Fri, Jul 5, 1996
Right from the beginning, the hike had presented us with the unexpected. The map showed two trails going around opposite sides of Convict Lake before they joined up at the Convict Creek Trail. The southern route appeared to be shorter, as the road follows the southern shore for a third of its length. Starting from this point, we soon found out why it's the less used of the two routes. As you reach the west end of the lake, it becomes necessary to cross the braided inlet from Convict Creek. While the water isn't more than about six inches deep at the worse, we had several aquatically adverse hikers (no wet shoes). Now I'm not fond of wet shoes and feet either, and my usual strategy is to remove shoes and socks, cross barefoot, and then dry off and reassemble on the opposite shore. As hike leader I was feeling somewhat responsible for the unpleasantness this evoked from the female contingency in the group, particularly as it happened less than a mile from the start. Offers were made to carry the females among the water-challenged across the deep parts, and two of the three gladly accepted the offer. Being a chauvinist, the request for a carry by Ken was flatly refused. :)
It took nearly half an hour to get all of us across the wide inlet, with a combination of judicious route selecting, boulder hopping, and when necessary, barefoot crossings and carries. When we finally hooked up with the Convict Creek Trail, it became obvious that we should have selected the route to the north of the lake, as it required no such creek crossings. The trail from here climbs sharply, about 700 feet in the first mile. It is exposed to the sun as well with very little shade to be found anywhere in the dry, scrubby landscape. Water consumption generally begins in this area. The next 3/4 mile is more gentle (but still upward) and provides more shade for resting and admiring the surroundings. This area is very different from previous areas we had visited in the Mammoth area. While most of the Eastern Sierra (and the whole of the Sierra for that matter) are generally dry, the high elevation and gradually melting snowpack provides a means for the forests to develop. In the Convict Creek area, it is extremely dry, rather desert-like, as it falls in the rain shadow of the higher peaks to the west. There are aspens and some evergreens along the creek, but most of the hillsides have poor soil and are too dry to maintain more than the scrub growth. The peaks are impressive in this area, not for their snow covered tops (there is little snow in the summer on the surrounding peaks) but for the multicolored rock and soils that drape their sides. There's a wonderful display of yellow, orange, red, white, brown and gray rocks. Mt. Morrison to the southeast across the creek has some of the best rock coloring (and some scary looking vertical for the peak bagger).
The next 2/3-mile was steep again, climbing from 500 ft to about 9000 ft. At this point we met up with a major obstacle where the trail crosses over to the east side of Convict Creek. The bridge spanning the creek was completely washed out. I suppose if I'd checked in with the ranger's office or any trail reports I'd have found that the bridge had washed out several years earlier and there were no plans to replace it anytime soon. That of course, would have required way more pre-hike planning than I've ever done, or likely to do despite such glaring examples of the benefits. In any event, here we were, bridge out, and things didn't look good for continuing, only 3 miles into our hike. We scouted around a bit to see if crossing the creek was at all feasible. It was flowing quite strongly still from the snow runoff, and we had to conclude there was no way we were going to get the whole gang across. We stopped to eat lunch and discuss our options.
The only reasonable route for continuing at this point was off trail and followed the stream flowing out of Genevieve Lake 1000 ft above us to the west. I did some preliminary scouting above to get an idea how difficult the hiking would be and assess our group's ability to tackle it. The climbing was rather steep, class 2+. I was unable to find a vantagepoint from which I could view the whole route and assess its difficulty. When I returned I realistically presented what I found as difficult climbing and no certainty that the route up to lake was at feasible. After much discussion, all but three of us decided to call it a day and return to the cars. Even Terry, my most uncomplaining partner on many a hike decided he would rather have an easy day than suffer being "Bobbed" (the term used when a hike is fun for Bob and an epic for the others). He said it had the look of being something that goes from fun to grueling without you realizing it. Fortunately, my brother Tom and my friend Eric decided to go on with me. We refilled our water bottles from those of the others (they wouldn't need all the water they were carrying for the short return), said our good-byes, and off we went over and up the rocks, slabs, and sparse vegetation that seemed to hold it all together.
