Mon, Aug 9, 2004
We were down to three participants for the last day of the Challenge. Michelle and I were the only survivors from the first day, in addition, Dan Harris joined us for just this day. Dan had attempted the last day of the 2003 Challenge, heading for Langley, but had to turn around when he ran out of time. He was aiming for Langley again, having a score to settle with it.
Dan left the Cottonwood Lakes TH shortly after 5a and made his way up to Old Army Pass. Michelle and I headed out at 6a, under another beautiful Sierra sky, delightfully cool temperatures as well. Michelle hadn't been sure that she wanted to come out for the slog, and I had to apologize for putting Cirque on the list as it was a poorly disguised excuse to give me another chance for Langley at the same time. We hiked together at a decent clip, then separated after an hour and 15 minutes, Michelle heading for Cirque (she'd already been to Langley and couldn't take the slog again), myself to Langley.
I was planning to take the Old Army Pass route, a good safe bet. The previous night at dinner Jim described a conversation he'd had with Doug up at the Whitney Portal Store, where Doug gave him beta for a great direct route to Langley. The route takes the trail to Muir Lake, heads cross-country to a ridge leading up to the Langley Plateau, then an easy walk up to Langley. I had dismissed this idea the night before, wanting to take the known route, but as I reached the Muir Lake turnoff I could see the ridge ahead, and it did indeed seem like a direct line to Langley, bypassing Cottonwood Lakes altogether. So I took it.
It was easy getting to Muir Lake via trail, then the going was a bit slow over many acres of boulders to get to the ridge. There are two lakes just east of the ridge that Jim says Doug claims don't exist. Interesting. As I approached the base of the ridge and started climbing, I noticed that the two lakes not only existed, but were quite picturesque and exactly as represented on the topo. This should have been my first sign that something was amiss, but the ridge looked like great class 3 climbing that would avoid the sandy slogs up any of the four cirques leading to the plateau (New Army Pass, Old Army Pass, and two additional cirques to the north - this ridge lies between the two additional cirques). I had a great time climbing the ridge which started out quite broad with many options. But as I got higher the ridge narrowed and the sides grew steeper and sharper. The rock sizes increased as well, and I found myself climbing class 4 and easy class 5. This didn't seem right. I had worked myself up to the last notch before I reached the easy stuff to the plateau, but I couldn't find a way to do it without scaring the daylights out of myself. The south side of the ridge was pretty much cliffs. The north side hardly better, and ahead of me was a huge block I couldn't find a way around. I decided to bail off the ridge to the north, and that took some time to work my way down the steep face of the ridge into the fourth cirque. There were good ledges, but they were sandy and the rock wasn't terribly solid here. I couldn't believe that Langley was providing me some of the hardest climbing all week. I finally managed to make my way down and then up the end of the cirque to the plateau, but I had lost a full hour in the effort, the only route-finding problem I had encountered for the whole Challenge. I decided that either a) Doug is a pathological liar, b) some important facts were garbled in translation between Doug->Jim or Jim->Bob, or c) I can't climb worth shit. I'd like to believe (a) since it is the most humorous of the three (disclaimer: I know nothing about Doug, his character, or integrity, in fact had never heard of him until Jim brought this up), but likely the answer was somewhere in (b).
As I was climbing the final class 3 rocks on Langley's SE side, I noted another climber to my right, but lost sight of him as I moved through the rocks. At first I suspected it was Dan. I arrived at the summit at 11a, but the other climber did not come up in the next 15 minutes. Must be someone else I figured, going that slowly. I stayed at the summit some 20 minutes to sign the register and take in the views (SE - S - SW - NW - N - NE - E) - there is a lot of rock in this area! On my way down I found the other guy heading up the wrong summit. I shouted to him and directed him to the correct summit (it should have been pretty obvious). I walked over to chat with him, introducing myself. His name was Jason, a Chinese climber (whom I mistook for a Japanese) with a classic accent. He had started from the trailhead at 3:30a, travelling by headlamp and apparently scared witless that a bear was going to get him in the dark. He had bells, an aluminum cup, and a whistle to make noise, a bright headlamp, but still he had been afraid of the bears (he put his hands up like claws and growled like a bear at me to give me the visual image of his fear). My take was that he was pretty exhausted and a bit looney from the altitude. He hadn't liked the class 3 route he'd taken at the summit so I directed to the the southwest side for his descent, a class 1 hike). He asked me to take a picture of him with his camera, and I took one with my own as well, then we parted company. [Later, Dan related that he ran into Jason at the summit as well, arriving half an hour after I left. Dan lead him down off the summit, and all the way back down Old Army Pass. Jason admitted to exhaustion at that point and needed to rest some. He told Dan to go on, but Dan asked some backpackers he came across on their way up to the lakes to keep an eye out for Jason.]
On my way off the summit I saw a second climber making his way up the sandy trail. I waved, but don't think he saw me - it turns out this was probably Dan, but we never met enroute. The walk back down to Old Army Pass and up new Army Pass was easy, sandy, and surprisingly enjoyable, primarily due to the great views walking along the crest. I paused at Old Army Pass to take pictures of the view down the cirque and of the old trail leading to the crest. Beyond New Army Pass the route up to Cirque grew less sandy and more interesting over a variety of boulder and talus terrain. The most interesting section was comprised of unusually level blocks of rock that were pockmarked as though they were of volcanic origin or had been weathered on some ancient seafloor. It most reminded me of the rocks one often finds in tidepools along the California coast. It took me 2hrs after leaving the summit to reach the summit of Cirque a number of miles south along the plateau. I found Michelle's summit entry, noting she had taken a class 3 route on clean rock up the NE Face. My guess is she enjoyed her climb more than I did mine. I stayed at the summit half an hour, an unusually long time for me. It was breezy and cool, but also sunny, and I enjoyed the views at this transition region between the High Sierra and the lower Southern Sierra. I descended via the cirque to the SE, an easy, sandy descent. Michael had given me advice to follow the drainage down rather than pick up the trail at Cirque Lake, and this turned out to be great advice. The first half was easy walking through sparse forest and beautiful meadows, then I picked up a trail on the north side of the South Fork of Cottonwood Creek. The trail doesn't show up on the regular maps, but it does show up on the map posted at the information kiosk at the TH. The trail took me by an old cabin on the way down. It intersects the Cottonwood Lake Trail just north of the creek, and this old trail is blocked with some logs and unsigned. It is undoubtedly the fastest, most direct way to Cirque Peak, having taken me only 2hrs from summit to TH. I was back at 3:30p, Michelle leaving a note on my car that she did indeed enjoy the climb of Cirque more than she expected.
I very much wanted to make this last day of the Challenge. First, Langley marked the last CA 14er that I had not yet climbed nor dayhiked. Second, Cirque marked the first time I (or anyone) had actually finished all ten peaks of a Challenge. I was still feeling pretty good and since my family was still in Florida on vacation, I decided to spend a few more days out climbing - sort of Challenge OT, or Extended Play. I went back to Lone Pine to stay for the night and plan a few more adventures in the coming days.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Langley - Cirque Peak
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