Laurel Mountain P1K WSC

Fri, Sep 24, 2004

With: Matthew Holliman

Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
previously climbed Fri, Jul 5, 1996

Another 2a start from the Bay Area, a few Starbucks Frappuccinos and a tank of gas later we ended up at Convict Lake for a 7a start on Laurel Mtn. For an area with notoriously loose rock (we'd climbed Mt. Morrison earlier in the summer), Laurel Mtn's NE Gully was reputed to have decent rock, provided one stayed on route. Various trip reports had described off-route surprises in the way of loose class 5 death traps. The route lands in Peter Croft's book as one of the "Great" Sierra routes, and has historical appeal as the first Sierra route to employ a proper roped belay, back in 1930. Matthew and I needed an acclimatization hike for our longer outing to Clarence King the following day, so this one seemed to fit the bill. Assuming we could avoid making an epic out of it ourselves (we had underestimated Lone Pine Peak in just such a fashion), we figured we ought to be able to do it in 7-8hrs, giving us plenty of time to recover and get to bed early. We planned to solo the route, rated 5.2 by Croft, class 4 by Secor and earlier guidebooks, but we carried harnesses, a handful of pro, and an 8mm rope in the event it proved more difficult than we expected.

The approach is one of the shortest and easiest one can find leading to a Sierra peak. From the Convict Lake TH, it is a short 35-minute walk around the north side of the lake, up a few hundred feet of sage-covered hillside, then a small amount of talus to the start of the gully. We climbed up a short ways before reaching the first difficulty, a 20-foot wall at about 60 degrees. This was a bonafide class 4 section and the hardest part we would find all day. Matthew took a first crack at it, then backed off and let me go up. It was spicy, and I turned with camera ready at the top to get a picture of Matthew. But Matthew had other plans, and finding the section not to his liking, backed off about 50 feet and found a loose class 3-4 route on the right side of the gully. While I waited about 15 minutes for Matthew to rejoin me, I enjoyed the views back towards Convict Lake and alternately looked for shade and a good rock to sit on, depending on which was bothering me more. There was little chance to hide from the morning sun on this route, and though it had been in the upper 30s when we started, it had warmed up considerably once the sun had come up over McGee Mtn to the east.

We followed the path up the middle of the gully as recommended in the TRs and guidebooks. At times it was more like canyoneering than mountain climbing, an enjoyable mix of scrambling up the (at times) very narrow gorge, that was no more than 4 feet across in places. The rock in the center was quite solid, washed clean from eons of water flowing in this seasonal creek. It was slick in places too, polished smooth by the same water flow, but not slimy and dangerous. During or just after a thunderstorm, or while the snow was melting on the upper face, this would probably be a much more difficult effort. Where the route split into two narrow gorges above us, we took the right (north) branch. This led to a near-vertical, awkward constriction in the gorge that we chose to bypass on the left before rejoining the channel just above the constriction, where it became mostly class 2-3. By his smile, I could tell Matthew was enjoying himself - in fact we both were. The route was just hard enough to be challenging and enjoyable, but nothing scary.

The gorge broadens above this point, becoming a wide chute with many possibilities above here. Another 100 feet up starts the band of reddish rock that is very notable from Convict Lake, and while still in the gray band below it we began angling to our left per the picture in Croft's book. Crossing the red band, we found the rock more fractured and talus-strewn, but no harder than class 3. Above this we angled to the right, following the main branch of the gully we'd started in. We found lots of face climbing on gray slabs that required some attention, but not enough to entice us into our rock shoes. Matthew isn't a fan of steep slabs at all, and here he fell well behind as I continued up this section fairly quickly. After losing sight of Matthew below me, the slabs ended in a sea of loose talus crud, which continued for about 800ft to the summit. Above 11,000 ft there was ample remains of snow that had dusted the Sierra the previous week. It was just enough to enhance the pictures of the north facing slopes, but not enough to get in a climber's way.

The route I followed landed me on the summit ridge about 50 feet from the summit itself, a pretty good aim it seemed. I was at the summit at 11:30a, and took off my pack for a break. At 4 1/2 hours it was far from any speed record (I'm betting the fastest could make it in an hour), but had we broken out the rope it would have been hours later. There was only a breeze atop, not a cloud in the sky, and the temperature was cooler and more pleasant than it had been on the route. Mt. Morrison and Bloody Mtn were the two closest peaks that presented fine views, but there was much to see in all directions (SW - W - NW - N - NE - E - SE - S). Matthew was about 30 minutes behind me, giving me plenty of time to peruse the many books in the summit register. There were four or five books, the earliest dating to the 1980s - this peak gets climbed a lot. I found my previous entry from 1996 when I first climbed the peak with my brother Tom. I stood up after I'd done with the register and looked around for Matthew. At first I didn't see him anywhere, but then his form appeared about a hundred yards down on the South Ridge. He had evidently taken a slightly different ascent route than myself, following up the next chute to the south. There are many, many options one can take on the upper half of the route. Behind him I spotted two other climbers just popping up on the lower south summit, probably having come up the South Ridge. They spotted us as well and decided to take a lunch break on the other summit. Maybe we smelled bad? Maybe they thought it was too crowded? Since we never got to speak to them, we may never know.

Matthew wasn't interested in staying long at the summit, so after a brief pause we both headed back down the North Slope. From below, I had pointed out Croft's descent chute which joins back up with the base of the NE Gully. But I hadn't read carefully that one needs to follow the NE Ridge to get to the top of it. Instead, I zipped down the North Slope aiming for a small plateau and broad saddle with the long ridge that runs along Convict Lake's north side. I thought Matthew was just falling behind on the cruddy talus slopes, but he was angling for the NE Ridge, having read the beta more carefully. When I reached the plateau I saw no sign of Matthew and figured he'd wandered down the NE Ridge by accident. From the plateau I dropped east into a hanging valley. The initial slope was loose and crappy morrainal material, but once I reached the floor of the hanging valley it was easy going along tufted, grassy meadows. The valley curved to the southeast and brought me to the sage-covered slopes that drop down towards the Convict Lake Trail. The bushwhacking was pretty easy, nothing like the difficulty Croft describes (I'd guess he never actually took this route he warned against). In fact I think it may have been better than the NE Ridge descent which looked to have many hundreds of feet of loose scree to contend with. I found many partial trails, a mix of animal and human that braided their way down the slopes, having only a few places with any real bushwhacking. I was back at the trail by 2p, and back at the car half an hour later. I had no keys to Matthew's car, so I laid down behind it on the asphalt where it had created some shade, and rested. Matthew's familiar footsteps appeared another 30 minutes later. 8hrs car to car, no epic, no routefinding problems, no 5.hard climbing, perfect weather. What more could we ask for?

We drove on to Bishop (stopping at Vons for the now routine Starbucks Frappuccinos, and other snacks) then further to Independence. We took a room at the motel across the street from the courthouse, and had dinner at the local Subway. We had done so well with time that we were actually in bed shortly after 6p as planned - big day tomorrow, and we needed all the rest we could get...

Continued...


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Matthew comments on 10/12/04:
I did indeed encounter a great deal of loose scree by following Croft's recommended route. There was a use trail in places, but mostly it was a bit unpleasant--not sandy enough to slide down, not firm enough to walk down quickly. Your hanging valley looks like a nicer option...
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