We started climbing with a great deal of energy and manly bravado, each one believing he had the best route chosen, and so got a bit separated. In a short time I lost track of Eric (Tom was up and to my right), so I waited for him to catch up. He never did, so I went down looking for him, and then back up, and finally found him much further to the left by the stream than I had expected. After this bit of losing touch we did a better job of keeping within sight or shouting distance. As we continued up, the mountainside got steeper, and we were funneled into canyon formed by the stream. Tom and I tried to stay higher on the cliffs away from the stream (there was heavy brush along the stream banks), while Eric chose to tackle the brush. As we climbed higher, Tom and I found ourselves making some more risky moves across some tougher sections of rock, only to find further progress continually more difficult. Eventually we had to admit to each other we were out of our league on this one and grudgingly admitted that Eric had chosen the better (correct) route. We backtracked a bit and to join Eric on the loose scree and brush along the creek. While this wasn't terribly fun (we kept slipping down due to the awkwardness of walking in a traversing direction to the slope of the scree), at least it was climbable.
The last bit up to Genevieve Lake was a good deal of bushwhacking, but eventually we popped out at the outlet of the lake and met the trail going around the lake. At this point we'd figured we'd done the toughest part and stopped for a break and some snacks. At 10,000 ft the lake is pretty high, but the temperature did not seem noticeably cooler. There are trees around the lake, but they are sparse and hug the shoreline closely. Away from the lake, the terrain is still desert-like despite the higher altitude. Usually there is a transition from the desert at the lowest elevations to the greener mid region where the snow lies longer into the summer, to the alpine rocky summits where the exposure to the elements is greatest preventing much growth. Here it seemed that the mid-region was missing, and that things went from low desert to high desert with only a few trees to differentiate. We headed north, climbing up to the ridge leading towards Laurel Mtn. and began feeling the altitude. I had talked earlier of climbing Bloody Mtn., but we now realized that this was beyond the scope of what we were going to be able to climb this day. Ever the peak bagger, I switched gears pretty easily to Laurel Mtn., a lower and easier cousin of Bloody Mtn. Bloody would wait for another day.
Up at the pass, we had a good view of Laurel Mtn. and the routes up it. It seemed that going up the south ridge would be the easiest due to the more moderate slope, and less scree than an approach from the southwest. The trail takes a bit of a circuitous route to get over to the base of the south ridge of Laurel Mtn. An alternative was to take a more direct route, which involved a rather fun glissade down to a depression in the pass. We might have saved about 50 yards total, but we felt so very clever.
By this time Eric was not feeling too well and informed us that he didn't really feel up to the climb of Laurel Mtn. Tom was tired but still up for it, and I of course was just chomping at the bit for the final assault. We consulted the map and it appeared that there was a reasonable route for Eric to follow around the mountain. The plan that evolved was for Eric to hike around the mountain on the west and north side and meet us as we came off the north ridge. This made Eric happy, and off we went. Tom and I started up the rock and scree, at first keeping together on our way up. Soon I pulled ahead and would wait till Tom was insight before heading higher. Tom was getting slower and taking more breaks, and I was growing impatient (not a good trait for the hike leader). Finally I just headed up the mountain without turning back for the last 400 feet or so, relaxing at the top while I waited for Tom. I noted there were an annoying number of flies at the top (first time I'd run into this phenomenon), but there was little wind and the temperature was quite nice for 11,000 feet. Some 20 minutes or so later Tom made it to the top and was warmly congratulated. He was not feeling well though. He conveyed his feeling of complete exhaustion, which under the circumstances should not have been too surprising. We had been hiking since about 9a (it was about 3:30p at this time) with minimal breaks, climbing over 3,000 feet to the peak. I had hiked with Tom some in the past, but this was certainly the toughest we had done together and I had not seen him look this beaten. We became aware that our time was slipping by as we realized we were supposed to be back to Mammoth at 6p for a dinner reservation at the Chart House with our significant others. It was becoming more likely that we would not get down in time. This was a bigger deal for me since I had proposed to my wife several years earlier at the same Chart House, and so could not use a hike as an excuse to be late for our special anniversary celebration. (Plus we had assured the ladies before we left them at Convict Creek that we would easily be back by 6p.)
We took some really nice pictures before heading down, or at least I'd like to believe they were nice pictures. I never got them developed because I never got the camera off the mountain. It wasn't until the next day that I realized I'd left the camera with the peak register while we were packing things up to head down. I was disheartened not by the loss of the camera, but by the loss of the film with which I had recorded the previous 4 days' adventures in the mountains. I was encouraged to go back up the following day to retrieve it, but I just couldn't get myself for dragging my ass up there a second time.
