most fun terrain I ever encountered! We walked along the rock admiring the strange knobs and huecos as we went. Damien and I veered just slightly more right of the edge of the cliff to avoid unnecessary elevation gain to the various sub-summits. It was a relatively long walk, but we were having so much fun on the flat rocks we barely noticed. The last .68 miles the rocks grew less flat but there are easy sand tracks to follow made by big horned sheep. At the summit there are two markers and a register.

The view from this peak gave a marvelous perspective of the Cottonwood Lakes. We could also see the full route we had taken up Langley. We stayed on the summit for quite some time. However, in the distance peaks we could see several thunderheads developing. They were far off, but we were aware that it was not impossible for storm to brew over us as well even if it hadn’t been in the forecast. We journeyed back across the North ridge and descended to Army Pass.

We got back to our tent at 3:30pm which was much earlier than anticipated since we were scaling a fourteener. Spending so much time at altitude over the past 2 weeks had made the linkup easier than expected. It didn’t end up being the challenge we expected, but it was still are marvelous day! Plus, we even had time to take an afternoon nap; a rare luxury for us!

After another tranquil night at the 11,100 foot Lake #4, we packed up camp in the cover of the stars and shouldered our packs as the sun rose. We hated to leave the basin, but it was time to move on to another adventure. The early morning light made Cirque and Langley shimmer as we passed through the basin and back into the cover of the forest. The perfect conclusion to the high elevation linkup.

 

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