2014 Mt Langley and Miter Basin

Description: 5 day solo trip from the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead to Miter Basin and Mt Langley, making use of both Old and New Army Passes

Click for interactive map (Gmap4)

Day 1: From the Horseshoe Meadows area out of Lone Pine, I started on the trail towards New Army Pass, careful not to mistakenly take the detours to Cirque or Cottonwood Lakes 3-5. I enjoyed lunch at Cottonwood Lake 1 while watching a few people fish in the distance. From here, it was just another 2 miles to Long Lake where I circled most of lake before settling on a campsite at the northeast end.

Long Lake below the trail to New Army Pass

Day 2: New Army Pass gains about 1000 ft in 2 miles, a very mild ascent in comparison to other passes for entering the Sierra wonderland from the east. I quickly reached the top, paused to enjoy the view, and then proceeded towards the top of Old Army Pass for a peek before continuing up the path towards Mt Langley. Just before approaching the Major General, I dropped down the sandy slope towards Upper Soldier Lake. With each sliding step, I knew I would need three times the effort to go back up in a few days on my return.

Today’s itinerary was to either camp at Upper Soldier Lake or continue to Blue Sky Lake. I decided to continue on, forgetting to maintain my elevation around the southern and western sides of the Major General which resulted in a bushwhack down to Lower Soldier Lake. By then, I had resigned to just round the corner and pick up a use trail along Rock Creek into Miter Basin. Unexpectedly, finding the most efficient path upstream was not as obvious in this narrow and rocky gorge.

I ran into EJ here, who was also headed towards Sky Blue Lake so we combined efforts (guesses) to find the best route, while being teased by a trail that appeared and disappeared randomly and repeatedly. After gaining some elevation, the basin opened up to a wider valley of lush grass, idyllic streams, and dramatic granitic peaks ahead. At the end of the basin, after a short climb, we arrived at beautiful Sky Blue Lake.

Looking down from New Army Pass

Miter Basin in the direction of Sky Blue Lake

Sky Blue Lake

Looking back at Miter Basin from Sky Blue Lake

Day 3: At Sky Blue Lake, I met Ken, Denny, Margaret, and Greg, residents at the lake for the next 4 days. They had the fortune of seeing some remarkable wildlife. Ken showed me a video clip he had taken the previous day of a bald eagle circling the lake. They had also encountered bighorn sheep on their hike in. Their plan today was to fish at nearby Iridescent Lake.

My destination was the peak of Mt Pickering (13,485’) so I headed towards the northern inlet end of the lake to work my way up to the base of the mountain, boulder hopping the final 50 yards or so. My route up included slogging up sand and small rocks on the less steep sections and scrambling over medium to large sized rocks on the steeper sections. Halfway up, I became concerned with the stability of many of the rocks and the possibility of a rock slide. I got within 400' of the saddle to the left of the peak when I decided to abort this climb. The mountain will always be there for another attempt. Besides, the main event was still in store for me – Mt Langley (14,042').

Sunrise at Sky Blue Lake

Northern view from halfway up Mt Pickering

Halfway up Mt Pickering

The inlet above Sky Blue Lake, Mt Langley in the background

Day 4: Today’s hike was a short one, as I planned to just move camp to Upper Soldier Lake, a good starting point for summiting Mt Langley the next day. My only concern was finding the best exit point from Rock Creek that would lead me to Upper Soldier Lake without losing much elevation. As it turned out, the obvious point was when Rock Creek began to descend. I started up the base of the Major General and then tried to maintain my elevation. I knew the general terrain and my general location from my gps and paper maps but wanted to avoid 20ft drops.

The anxiety of finding the best path and avoiding getting cliffed out gradually disappeared as I began to really enjoy the route-finding challenge. I was also getting positive feedback from some cairns along the way and arrived at my destination without a glitch.

I found Upper Soldier Lake to be full of life. The birds, mainly Clark's nutcrackers, were very active and chatty, tiny frogs hopped along the lake shore, and to my surprise, the lake contained trout. I thought it was rare for fish and frogs to coexist in the same lake. I spent the long afternoon just sitting and observing life at this lake.

Foxtail pines

Lower Soldier Lake


Day 5: Today I had to retrace my steps up the sandy slope I had come down on day 2. After an hour of 2 steps forward, 1 step back, I was finally at the top where I stashed my backpack, with the bear can outside, and kept some essentials in a daypack with me.

The route up to Mt Langley from here was more of the same steep sandy and rocky slopes. Several very large cairns were built to keep hikers on a common route so that more vegetation would survive. After the final cairn, the path levels off and it is a gentle slope to the summit plateau.

It was a perfect day to be on top, as the wind was not too strong and the sky was clear. I looked across to Mt Whitney and thought of last year’s view of Mt Langley from Mt Whitney’s peak. Unlike the Mt Whitney crowds, I had only passed about 4-5 people going down as I ascended. And I shared the peak with only 2 other people, Steve and Bruce. We took photos together and of each other, signed the register log, and enjoyed the views at the summit for about an hour before descending together.

At my backpack dropoff point, we said our goodbyes as they headed towards New Army Pass while I went to Old Army Pass, despite the many warnings I had received about its condition. I did not find Old Army Pass to be treacherous, though I’m sure winter conditions are very different.

While I had intended on camping at one of the Cottonwood Lakes, I ended up hiking another 6-7 miles pass the many campers at the lakes to the trailhead parking lot, thinking of real food and a soft bed.

NNW view from Mt Langley, Sky Blue Lake on left

View of Mt Whitney

Old Army Pass