“Did you grab the food bag?” Silence.
“Uh, no. Is it not there?” More silence.
But hey, I’m getting ahead of myself now. Let’s start on December 31st, 2019, when I added “Bag another California 14er” on my list of New Years Resolutions. Now, even though I didn’t specify which 14,000 foot peak I wanted to complete this year, deep down, I knew it was going to be Mt. Langley. I had backpacked in her shadow many times before, and each time I had been called to her summit. 2020 was going to by my year. So in mid-January, when permits began to be released for the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead, I scooped up two spots for the middle of July.
Fast forward to the weekend of July 11th, and I was ready to make my attempt. I had convinced my bff, Laura, to try for the summit with me… and it was going to be her first backpacking trip in the Sierra as well! (Don’t tell me how I continue to convince her to go on backpacking trips with me.. her first backpacking trip that I took her on was up San Gorgonio… and somehow she has still agreed to be my friend and let me drag her on backpacking trips).
Laura picked me up at 5pm on Friday night and we made the three hour drive to Lone Pine. By the time that we started up the famous Horseshoe Meadows Road, it was pitch black. We got to the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead a little before 10pm and had to park in the overflow lot. We organized the car, set up our bed in the back, and were in bed by 11pm. We were in no rush the next morning, so we didn’t even bother to set alarms. We noticed quite a few other hikers sleeping in their cars at the overflow parking lot, but it stayed quiet all night.
The next morning, we woke up around 7:30am, had breakfast, packed up, and were on the trail by 9am. For those of you who haven’t hiked out of the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead before, the first four miles or so are super cruiser. Very flat, shaded, and all above 10,000 feet. It’s a great hike (and a great area to backpack), as you start so high, so you don’t have to gain too much elevation before you arrive at glorious alpine lakes. There is one section that starts to gain elevation for about the last mile or so before you hit Cottonwood Lakes, but relative to most Sierra trailheads, the gain isn’t too bad.
We hit Cottonwood Lakes 1 and 2 and had lunch. The day was beautiful – not a cloud in the sky and a calm breeze. Our lunch spot was directly in the shadow of Langley’s summit. We gazed upon the mountain and had the perfect view of what (we thought) we would be summiting the next day. Spirits were high.
We knew that we wanted to camp at Long Lake to set us up for an early wake-up call and summit the next day, so after lunch, we packed up and finished our hike to our camp spot. When we arrived, there really was only one camping area – a very large area right off the trail. I usually don’t like camping right on top of other tents (isn’t the point of backpacking solitude?), but there really wasn’t much room to spread out and have a sheltered spot. We ended up making friends with the neighbors (which would prove very beneficial in a short few hours – stay tuned) and walked to the other side of the lake to enjoy a box of wine and the sunshine.
After lounging by the lake and taking a nap, we decided to finish up our chores for the day before having our first dinner (yes, we are the hikers that have both first and second dinner… and yes, it rules). We grabbed my Sawyer Squeeze water filter and took a nice five-minute walk to the closest stream to pump our water for the night and the next day.
Upon arriving at the stream, I filled up the Sawyer Squeeze bag with ice-cold alpine water, twisted the water filter cap onto the bag, turned it upside down to empty it into the waterbottle and… nothing. Not a drop of water would come out of the filter. The mutual feelings of panic and frustration were instantaneous. I had already been so apprehensive about switching out my MSR pump filter for a Sawyer Squeeze, but in an effort to lighten my load and become more ultralight, I had finally caved in. I had used it twice before the Langley attempt, and both times it had worked, but I had gotten kind of nauseous each night (and one of the nights I actually threw up!). I’m not completely convinced that I had become nauseous due to the filter, but I was definitely suspicious. And now, on my third time using it, the damn thing didn’t even work.
