On July 4th, just before the great San Diego fireworks debacle that was to bring gleefull national mockery to America’s Finest City, my friend Andre texted me: “Thinking of hiking Langley-Whitney Thur-Sat. Any interest?”
There are several important things to understand about this question. First, Andre is a ridiculously fit and skilled outdoorsman (the word “mutant” has been used, though I swear not by me), so I knew the trek wasn’t going to be a cakewalk. But, second, he used the word “hiking” and I not “climbing” or “death defying” or any other words implying skills or behaviors with which I had no experience. And third, I knew Andre well enough to infer that Thur-Sat implied doing the hike on a day in that range, not taking those days to do it; multiple days implied camping, and camping meant carrying gear, and Andre hates carrying gear. So, basically it sounded like a long hike. I love long day hikes. After some initial trepidation, I was in. That was Wednesday.
On Friday, we were on the way to Lone Pine. The itinerary as I understood it at at the time was this. We would get to Lone Pine in the evening, then head up to Horseshoe Meadows to sleep for a few hours before starting our hike at Midnight. The hike would take us from the Meadows to Mount Langley, Mount Muir, Mount Whitney and Mount Russell, then back to Whitney Portal. This meant bagging four 14,000′ peaks via what I now understand to be a well-known route. From the Portal, we’d hitch a ride to Lone Pine, and then figure out another ride back to the Meadows. We were a bit loose on some of the details, but really, what could go wrong?
We parked at Horseshoe Meadows by the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead a little after eight, finished packing, and then tried to get in a few hours of sleep before our planned departure at midnight. Given that there was a good deal of noise and light in the campground, neither of us slept at all. Breakfast was a lot of carbs shoved down our throats in a hurry, and we were on the trail by 11:45pm.
Cottonwood Lakes Trail to Army Pass
Given that we did the entire trail in the dark, I can’t say much about it’s appearance during the day, but at night it was a wonderful way to start the hike. The trail was soft and well marked, passing through trees and meadows with mild ups and downs until the somewhat steeper climb toward Cottonwood Lakes.
I have to admit I was nervous about hiking with Andre. He’s far more fit and competent in all outdoorsy things than I am, and I didn’t want to slow him down. I thought we were doing pretty well until I had to stop for a minute and he kept going on up the trail. I wasn’t sure what to make of this; everyone has different styles, and I think I realized for the first time that when Andre said he liked to keep moving, he wasn’t kidding. Good to know.
One of the things I had told Andre before that hike was that I’d go as far as Langley and see how my left Achilles was feeling. It’s an injury that’s troubled me for some time, and I didn’t want to end up too far into the wilderness with a strained or popped Achilles. If it was bothering me, I was going to turn around and limp back to the car, then meet Andre at Whitney Portal with the car.
As it turned out, my right Achilles was fine, but I managed to lightly sprain my weak right ankle three times on the way to Langley…and at one point, this seemed to strain my right Achilles. Ridiculous. But I gimped along and Andre’s smooth, steady pace didn’t seem to make it any worse. I actually felt good; reasonable healthy, reasonably fit and very glad to be back on the trail.
At the top of the rise just before Cottonwood Lakes, the trail flattens out and passes through a meadow. We turned off our headlamps to walk by the light of a bright moon, and for the first time it really felt like we were in the wilderness. We continued like this, lights on at times, off whenever possible, all the way to the last Cottonwood Lake and the base of Army Pass. I walked most the way up the pass with my headlight off as well, following the well-trodden path up to the ridgeline above.
Mount Langley (10.5 Miles)
Once you crest Army Pass and turn north, the walk toward Langley was pretty mellow. I could feel the altitude, and it was definitely colder, but it was also serenely beautiful. A short time later, we pushed up a short rise, then another, and then it got hard. The wind rose and the temperature dropped, and minutes later we were scrambling up a bouldery face toward the peak.
I stopped to put gloves on — my hands were freezing — and Andre quickly disappeared above me, headlight winking in and out and then gone. I got my gloves on then my pack and started clambering up. My hands were really cold, and the wind getting a bit nasty. As the climb leveled out, I jammed my hands in my pockets and turned NW toward the summit.
Soon enough, and very cold, I met up with Andre at the peak. He handed me his camera and assumed his traditional pose in front of the slightest streak of daylight from the east. I fumbled with the camera, but couldn’t quite get the shot. So instead Andre kindly too a shot of me on the peak. I needed to get warmer and eat — I was suddenly tired and hungry — but it was clear that Andre just wanted to get out of the wind. He took off while I got the puffy out of my pack, and then I stumbled off in his general direction as the first light slowly spread across peak.
