Cottonwood Lakes Loop — Page 7

Looking Toward Army Pass

Crashing Army Pass

I've enjoyed my time on the summit of Mount Langley, but I'm ready to begin the descent toward Army Pass. But where is it? The challenge ahead is principally staying on-route.

Several saddles in the area resemble Army Pass, including New Army Pass, and I'm a little concerned I'll miss the right one. Luckily, I know the proper line is guarded by a broad snow pack. I assume I can use the snow pack to verify I'm in the right place. Of course, descending a steep snowfield without an ice axe promises to be interesting.

Mount Langley: Upper South Wall Snowfield Army Pass The East-Southeast Chute & Peak 12,891

But I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. From the summit, I begin descending south and west. Somewhere in this region is the upper south wall of Langley, which looked like an impenetrable cliff from the Cottonwood Lakes basin.

I find a set of footprints and follow them, figuring they'll lead around the steep obstacle. Instead, I soon find myself at the top of the upper south face. The footsteps end at a steep gully, suggesting at least someone decided to climb up (or down) this way.

Feeling adventurous, I decide to try the gully, and scramble down without incident. And now it's time to find the entryway to Army Pass. If I've picked the right chute, I should find snow blocking the top of it.

Sure enough, a large field of snow covers the chute's upper third or so. As per my scouting, the south end of the snow pack is thinner, only about 16 feet high.

Since I don't have an axe to do a proper self-arrest, my plan is to slide down on my feet, knowing I'll quickly get out of control, but hoping my speed won't be too excessive by the time I reach the soft gravel underneath the snow.

Sometimes, you just have to do silly things—curiosity demands it. I'm tired and cranky from the headache, and feeling a little foolish, so I just step onto the snow, crouch down, and let go.

As predicted, I'm instantly out of control. Being a superior ski mountaineer (if not always a wise one), I manage to stay on my feet, but wrench my arm in a futile attempt to dig into the snow to slow down.

I hit the gravel with a painful crash and come to a stop, exactly as planned. What have we learned? If you step onto steep snow without an axe and crampons, be prepared for a fast and violent descent. Who knew? The remainder of the route is difficult, with a mixture of loose talus, boulder hopping, and some down-climbing. My guidebook calls this a "mule route."

Unless mules are more skilled climbers than I am, I'd have to disagree. I see little evidence of an established trail, just difficult scrambling over steep, rough ground. I keep heading down, crossing another, much flatter snowfield, heading toward the blue jewels of the cottonwood lakes. I'm a little low on water, and eager to take a break. From the pass, I have a perfect vantage point to look back at my ascent route along the east-southeast ridge.

The chute I took alongside Peak 12,891 is visible against Langley's sheer south wall. Clearly, the non-technical climber has no other way to gain the ridge if they miss this critical little chute. There's a final section of steps and blocks to down-climb before I reach the first lake, but I'm urged onward by the sight of the lake's clear, blue water. The loop—and the hike—is almost finished.

next: Finishing the Loop

About SierraDescents

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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