Monday, August 26, 2013

Eastern Sierras Adventure: The Mt. Langley Curse

                                             The spectacular Eastern Sierras of Northern California

       Chris and I eagerly and rather nervously headed north this past weekend to the Eastern Sierras for our 4th attempt to summit the 14,000 foot Mt. Langley.

     We have considered the mountain cursed, because we are three time losers over the past few years in attempting to summit her majestic peak.  Mishaps on different trips included my falling and tearing my rotator cuff, our friend Mark falling on his head, and a horrifyingly icy Old Army Pass cornice which we chose not to attempt traversing.

                                   Would you try to climb this? Right. Neither did we.

   Fortunately the weather and the mountain looked good for the weekend, so we booked the trip with  Mark, Kent and Chris and jumped in our car for the 4 hour drive to the Eastern Sierras.

                        We always wonder who bought and lived in these large,
                     expensive homes we passed in the middle of nowhere around
                                 Palmdale and Lancaster. There are no jobs that we
                                              can see for countless miles around.

                                This large volcano rises out of the middle of Owens Valley

                          And soon enough, we arrived at the little town of Lone Pine,
                   gateway to Mt. Whitney, Mt. Langley and many of the other 14,000
                    foot peaks of the Eastern Sierras. We loved this little park in town.

                                The spectacular view from the sleepy streets of Lone Pine

                                                       Incredibly gorgeous vista

   Since we arrived earlier than our friends, we had a bit of time to kill. I visited the Lone Pine Film History Museum.   Countless movies, TV shows and commercials have been filmed in this area. The scenery is that dramatic.  Plus, it's only 4 hours away from Hollywood.

                                                           Among the films made here:

                                              Kalifornia with Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis

               The Eastern Sierras were a stand-in for Libya in the Oscar winning Gladiator.


                         Quentin Tarantino used the area for many external shots in his
                  recent Django Unchained, starring Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio

          Along with hundreds of westerns filmed here over the last 80 years, Star Wars, Star Trek, The Green Lantern, GI Joe and Indiana Jones have all used the locale for dramatic outdoor scenery.

               Of course, the most famous film to use this dramatic locale is Ironman.
              Here the Eastern Sierras are a pretty impressive stand-in for Afghanistan.

        The film museum sells souvenirs and DVDs related to the movies and TV shows filmed in the area.  From a merchandising point of view, I had to wonder: Who is the target demographic for the Hopalong Cassidy lunch pail? Besides the obvious fact that 99% of children have never heard of Hopalong Cassidy, even the former fans of long ago who might want to buy these for nostalgia are nearly all long dead.

     Anyway, for all I know, these lunchboxes have been sitting on the shelf since 1956, still unsold.

        This merchandising strategy made a bit more sense, although it's not really authentic to the spirit of the film museum. Since parts of GI Joe were filmed in the area, they sell the DVD (on the right). Cute how they decided "What the hell" and stuck in G.I. Jane DVD's (on the left) even though the location never set foot around here.

           After touring the museum, our friend Mark arrived and we grabbed dinner in Lone Pine. Our plan was to drive up to the Whitney Portal and car camp for the night. At 8,000 feet elevation, we figured we could start the acclimatizing before hitting the trailhead the next morning.

                After exiting the restaurant in Lone Pine, we looked up and saw smoke
             pouring off the mountain. This was NOT the gigantic Rim fire, currently
               burning near Yosemite. That fire was 200 miles to the north. This new
              fire appeared to be in the vicinity of Mt. Langley, our destination for the
               next day. Good Lord...could it be the Langley  curse at work yet again?

      We asked around town if anyone knew the source or location of the mountain fire, but the only response was *cricket, cricket* and some scratched heads. Since the Whitney Portal is several miles away, we decided to head on up the mountain anyway.

                             This family of black bears stood guard  in front of the bear boxes
                            where climbers lock up their food at the Whitney Portal.
                                            I hadn't been this close to bears in awhile.

