Mt. Langley 1 – It Always Starts in the Desert

Peaking at 14,026 feet above see level, Mount Langley is the southernmost 14er in both the Sierra and California. And in being 26ft above that rather arbitrary line of 14,000ft, it was on my list of mountains to climb. Now, I had attempted to summit this tremendous blob of broken granite once before back in 2015, as a short excursion during my thru-hike of the PCT. The summit lies a mere 4 miles and 3,100 vertical feet from the trail so it seemed like a no-brainer to blitz the top in my super-fit state by way of the comically non-technical, mostly sand, southern slope. Alas, the weather had different plans, forcing me to abort my attempt over 1,000ft below the summit when lighting and hail moved in (you can read about it here). Most likely through excellent luck, summit failures are rare for me, or at least they were until I went 0 for 4 on my PCT hike before finally bagging one in Split Mountain, so I was eager to claim Langley’s summit prize as my own.

With the cold, dark winter turning to cold, bright spring, the desire to return to the high country was growing steadily.   While the trails still hibernated under feet of snow, I remembered to think more vertical. A guide on my Mt. Rainier climb in 2014 who was intimately familiar with routes in the Sierra had mentioned a “Northeast Couloir” as being a “total Sierra classic when conditions are right. But you don’t want to go up there after too much snow and get ‘lanched out of the couly.” No way bro, I certainly don’t. But if I still remembered how to use crampons and an ice axe, with conditions looking good I felt I could pull it off. So after monitoring the weather and avalanche conditions, everything finally came together for a summit attempt on April 19-20.

I left Mojave around 7am to reach the ranger station in Lone Pine shortly after they opened for business at 8am. While the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center is a zoo during the summer months, filled with aspiring Whitney summiteers gaggling for permits, I collected my permit ungaggled from the lonely and bored looking ranger standing at the permit desk. I would be the only one out there, she said. Perfect. Maybe I’m the only one stupid enough to give this a shot.

I coaxed my trusty Scion Xa as far as I dared up the dirt road that leads to the Tuttle Creek trailhead before pulling out in a dusty parking area a little more than a mile from the trailhead proper. Twenty minutes later, goobed up with sunscreen, I shouldered my pack, heavy for a one-night trip with the tools of the trade for a mountaineering excursion, and began the steep ascent in the hot sun. At only 6,300ft the terrain began very dry and exposed so before long, I was panting and perspiring. Langley came into view shortly after starting, glinting under a shiny coat of spring snow. The summit looked far away, and it was. Roughly 6 miles and 7,700 vertical feet away. The Northeast Couloir, an awesome sight even from Hwy 395 rising 2,000ft in a dramatic slash across Langley’s face, now even closer and more thrilling. I strained my eyes anxiously for any evidence of avalanche activity, in vain. Avalanche conditions were the main concern for this trip. I know enough about avalanches to know that I don’t know enough about avalanches. I’ve read plenty on the subject, but real experience in the field is zero. Still, I was reasonably confident that if conditions seemed perfect to my novice eyes, I had a decent chance of staying safe.


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