We played around with it for about 10 minutes before my frustration truly took over and we gave up. Laura went back to camp in an attempt to convince one of the other campers to lend us their water filter so that we could fill up all of our waterbottles and hope that it was enough to sustain us on our summit and hike out the next day (it worked – thank you, random campers!!). By the time that she got back to the stream, I had successfully created a hole in the water bag by trying to push the water through the filter too hard. The Sawyer Squeeze had proved itself utterly useless after only two uses.
Thankful to have been able to use our neighbors water filter, we paid them back with a couple of Hershey’s kisses and sat down to eat dinner number 2. We were prepared for a 4:15am wakeup call, so we laid down before the sun went down and dozed on and off until night fell. We had had one (slightly major) hiccup with the water filter, but all in all, it had been a great day in the Sierra. I was ecstatic for the day ahead and finally crossing Langley off on my list.
Before long, it was 4:15am and our alarms were going off. Laura got out of the tent first, and I took my time getting dressed and then stuffing my sleeping bag into its sack so that I wouldn’t be tempted by the early morning air to get back in it. I could hear her packing her daypack outside the tent, and eventually, I climbed out to join her.
I started packing my bag for the day when I walked over to where I had left the bear bag for the night. Just like I had done 100 times before, I left it underneath a tree, buried deep in the branches. For the past seven years, I had carried an Ursak bear bag, and I was really happy with it. Since it was a soft bag (instead of a hard canister like, let’s say, the BV500), it fit really well in my backpack and wasn’t awkward to pack around. I had never once had an issue with animals getting into it. That luck ended at Langley.
I arrived at the tree and the bear bag was nowhere to be found. I figured that since Laura had been out of the tent for a lot longer than I had, she must have picked it up so that she could pack her food for the day and begin to eat breakfast. I wasn’t worried.
I walked back to our tent and asked her, “Did you get the bear bag?” only to be met with silence. Silence was not good.
“Uh, no. Is it not over there?” My heart dropped. It wasn’t.
We RAN back to the tree and began searching. There was absolutely no sign of the bag anywhere… so much so that I started doubting whether I was looking at the same tree that I had left the bag at. Lo and behold, it was the same tree… and lo and behold, the bag was gone. Gone gone. As in we-searched-for-45-minutes-before-we-called-it gone.
Eventually, and after 45 minutes of searching, we called it. It was passing 5am and the bag was truly nowhere to be found. No remnants, no trash, no trail… nothing. Since ALL of our food was in the bag, we needed to get off of the mountain fairly quickly, as we had a six mile hike back to the car and absolutely no sustenance to get us there. Absolutely heartbroken, we begrudgingly packed up our tent and began our hike back. It was truly the most perfect summit day – there was no wind, not a cloud in the sky, and the temperature was warm, which was unusual for a Sierra morning in July.
After six miles of hiking, my stomach was turning in on itself and my heart truly was broken. I had been looking forward to this summit for over six months, all lost due a stupid mistake of trusting a bear bag instead of a bear canister. We arrived at the car by 8am and arrived at The Grille in Lone Pine by 9am to stuff our faces with breakfast. I even ordered a Dr. Pepper with breakfast to try to lift my spirits up.
I learned a few lessons on that summit attempt… 1) No matter how advanced you may be in something, there truly is always room for mistakes. 18 years of backpacking under my belt and I’m still learning valuable lessons. 2) Invest in the bear canister – it may be bulky as hell, but it can’t be dragged away by an animal in the middle of the night. And 3) Trust your instincts with gear. I somehow knew that the Sawyer Squeeze was not going to work for me, but I went with it anyway. Thank god that we were camped in an area that had other campers nearby… I really don’t know what we would have done had we not had access to someone else’s filter.
All in all, while I was truly devastated that we weren’t able to summit, the weekend was a humbling reminder to always be prepared because things can go wrong. As soon as I got home, I instantly ordered a bear canister and started researching iodine tablets. And it may not have been the trip that we were looking forward to, but as always, it felt awesome to spend a weekend in the backcountry and only gave us motivation to come back soon for our vengeance on the summit. Until next time, Langley!