Up In Smoke

A Push for the Summit of Mt Langley despite the CA Fires





Activity: Peak Bagging, Backpacking, Back Country Camping

Horseshoe Meadows/Cottonwood Lakes/Mount Langley

Distance: 20 miles, altitude 14,032 ‘, prominence 1,165’, elevation change 5,124’, 17 hour duration, rated HARD

Dawn on Day 3 of our adventure, (DAY 1, DAY 2), into the High Sierras brought the clear blue skies that we had hoped for. It was a GO for a shot at the Summit of Mt Langley at over 14,000’. We were all too aware that we would be in a race with the smoke from the California Fires that could force us back, with it’s thick choking smoke that would be blowing over the mountain range in the early afternoon.

We set out straight away as we had a tough row to hoe to make it to the top. We passed the last of the Cottonwood Lakes, our base camp, and up Old Army Pass. When you first hike up to the Wall it seems formidable, even impenetrable, and it was a daunting task to be sure. It is a narrow rocky path of switch backs, with drop offs you don’t even realize on the ascent because you are looking up and concentrating on getting to the top of the pass. During the descent, however- as you concentrate on your footing, you catch glimpses of just how precarious your situation actually is. Once at the top of the pass it is an open area that you wander across before approaching a steep incline of broken, jagged rock, referred to as talus, which will be the terrain for the remainder of the climb. Much of the remaining 1,000 feet of elevation will be scrambling and there is a spot that I would call light rock climbing. At first there are cairns that help to mark a faint trail, but later the cairns are just marking an area of scrambling across rough terrain to the summit.

My own personal experience was far different than that of my companions in this undertaking. When I have been upper elevation peak bagging, over 11,000 feet, I have experienced Altitude Sickness. Climbing Mount Langley was by far my most challenging hiking adventure as it is much higher than anything I have climbed. As a matter of fact, from the moment I started climbing the Wall of Old Army Pass right up until the last 100 yards to the peak I was filled with doubt whether I would be able to make it to the Summit. The altitude was a massive struggle for me, which left me dismayed, and frustrated. I was on my own on this endeavor and I would battle every step of the way. My friends left me on the Wall, as I kept falling behind plagued by the effects of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS.)

This was Mike’s 3rd attempt at summiting Mount Langley. He felt the pressure of three strikes and your out. The first time he was turned back by inclement weather, and the second because his hiking partner experienced Altitude Sickness. As for my friend Craig, he had recovered from a bout of Covid-19 early in the Summer. He certainly could not be hiking in heavy smoke, so for all of us, but for Craig in particular, it was a race against the smoke. As a side note, Craig had promised his son, whom also came down with the dreaded Corona Virus, that he would not attempt to summit this mountain because of his Covid. Craig, however, was feeling good so he pressed on.

On the Wall I met some younger hiking enthusiasts who passed me up, while I was on one of my frequent breaks. They cheered me on saying that they hoped that they could do what I can do when they are my age. My age? Geez… thanks. Later I was caught from behind by Michael Downs. We were between 12,000 and 13,000 feet above where we were both from and that was sea level.

I had just gone through a “Pity Party Seating for 1”. The altitude was really getting to me. I just couldn’t believe that I couldn’t do this?! It was hitting me hard, to the point that I had become emotional, yelling and cussing at myself to soldier on, even shedding a tear or two. I was so frustrated and displeased with my performance. As a top catamaran sailing competitor, and 2 Time National Champion, no one could push me as hard as I pushed myself, and that was exactly what was going on here. I was feeling extreme exhaustion, I was having trouble catching my breath, and even something in my chest didn’t feel right. (And actually a month later I still feel that something sometimes.) I wasn’t sure that I wasn’t hurting myself, and that perhaps I should just quit. But quitting is not part of my DNA.

I told my new trail friend, Michael Downs, about my Pity Party and that I was having to consider that maybe I am getting old. His reply was, “Your not old, I’m old”. He said that he was 65, which is a little older than myself, which he was surprised to learn as he said that I did not look my age. This guy was a real inspiration. He told me that he started right at day break, and I said oh yeah? There is a young guy, Kota, that started about that time as well, and that he is probably at the top right now. Then I realized that Michael was talking about starting from the parking lot not the base camp. He was hiking Mount Langley as a day hike and he was really moving! Michael Downs was the strongest hiker on the mountain that day. He later caught my friends, and they said that Downs looked like he was skiing moguls at his rate of descent through the talus field. Micheal Downs had been in the Sierras doing other hikes for some time and this was the crowning jewel of his trip.

