Tue, Aug 10, 2010
Mt. Morrison South
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Mt. Baldwin previously climbed Mon, Jul 5, 1999|
Mt. Morrison previously climbed Fri, May 7, 2004
There was a modest group of about a dozen folks for the fifth day of 2010 Sierra Challenge. Today we were headed to White Fang, an unofficially named summit in the Mammoth Lakes area, in the middle of the ridgeline connecting Mt. Baldwin to Mt. Morrison. It is named for its shape and whitish rock that makes it resemble its moniker. I was interested in doing the class 4 traverse between Baldwin and Morrison, hoping to pick up White Fang along the way. An easier class 2-3 route is available directly to White Fang from Bright Dot Lake on the west side, making the peak accessible to those not wishing to do the traverse. The plan was to follow the Convict Lake Trail, head cross-country to Bright Dot Lake, then split the group between those going directly to White Fang and those heading to Baldwin for the traverse.
It was shortly after 6a when we set off, the sun rising a few minutes later for an orange-hued display on Mt. Laurel's colorful East Face. With Convict Lake and Mt. Morrison on our left and Mts. McGee and Aggie on our right, it was a scenic hike up Convict Canyon. By 7:30a we had reached the washed out bridge some four miles from the TH. I expected that this might be the crux of the day with some excitement as so many folks made efforts to cross the creeks here.
Sean wasted no time in making a somewhat risky leap across to a slick boulder that he just managed to keep from falling off of. No one was willing to make the same move. I climbed uphill along the bank of the right creek fork, eventually finding a tricky way across. Some of the others followed this route, others looked for easier means. I then crossed the left fork which I found easier, then waited for the others to come across. Most were successful by one way or another, but not all. A few stepped into the creek by accident, some on purpose, at least one person had a pair of water shoes along for just this crossing. Daria was the last to get across the left fork as she followed it upstream for more than a hundred yards before finding a crossing she was willing to try. In all it took about 15 minutes to get everyone across, after which we were marching back up the trail.
We did not stay on the trail for very long. At the top of a short series of switchbacks I pulled over at a large tree marking the start of the cross-country to Bright Dot Lake. It appears I was the only one in the group to have used this route before. As usual, Sean took off up the rather steep slope without giving it much thought. The others stood around for a moment watching him and thinking it was not all that inviting. It was a terribly loose slope that could be dangerous to those following below. I knew there were cliffs above that had to be avoided by moving left, and despite my caution about this, everyone followed Sean up the slopes. I traversed left from the start, finding easier ground with more solid rock in that direction. I watched the others dodge stuff knocked down, get stopped at the headwall above, and generally have a much poorer time in this section than I had. Carol and Faith didn't get very far up the slope before deciding it was too dangerous and turning around. They would make a short day of it.
The steep slopes to Bright Dot Lake had the effect of stretching out the group that had stayed together until that point. I was by myself when I reached the outlet of the lake in the small hanging valley above. As I was starting around the west side of the lake, I spotted Sean and then another participant on a small knoll on the other side. They would figure out soon enough that they were on the wrong side. Once past the lake to the south, I looked for the use trail to Mt. Baldwin but found things strangely unfamiliar. Sean and a number of the others were following me, including those who had not planned to climb Baldwin. This is where good independent map-reading skills would be helpful. Evan and some of the others had recognized the route junction and gone the direct way to White Fang around the east side of the lake, but obviously not all those that had planned to.
I lost the trail altogether in a flat, desert-like area south of the lake. It seemed on my previous visit I had no trouble finding the trail that leads to a calcite crystal mine and then on to the summit of Baldwin. Sean caught up with me and we discussed things briefly, choosing to head up a ridgeline leading to the northwest face of Baldwin where it looked like we might find a way through. Luck was with on this choice because we soon found footprints and eventually the trail we had been looking for. Five others were following behind at a distance, and since we hadn't spoken to them in more than an hour, they weren't all exactly sure where we were leading them.