From Mount Langley, the intention was to trek across the backcountry, climb up the Discovery Pinnacle and join the John Muir Trail on the Pacific Crest as it headed up to Mount Whitney. As the crow flies, Mount Langley to Mount Whitney is a mere 4.8 miles. A slightly more accurate point-to-point walking estimate is at least 6 miles by the route we took, and probably far more more, but it’s very hard to get it right without taking a GPS waypoint tracker (which we did not do).
All of that aside, I just wanted to eat. When I caught up with Andre, I asked if we could take a break soon. He said sure, and we kept moving to get out of the wind. I took his response to mean something within the next 5-10 minutes, so when that time had passed, I mentioned it again and said he wanted to rest over there, where the sun was. I looked. He was pointing across the next valley and up to the second lake. I blinked.
“It’s only about 40 minutes away,” he said. “And it’ll be warm.” I wasn’t sure to make of the time estimate — maybe it was 40 minutes. I didn’t know the route. It was more than 2,000 feet down and a mile away, at least, but maybe. I just knew I’d be gnawing off my own limbs by then. So he kindly conceded and we stopped to eat.
Problem was, I was already tired. Too tired. I was hoping the food would help, but I just wasn’t sure. I hadn’t slept more than 90 minutes in the last 48 hours (long story) and I was hurting. Andre looked fit as a freakin’ fiddle and barely ate or drank anything. I stuffed cookies in my face and prayed.
Scree Skiing & Hunger Pangs
A few minutes later we were peering down a rocky chute and it dawned on me that this was how we were to descend. “No problem,” Andre said, and we started our slide to the valley below. It was at this point that I realized we might have slightly different definitions of “hiking”. Sure, scree skiing is sometimes part of a backcountry hike, but this was down almost blind chutes at a pretty vertigineous angle. But I usually enjoyed this kind of thing, so wheeee…
At one point Andrew waved me down a particularly steep chute and then twenty seconds later we were walking back up the same chute to find another way down. Two things were suddenly clear. First, Andre had not forgotten that I was not a climber so he was doing this for me, which I appreciated. Second, which I was momentarily irked about, was that this was not really a planned hike so much as a “we’ll generally go this way and see what happens.” Which was fine, just not what I expected. And I was still hungry. Turns out that makes your grumpy. Grr.
A few misdirected gullies later, and I was near the bottom. Andre was well ahead of me, walking into the meadow below, and when I got there, he was gone. I looked around. I looked around again. Huh. He had taken off. Which was a bummer, because somewhere along the line, I had bonked. I was beat. And that was even more of bummer given that I was a long way from anywhere and my guide had just vamoosed. Still, it was a very pretty valley and it was only 6:30 in the morning. There was really nothing to be worried about.
Down and Up to Crabtree Pass
The route we had planned out while up on Langley was to cross this small meadow and climb up a ridgeline that ran along the west side of the Sky Blue Lake canyon in order to avoid losing too much altitude on ups-and-downs. This would take us to a second lake, and then up to Crabtree Pass.
Given Andre’s earlier preference for a rest at this second lake, I figured I’d catch up to him there, if he waited, or back at the Portal if he didn’t. I was a bit irked that he’d ditched me, but moreso that I’d crashed so early that he’d felt the need. Just couldn’t believe how tired I was. Every step up to the shoulder of the ridge was a serious effort. This sucked.
And then Andre appeared, walking up from the meadow and nodded. I nodded. He continued on by. What the hell? A brief exchange minutes later and I realized he’d been waiting for me somewhere in the meadow and I’d just missed him. He looked a bit miffed, and I felt terrible. Of course he hadn’t just ditched me. Somebody needed a nap.
Some unnecessary climbing later, and we were at the second lake, resting and eating in the sun. I repaired a much-needed gator with some spare nylon cord and stuffed food in as fast as I could. Andre snacked lightly. And then we were off and up toward Crabtree Pass.
With a little help from Andre on some of the steeper bits, we made the pass relatively soon. I had sucked down a packet of blackberry jam and a lot of water, and was feeling a bit better — enough juice in my legs to keep on keepin’ on. Andre waived me up the pass ridge a bit and then pointed to where we were going.
Climbing up to Discovery Pinnacle
At first I thought I just misunderstood. What he was pointing at looked, to me, like some very dangerous scree climbing, rock scrambling and possible death. I asked him to point out the path again. He pointed out a line between two sets of rocks that were run through with scree chutes at regular intervals. We would climb up from the head of the valley, traverse across the split between the two rocky sections, climb up one of the less steep scree slopes, up some more rocks, and then traverse left up the slope toward another ridgeline.
