The Eastern Sierras have a unique vibe, an air of greatness, ridge lines so sharp even the most experienced mountaineer will shudder, lakes so clear you’d swear it’s not a reflection, waterfalls pounding down mountain sides, trees that could tell a million years worth of stories. This is a place mountain climbers want to come. I wanted nothing more then to be enveloped by this vibe…. and I was.
From the moment I began planning this road trip I knew I wanted to climb a California 14er (14er=mountain over 14 thousand feet). They are notoriously more difficult, elusive, and back breaking than the Colorado 14ers. I knew I did not want to tromp up Mount Whitney with the masses, so, I pulled up a map of the area and started poking around. I immediately noticed Mount Langley to the southeast of Whitney. Five minutes of research and I was sold on Whitney’s red headed step child. Going, going, gone. Not wanting to deal with camping permits or the fact that I had no back packing gear, day trip it was….and a humongous day trip it would be.
But that’s not this story, it’s the back story to how I found myself running up Kearsarge Pass with a crazy vegan trail runner from Los Angeles.
I have never had an easy time above 11,500 feet. I tend to almost always get altitude sickness. I have read it is part genetic, however, training at altitude will decrease the likely hood of getting sick, I am proof of this (from last summer). BUT, I was on the fresh side of an ankle injury and had not been up high in months. I wanted to do an acclimation run before Langley and Kearsarge Pass was perfect.
I found out about Onion Valley from CJ (@CJKLIVIN) who is in my top five favorite people I follow on instagram. He is a runner who is seemingly everywhere and anywhere and puts together the most amazing 15 second videos instagram will ever see. He has a knack of making you think they are longer and leaving you wanting so much more. We found each other because someone tagged him in one of my comments in reference to one of my dance/run videos. He is my instagram soul brother. He has a video from the area and I asked him about it, he gave me many suggestions but recommended “anything in Onion Valley,” boom, done.
From the town of Independence find Onion Valley road and drive all the way, and I mean all the way (enjoying the hair pin turns as you go) to the top. The views are awe inspiring. Sometimes I do not take photos because I do not want to press buttons and be distracted. Sometimes I just need to live in the moment, roll down my windows, blast my music, and forget about all devices. If any a time for being present, this was it.
There is a campground at the top. By this time it was around 5 p.m. and I knew the chances of getting a spot were slim to none. I drove around the small loop hoping, wishing, yearning, begging, pleading with the forest gods to let there be just one more spot, please? I must have done something right in life because there was AND it was a great spot! I managed to cram my car into the back corner, leaving the actual parking spot open for my incoming guest.
It was at this time the campground host Brian was making rounds, to say hello to everyone. It was also at this time that I fell in love, with Brian, the campground host. He was a tall, dark haired bearded man with blue eyes and a soft voice. He had just returned from a hike and complimented me on how I managed to get my car so neatly tucked in, between that shrub and that bush. He gave me an envelope to pay and I asked him about making a fire. He told me to come by his site when I was ready.
It was not long after I unloaded some bags and wiped my filthy body down with baby wipes that Ryan Rollins (@ryansrollins) showed up. Ryan is a heavily tattooed vegan ultra distance trail runner (sound familiar) out of Los Angeles but more importantly he is happy, positive, funny, and down to adventure through the mountains. He has an equal love and passion for vertical gain and finds the same enjoyment that I do in pushing mind and body to improve. Always evolve to improve. From the first hug to the last goodbye it was all smiles, high fives, and fun.
Ryan set off for an evening run and I opted to make a fire along with dinner. I went to Brian’s site and flirted by complimenting his burritos and showing him how good I am at chopping wood (I almost lost a knee cap). I love meeting people who love this planet as much as I do and Brian the camp host is definitely one of those people. I could have listened to his soft spoken stories all night but I had a fire to make, and quinoa to cook.
Ryan came back and we enjoyed a stir fry and my perfect fire before turning in to our respective trunks.
Kearsarge Pass (11,760’)
2,800 feet of gain
The Kearsarge Pass Trail begins at the Onion Valley trailhead (36.77234N 118.34108W) in the John Muir Wilderness located in Inyo National Forest. It eventually crosses into Kings Canyon National Park. We did not start particular early as there was no rush and the weather looked good.
The trail immediately begins climbing, looking down on Onion Valley Road and into the hot, dry Owens Valley. We got into a pace. It was called Ryan runs circles around me while I slowly chug up, up, up. Listen, dude is strong, like really freakishly strong.
A little ways up we entered, the one, the only, the most famously quoted deep contemplating instagram mountain posing mans wilderness…………
I mean look at this though. This is some OG instagram shit right here.
After cracking about 600 hundred jokes about John Muir quotes being overly used on social media platforms (ya I’m guilty too) and snapping a few photos for a family, we continued our run. Views of beastly mountains began to open up.
As we continued on the reasonable grade we hit alpine lake, after alpine lake, after alpine lake. In this order: Little Pot Hole Lake, Gilbert Lake, Flower Lake, Heart Lake, and Big Pothole Lake. I am sorry to report, from the photos, I cannot remember which one is which. Hey, cut me some slack, I am doing a pretty good job of remembering two months ago.
I must also mention, these are all phone photos. The only way to understand how truly special this place is, is to be there, to be in it, to experience it yourself. If you are out there reading this and you are one of those people who isn’t completely sold on the outdoors or this planet, go here. When you stand in the shadow of these giants, no matter who you are, you will be changed……..just ask John Muir.
Onward we ran!
Until we reached a large boulder field where Ryan later smashed his phone to smithereens (he wasn’t even phased).
We kept going, flirting with tree line until finally we appeared on the surface of Mars.
In some sort of dream I never wanted to end we reached the summit of Kearsarge Pass.
We scrambled the south ridge towards University Peak until we found a terrifying rock to climb out on and take photos. I am still afraid of heights: confirmed.
I tried to convince Ryan to go for Mount Gould, I cannot control myself. I want to climb every single one of them. Every. Single. One. He was the sanity, the voice of reason. How bad did I want Langley? Enough to know this was a good enough acclimation run and I was feeling great! My ankle felt strong and no altitude sickness. Langley is huge and I needed undead legs. We headed down.
I know how crazy it must have looked to the innocent passer-by with a 60 pound pack (lots of backpacking in this area) as two half naked, darkly tanned, heavily tattooed maniacs barreled down the mountain side. Normally it’s only one. It was nice to have company.
We headed to Independence in search of a vegan meal and coffee, we found both, I can’t remember where but I know we split a vegetable/pasta dish and there were a lot of flies. We moved south to Lone Pine where we hooked up with Whitney Portal Road and then Horseshoe Meadow Road which goes to Cottonwood Lakes, the trailhead for Mount Langley. It is only 45 miles of driving but takes nearly two hours because the roads are super gnarly (paved but very steep and curvy).
Day five in the books.
Hold on to your seats friends because Mount Langley is up next……
”The mountains are calling and I must go….” – John Muir
(Don’t even act like you didn’t know it was coming)