Sunday, September 29, 2013

Mount Langley (14,026 feet)

"Uh oh.  Too late," a Japanese hiker insisted, shaking his head.  "Very windy on top," warned a second Japanese hiker as he eyed our thin short sleeved shirts.  Sierra and I reassured the hikers that we had warmer gear stowed in our packs, then continued up old Army Pass heading toward Mount Langley.

At 14,026 feet, Mount Langley is one of California's easier "14ers," making it a popular climb.  But the many hikers we met descending from Mount Langley had all woken early for an "alpine start," and were now headed back down to the warmth and safety of their camps and cars.  Sierra and I hadn't started hiking until 9am, and had stopped for a lengthy lunch break to set up camp at Cottonwood Lake 3.  We were definitely behind schedule to reach the summit that day.

Undaunted, we pressed on, ready for whatever adventures the day would bring.  A wall of wind greeted us at the top of Army Pass.  We stopped briefly to layer up before continuing to climb the rocky, desolate ridge.  The sandy ridge held a variety of tracks from both hikers and bighorn sheep, creating a maze of use trails leading up to the final, rocky base of Mount Langley.  From there, climbers are faced with a variety of options to reach the summit plateau. 

Turning around to scan the ridge we had just traversed, I spotted a tawny shape bounding across the rocks.  As I watched, several more tawny shapes came into focus as a small flock of about 15-20 bighorn sheep crossed the ridge.  We stopped to watch them for a few minutes before turning back to pick a route up the climb.

Reaching the summit plateau, we hurried to the high point where we enjoyed a brief celebration ... Sierra's fifth 14er!  With relatively clear skies we enjoyed incredible views north to Mount Whitney and back to the southern Sierra Nevada mountains.  A cold, brisk wind prompted us to add more layers and prepare for the descent.

After a quick, Class 2 scramble, we found ourselves trudging back along the sandy ridge, which was now completely desolate, abandoned by both hikers and bighorns.  Sensing movement, I looked up to spy three bighorn ewes and one lamb traversing the ridge above.  Awestruck, we watched until they disappeared over the rocky horizon.

With daylight quickly disappearing, we scrambled down the rocky old Army Pass.  Evening shadows already cloaked the Cottonwood Lakes, but a bright golden alpenglow lingered on the rocky peaks above.  We returned to our camp at dusk, and hiked out the next day.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Bighorn Sheep on White Mountain Peak

Thick smoke from Yosemite's Rim Fire poured into the Owen's Valley, completely obscuring our view of the Sierra Nevada mountains.  Although the smoke was filling the valley and continuing east over the White Mountains, we decided to head to White Mountain Peak (14,252 feet), near the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, hoping to climb above the smoke.

At 14,252 feet, White Mountain Peak is the third highest mountain in California.  It is also reputed to be one of the easiest 14ers to climb because there is a dirt 4WD road all the way to the top, which is a mere 14 miles round trip from the trailhead. The 4WD road is closed to motorized vehicles other than those traveling to the White Mountain research stations.  While we saw several vehicles parked at the Barcroft research station, two miles from the trailhead, we did not see any other vehicles as we hiked.

We did not see any other hikers either.  Then, about two miles from the summit, the floodgates opened as multiple groups of hikers passed by, descending from the summit.  Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and several other princess costumes hiked by, leaving us feeling underdressed for the summit.  We later learned that the costumed hikers and many others were part of a large group of UC Davis ecology students on a field trip.

Climbing above the rapidly descending clouds, we spotted a bighorn sheep, cautiously observing us near the trail.  Continuing on we reached the summit, which was deserted.  Usually climbers enjoy incredible views of the Sierra Nevada mountains from the summit of White Mountain Peak.  But smoke from Yosemite's Rim Fire obscured our views, reducing the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains to a vague outline through the thick haze.

Descending from the summit, we spotted a large flock of bighorn sheep grazing near the trail.  A lone coyote loped along the hillside beneath them.  A few miles farther down the trail, a single bighorn sheep sauntered across our path.

The sun was low in the sky by the time we reached our car.  We enjoyed the bright red hues of the smoky sunset as we slowly drove back on the rough, dirt road, headed for home.