At around 5:30am, two laborious hours from breakfast, I turned to face a brightening horizon. The black of space spreading from navy to burnt orange. Context slowly returned to the world so that I found myself high on the couloir not far from the headwall that would force me to hang a left onto the eastern shoulder of the mountain. Checking my data, I saw that I had under 600 vertical feet to climb to the summit. Buoyed by the immense boost to my morale from the natural light infusion, I churned upwards, ten minutes later exiting the couloir high on Mt. Langley’s flank. The world opened up then, with enough light now to see a great distance and free from the confining walls of the couloir. Snowy mountains to the north and south, the lights of Lone Pine glittering nearly 10,000ft below. I switched off my headlamp, then turned to face the final, and steepest part of the climb.
No longer protected from the wind, the snow was much harder up here. And it looked steeeeep. I briefly considered traversing around to the gentler southern slopes, but instead decided to follow the meandering line etched in the snow by some mystery climber. As I ascended using footsteps of my long-gone comrade I couldn’t help thinking that it would be hard to self-arrest a fall if I slipped here. Who knows where I’d end up? Fortunately, the prints were substantial and well spaced. This person must have descended in much softer conditions than these. I hoped that it would be the same for me when I came down. With great care, I crunched forward digging in each point with purpose, zigzagging around a couple protruding rocks, occasionally using the pick of my ice axe for purchase on my uphill side. Fifteen minutes of dedicated concentration and 300ft later, the slope turned gentle as I arrived on the vast summit plateau of Mt. Langley. A five-minute stumble put me on the cold summit. 6:01am.
My timing was perfect. The intensifying glow coming from the east was now splashing color across the broken landscape at my feet. A sea of peaks, shaded a dull orange, roiling towards the purple horizon. I had just enough time to drop my pack, throw on all of my layers, and jam a frozen Clif Bar into my pocket before a tiny Sun exploded in slow detonation from behind the Inyo Mountains, drastically cranking up the visual intensity and contrast. To say that this was the best sunrise ever seen by anyone, anywhere would be an understatement. I’m sorry, that’s the truth. Standing in awe as the colorwheel rolled along, I was reminded (as I am again and again) why the lonely hours of sweating under heavy loads, gasping in thin air, shoving feet into crusty socks, and pushing back fear is more than worth it. Heck, even just getting to eat as much peanut butter as I want makes it worth it. The views are bonus! But this really was next level.
The immense vertical eastern faces of the highest and proudest summits of the Sierra raged with alpenglow above the shadowed Owens Valley. The Range of Light living up to its name. I snapped a few pics before settling in and sitting down near the edge of a flat rock perched above Langley’s shear north face to watch the show. The moderate wind had sapped most of my warmth in a matter of minutes so I tried to keep low and soak up the sun. As if the setting alone wasn’t enough reason for me to stay for a while, I was hoping to give the sun enough time to soften the snow on the upper slope to aid my descent. Keeping my head on a constant swivel, I tried to forget the cold and my nervousness about getting down by taking in the incredible scene. The immensity of the landscape and my tiny place in it, alone on a frozen summit, simultaneously thrilled, calmed, and scared me. The small town of Lone Pine both too close and too far at the same time.
I gnawed on my frozen bar and other crunchables, peered over the edge to find my camp, took more pictures, took a piss, and flipped through the summit register. After an hour and a half, the world was a warmer, brighter place, but I was a colder, hungrier human. 7:30am, time to get moving. The thermometer on my shoulder strap showed that it was around 6°F out of the wind. This was corroborated by the numbness of my toes. I had waited as long as I could. The snow would be what it would be and I would get to the bottom one way or another.