I realized at this point that I am not hardcore. I may have been at some point, but the proposed path looked more than a bit scary to me. Could I do that? More importantly, could I do it without getting hurt? But Andre had gotten us down the Langley chutes, he knew what he was doing even if I didn’t, and frankly that blackberry jam shot was kicking in nicely. What the hell. So down into the valley we went.
The first part of the climb was actually fun — just light bouldering on some slightly unreliable rock. Then it got steeper. And more exposed. And I was suddenly very much out of my element. I couldn’t believe how awkward and uncomfortable I felt. The rocks seemed to want to slide out from under me at every step. Andre carefully guided me up, and I’ve gotta say he seemed very confident that all was well, but somewhere between fatigue, adrenaline, stress and a bit’o genuine fear, I really could have used a very large beer.
Then we were out of the worse of it. Relief. Now just a lot of scrambling. A lot. And then some more. I was dead beat again, but it was kinda fun. It was hard, and it was worth it, and we were getting it done. Nice.
We soon reached the shoulder of the slope below the Pinnacle, but I was slightly disoriented. Andre waived me up to a ridgeline where we looked northeast toward some rocky spires and I realized that Whitney was north of us. Well of course it was. But there was a deep gully between the nearby John Muir Trail and our position. Andre indicated that we could traverse it, or go up and around the Pinnacle to the south. I looked at the gully. Traverse that? Was he kidding?
So up we went. I can’t really describe the relief I felt at seeing the trail below us from the ridgeline. It just looked so nice and soft. What a great place for a nap.
Mount Muir (Andre Yes, Shawn No)
We scrambled down to the Whitney Trail, trying not to dislodge too many rocks and injure anyone below us. Andre took off toward the Junction with the John Muir Trail and I followed slowly behind.
As he distanced himself, I suspected what was coming next and was glad for it — he could climb Mount Muir while I caught up to him, and I would probably not climb it at all. I just didn’t have the energy to do it and then go on to Whitney, even though it was only a few hundred feet.
Sure enough, as I slowly marched up the switchbacks on the back side of Muir, I heard a loud yelp. Andre was waving from the top of Muir, seemingly very close, but for me a world away. I waved back and called up, “What do you think?” in a pro forma way — to see if he thought I should come up or not. The answer that came back was a relief; it would require more semi-exposed climbing, and was probably not a good idea. Thank God.
I continued up the trail until I had to stop, and Andre soon caught up to me. I announced that I was done, at least with any illusion that I was going onto Russell after Whitney. I would get up Whitney come hell or high water, but Russell was out. Andre was clearly going on, so the question was how and when to meet up.
We agreed to meet in Lone Pine after the following convoluted exercise. I would climb Whitney and head down via the main 11-mile-long trail. Andre would climb Whitney ahead of me, then Russell, then descend via the Mountaineer’s Route, presumably ahead of me. He would then hitch to Lone Pine, then get ride to Horseshoe Meadows. I would in the meantime have hitched to Lone Pine to meet him when he drove back down from the Meadows. Believe or not, this seemed simple enough at the time.
Andre took off toward Whitney, and after a bit more rest, I started up after him. As timing had it, I was walking in the middle of a group of well-dressed Asian couples who looked as utterly burned out as I felt. They smiled gamely as I slowly passed them, and I wished them well. Apparently it was a tough day for many.
Mount Whitney (16.5 miles + ?)
All I can say about the balance of the hike up to Whitney was that one point a woman patted me on the shoulder and said, “Almost there.” Good lord, did I look that worked? Or was it my snail like pace? I tried to move a bit faster. Bad idea.
Oddly, when I reached the backside of Whitney itself, I started feeling better, and the last few hundred feet were pretty easy. And this was despite the psychologically damaging way the top of Whitney keeps rolling away from you, seemingly always just a little bit farther.
At last, the summit hut came into view. Then I was there. I looked at the view. I sat down. I lay down. I closed my eyes. And then I thought, bad idea. If I fell asleep here, I wouldn’t wake up for hours. Marmots would drag off my pack. Other hikers would take inappropriate pictures with me. So I sat up and did what I should have done much earlier; eating a LOT of Doritos. A lot. Delicious salty carbolicious Doritos. Well, Dorito crumbs — I mash them for space and efficiency. Yum.
Going Down (27.5 Miles + ?)
In theory, the downhill part of the hike is the easy part. From the top of Whitney to the Portal it’s 10.7 to 11 miles depending who you ask, and none of it’s hard. But it is long, and there are these really annoying uphill sections long the John Muir portion before you reach the Whitney Trail at the Crest. My only concern was going so slowly that Andre would have committed some form of Russian suicide before I got to Lone Pine. So I hoofed it…very…slowly.
The funny thing about the hike was that I never really got sore, and my legs were never that tired. Just had no juice. So I shuffled down the trail, soon passing the Asian friends I’d briefly joined earlier, and got my mosey on.