I later saw my other new trail friend, Kota on his way down whom also gave me words of encouragement and too persevere. That wild man decided that he would hit nearby Cirque Peak before the smoke got too bad! Awe to have the energy of youth… actually to have any energy at that point. Then I ran into Craig and Mike on their way back from the summit, also giving me an enthusiastic boost. The smoke was now rolling in. Funny everyone was giving me an “Attaboy” you can do it!, you got this bro!, but not one person said are you sure you shouldn’t just turn around?

I continued to push on and suffered up the mountain, driving myself on, not going to let Altitude Sickness get the best on me. (For more on Acute Mountain Sickness go to my ‘Pursuing Balance Through Adventure‘ Backpacking and Hiking 101 Blog.) Distraught, exhausted, disillusioned, abandoned, and now breathing dangerous smoke- I took step after beleaguered step. The entire time I was not sure that I would make it. Now on the fire smog besieged summit there was nothing to see. (Note: the nice Feature Photo of the sign and the summit was taken hours earlier by Kota.) What should have been A Stairway to Heaven was Hell. But still I did it. I accomplished my goal. I was standing on the Summit of my first and perhaps last 14er. I had joined the Club. Not feeling great I did the obligatory Summit Selfie and headed down.

Now the landscape instead of exquisite was apocalyptic. Ground, sky- everything was a grayish brown color. But for me as soon as I was heading down, and without the cardio push of a steep incline at altitude, I was making good time, not having to take but a few breaks, far different than going up. But the terrain is rough so it is still slow going at times. At one point during the section that involves what I referred to as light rock climbing, I decided to throw my trekking poles across to the other side of this little chasm. I wanted my hands free when I jumped across. After I made the toss I decided against taking a chance when alone, high in the Sierras and not in the best situation. The short cut was not worth it and I would find another way, which I did. But now what about my poles? Not a good idea to chuck them across, lol… I had to climb back after them from a different, safer direction. Anyway, going down was still no easy task, and I stumbled into camp 10 hours after I had left. My friends without any problems due to the altitude had arrived 3 hours earlier and were relieved to see me.

I was not feeling well… I had pushed it to the limit. I skipped dinner, went straight to my tent and climbed into my bag. I was spent, and I started experiencing the chills. Mike and Craig were nice enough to ask what they could do, feeling helpless. I had them make me hot water which helped.

So our experiences fulfilling our goal of climbing to the summit of Mount Langley, one of the tallest mountains in California, were quite different. I wonder, does the struggle make it more rewarding? My Peak Bagging Buddy, Keith Christensen says, “If it doesn’t hurt it isn’t worth it”. Well, I can tell you, it hurt.

Photo Credit: Kota Okugawa
Above Mike and Craig is the pass we will be making our way up switch backs on the wall to get to. You can see a chute of snow even though it is the end of Summer.

Thanks for joining me “Up In Smoke”, because Mike and Craig were already back at camp with their boots off having a snack, while you, (my faithful readers), and I huffed and puffed together, getting more than we bargain for, ‘Pursuing Balance Through Adventure’ to the max on Mount Langley. It certainly wasn’t what I signed on for as an experience, but certainly an ADVENTURE! Stayed tuned for there is still the last day of the expedition to come. Find out if I survived the night or if my friend Craig had to finish the post. Since this was my toughest outing ever I contemplated hard on a Title. To see all the the somewhat humorous titles click here. If you enjoyed this post please COMMENT, FOLLOW, LIKE and SHARE. If you like my PBTA Logo hat or need a PBTA Logo Face Gator to protect you from the Covid-19 or Choking Fire Smog then go to SHOP APPAREL. Please see the menu for all the wonderful locations that PBTA wanders off to. Each location is a separate website and thus needs to be FOLLOWED separately.

Happy Trails,

Roger Jenkins

Pursuing Balance Through Adventure

5 thoughts on “Up In Smoke”

  1. Looks like a tough 14er, especially for your first! Congrats on summiting and I’m very glad you made it back down okay despite the AMS. I wonder if the wildfire smoke caused your symptoms to be worse. I climbed a 13er this summer in thick smoke and it was horrible.

    Liked by 1 person

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