Thu, Jul 19, 2001
I had done a good deal of hiking around the McGee Creek, Convict Lake, and Mammoth Lakes areas over the years, climbing most of the peaks in those regions. I had also climbed a good deal in the Little Lakes area to the southeast and climbed most of the major peaks there. But there remains a section between the two, around Mts. Stanford and Morgan that I have wanted to climb as well, so I made plans to climb these with my brothers while on a family vacation in Mammoth. The "warm-up" hike on Tuesday to Mt. Aggie had been a bit tougher than anticipated. What I thought would take four hours took six and half, and consequently brothers Tom and Jim who joined me on that hike were too beat two days later to join me for this tougher outing. Tom's feet were blistered to where it made walking painful, and Jim was mostly just sore. So they decided to cancel. Brother Ron had missed the Mt. Aggie hike due to a viral infection in his throat, but antibiotics in the intervening days had made him feel better, and he decided to join me the night before. I had little doubt that Ron would be able to do well on the hike after our adventure on Mt. Rainier, and looked forward to good brisk climb. So, leaving the cripples behind, the two of us headed out of Mammoth Lakes shortly before 6:30a, heading south on US395.
We turned off at Rock Creek and drove up towards Rock Creek Resort. The map indicated the trailhead was somewhere just past the resort, but we had some trouble finding it. We turned around and drove back to the store and inquired with the first person we saw about the place. She told us it was just up the road, so we turned around and found the trailhead about 50 yards further on from where we'd first stopped. A huge sign indicating the Hilton Lakes Trailhead, we could hardly have missed it. But we did. Dang. We parked, grabbed our stuff, and headed out. It was a beautifully clear day with near perfect temperatures.
The trail heads north, climbing the west side of the canyon above Rock Creek. The climb is gentle for the most part, traversing higher as the canyon bottom drops lower while we travel north. We have fine views of Wheeler Ridge to the east and the other Mt. Morgan to the southeast, both across the canyon on the east side of Rock Creek. It's funny that there are two Mt. Morgan's within sight of each other. The higher one to the south was named for a member of Wheeler Survey party (as was Wheeler Ridge) in the latter part of the 19th century. It's not clear if the lower one to the north was named for the same person, but it would seem a bit piggish to be attaching one's name to multiple peaks. We took a brief break after two miles for Ron to switch from long to short pants - the sun was on us now and warming things up quickly. Another mile further and the trail heads west, climbing up the remaining portion of the canyon walls and over towards the Hilton Creek Lakes. Steep at first, it becomes more gradual as it crests the broad saddle into the next drainage. Just past the top we stopped for a bathroom break and to apply sunscreen. As we waited there, we heard voices coming up the trail from the opposite direction. Two cowboys (they were on horses as you might expect) were discussing the fate of America as the trend of diverging income levels splits the country into haves and havenots. The gentleman in front who looked like Poncho Villa with a big hat, leather chaps, sun-ripened face, and a big bushy moustache, seemed the most adamant about the discussion, while his companion mostly listened, adding a few comments now and then to keep the other fired up. We waved and exchanged greetings, hardly interupting the discussion. I was curious which group they felt they might belong to, the "haves" or the "havenots."
We continued on our way, still heading west but losing altitude as we made our way to the lakes. On our left the saddle rose up to rocky ledges and steeper terrain to the summit of Patricia Peak. An interesting peak, but not on the day's itinerary. Mt. Morgan came into view for the first time today, over two miles to the northwest across Hilton Creek, and we were suitably impressed to stop for pictures. Mt. Morgan would be our second stop, after first ascending Mt. Stanford. We turned left at a trail junction and were at Third lake shortly after a steep ascent from the junction. It was 9a, and we'd covered five miles in about two hours, a pretty decent pace. Third Lake appears to be a popular campsite, and we spotted several groups in a few locations about the lake. Patricia Peak makes a fine backdrop to this tree-lined lake on its southeast side, and again we took some pictures.
At Third Lake the trail splits again. The trail to the left heads south towards the upper lakes, and also towards Mt. Huntington. Mt. Huntington was named for one of the four railroad barons who formed the Central Pacific Railroad more than a century ago. The other three have similarly named peaks along the Sierra Crest north of Mt. Huntington: Mts. Stanford, Crocker, and Hopkins, all of similar height. These were named by RB Marshall of the USGS, and one wonders just what inspired this particular naming so long ago. It's likely the railroad companies were some of the most ardent supporters of government-funded surveys that might be useful for such things as determining the best place to put a railroad. Our route at the trail junction went to the right, heading southwest to another large lake in the chain (Lake 10353). This lake was also admirable, the views dominated by Mt. Huntington's Northeast Ridge that rises sharply up from the southwest side of the lake and Patricia Peak to the east. The maintained trail petered out before we even got to the lake, and from this point on we had to make the best use of a series of use trails in the terrain above.
