Mt. Morrison SPS / WSC

Sat, Jul 5, 1997
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
later climbed Fri, May 7, 2004

Mt. Morrison is located about 15 miles SE of Mammoth. There are a number of peaks in the area that are higher (Bloody Mtn, Mt. Baldwin, Red Slate Mtn), but none as impressive as Mt. Morrison when viewed while driving along US395 in this area. I had noticed it for the first time back around 1986 while taking a photo at the Mammoth airport. From that vantage point, it looks like an impossibly difficult climb, and so I gave no serious thought to climbing it at the time. It wasn't until 11 years later when I had a greater interest in peak bagging (and Secor's book) that I found that it was a class 2 climb from the east. Ah, the impossible climb made possible for mere mortals...

On Saturday morning, the local Lions Club held the annual Mammoth 10K, reputed to be the highest 10K in California. The hills are minor in the race, but the whole course lies at roughly 8,000 ft. I had been acclimatized to this elevation for the previous 6 days which was a big help, but it's still quite an effort to run a race at this altitude. When I ran the race the previous year, I had thought I was going to die. That was the first time I had run it, and I nearly knocked myself out by running the first mile way too fast. This year I paced myself better and finished in a respectable 47 minutes, but I was still having trouble getting oxygen as my lungs struggled to get enough of it in as fast as possible. I found I was breathing so hard and so fast that I could taste the blood from my lungs as I finished the race. I don't know for sure what causes this, but I'm guessing there is some minor rupturing of tiny blood vessels in the lungs from breathing too hard. I'd had this happen a number of times in the past, always when my breathing is particularly vigorous.

Based on distance, Mt. Morrison is a short hike, and from a map it seems like a 4-5 hour climb. Ignoring the altitude one needs to climb, I thought it would make a nice afternoon activity after the morning race. I went back to our condo to see if I could rustle up some companions to join me on the hike, but struck out, as nobody was interested in another hike today. A group of 10 of us had gone for a long hike the day before up on the Mammoth Crest. We had started at Lake George, climbed up to the Mammoth Crest, over to Deer Lakes and Duck Pass, and then down to Lake Mary. I was glad that I hadn't been the one to suggest it (although I was enthusiatically in favor) since it turned out to be a gruelling epic for several of the party. But that's another story.

On my own then, I drove out to Convict Lake around 11a. It was a particularly warm day, somewhere in the 80's, and quite dry out in this part of the mountains. As previously mentioned, it's short hike up to Mt. Morrison, perhaps 4 miles, but the elevation gain is tremendous, over 4,500 ft. There are no trails on any part of this hike, so right from the parking lot one forsakes the advantages conferred by trails, namely speedier travel and less bushwhacking. Right at the start I was in the brush and scree on a steep slope just to the south of the parking lot. Two steps up, one back, as the sand, dirt, and scree slid from under me. After about 400 feet, the slope becomes more gentle (briefly), and opens to a better view of the surrounding area.

I followed the top of a ridge between two creeks. The one on my left goes directly to Convict Lake while the one of the right curves northeast as it bypasses the lake and empties into Convict Creek down by US395. Not having a trail to follow I was glad that the area was so dry that it kept the scrub to a manageable level. I had to meander some around it, but could generally pick a pretty direct route without getting lost in the thickets. I'd been out no more than 45 minutes when I started to have doubts that I was going to reach the top. The 10K had affected me much more than I hoped, but probably in line with what I should have expected. I found that my legs were tired, and that they were not capable of doing anything I wished upon them, contrary to my previous conceptions. I had to stop to rest from time to time, which bothered me. I was not used to taking rests when I hiked by myself, and I rediscovered the refreshed feeling one gets from even a few minutes rest. The steepest portions were still ahead when I would get to the base of the East Face, and I disliked the idea of waiting until I had hiked much further to realize I couldn't make it to the top. So at each rest I would reevaluate my chances, become undecided, and continue on.

