Fri, May 7, 2004
When the alarm went off at 4:30a, my immediate reaction was to shut it off. But rather than getting out of bed as usual, I asked Matthew if he wanted to sleep some more. "That's not like you," he muttered from his sleep-state. "Yeah, but I was pretty damn cozy under the covers here," I replied. No further words were exchanged and after an additional fifteen minute snooze, I got up anyway. We weren't yet decided on what we wanted to do for our second warmup day. Matthew was very interested in a Morrison-Baldwin traverse, or Stanford-Morgan, or really anything that might net him two SPS peaks for the day. Stanford-Morgan I had already done, so I wasn't interested in that. But Morrison-Baldwin sounded very challenging, and I was interested even though I'd already climbed both. The problem with it I thought, was that it would be too tough on us, and would likely hamper our chances at Barnard the next day (the whole 4-day trip was organized around a dayhike of Barnard). Even after we'd packed the car and were ready to leave the motel in Mammoth, we were still undecided. Mt. Tom had gotten some discussion - neither of us had climbed that. But it seemed like mostly a slog. In the end we settled on the Northwest Ridge of Morrison - we'd see about Baldwin after we raced to the top of Morrison (hah!).
It was 5:45a when we left the parking lot on the south side of Convict Lake. It was 20 minutes or so before sunrise, but one could still see the colorful rock of Mt. Laurel's East Face. A few channels of snow ran down the deeper gullies on the face, but most of it was bare rock. There was some snow on the hillsides above us to the south, but most of the area was snow-free. We took the trail on the south side of the lake, heading west towards that end of the lake. We found a use trail that took us another quarter mile beyond the lake before it petered out. We hiked another quarter mile or so, climbing gradually as we did so, eventually getting above the sagebrush to the start of the talus slopes. The sun had come out on Laurel and portions of Convict Lake, but our route was entirely cast in shadow. It was fairly windy too, a cold wind, that chilled my bones through.
This talus slope was the most tedious section of the whole day, much more discouraging than I had expected. I got well ahead of Matthew and stopped periodically to wait for him, but the waiting made me grow cold and I would begin to shiver. I had on my jacket, hat, balacava, and gloves, but they were barely adequate. I thought this approach route to the ridge would be blocked from the wind, but somehow it blew down the slope from above, a consistent 10-15mph. I shuddered to imagine how hard it might be blowing up on the ridge. Matthew was so discouraged that he confessed that several times he felt like just returning to the car. His knee was bothering him, he was tired from the day before, and the talus was sapping any remaining enthusiasm he had.
But he didn't give up, and after two hours we were finally off the talus and onto the buttress leading to the NW Ridge. Like most of the peaks in this area, there is no solid rock anywhere - the best one finds is a solid rock base with a thin layer of talus covering just about anything that will hold it. One rarely speaks of excellent rock around here - the good rock is that which crumbles out from under you the least. But compared to the talus slope we had just climbed, I thought the climbing was great. Rather than wait longer for Matthew, I climbed slower, and in the process I was able to drop very little rock down below, and surprise - I was having more fun, too. After several hundred feet we were able to draw the rays of the sun, and though it was still cold, it had great psychologic benefit.
It was another 45min or so before we landed ourselves on the ridge proper. From where we started on it, the ridge follows a zig-zag pattern for a mile, at a fairly steep angle (we still had over 2000ft to go). Minor ribs and buttresses drop off from either side precipitously. The views were quite impressive. On the left was the near-vertical North Face of Morrison, termed the "Eiger of the Sierra" due to it's loose rock (it's no looser than anywhere else on Morrison, just more deadly). On our right was the colorful East Face of Laurel, and neither of us could stop taking pictures of it as we gained different perspectives of it during the ascent. Also to the left was the upper valleys and lakes of Convict Creek. The lakes were all still frozen, and snow covered most everything. The rush of the river as it cascaded down the main canyon could be clearly heard even from several thousand feet up.
We spent a good three hours on the ridge, climbing up and over everything in our way (much of this was to maintain the sporting aspect) along the very ridge. Secor rates the ridge as class 3 which I would agree with, but most of it is class 2. Knowing that the ridge was going to be loose before we started, I had only moderate expecations but found I enjoyed it a great deal. As loose climbs go, it has to be one of the best. An interesting item we came across was a USGS marker from the 1928 general survey that was attached to the pole and anchored into the underlying rock. Interestingly Norman Clyde's first ascent was via this same ridge and also in 1928. Did the survey folks turn back at this point? That seems odd, because the climbing wasn't really any more difficult ahead than we'd found behind. The views continued to improve the higher we climbed, and sometime before the summit we were treated to views of Ritter & Banner rising well behind Bloody and Laurel. To the south loomed Red Slate Mtn and a number of lower, unnamed peaks along the Sierra Crest to the southwest and west.
