Mt. Morgan P2K SPS / WSC

Sun, Jul 8, 2001
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2
later climbed Thu, Jul 5, 2007


While I was eating dinner in Bishop on Saturday night, I was again poring over my maps to check out my options for a Sunday hike. My original plan to climb Mt. Wood was losing interest with me because I had failed to climb two of the other "W"s I had on my list for this trip - White & Williamson. Only the first, Mt. Warren had been successful, the others fouled by the continued bad weather (and I failed to procure a vehicle capable of reaching the White Mtn. trailhead). Mt. Wood is not one of the SPS listed peaks and it looked to be a not-so-great cross-country scramble up steep sage-covered hillsides. I was interested in finding a peak that wouldn't take all day since I had to drive home afterwards, so eventually I hit upon Mt. Morgan in the Little Lakes area. There are two Mt. Morgans within about 12 miles of each other, both apparently named after the same member of the Wheeler Survey party. The northern one I had already made plans to climb a few weeks later in conjunction with Mt. Stanford. The southern one sits off the Sierra Crest, on the east side of Rock Creek. At 13,748ft it stands higher than nearby Mt. Abbot and Bear Creek Spire which are far more famous. As I was to find out later this is likely due to the lack of quality climbing on Mt. Morgan, but it sure looked good on paper!

I awoke at 4:45a and went about my morning ritual of shower, breakfast, and packing. An hour later I was on the road, just as the sun was rising in the east over the White Mtns. Between Bishop and Rock Creek, Mt. Tom is the most prominent peak, towering up over 7,000ft from its base. I have yet to climb it, but it moved higher on my list of yet-to-climbs as I admired it this week. There was hardly a cloud in the sky, in sharp contrast to the previous three days, and it looked to be a fine day for climbing. Perhaps I'd actually get to enjoy a view from a peak on this trip! I turned off US395 at Rock Creek Rd and drove the nine miles up the valley, which is little more than the rocky bottom between two lateral moraines left by an ancient glacier. There seem to be a lot of these on the eastern side of the Sierra. The sun shown brightly on Mt. Morgan's summit as I neared the upper reachs of Rock Creek, only a single cloud visible behind it. I turned left at the campground just before Rock Creek Lake, found the trailhead rather easily, and parked my car. It was 6:30a when I started, and the sun was now well hidden behind Wheeler Ridge on Mt. Morgan's east side.

I hoped I'd be able to hike well up the trail before the sun crested the ridge and began to warm things up. I would have welcomed the warmth, but I was none too excited about the UV exposure that goes with it. It didn't used to bother me in years past, but I've come to appreciate the damaging affects of the sun now that I'm past 40. Ah, the joys of old age...

In half a mile the trail joins a wide, sandy jeep track that comes up from a point closer to the lake. A short way on a fairly new signs indicates that this track (more like a 4WD road really) is shared with mountain bikes. Much of Wheeler Ridge and the area north of the trail are outside the John Muir Wilderness, so there wasn't a use conflict, it just surprised me to see mountain bikes allowed in the area. So much of the High Sierra is off-limits, that I expect them to be limited to the Mammoth and Lake Tahoe regions. It seemed like this would be a fairly interesting ride, so I made a mental note to bring a bike back here someday. In another half mile the mountain bike route continues north while the trail to Francis Lake forks right, heading east. A sign indicates I've entered the John Muir Wilderness. It's not a particularly scenic hike through this area I realized. Dry, enough trees to block most of the views, little water, and a few signs to keep me from getting lost. Still, it was nice not to have the threat of rain hanging above me as it had been for the last three day, though the cloudless sky of predawn had already given way to the first vestiges of thunderclouds off in the distance.

I reached Francis Lake at 8a, and stopped to take in the views. Mt. Morgan rises on the opposite side of the lake to the south. It looks like a huge pile of rubble. Thin clouds have snuck in from somewhere and began to hide the upper portions of the mountain, threatening my hoped-for views later. After a rest and a snack, I headed up the the ridge starting on the lake's west side. It wasn't clear that there was a "best" route with firm ground and solid rock. Instead, I would be second guessing myself constantly, trying to find a route that was just a little less bad. To say that the climbing on Mt. Morgan is good would be an outright lie. There's no danger that it will make someone's "classic" list. It took an hour and a half to climb up to the base of the mountain. Here the slope gets quite sandy, slowing progress. The clouds hung lower and hid the entire top of the mountain. I decided to climb up to the right onto the NW ridge. I figured if I was going to go slow, I ought to get a view, so I went a little out of my way just to find something interesting to look at. Another half hour and I could peer over the ridge.