A very nice use trail follows the creek on the right (north) side for the first mile or so through the heavy vegetation here. It is worth a few minutes to locate this trail before heading blindly up through the brush unless one enjoys bushwhacking to a high degree. The route climbs a moderate angle through the brush for a mile, then levels off at the upper canyon (that's actually a false summit of Mt. Stanford in the center of the picture - Mt. Stanford is several hundred yards behind it). The vegetation gives way to grasses and flowers, a more alpine environment. Here you get the first views to the headwall at the end of the canyon, and all about is rock and boulder (and then more rock). It was pretty nice (easy) travelling west through the canyon. The canyon branches halfway up, and we followed the right (north) branch of the stream until it petered out. It was just past 10a, and things were getting pretty warm. We took a short break, each of us finding a large boulder that could provide some shade for us to hide in.
Our next order of business was to climb Mt. Stanford's northeast ridge above us. Secor says to avoid the lowest part of the saddle on the ridge, heading instead for a steeper chute to the left. This was easy enough to find, and we began the climb up this steep and quite loose chute. We clung to the right edge of the chute where we could to stay on the biggest rocks available, but there was no avoiding the sandy slopes in a number of places. Two thirds of the way up I moved off to the right on class 3 rock and took this to the top of the ridge. The climbing was quite fun, and much easier than the chute. Ron kept to the chute, and we met up again shortly after reaching the ridge at 10:30a, where we had our second view of Mt. Morgan.
Taking notes on the ridge which we now had good views of on both sides, I could not understand why Secor had made specific mention to avoid the saddle point. We found that we would now have to drop down several hundred feet to gain access to Mt. Stanford's NE Face, and the saddle looked to be at the right elevation, and offered easy enough access to contour around to the NE Face. I would recommend that anyone taking this route simply take the wide chute up to the low point of the saddle (chute and saddle visible to the left of Ron in the photograph).
A beautifully blue lake with a snowfield feeding its southern end lay below us a short distance. I offered that we should pass the lake on the south side, crossing the snow. Ron thought that would be more work than walking a little further down and passing around on the north side where it was all rock & boulders. Neither was able to convince the other, so we split up for the quarter mile trek over to the NE Face. The snow was surprisingly firm which made for easy travel, but in the end we reconnected in about the same time, so there didn't seem any advantage of one route over the other.
The NE Face is mostly firm sand and rock, and the travel here was easier that we'd had for the last hour. The slope rises almost monotonously up to the summit, and our progress slowed somewhat as the altitude and hours took their toll on us. While on the face, we realized that Mt. Stanford has two summits, the lower one to the east and the true summit across a sharp ridge to the west. The lower summit is the one that can be seen from the canyon to the east, and we were glad we didn't decide to try to climb the NE ridge directly to the summit since we'd have ended up on the wrong point.
Shortly before reaching the summit, we reached the E-W ridge between the two summits, providing our first views into the Pioneer Basin region to the south. Desolate but enchanting, with high alpine lakes amid a modest amount of alpine vegetation. The climbing became more interesting as we hopped from one huge boulder onto the next. Ron commented that he'd be happy to just get to the summit at this point. I countered that the fun part had just begun as I expected this type of climbing all the way from Mt. Stanford along the ridge to Mt. Morgan. Ron wasn't moved by my enthusiasm and smile. The summit would be sufficient for him, he reiterated.
We reached the summit of Mt. Stanford at 11:30a under continuing gorgeous skies. The additional elevation we'd gained in the last hour had brought us above 12,000 ft, and the temperatures at this altitude were as close to perfect as could be expected. With only a slight breeze and temperatures in the 60s, we even put on our lightweight jackets while we enjoyed the views and a breather. We perused the summit register, adding our own short entries. The views of the surrounding peaks were grand, particularly looking into the third and fourth recesses directly south. We could see the peaks well into Kings Canyon NP to the southeast, though the furthest peak I could recognize in that direction was Mt. Humphreys. The granitic peaks to the south gave way to the volcanic reds and yellows of the peaks in the Mammoth areas to the west and northwest. We could also see much further beyond Mammoth into Yosemite National Park, though I could not recognize Mt. Dana and other peaks from this distance. Nice as the views were, we stayed only 15 minutes before continuing on - we still had quite a ways to go.