It was warm, and getting warmer. My skin seemed quite dry in the midday sun, and I wasn't sweating as much as I normally would, probably because I was a bit dehydrated to start with. I had just over a quart of water with me, and that seemed sufficient as long as I didn't do anything silly like break into a run. I hadn't seen anyone since I left the parking lot, and in fact didn't see another person until I returned later in the afternoon. This isn't a very popular hiking area and it was becoming pretty clear why: hot, dry, no shade, and no trail. Just above 9,600 ft I ran into a few patches of snow. I cleared away the top inches and used the snowcone-quality stuff below to recharge my water bottles (I've always gone under the assumption that giardia isn't found in the snow, but I've never really had that confirmed anywhere). This was the only snow I found along my way the whole day, as most of the rest of the route is up the East Face of Mt. Morrison which has enough exposure to the sun to melt it off much earlier in the season.

Just past the snow, I found some remnant of a use trail that follows a dry, shallow gully. Because there is so much loose rock in the area and very little sand or dirt, the trail is quite faint. By the time I got to the East Face of Mt. Morrison, the trail had pretty much petered out. There's no single, well defined route up, so I had to choose what seemed most reasonable. Although I was still tired at this point, I had much more confidence that I would be able to reach the summit. I had already climbed 2,400 ft, which was more than half of the vertical required, and it was less than a mile to the top. I chose to stick to the right of the east face, up a broad gully that seemed to offer a more direct route to the summit. Again I picked up a use trail, this one much better defined as it wound its way up the scree. I followed it religiously where I could, as the additional compaction of the scree provided a firmer surface and allowed swifter progress. The presence of the use trail gave me confidence that the route wouldn't turn out to be impassable (I couldn't tell from the bottom of the gully whether I'd be able to get out near the top).

Near the top of the gully the scree gives way to more solid rock and steeper faces. This was perhaps the most enoyable part of the hike (climbing-wise) as I climbed up a short 50 yard section of class 3 rock. Once up this obstacle, I joined the East Face at its rightmost end. The route to the top was now open for inspection and it was clear that it was a straightforward class 2 climb from here. I arrived on top around 2p, and was treated to the usual lovely views one finds from almost every Sierra peak. Red Slate Mtn was directly south, Bloody Mtn and Laurel Mtn to the west, and the Owens Valley to the North and East. Mt. Baldwin could be seen a few miles to the south connected to Mt. Morrison by a long and difficult ridge.

I rested for perhaps a half hour on top, eating the snacks I brought with me, signing the register, and identifying the peaks and other landmarks around me. From the top I had a much better view of the East Face which I had mostly avoided on my way up. I could see a route pretty much all the way to the base (although no guarantee I wouldn't find myself above a 20-foot cliff), so I decided to alter my return route for a change of scenery. As I negotiated the larger blocks at the summit, I kept my eye out for the sand and scree portions that I could use to hasten my return. There were large sections that I could literally run down, but I had to be careful as the scree ran out to keep me from hurtling head-first into the rocks.

About halfway down, the scree and sand gave way to rocky benches, and my descent rate was slowed considerably. These were still highly enjoyable, as I had to pick and choose my route to get me off one 10-foot bench after another. There was a thin covering of loose sand and gravel on much of this which made me be particularly cautious whenever the slope of the rock steepened. Near the bottom, the face opens up broadly, and the challenge of route finding disappeared altogether as I climbed down the last boulders to the bottom. From this point on, it became a test of stamina, as endorphins from summiting had dissipated and I once again became aware of just how tired I was. I refilled my water bottles at the snow patch again, and was able to stop worrying about running out of water as I had done on Red Slate Mtn a few days earlier. As an additional change from the ascent route, I thought I'd follow the creek (the one flowing into Convict Lake) down, but I soon got bogged down by bushes surrounding the creek edges. This forced me onto the steep slopes on the side of the gully, which although navigable, soon made my feet quite uncomfortable from being turned sideways as I walked. I soon ditched this idea altogether and contoured over to the ridge that I had originally used. This was a much better route, and I reprimanded myself for being stupid. Oh well, you never know until you try...

I made my way back to the Suzuki around 4:30p, still plenty of daylight left. I felt like I had just completed an epic cross-country journey returning from the wilderness to civilization. I was dead tired, hungry, dry salt on my skin, but none of this made any impression (nor should it have) to most of the others I passed on my way through the parking lot, who were enjoying the fishing, hiking, and picnicing along the lake. The one person who did notice me was thrilled that I was returning so that he could take my coveted parking spot. I happily relinquished it and returned to town so I could clean up, have dinner, relax... and any thoughts beyond that were hazy, being insignificant next to the top priorities my tired body had already determined.

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