High Point: 14,023'
Elevation Gain: ~4,287' via New Army Pass, ~3,987' via Army Pass
Distance: ~21 Miles Round Trip
Maps: Cirque Peak and Mt. Langley 7.5 Min Quads.
So, you are looking for the one killer hike before head up the Main Mt. Whitney Trail. If you are a SoCal, you are thinking let's do San G, San Jac or Old Baldy. Why? The highest of these peaks is 3,000' lower than Mt. Whitney. If Whitney is your first trip over 11,500' you will be in for a big surprise when hiking at those higher elevations for the first time. Most every SoCal I've hiked with who visits 14,000' for the first time at Whitney walls out at ~12,000'. Our suggestion is to think big...14,000' big, and head up to the Sierra and do Mt. Langley.
This trip is recommended to those who are comfortable with a bit of cross-country travel and utilizing established trails which are not on any map.
The Day Hike
In most early to mid Julys there will be snow on the both New Army and Army Passes. New Army will usually have a cornice at the top, which if present you will need tools and the skills to cross it. Army Pass will be snow choked because it is on a north wall. If it is clear Army Pass is the most direct route to Mt. Langley. If you choose New Army as your pass you have another choice to make, that is, a trail. Our choice would be the South Fork Trail, which cuts away from the main trail to your left about 180' above S. F. of Cottonwood Creek crossing. This junction is not signed and you will have to look for the boot prints that head off along the creek. This is a great trail, better than the main one IOHO, because it climbs moderately the whole way until the final climb up to the South Fork Lakes. After that it's cross country around the lakes until you meet up with NAP Trail, the easiest access is cutting between 2nd and 3rd lakes. Consult your map.
If you are going up Army Pass put it on cruise control until the sign junction for Cottonwood Lakes/New Army Pass. Your choice is Cottonwood Lakes. Then up the headwall past a lake #1, around lake #3 and then hike along the north shore of lake #4 to the pass. BTW, the current Cirque Peak USGS Quad has the Cottonwood Lakes misnumbered, check the information board at the trailhead for the correct numbering.
This pass has not been maintained for decades but is in reasonably good shape, just a few minor class 3 moves to get around a couple of boulders deposited on the trail.
Top of the Pass
You are now above the treeline and it can be, and usually is, very windy. If you are at the top of New Army Pass you will be cursing the 300' climb back from the Army Pass area when you are done with Langley, if you are at the bottom you are saying those poor suckers...or you can just go down Army Pass and avoid the climb and get to see more of the area as you travel Cottonwood Lakes Basin.
There is a trail of sorts to about 12,500', then there are 100 of trails of sorts. Everyone has their own way to getting the southwest side of the mountain. The most direct way is the steepest and the least steep way is the longest. Just figure out which way works for you...we are steep, direct and if there is a bit of class 3 in the way, so what kind of people. This class 3 stuff can be avoided.
Into the Mountain
You've made to the cut up...don't worry it is pretty damn obvious. Start climbing, eventually you will get to a flat area. At this point you take the cairn marked 200 to 300' Class 3 section or head around to west side and take the Class 2 route to the top. The former is shorter by at least 20 minutes.
How long it takes to summit from this point
is wholly dependent on your conditioning. The difference in time between my 2002
and 2006 trips is about over an hour from the cut up. Some of this time can be
attributed to the route we took but most of it is from superior conditioning.
If Mt. Langley is not challenging enough for you, combine it with Cirque Peak. Just follow the horseshoe (cirque) around from New Army Pass staying in visual touch with the edge to minimize the distance traveled. The route to Cirque is easy to figure out as you climb up Langley. Cirque's summit offers good views but not in the class of Langley.
If your Whitney trip is early in the year and you want a 14,000' experience before heading up to to 14,497' head over to White Mountain. Although this peak is as close as it comes to an easy 14,000'er, it is still a great proving ground for those worrying about AMS and how they will perform at these higher elevations.
Another option if both these passes are
closed to hikers is to do Cirque Peak via Cottonwood Pass. This is 15 miles RT
with 2,960' of gain, the last mile is cross country but everything is right in
front of you. We have done this trip twice in mid-June after severe winters.
Cottonwood Pass was snow covered but passable. The cross country portion of the
trip climbs at a rate of about 1,500'/mile and involves some very mild Class 3
climbing at the end which can be avoided by utilizing a less direct route.
Again, you must be comfortable with cross country....think the last portion of
Mt. Baldy via The Ski Hut Trail in the winter but on a grander scale.
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Date of Last Change: 3/17/07