To the north was the long ridge leading to Mt. Morgan. In between were two intermediate unnamed summits, both higher than Mt. Stanford, but still considered insignificant. The climbing was much as I had expected, boulder hopping with moderate elevation loss and gain (moderate compared to the initial climb to Mt. Stanford anyway). The west side of the ridge dropped away steeply to the west into the McGee Creek drainage, in someplaces very steeply. There were many chutes that looked to provide interesting access either up or down this west side, and either of the peaks we were climbing today could be reached by a variety of means from this side. On the east side the ridge dropped away less dramatically, and was more moderately sloped, draped in endless boulder and talus fields. We stayed very close to the ridge proper from Mt. Stanford to the next high point at Peak 12,900ft+. It took about 45 minutes to reach this point, about halfway between the two named summits. This seemed as good a place as any to have lunch, so we took another 15 minute break to give Ron a chance to down the sandwich he brought with him, while I gulped down a few granola bars. Ron wasn't too thrilled at the next intermediate peak along the ridge and was closely scouting the terrain for a way to bypass this second unnamed peak on the east side.
We climbed down to the next saddle and Ron decided he'd try to traverse across the east side rather than suffer another upward climb to a peak that didn't count for anything. I judged the ridge to be easier than a traverse despite the extra elevation I'd have to gain, so we parted ways a second time. I was still enjoying the climbing and the views to be had here, and was having a grand time. While I had to stop and wait for Ron periodically through the day, he always caught up shortly, and we kept up a pretty good pace more to my liking, in contrast to the much slower pace that I'd had on Mt. Aggie a few days earlier with my other brothers. As I climbed up the next peak, I caught views every now and then of Ron below me traversing across the east face. At first I thought he might actually get across faster than me, but soon I could see that the traverse had slowed him down, and he additionally stopped to take a few short rests. Reaching the top of this second unnamed peak, or what I thought was the top, I soon had a view looking down the northeast ridge and face towards the last saddle before Mt. Morgan. I had some concerns that this descent might be quite rocky, but found it to have an easy slope and much sand to help speed the descent. The true summit of this unnamed point was actually a few hundred yards to the northwest. I briefly considered heading over there just to tag it, but decided against it. I'm sure if some mapmaker had randomly assigned the name of his third cousin, his dog, or any name at all, I would have gone over to bag it. Such is the arbitrary nature of peak-bagging sometimes.
I fairly shot down the northeast face towards the saddle, moving as fast as I could safely fly without undue risk of upending myself to some unfortunate face-plant or other unpleasantry. The saddle on the southwest side of Mt. Morgan drops steeply on the southeast side, but forms a gentle, fairly flat plateau on the northwest side. It would make a lovely high alpine meadow if it had a source of water, but instead is quite dry, with rocks and sand scattered about haphazardly and a few dry grasses here and there. As I began to ascend the final slope to Mt. Morgan, Ron appeared at the saddle several hundred yards behind me. I didn't wait, expecting to be at the summit in five minutes where I could wait with a view, but it took a bit longer. There were several false summits climbing up this side, and now that I was getting tired, it was a little tougher to take the disappointment each time. The final hundred yards were again large blocks and boulders like we found on Mt. Stanford, but easily enough negotiated (nothing was more than class 2 on today's route) with a bit of care in route-founding.
I reached the summit at 1p, after an hour and a half of traversing from Mt. Stanford. Ron was only five minutes behind. The weather continued to be delightful even though we were at 13,000 ft now. We could almost see the town of Mammoth Lakes to the northwest, hidden just behind the long ridge running between Mt. Aggie and McGee Mtn. To the southeast is a grand view of most of the Hilton Creek drainage in the foreground, and Wheeler Ridge in the back. Not too far to the south was the other Mt. Morgan, the southern version of the peak on which we stood. We took photos and made our short entries in the register we found on the summit. The most recent entry was from Doug Mantle from a few weeks earlier, whose name seems to be in just about every Sierra peak register if you look for it. He had found less than ideal conditions on his visit which happened to coincide with the day I had been climbing Mt. Agassiz (where I had also found rain and whiteout conditions). After resting a few minutes, we began to scout our descent route. We planned to head down the southeast face, and from above it didn't look tough at all. We knew from earlier in the day that the bottom part of mountain has cliffs on this side, but it seemed that if we kept to the right (south) near the bottom we'd find our way around the cliffs. As on Mt. Stanford, we didn't stay at the summit long, only 15 minutes before we were eager to head down. The first hundred feet or so off the summit are rather steep, and we picked our different ways down through the rock, boulders, and small ledges, fun down-climbing, really. After that comes the loose talus, and it seemed a good portion of the mountain came down with each step. I went ahead quickly to get out of Ron's line of rockfall, as I expected he'd dislodge as much stuff as I did, and I didn't want it coming down on my head. In a few more minutes there was a good deal more sand, and the sliding descent became faster, safer, and pretty darn fun. Looking back after a 50 yard jaunt, I could just see Ron above through the cloud of dust I'd kicked up.