                              We waited for them to disperse, but they did not. They guarded
                               those bear boxes as if their lives depended on it, which I suppose
                             they did. Black bears don't usually attack humans, but they have
                               been known to destroy cars to get to the tasty morsels inside.

                           Well, since the Bernstein Bear family was clearly in charge
                          of the Whitney Portal and had no plan to leave, we bagged that
                idea and took our cars (and our food!) back down the mountain for the night.

                            We pulled off the road at the bottom of the mountain and slept
                      in our cars at this lovely (bear-less) spot. Our plan with the forest fire
                     was to see how things looked in the morning. If the mountain was on
                                  fire then we would bag the trip and head on home.


                                    The next morning we awoke to crystal blue skies.
                                The fire appeared to have been completely extinguished.

                                                       The trip was back on! Yeah!

                                     Mark does his own laid-back version of Chris'
                                                      world-famous victory pose.

                               We jumped in our cars and drove up to the Cottonwood
                                             Lakes Trailhead, gateway to Mt. Langley

                        We donned our 30 pound packs and headed off on the 8 mile climb
                      to Cottonwood Lakes at the foot of Mt. Langley. This would serve as  
                            base camp for the summit attempt the next morning.

                                      It's a lovely trail. Thousands climb it every year.

                                     Along the way we entered the John Muir Wilderness

                                              Me crossing a river using a fallen log bridge

                                                                     God's country

                                                                      Taking a break


                                                            Sky, rock and trees

                 Dead needles have the appearance of bright wildflowers on this tree

                           After hours of climbing, Mt. Langley finally appears in the distance

                                             Oh, noes. What's that in the distance? Smoke?

                                                          Oh, for the love of...     :-/

We couldn't believe it. Fire. Again! 
But now we were on our own deep in the forest.

                          To the southwest, the smoke gave the area a Mars-like appearance

                                                         Not what you want to see.
                               Mt. Langley was completely obscured by the smoke.

                    We arrived at 11,000 foot Cottonwood lakes, where Chris (Jones) and Kent
                               had been camping and acclimatizing for the past 24 hours.

         We had a serious discussion about the fire situation. We decided to set up camp and stay put for the night, and then in the morning assess things at that point.  I felt pretty safe, mostly because we were surrounded by several lakes. Worst case scenario: the fire bears down on us, we all jump in the water and we've got a dramatic story to tell all our friends. Nobody dies here.

             Weirdly, as ash began raining down on us, a freezing wind was blowing. We debated if the falling ash would ruin our new North Face jackets, but Chris deducted that the wind was so cold that it cooled the ash by the time it hit the ground.

                 Hmmmmm: freezing wind,  a raging forest fire concealing the sun and
                   ash raining down...could this be the 4th Horse of the Apocalypse?
                 Not to mention that damn Mt. Langley curse. Anyway, we had fun
                      catching up, had a quick dinner and hit the racks for the night.

                                         The next morning, we couldn't believe our eyes:

                                There she was: Mt. Langley looming above us, clear as day,
                                             under the cradle of a crystal blue sky.

                           Perfect summit conditions. Mark, Kent and Chris donned their
                                                gear and headed off to bag Mt. Langley.

                         Chris Jones and I stayed behind in camp and read, relaxed and
                          chatted about Duke Elington and Miles Davis. I had decided a
                       couple of weeks ago that I wasn't going for the summit. 11,000
                        foor high Cottonwood Lakes is more than enough for me!

                                    Hard to believe only hours before the entire area
                                               was clogged with smoke and ash.

                                            Anyway, the guys made the summit,
                                          and the Langley curse has been smashed.
                                       Well done, boys!    I couldn't be prouder...   :-)

               P.S. We found out this morning that the source of the smoke and ash was
               the Fish Fire, about 20 miles southwest of Mt. Langley in the Sequoia
                National Forest. As of this writing, it's burned more than 1,000 acres
                    and is about 5% contained.


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