It was 11:15a when we reached the summit, and we stayed there until noon. We were able to stay tolerably comfortable by sitting a short ways down on the leeward side to get out of the wind as much as possible, but in the end it was my shivering that dictated it was time to go. We found we were not the first to summit this year, evidently Morrison's East Face makes a popular ski/snowboard descent as several entries from the previous months testified. We had originally hoped to make the Morrison to Baldwin traverse, but we scratched that without much deliberation. It had taken us two hours longer to reach Morrison than we'd thought it would, and we had a big adventure planned for the next day which was of higher importance. And perhaps the biggest discouragement was that Baldwin looked very far away along a serrated ridgeline. Those two miles were going to take a long time. While we pondered what to do, we took in some great views, south as far as Mt. Humphreys, north to Mt. Dana, Mono Lake, and beyond, east to the White Mountains. Below us in the foreground were Convict Lake and the Mammoth Airport (from where one of the more impressive views of Morrison is obtained).
As a second idea I had suggested to Matthew that we might take the ridgeline to the north crossing over Mono Jim and several other nameless bumps. During the ascent it had looked similar to the NW Ridge we were climbing. Matthew decided to forgo that extra effort and instead head down the East Face. He gave me the car keys and I headed down while he planned to stay a short while longer at the summit. I dropped down the east side, heading for the saddle between the East Face and the hanging valley to the north. I found some steep snow slopes with excellent purchase that I descended without using the crampons and axe I carried in my pack. I made the mistake of heading down the face too far to the north, and at the bottom of one the snow chutes I found myself staring down cliffs on the northeast side of the peak. Rats. Expecting I might have to climb a great distance back up, I was relieved to find that the next chute over had an escape route back to the East Face. With a bit of contouring to avoid the drop into the hanging valley, I soon made my way to the saddle just before noon. Looking back up the route, I could see Matthew making his way down the same way. He'd entered the upper snow bowl on the south side, while I'd come from the north, but he was soon funnelling down, following my footsteps to the narrower couloirs below. Fortunately, he too discovered the adjoining chute that offered an exit off the cliff-ridden face here, and eventually found his way down the easier slopes of the East Face.
Meanwhile I ascended along the ridge to Peak 11,100ft, several hundred feet higher than Mono Jim which lay further north. At the summit I found a small register in a glass jar under a cairn. The register was a tiny pad of paper, placed by a member of the Sierra Club back in the 1970s. There were only a few entries each year. From the summit I had perhaps the best view possible of Morrison's notorious North Face - it looked as imposing as its reputation suggested. If the rock was half as loose as we encountered on the less steep ridges, it would still be death trap. To the south I had a sideway's view of Morrison's East Face and the long approach valley that runs from just above Convict Lake back to the headwall between Mt. Aggie and White Fang. I continued down the ridgeline in a general northerly direction, never encountering anything more than class 2 unless I was trying to keep it sporting. At the summit of Mono Jim I found a small cairn that had been scattered, but no register. Most of the left (west) side of the ridge dropped down in cliffs to the side canyons found below, while the right (east) side had gentler slopes (but still loose and steep as class 2 goes). It took two hours to descend from Peak 11,100ft back to the lake, a good portion of this time spent following the meandering ridgeline. A short distance below Mono Jim the ridge makes a major split into a pair of northwest and north running ridges. Only because the north one headed more directly for the car, I chose that one to follow down. The ridgeline melds into the hillside about 400ft above lake level, and for the remaining distance I had a bit of bushwhack to return. As bushwhacks go it was quite mild - there simply isn't enough snow and rain to support more than about thigh-high chaparral.
I was back at the car at 3:15p, changed out of my wet boots and shoes, and was reading for about 45 minutes or so before Matthew wandered in from his East Face return. Again we came up short of the stretch goal of two SPS peaks, but I was feeling rather satisfactory with our outing that I found adventurous enough. We stopped in Bishop for bacon cheeseburgers at Jacks, picked up supplies at the grocery store, then drove south for 40 more miles to Independence where we took a room for the night. It was somewhere around 8p when we called it a night, the alarm set to go off at 2:30a the next morning. As we drifted off to sleep I was hoping my legs would sufficiently recover for the big day tomorrow...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Morrison
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