In a safer zone with more sand, I waited for Ron to catch up and then we headed to the right a bit. I had seen a wide open stretch from above that looked like a sand dune, equally barren of rock and flora. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be just that, a 400-500 foot broad slope of nothing but sand. This was heaven. In leaping bounds I covered the entire stretch in less than a minute, the finest sand slope I've ever encountered in the Sierra. It was similar to a great plunge-step descent through that perfect snow, but much faster (and dustier). As I watched Ron come down behind me, it occurred to me that an ascent through here would be rather slow and tedious. Ugh! This must be the reason Secor says a traverse of these peaks usually ascends Mt. Stanford first followed by a descent of Mt. Morgan. Excellent advice for anyone regarding this little adventure.
The sandy slope gave way to some shrubs and firmer ground which we followed down into the trees that lined the lower sections that mark the beginning of the cliffs. Following our observations earlier, he headed right off this slope once we got below a large rock formation also on the right (If you descend to the right too early, you will encounter steep cliffs on Mt. Morgan's south side as well). The slope became considerably steeper, but it was lined with trees that afforded decent holds, or at least obstacles to crash into before picking up lethal speed. The sand from above funnels down into this region, mixing with pine needles, making for a slippery combination. Eventually the sand gives way to firmer ground below, though still steep, it is easier to negotiate. Then the slope eased up as we reached the Hilton Creek valley floor, and we marched to the west side of Davis Lake, arriving at 2p.
There are a number of lakes in this area, all popular camping locations, and we availed ourselves of the numerous use trails we found on the west side of Davis Lake. Before reaching the next lake upstream (Second Lake), we headed east, knowing we would hit the maintained trail which runs N-S on the east side of the lakes. We came across what appeared to be a horse camp, complete with hitches for the stock, huge bonfire pit, and crudely, though lovingly constructed rock and plank table and benches. Ah, civilization. 30 seconds later we came across a party of 3 or 4 with a large dog that were out for a dayhike, the only persons we'd seen other than the two on horseback early in the day. One of their party began asking me if I knew where the trail went. Rather than tell her I didn't actually know where the trail was at the moment (we hadn't yet come across it), I calmly explained with my map that it goes for 9 or 10 miles down to the creek outlet near US395. They decided against such a long walk for which they hadn't prepared, though one of the party briefly considered going that way and having the others pick him up after they'd returned to Rock Creek. It was a bit confusing with the dog running amuck and Ron and I still not knowing where the trail was, but it seemed best to get away soon, so we bid them goodbye and left. Of course, thirty seconds later we came across the trail and now it was a matter of just following it back to the start.
We hadn't checked the map all that carefully for elevation gain, and found ourselves climbing uphill again, a bit more than expected. It was another 400 feet of elevation gain back to the pass between Hilton and Rock Creeks. At this point we were both out of water. Though I briefly considered it, we'd failed to refill our bottles back at Davis Lake. Oh well. A little thirst hasn't killed anyone. That I know of, anyway. Heading back into the Rock Creek Drainage, we again had great views of Wheeler Ridge and its high point, Wheeler Peak, along with what was now just the other Mt. Morgan. My boots were beginning to cause problems for my feet, hotspots welling up where blisters were likely forming. They had done well, covering much ground all day, so I could hardly blame the feet for starting to complain now. We covered the last five miles in well under 2 hours, and now with the road in sight and the inpressive Bear Creek Spire in the background, we arrived back at the car at 4p. First order of business was replacing the boots with sandals, followed by some (very warm) water from the stash left in the car. 15 miles and 5000ft in 9 hours - a fine day of hiking indeed!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Stanford - Mt. Morgan
This page last updated: Wed May 16 17:01:49 2007
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