Tue, Aug 9, 2016
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Day 5 of the Sierra Challenge found us at the Pine Creek TH at the very dark hour of 5a. There were only seven of us to be found at that early hour, others opting for an easier day, others starting earlier yet. Our goal was Mt. Morrow, an unofficially named summit well on the west side of the Sierra Crest, overlooking French Canyon and Humphreys Basin. It would be a long haul of some 24mi roundtrip with more than 7,000ft by way of Pine Creek Pass, thus the early start. Two of those with us, Tom and Gavin, were heading to Royce and Merriam, leaving only five for Mt. Morrow.
This was hardly the first time we'd been up the Pine Creek Trail during the Challenge so we knew the routine well. The first hour and a half are spent plying the switchbacks that climb up out of the main canyon, some 2,500ft over the course of about three and half miles. Headlamps were needed for the first half hour, after which the light of the new day slowly took shape, with the gray and brown buildings of the aging tungsten mine below us, sunrise on Peppermint Peak and a host of others above us to west. By the time I reached Pine Lake it was after 6:30a, the trail now becoming much easier and more scenic. Sean and I had gotten in front of the others, continuing on ourselves past the the various lakes and the junction for Honeymoon Lake and Granite Park. I found myself alone before the final climb to Pine Creek Pass at 11,000ft, though Sean was waiting cheerfully there when I arrived just before 8a. I took a break here while Sean continued down the other side, the last we would see of him until later in the afternoon. Michael and Eric soon caught up and the three of us descended the south side of the pass into French Canyon.
This leisurely stroll down French Canyon in the warm sunshine was the most pleasant part of the day, hands down. It occupied us for the better part of an hour as we kept an eye out for our summit to appear on the right skyline. While we were crossing the streams that cascade down from Royce Lakes to join French Creek, we found ourselves being caught on camera by Matt Yaussi who had started an hour earlier. He had timed it well to join our group for the cross-country portion leaving the canyon. The topo map shows an old trail on the east side of the creek coming down from Merriam Lake and we did our best to find this on the way up. We managed to find what could best be described as a good use trail that fit the location and followed this for about half the distance up to the lake. After losing the trail and crossing the creek to the west side, we found an even better trail there. We would follow this on the way down, finding it not the old, forgotten trail we expected, but a well-used and properly signed trail leading up from French Canyon, all on the west side of the creek. Soon after finding the good trail, we left it again, heading southwest towards the toe of Mt. Morrow's East Ridge where the real guesswork would begin.
We hadn't a whole lot of information on the peak, other than what is reported in Secor's guidebook, "Northwest Ridge, class 2; class 2 from Hutchinson Meadow." We were coming at it from the east, not the west or south as those two routes would be well-suited for. We knew from the topo map that the north side is fraught with cliffs and not likely to prove profitable, so we aimed for the East Ridge and hoped for the best. We got our first look at it when we pulled into a clearing near its base, finding it not-so-bad looking, perhaps class 3 if we were careful with route-finding. We paused for a short break here to put on sunscreen, dig gloves out of our packs and take in a little food and drink. As the four of us started up, the easier scrambling seemed to be to the left, avoiding the ridge directly as we kept to the southeast side. We found an interesting route that consisted of a series of sand and granite ledges that allowed an ascending traverse without undue difficulties. As we rounded the south side of Pt. 11,872ft along the East Ridge, we could finally see the summit of Mt. Morrow and it's broad South Slopes, further away than we'd expected. We continued our upward traverse, eventually gaining the East Ridge at the saddle with Pt. 11,872ft. While interesting and not without some fun class 3 scrambling, the East Ridge was not the easiest nor fastest way to the summit. The highpoint is found at the far southwest end of the summit ridge which took us over several false summits before finally making our way to the top by 11a, a full six hours after we started out. Whew.
The register was a particularly busy one, though no one had signed in since Kyle Atkins six years earlier (save for Sean who had signed in and left before we arrived). There were a few narrow scraps of paper from a classic Smatko register of 1974. Then the church members came out in force to honor their beloved pastor, Fred Morrow, in 1978 and the years following. There were poems written by Fred, a short biography, copies of the proposed naming sent to the BGN (but never approved, as far as I can tell), a roll call of the church members, and various tributes by those of his flock that visited the summit. Matt was the last of our group to reach the summit, at which time we took a group shot, seeing nobody else on their way behind us. While all the views were quite impressive, the most interesting was to the southeast where we could look down on the entire Humphreys Basin between the two forks of Piute Creek, French Canyon and Piute Canyon. To the west and north rose summits and ridges higher still with small, remote lakes encased in granite basins with only the most modest of vegetation - a scene both desolate and sublime.
After eating lunch among the summit rocks, Eric and Matt decided to hang out longer to enjoy the views more and wait for the others while Michael and I made plans for the return. We settled on a descent directly down the SE Face where it looked like we could take advantage of plentiful sand and scree for a swift drop to the unnamed lake on that side. This proved to be a much faster route than the East Ridge, though there was some tedium when we neared the lake and had to traverse east back to the ledge system we'd used earlier. While we were descending the Merriam Lake Trail, only minutes from reaching the bottom of French Canyon, we were surprised to see Mason on his way up, looking a bit tired. We had been expecting him, but not this far behind. The day before he had talked up the prospect of reaching Morrow more easily from the Piute Pass TH out of North Lake and the rumor had it that he had talked a number of others into doing the same, including Iris and Sean. As it turns out, he'd talked no one into the alternate route and had gone it alone, only to find that it was much, much further than he had expected. Whether he got bad mileage from another source or just underestimated it on his own, I didn't figure out, but I had to give him credit for keeping at it - I would have turned around by this time. He would be out for more than 17hrs today, hours longer than everyone else. Iris and Sean, I found later, had started later from the Pine Creek TH, caught up to Chris, and were on the East Ridge while Michael and I were descending the SE Face. We had simply failed to notice them from afar, not hard to do in a vast sea of gray and white granite.
Stopping to refill water at one of the creek crossings, it would be 2p by the time we'd made our way back up to Pine Creek Pass. With my feet in some distress, I paused here to soak them in the cool water while Michael continued on. He would beat me back to the TH by almost half an hour. Sean came jogging back up over the pass while I sat there, stopping to talk briefly. He had gone on from Morrow to tag two additional bonus peaks over 12,000ft on the ridgeline heading northwest. I had hoped to visit one or both myself but didn't feel up to it once I'd reached Mt. Morrow. He reported them "interesting", impelling me to add them to my todo list for future consideration. Somewhat refreshed, I enjoyed the last few hours by myself at a more leisurely pace, descending back down past Upper and Lower Pine Creek Lakes and down Pine Creek Canyon. It was almost 5p by the time I pulled into the dusty TH lot. After almost 12hrs on the move, it was time to head back to Bishop for a hot shower, fatty foods and much deserved rest...
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