At least now I had a view. Or somewhat of a view. The clouds came in thicker obscuring much of the Sierra Crest. I could make out the Hour Glass on the left side of Mt. Dade, and identify Mts. Dade, Abbot, and Mills on the crest, but the clouds were making the view hazy and threatening to obscure them further. More to the right the clouds had not yet dominated the scene, and I got a fairly good view of the Ruby Wall and Mt. Starr. Little Lakes Valley was a bit hazy, but clearly visible below. It is a fine area with countless lakes that make it fairly easy to find solitude with minimal effort. Behind me to the north, Wheeler Ridge stretches for miles in the distance. Francis Lake is far below. After reaching the ridge I left the sand below, and climbed over a bountiful supply of boulders upon boulders. Now that I was close up, it turns out the mountain really is just a huge pile of rubble. In another 30 minutes I'm starting to climb into the clouds above, and the air grows cooler. I put on my jacket and hope the weather holds, as I haven't brought the rain gear today. I have a 99 cent folded piece of plastic, but know it does nothing for insulation.

I reached the summit at 11a and the weather held out. The clouds now obscured the peaks to the west and I waited for some views (I'm told they're quite nice) in vain. For 45 minutes I remained on the summit, ever hopeful that a small window of opportunity would present itself. I read most of the entries in the summit register, and was thrilled to find a message in a small bayer aspirin bottle that was left in 1949. Apparently they didn't find it a pleasant climb either, from their note. There were absolutely no views to the south from whence the clouds were coming. Wheeler Ridge to the east was likewise blocked. The only views at all were directly down to Little Lakes Valley, and towards the Mammoth area to the NW, but hardly of the memorable variety.

Eventually I gave up and headed down. I thought I'd be clever and make a more direct decent rather than following the NW ridge as I had on the way up. That turned out to be a mistake, as the boulders were very loose, and I had to go extra slow. It ended up taking me longer to go the direct route than the ridge. Still, it was faster going down than up, and I was back at Francis Lake an hour and a half after leaving the summit. I passed the lake on the south and east side, just to get some pictures in the small meadow at the inlet. I'd just spent more than 4 hours climbing on nothing but rock, and the little patch of green on the return looked particularly inviting, alive as it was with a fresh display of flowers.

Hiking back down the trail towards the trailhead it occurred to me that I hadn't seen anyone all day. No hikers, no bikers, and on a very nice Sunday, too. About half a mile from the trailhead I came across a mother with two young daughters hiking up the trail. She was in her thirties, the kids looked to be about 6 and 8 years of age. What struck me right away was that the two girls were hiking barefoot. This wasn't a nice trail for barefeet - lots of rocks and roots to make it quite tough. But there they were, walking slowly up the trail without a word of complaint. Mom must have noticed my taking notice, because then she offered an explanation without me asking for one. The kids apparently were complaining about their boots the whole way up, so finally Mom relented and let them take the boots off, figuring they'd find the alternative less pleasant. Sure enough, as I continued on down, there were two small pairs of boots with socks stuffed in them not 30 yards from where I found the girls. Already I could hear that they had turned around and were coming back for the boots. I chucked and thought Mom a wise woman, indeed.

It was 2:20p when I returned to the trailhead. Four days, four peaks, and despite the unusual Sierra weather, it had been a very good trip, even considering that business with the lightning on Mt. Warren the first day. The unsettled weather had kept the mosquitoes at bay for most of the four days, the vast majority of those I saw were casualties of the law of conservation of momentum, as displayed on my front bumper. I stopped at the Mobil Station at the bottom of Tioga Road for some more fish tacos before heading back to San Jose. There were a few sprinkles going through Yosemite, but nothing serious (at least while I was zipping through!), and I was home in San Jose by 8p.

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