It was around 9:45a when we reached the calcite mine. It was obvious we were getting close by the bits of clear crystals we would find, their size and regularity increasing the closer we got to the mine. I had remembered the mine as a fantastic cache of large, clear crystals that could be chiseled easily out of the cliff, but what we found wasn't quite so spectacular. The best ones we found were of medium size, perhaps an inch or two across, and these weren't in the rock but lying about the ground. Some of them were clear as glass, the best-looking crystals I've seen anywhere in the Sierra. Adam, Vitaliy, Karl, Daria, and Bob J. all joined us for about ten minutes of digging around the mine and collecting samples before heading off again.
The trail led nicely through a break in the cliffs that Sean and I had been spying from far below. It then led around to the west side of Mt. Baldwin where sand, talus and slabs replaced the steeper and rockier section we'd been following. Somewhere on the west side the trail begins to break up into into a number of braids that seemed to head off towards the south side of the summit on an ascending traverse. To speed things up, we left the trail threads and started straight up the slopes for the last 500ft to the summit. It was a sandy grind, somewhat frustrating with backsliding. Bob J. described it as a Stairmaster workout. He, Sean and I were vying for the lead, trying to reach the summit without taking a breather along the way. The three of us were within a minute of each other reaching the top (Sean first, of course) around 10:20a, the other four about ten minutes behind.
It was a gorgeous morning on the summit, clear skies, great visibility, no wind and pleasant in the sun. Swell views were had in all directions (SE - S - SW - NW - N - NE). We had a nice stay, catching our breath and relaxing for 20 minutes or so. The view north to White Fang and Morrison showed just how long this traverse is, something like two miles. And it looked hard, too. Secor lists the North Ridge of Baldwin as class 3 which had us unprepared for the ugly bit of crappy rock that we found. We rejected the first chute we perused that dropped to a saddle below thinking there must be an easier way. But all I found in following the ridge lower were even worse chutes to descend and eventually concluded that first one was our best shot. The rock was terribly loose and the footing no better. The handholds all seemed to come out from the sides, falling down in a cascade of rockfall below. The footing on the whitish rock was very difficult, a thin layer of loose material over hard ground. The best I could figure out was to try and keep my hands applying opposing pressure into the walls while slowly working my feet downwards. The others watched as Sean and I torturously made our way down the hundred feet or so of the worst of it at the top. I thought it far more like class 4 than class 3. Nearer the saddle things eased up a bit and after about 15 minutes we were through it. The others all decided it wasn't worth the risk and headed back down to Bright Dot Lake via the ascent route, leaving Sean and I on our own.
As it turned out, the initial descent off Baldwin was the crux of the entire traverse, though we didn't know it at the time. I was very nervous about finding worse sections over the next hours, perhaps some I might not be able to negotiate. Unlike the Koip Traverse from a few days earlier, this one had a great deal of "committment", seemingly devoid of options to bail off the crest to the west or east sides. We spent more than an hour and a half on the traverse between Baldwin and White Fang. Some of it was downright scary, other places were tedious, most of it was loose. Rockfall was regularly dropping down one side or the other as we progressed along. It had little to recommend it as a classic traverse. At one point Sean had gone around a corner in a cliff area to "check things out." Out of sight, I heard the sound of rockfall, much larger than that we'd gotten used to. My heart skipped a beat and lept to my throat as my first thought was that Sean had fallen. I looked around to see him still clinging to the cliff, commenting, "That was close." With my sigh of relief I implored, "Please don't die on me."
We had seen others atop White Fang while on our way there, but we found the summit deserted by the time we reached it around 12:30p. Evan, Phil, Jeff, Ron and Laura had all made it by the direct route up from Bright Dot Lake. The register they signed had been placed in 1984 by a MacLeod/Lilley party. Page 4 had a 1997 entry by Peter Croft. In 25 years there were only eight pages used, and three of those were from today. We paused here for 20 minutes to eat lunch, including Sean's regular fish and crackers delicacy. He even drank the fish oil remaining in the tin when the fish was all gone. Yum...
