Cottonwood Lakes Loop — Page 2

Cottonwood Lakes

Cottonwood Lakes

From the trailhead it takes me a little over an hour to reach the first of Cottonwood Lakes. Here, the south face of Langley comes into view, as well as Army Pass, and Peak 12,891.

Now is a good time to stop, scout the route ahead, and take some photos, as the rising sun casts long shadows across damp grass, interrupted by the occasional bleached-white boulder. It makes for a rich visual palate, but I'm feeling impatient and don't want to spend too much time sightseeing.

Mount Langley: South Face Creek Crossing Lake and Talus Peak 12,891

I intend to hike one big loop today, up Langley's east-southeast ridge to the summit, and then down via the south slopes and Army Pass, either 'old' or 'new', back to the Lakes.

From what I see so far, the route looks feasible, though it means a lot of walking. I survey Langley's imposing south face, one of the Sierra's big walls of crack-lined granite. The rock-climbing opportunities are abundant, but I think I'll stick with hiking today.

In Climbing California's Fourteeners, authors Stephen Porcella and Cameron Burns note Langley has been called an "uninteresting" mountain.

I'll vigorously second their opinion that nothing could be farther from the truth. If Mount Langley's imposing south wall isn't enough for you, the north face is every bit as sheer, with even greater vertical relief. And you can ski it.

There is, of course, one huge reason why Langley's rock is mostly untouched: we're right next door to Whitney Peak, only a few miles north. The glamor and prestige of Whitney acts like a magnet, drawing climbers in the region, leaving Langley an unloved sister in comparison.

Meanwhile, crossing the meadows is proving to be something of a chore today. Heavy winter snows have transformed the Cottonwood Lakes area into one giant marsh.

I struggle to stay on dry land, cutting back and forth. The obvious solution is to stay right and traverse beneath the southeast ridge, but past experience has shown that way to be riddled with difficult talus. In the end, I'm forced to tiptoe across a section of thick green grass, beneath which bubbles running water.

My shoes get a little wet, but I eventually reach solid ground. And with that bold maneuver, I at last pass beyond the soggy meadows. The necessary route to the top of the east-southeast ridge lies ahead, hidden (for now) along Langley's south wall. I reach the last and highest of the Cottonwood Lakes, a clear-blue glacial pond set beneath a chaotic tumble of talus blocks.

The air remains cool. Unlike my last big hike, on Mount Williamson, it doesn't look like the day is going to warm up much—it feels more like fall than summer. I stop for a bite to eat beside the lake. Peak 12,891 rises to the east. As I scan that big granite obstacle, I'm still uncertain as to where, exactly, my route lies.

Is it up against the south face? Or is it closer, somewhere underneath the overhanging rock of Peak 12891? Unless my guidebook has been playing tricks on me, I'll find a narrow gully somewhere between these walls of granite, permitting passage to the ridgeline above. From my current position, however, I can't see anything other than Class 5 climbing.

next: the East-Southeast Ridge

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When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

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