Off Tom and I went down the north ridge, moving much quicker thanks to gravity and our newfound time constraint. We had an excellent view of the whole north side of the mountain as we traveled down, and we kept searching for Eric who we expected would be waiting for us. As we got down to the expected meeting place, Eric was not to be found anywhere. We couldn't imagine that he could still be on his way to this point, so we figured he either got bored waiting for us, or didn't make it around the mountain as planned. Eric had been a friend of mine for some 15 years and I knew him to be both resourceful and very familiar with this part of the Sierra. It would be difficult to get lost in this area, as one simply needs to head downhill before coming across dirt roads that head back to town. It would be a long hike back to town, but not a death march by any stretch. The possibility that Eric might be hurt was the one concern, but that seemed unlikely. The thought of us traversing back counterclockwise around the mountain in search of him was highly distasteful to us and we didn't feel we had the energy for a rescue mission.
After this two or three minute discussion, we essentially blew Eric off, hoping he would be back ahead of us, and if not, we'd organize a search effort from town. To return to Convict Lake and our vehicle, it was necessary to traverse around the steeper cliffs on the east and northeast sides of Laurel Mountain. Our plan was to stay on the ridge that slopes downward to the east, and then drop down to Convict Lake at the first opportunity. As we followed the ridge it became progressively more difficult as the ridge narrowed and the boulders got larger. We found ourselves making much slower progress than we expected climbing up and over the larger boulders and thrashing some through the brush. We got a view down one of the gullies leading to Convict Lake at it's western end and decided it would be more expedient to proceed down the scree and boulder avalanche chute.
This gully turned out to be the most difficult chute I had yet climbed down. This was not due to its angle of descent (which was not great), but rather to the particular size of scree and boulder that comprised the chute. With sand and/or smaller rocks less than a few inches across, it is easy to almost run down a gully in deep plunging steps. With large boulders it becomes a game of boulder hopping, trying to minimally upset the balance of the rocks to avoid their shifting and possibly pinching a hand or ankle. The rocks in this gully averaged perhaps eight to ten inches across, and were constantly being upset and sliding in mini avalanches as we passed through. We had to constantly look behind us to avoid having our feet bashed by the more energetic of the rocks tumbling behind us. When we placed our hands down to catch ourselves during our many slips there was a good chance that these would be pinched by a rock from behind should we pause more than a few seconds. So we'd catch our fall and immediately pick our hands up off the slope. The whole gully seemed to be sliding down with us, and it was necessary for Tom and I to separate by a good 40 yards or so to avoid raining rocks down on the lower of us (me). This effort was particularly troublesome for Tom who was much less familiar with such travel, but he complained little. We could see the lake getting closer below us and it seemed that this last obstacle was all that stood between us and a hot shower back in town.
Near the end of the gully it widened out, the slope eased, and the rocks were planted considerably firmer in the ground. We had returned to the low desert region with the low scrub that was considerably easier to negotiate. I waited for Tom where the gully met the Convict Creek Trail. While we were relieved to have all the off-trail stuff behind us, we still had nearly a mile and half to go to get back to the car. It was 5:30p and it was quite clear that we were going to be late for our date. To expedite things, I offered to run the last section to the car and pick Tom up at the closer trailhead (our car was around on the southern side of the lake). Tom still had to hike the 3/4 mile out to the parking lot and it when I picked him up he felt he was at the end of his limits. He was limping, winded, thirsty, and dirty, and was more than happy to pour himself into the passenger seat and switch his brain off for the 10-mile ride back to Mammoth.
Back at the condo we found that Eric had indeed beaten us back. During his hike around Laurel Mtn. he had found himself lower than he should have gone and dreaded climbing back up to join us. Instead, he had climbed down the trail that descends the saddle between Bloody Mtn. and Laurel Mtn. for a few miles where he was able to hitch a ride back to town. We were informed that our dinner reservations were for 7p, not 6p as we had thought, and we still had a comfortable 45 minutes to shower and dress. Tom was a bit distressed at my error in memory, for he felt his body had been unnecessarily rushed in the last hour thereby increasing his experience of pain and discomfort. Terry could only smile and sympathize with Tom as he had found himself similarly "Bobbed" in past hikes. Terry congratulated himself on his excellent judgement to abort the hike earlier in the day and described with pride his rather relaxing afternoon. "I need a beer." was the only response Tom could muster.
Ah, another successful hike had come to end. It was time for a shower and an ahi steak dinner....
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Laurel Mountain
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