You know what else is really funny? When you get to like a five foot rise in the trail, I’m talking literally not as high as I am tall, and you dread it. And it works you. That’s some funny stuff. I entered a sort of zen-zombie-zoned-out state where I basically just mumbled to myself from switchback to switchback.
At about 13,500 I started feeling better and the pace picked up. Then a bit more. And then I came around a corner, re-twisted my right ankle, and went down on my hands and face. It hurt. I inhaled dirt and coughed up part of a lung. There were swear words. I scared a fat little marmot right back into his hole. Fortunately, it was a soft landing sans pointy rocks, and my ankle is already so jacked up it’s hard to make it any worse. So off I went, a bit gimpy, but probably no slower than before.
I ran into two guys bent over there stove near the bottom of the switchbacks, apparently trying to boil some water. After a somewhat awkward exchange, it turned out they’d forgotten their filter, so I gave them my baggy of iodine tabs. They appeared grateful. I was just hoping for some good karma.
The miles passed by. The lower I got, the better I felt, and then it happened again. You get to Lone Pine Lake and you think you’ve got to be almost there and for some freakin’ reason you’re always stunned that it’s another three miles of freakin’ switchbacks to the Portal. You sit down. You curse silently. Blarg.
I got to the Portal just after 7pm, just over 19 hours since Andre and I left horseshoe meadows. There was no message from Andre at the small shop, but there was chocolate milk and it was good. Very good. I’m not going to describe how that delicious, cold chocolatey wonder felt in my mouth, but if this were an R rated blog, you’d know. It was darn good.
Within minutes I bumped into a small group I’d seen on the trail and asked if they were going to Lone Pine. Seconds later, I had a ride. Turned out they were a really friendly family from Reno, and they’d left the Portal for the hike up and back at the same time we’d started from Horseshoe. Made me feel a little less lame. Then feeling that made me feel lame. Then I thought about beer.
And so I found myself at the Mt. Whitney restaurant wondering where Andre might be as I staggered around in the heat. Ice cream. I needed ice cream, and ice cream they had. One Dreyer’s chocolate waffle cone later, I plunked down on the bench outside the restaurant and waited for a text from Andre saying he had the car and was on the way. Then the text came; from the Portal. He’d just gotten down. It was going to be a late night.
Andre & Mount Russell
Andre’s trip to Russell went smoothly if a little slower than anticipated. Turns out not eating all day finally got to him. He descended from Whitney along with Mountaineer’s Route, traversed north toward Iceberg Lake, climbed back up to the crest and then summited via a southern route up Russell.
At the top he met some of his people (by which I assume he meant some soft of super-human Russian climbing species), and then headed down. With knees hurting and out of energy, it just look longer than expected.
The Way Back
Andre’s second text from the Portal was, “Can we get a cab back to HSM?” And that, I thought was an excellent question. I went back in the restaurant and kid who’d served me before looked up from the host counter.
“You want another ice cream?” he asked. Yes, yes I did. What kind of question is that? Who doesn’t want another ice cream? That’s why the call it ice cream.
“No, thanks, ” I lied. “But I could use a cab.” He looked at me. I looked at him. At some point, this became awkward. Had I stuttered? I do tend to mumble. Then he started laughing.
“Oh, you’re serious,” he said. One of the waiters overheard this and informed me that there was no cab service in town. The couple behind me actually asked if I thought I was in New York City. Clearly, I had not given the guys on the trail enough iodine tabs.
Turns out there are no cabs, no shuttles, and no way to Horseshoe Meadows other than hitching. So I offered money. The waiter kindly called someone and soon I was waiting outside to hear about a possible ride. Andre arrived shortly thereafter and we bumped fists weakly; too tired to feel too triumphant.
After some rather incoherent discussion, and bad news from the waiter, I found myself in the local sporting good store asking if anyone could give us a ride. It was like being homeless, except smellier. Fortunately, it turns out this question is not that unusual and soon I had three numbers to call. Dave, the second one, answered. It was almost nine. Dave didn’t sound too excited about it, but I could tell he didn’t like to say No, and I really wanted him to say Yes.
Sufficed to say, we eventually got to Horseshoe Meadows and our car. It was almost 10. It was dark. We were baked, but we were also done. All things considered, not a bad day.
Just the Facts
Andre and I tried to estimate the mileage and elevation gain of all this, but the section between Langley and Discovery Pinnacle involves a good deal of guesswork.
- Andre (TBD Miles, TBD+ Feet Gained, 4x 14k Peaks)
- Shawn (27.5+ Miles, 12K’ Gain / 14K’ Down, 2x 14k Peaks)