We were only 1/3 of the way to Morrison but luckily the terrain began to grow easier and we started making better time along it. Not to say it was a piece of cake - there were plenty of airy downclimbs and other places that made us think twice. About 30 minutes after leaving White Fang we heard voices and soon recognized these as our companions from Mt. Baldwin. I was convinced that once they had reached Bright Dot Lake again they would head back to the TH, not wanting to do the 2,000-foot climb up to White Fang. I was evidently wrong. Just as we were about to rejoin with them, Sean let loose a cavalcade of rocks, some the size of toasters, with me directly below in the fall line. Sean screamed out "Rock!!" but I was already ducking behind a short wall, the best hiding place I could find on two seconds' notice. Hunched over, I felt the rocks come over the edge and pummel my backside. Even in my momentary panic I was happy to find they were not hurting me at all, my pack taking the brunt of the impact and cushioning the blows. I tucked my head down as far as possible to protect it and prayed that a really large rock didn't come down. When the dust cleared 30 seconds later I emerged unscathed, but admonished Sean to be ever-vigilant.
Adam was the first of the four we met. He laughed when I told him we were surprised they came up. "What? And miss a Challenge peak? Never!" They were far too north of where they should have been to climb to White Fang, having climbed some other chute and now had to negotiate a quarter mile or so of the ridge south to White Fang. Bob J. and Daria were close behind him, Vitaliy a few minutes behind them. Karl had been the only one of the five who descended baldwin that had taken the easier chute to the summit. He would get back to the trailhead an hour ahead of these four. They were glad to hear from us that the traverse to White Fang from where they stood was no more than class 3, and after a few minutes chatting we went our opposite ways.
Another 45 minutes north along the traverse brought us to Morrison's South Summit. There was a tricky bit of serrated edge along dark-colored rock that had us worried, but Sean did a fine job of finding a way along the loose knife-edge to get us to a saddle at the base of the white-colored South Summit. More class 3 up from the saddle led to the summit where we arrived at 2:15p. The South Summit is actually higher than Mt. Morrison, but few visitors come here. A short distance north of the South Summit the terrain eased altogether, most of it class 2 talus along the west side of the ridgeline.
We landed atop the north summit, or Mt. Morrison proper, shortly before 3p. We stayed only long enough to sign the register and catch our breath, then continued down, picking up a use trail on the east side. We followed this down to a saddle on the ridgeline continuing to Mono Jim. We had originally planned to tag this last bonus peak on our way back to Convict Lake, but by this time neither of us were interested in the additional elevation gain it would take to reach it. It was easy enough to talk Sean into descending into the canyon north of Morrison for the return, though in hindsight it would have been much faster to continue down the east side. The canyon was a loose, crappy affair in the upper portion; a bouldery, crappy affair in the middle section, and a brushy, crappy affair in the lower part to reach Convict Lake. We spent almost an hour on this cross-country trek that makes for a far better snow climb in season than it does a mid-summer trudge. I had picked this route because it was one of the few ones to Morrison I had yet to try. At least now I know to avoid it.
It was 4:45p when we returned to the parking lot and our cars. Ron, Evan, and Faith were still in the parking lot hanging out because they were waiting for someone or had no better place to go. I caught up briefly with them on their adventures, then drove down to Bishop to get my motel room for the next few days. I was happy to see we managed the traverse and without injury, but I won't be recommending it to others in the future.
Bob Jones was an hour behind me getting back to the TH, erasing most of the lead he had for the Yellow jersey. I was only five minutes behind him at this point and figured I could catch him in the next day or two. He still held a firm lead for the Green jersey. Sean was still one peak ahead of me for the King of Mountain jersey, with 17 peaks in five days. It seemed futile to try and keep up with him as I would likely fail and also blow my chances for the Yellow jersey. Adam and Vitaliy once again finished the day together, leaving Vitaliy's five minute lead for the White jersey intact. It was shaping up as the closest and most hotly contested Challenge to date.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Baldwin - Mt. Morrison
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