Langley Loop Tuttle Creek to Cottonwood Lakes

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After rain ended our plans for midnight Red Rocks climbing, I suggested we fall back on a plan I had to climb Mt Langley, CA’s southernmost 14er. I thought this would be a good objective for a weekend with inclement weather, because the peak doesn’t require technical climbing (supposedly our route was 3rd class) and seemed to offer plenty of available variations once we were up high.

Dustin and I drove up to Lone Pine Friday night to try to get at least a few thousand feet of elevation to help acclimate. We ended up getting a text from Amaury that he and his girlfriend Melissa were staying at the Tuttle Creek campground, which coincidentally was where we planned to camp out. We said hello to them in the morning over breakfast, then went to the permitting office to pick up our permit and headed up a dusty and rocky forest service road along the south side of Tuttle Creek until we reached our trailhead (maybe at 9:30?). Note that if you want to use this trailhead, the last section of road requires decent clearance and probably AWD, and shouldn’t be attempted in muddy conditions—but there is a decent pull off just before the worst of it with not a bad walk to the end.

The initial walk is along a decent trail up to the Tuttle Creek Ashram, a fairly large stone house tucked into the gulley, with a good view, clean floors, a fireplace, and a big stone alter with an inscription. Dustin wants to come back for a concert in the mountains, and it would definitely be a good place to spend the night after driving up from LA to get an earlier start and a little more elevation (the trailhead is just under 7000’).

After checking out the ashram, we departed the trail and picked our way along the south side of Tuttle Creek. There wasn’t a lot of brush except when crossing the streamlets, so it was pretty easy going. In retrospect we stayed a bit closer to the creek than we had to, and would have hit a flattish ridge that would have avoided some steeper terrain closer to the river. There were enough trees to provide decent shade, and plenty of late season wildflowers near the water—just avoid the stinging nettles.

As the trees thinned higher up, we moved onto a flat ridge and kept to a tallus field rather than the larger bushes that grew up around the dried areas where the stream had subsided from earlier in the season or from floods. The stream eventually forks several times just as the treeline is ending near the foot of the high basin. We continued up steepening tallus towards Langley, and as we crossed 12000’ I felt a sharp drop in my speed and morale. It felt really good to stop for some water and lunch. I finally switched from chlorine drops to a Sawyer mini filter, and I was excited to taste the Sierra water without the added flavor! Dustin and I had some tentative plans to check out some of the ridge near Mt Corcoran, which makes up the north side of this basin, but the clouds looked more ominous over there and we knew there was some 4th class that we wouldn’t want to take in the rain, so we continued up Langley. I was pretty pleased with this call, because I was already feeling pretty beat and it seemed like the actual climbing had barely begun.

We identified a path that looked promising up a north-east ridge off of Langley. Dustin was moving a lot faster than me now, so we were mostly scrambling apart, and at each high point I reached I could usually see Dustin just leaving sight behind the next prominence ahead. Just below this ridge, we made it to a steep but short wall with a few large cracks and loose blocks that went at 5.5 or so. Dustin was over it by the time I arrived at the base, and I took it pretty slowly despite hearing some distant thunder. Just as I reached the top, it started to hail, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief—I did not want to be on that rock while it was wet.

After attaining the ridge we initially aimed for, we wanted to follow it up to where it met the major easter spur above a still-snowy gulley. Here the scrambling was consistently 3rd class. Dustin was moving way faster than me so he disappeared almost immediately, and I took my time, catching my breath after every few moves and leaning in to the sponge-like granite. I was out of it enough that I was concerned for my balance and executive function should I need it, so I took my time and stayed slightly off the ridge, which was dominated by really large blocks that seemed to require a bit more skill to navigate.

My main pump-up song when climbing is Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten,” so I sang that for a bit; I also had the line “You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains” stuck in my head. I don’t think I’ve ever even listened to the entire song, but it was fun to sing something so corny, topical, and ironic. Dustin found some shelter from the rain just before the point where we met the main spur ridge, and though I couldn’t see him I could hear him playing the harmonica, which was also a big morale boost.

I definitely had that “fuck you, God” triumphant feeling when I climbed over the last big block (with classic Sierra knobby slab) to reach the plateau just below the summit, mostly due to the rain and altitude but also because of “you raise me up.” It’s a good feeling. Dustin was already at the summit and after a brief rest I joined him so we could have our summit cookies (nice cooking Dustin) and sign the register. Dustin took some pictures of the clouds enveloping Whitney and other surrounding views, we signed the register, and we began our descent down the south side of Langley. We summited around 6:00pm.

The descent is pretty straightforward, a little bit of picking a path down a scree and chauss slope, then following makeshift trails where people had walked up the shallow scree field towards New and Old Army passes. I kept up with Dustin on the descent, but still wasn’t feeling great. We decided to stop near New Army pass for a bite to eat and to watch the sunset. The couscous was fantastic, especially with Dustin’s blend of red spices and olive oil, but after a bit of sitting and food above 12000’ I felt pretty nauseous and hastily packed up and continued the descent as Dustin finished packing up dinner.

As soon as I dropped down New Army Pass, I felt great—the miracles of oxygen. There were still a few snow patches extending over the path, but it is mostly dry now. I stopped to filter water between the highest two Cottonwood Lakes near 11500’ just as it was getting dark enough to pull out the headlamps, and then Dustin and I found a campsite nearby. We finished the rest of the couscous and talked for a while, then turned in.

In the morning, we headed down the Cottonwood Lakes trail to the Horseshoe Meadows campground. It was a very flat, relaxing trail, and the lakes were beautiful. Despite warnings from hikers heading up, the mosquitos weren’t really bad. Dustin took a dip in Cottonwood Lake #1, and I enjoyed the mountain views on a boulder. I thought a bit about how the Sierra are a very kind mountain range, especially in the summer, and especially if you don’t antagonize them by trying to reach high summits. Just below treeline though, it’s easy to get around, there is plenty of water, weather is usually pleasant, and there’s plenty of wild flora and fauna. It is very comforting to me that I could pack up in about an hour and walk from my place to Canada and not have too much trouble with it, at least during the summer—and even outside that time, it’s not too hostile to manage.

Back at the campground, we got a hitch from Lauren, a guide with Sierra Mountain Guides who was getting ready to build out her Transit. She was a super friendly hitch, and dropped us off at the turnoff for that forest service road. I dissuaded her from driving us up the road, but soon realized that it was farther than I remembered, especially out of the protective shade and cooler temperatures of the mountains (friendly wilderness!). We made it in about 40 minutes though, and after admiring the bees for a minute we headed home for an early arrival, still in time for dinner.