Cottonwood Lakes Loop — Page 5
- Horseshoe Meadows
- Cottonwood Lakes
- The East-Southeast Ridge
- Diaz Creek & Owens Valley
- 14,039 feet above Sea Level
- Crashing Army Pass
- Finishing the Loop
If the landscape has been interesting to this point, it suddenly takes on the appearance of a surreal moonscape. Here above 13,000 feet, Mount Langley's southeast slopes are barren.
Palm-sized chunks of quartz crystals are everywhere, mixed in with a fine granitic sand that stretches to the horizon like a beach. Mount Whitney is approximately five miles north-northwest of here, yet the two neighbors seem to have little in common. It's as if Langley is an island unto itself of sand, tundra, and weird, mottled rocks.
The swoop of the vista down toward Diaz Creek is vertigo-inspiring. And that feeling is certainly enhanced by the altitude, which makes every movement slower, more labored.
I'm not exactly sure how to proceed. There's little-to-no sign of a trail to follow. It looks like I could gain a nearby ridge line to the southwest, which leads above Langley's south wall.
I want to look down into Tuttle Creek, however, so I angle more northerly, toward the obvious spire above which I hope is Langley's summit. I stop to take a photo of a large boulder. It is pattered with strange ripples and ridges somehow sewn into its bulk.
Despite what appears to be a line of footprints heading toward the pass to the west, I head straight up, toward a eastern buttress that seems to lead to the summit.
The 'sand' also compels me to stop and take another photo. Like sands through the hourglass I think, as it sifts through my fingers. Time seems to be ticking slowly now. My pace has fallen off considerably since the energetic pace of my early morning.
My head hurts. I'm usually lucky with regard to altitude—especially considering I live at sea level. My body normally lets me get away with dashing up from the ocean to the mountain tops, but today I'm dragging. I focus on my breathing and tell myself I'll be descending soon enough.
The landscape is dramatic, disturbed only by the occasional sound of invisible jets flying somewhere overhead. We must be near a flight corridor, possibly Air Force.
Mount Langley's east buttress is listed as Class 3 in my book. The climbing actually looks quite a bit easier, reminding me as always that rating climbs is a highly subjective business. Each of the Sierra's mountains is unique, of course. But I find myself fascinated by Langley's geology. There is something almost volcanic in its austere high reaches. And the dramatic sweep of its vistas, which offer gorgeous lines that run all the way to Owens Valley, over ten thousand vertical feet below.
Perhaps this barren landscape is too featureless to satisfy the aesthetics of most climbers, but I love it. To me, discovering such unexpected sights is what mountaineering is all about. I struggle onward, seeking harder climbing lines up the buttress to justify the Class 3 rating, perhaps push it a bit. I'm excited when I finally reach the edge of Langley's north face, allowing me to peer over the precipice down into Tuttle Creek.
This is it: what can only be called an extraordinary future-descent, a jarringly-steep chute that plummets down thousands of feet to the open valley below. Call it the world's greatest downhill course. Here on the edge of Langley's north face, one thing is instantly clear: the north face is steep! I crawl over to the edge of the rocks, gingerly peering over, feeling my stomach sink as I'm confronted with all that air below.
I'm forced to reconsider my assessment of the ski terrain. This is at least experts-only stuff, possibly a good deal harder than that. I continue scampering up the rocks along the edge. There is a final snow pack to be navigated, and then I'm standing on Langley's summit plateau, with only a hundred yards or so of flat ground to cover until I reach the summit-proper.