Sun, Aug 11, 2019
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The last day of the 2019 Sierra Challenge was a climb out of the Cottonwood Lakes TH to the Major General, one of the few officially named summits in the Whitney region that I had yet to climb. It is an exceedingly minor summit near Mt. Langley that Secor describes in his guidebook as "hardly worth the effort." Chester Versteeg had plucked this low-hanging fruit back in 1937 and we were back 82 years later to serve it justice with a good-sized group of eight that would make it to the summit. As a bonus, my son and two of his friends where there at the start, their first time joining the Challenge. They weren't going to the Major General, mind you, but Mt. Langley, their second 14er after doing Mt. Whitney the prevous year. They were not yet fully engaged in the gloriousness of obscure peaks.
There are a number of ways to reach the Major General, the most efficient appearing to be via Cottonwood Lakes and Old Army Pass - at least that was the way we were heading. The route was fairly tame for the first two hours as we made our way north and west to Cottonwood Lakes under fine, blue skies. Mt. Langley comes into view to the northwest, the Major General tucked well out of sight on the west side of the Sierra Crest. I caught up with Chris (having started early as he'd done most days) after an hour and a half, then reached Lake 4 in another half hour. The third hour was spent on trail as it goes around the north side of Lake 5 before climbing up to Old Army Pass (Army Pass on the topo map). There were sections of the trail higher up that were covered in hard snow, but most of these could be bypassed by scrambling below the trail on well-worn alternate paths. In one place just below the pass, a boot path went across the snow without any sort of bypass. This required some careful stepping. I had crampons and axe with me but didn't put them on because the section was short and the existing steps seemed adequate.
At the pass I turned north to follow the trail forking towards Mt. Langley. Rob and Clement were somewhere ahead of me, but nowhere in sight, much as I'd lost track of the rest of the crew that were behind me. After about half a mile I noticed another fork in the sandy trail that was heading left, roughly in the direction of the Major General, now visible to the west. I was thinking I might get lucky by finding a trail to our summit, but this was short-lived, lasting only about a quarter mile when the trail begins diving down the drainage to the west towards Soldier Lake. Evidently this was an alternate way up to Old Army Pass (or Mt. Langley) from the Rock Creek drainage. I began a cross-country traverse across sandy slopes, going over the shoulder of one minor ridge before dropping to a small basin on the west side of the Major General. As I was descending, I was studying the slope on the far side of the basin that I would need to ascend back up, noting snow blocking several options. I picked out a route taking advantage of a nice ramp near the top that allowed me to avoid all the snow, getting me to the large, flat saddle between Mt. Langley and the Major General. From there it was an easy walk to the southwest to reach the base of the summit blocks which in turn were a sporting bit of class 3 scrambling.
It was 10:15a by the time I topped out, still no sign of Rob or Clement. A surprisingly busy register dated back to 1987 with many pages of entries. I guess quite a few other folks thought it was worth the effort. I stayed only a few minutes at the summit, soon heading off towards Mt. Langley which I planned to visit next. As I was making my way across the wide saddle I spotted a familiar outline making his way quickly down the sandy slopes of Mt. Langley's SW Ridge. I soon met up with Clement, smiling wrying as is his habit and we stopped to chat briefly. He'd obviously gone to Langley first and was only a few minutes behind me in reaching the Major General. He would go on to summit Cirque and Smatko Peak and still only be 30min behind me in returning to the trailhead - one tough guy to keep up with!
After parting, I began a tedious ascent of the same slope that Clement had so easily descended. I moved left in search of rockier terrain that might have lessened the amount of sand. This was only partially successful as I found it was impossible to avoid it, really. I was simply going up a route that was much better in the opposite direction. It took an hour to climb about 1,300ft in about 3/4mi to the crest where I got a nice view of Mts. Whitney, LeConte and Corcoran along the crest to the north. I turned east to follow the crest to Mt. Langley, an effort requiring another 20min to cover less than half a mile - not the trivial terrain I had expected of Langley. I reached its summit by 11:40a, finding a group of 8-10 folks hanging about. Among them were my son and his two friends who were all smiles with elation, surprised in having beaten me to the summit by about 10 minutes. It was only after I explained that I'd come from the Major General that my son realized he had not really beaten Dad at all. Still, I thought they had done pretty good, considering one of them, Milo, had hiked to the summit wearing a plastic boot on one foot to protect a damaged achilles heel. It must have been somewhat demoralizing to others when he passed them going up the trail in it. Jessica, Tom and Iris were also among those lying about the summit. I spoke briefly with them, took some shots of Ryan and his friends and then packed up to join them as they were heading back to get out of the chill that pervaded the summit. I stayed with them only a few minutes as they plied a use trail through the sandy summit area that meandered from one large cairn to another. Following behind them and not saying anything, I veered left to descend through a small cliff band that would get me down more directly to the flatter stretch along the crest below. The sand was now my friend, allowing large plunge steps below the cliff band to have me far ahead of son and pals. I was amusing myself, thinking they might be wondering what had become of me.
Not as ambitious as some of the others to continue to Cirque Peak, I went back over Old Army Pass and down to Cottonwood Lakes. I was caught up by Rob between the lakes who paused briefly from his jogging to tell me he'd made it to the Major General but not to Mt. Langley. Like me, he was happy to call it a day and leave some gas in the tank. Resuming his trail run, he would beat me back to the TH by some 40 minutes. It would be after 3:30p by the time I got back myself, finding Kristine there, relaxing after an easy day doing a couple of alternate peaks. We would hang out for the next several hours as the remaining participants came trickling in, cheering and greeting them on arrival. We had a huge variety of drinks courtesy of brother Jim, and plenty of salty snacks to pass around. Ryan and his friends came in well over an hour behind me, a little perplexed that Dad could have beaten them so handily. Perhaps more training for next year was needed...
Overall, an excellent Challenge. Despite a heavy snow year, the conditions did not hamper our efforts, except perhaps to test us with far more mosquitoes than one would usually see in August. Rob took the Yellow and Green Jersies by more than 10hrs, holding his lead from the first day that was never really contested. Clement was the only other participant for all ten days that might have been able to challenge him, but Clement was having too much fun collecting bonus peaks for the Polka Dot Jersey, summiting 45 peaks over the course of ten days, a number that would have made him King of the Mountain on any previous Challenge. This year he was relegated to 2nd place behind Scott Barnes who managed a whopping 56 summits, once again spending far more time on the trail than he was off it. A total of seven folks managed to complete all ten Challenge peaks, no easy feat. I'd like to thank all 40+ folks that came out for one or more days who all helped make it great fun. Until next year...!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Langley
This page last updated: Thu Nov 28 12:30:01 2019
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