With no significant Sierra snowfall for a couple weeks, and the only dusting over the same span followed by an influential period of wind, the prospects of experiencing amounts of good snow in the backcountry worth the slogging through the lower elevations seemed low. Dawn patrols during the week saw more laps on the front country groomers [gosh skiing is fun] than the BC stashes, and a lack of ecstatic reports caused the imagination to wander. Thus, with Mike back in town and both of us interested in changing things up a bit, we were both inclined to get on Mt. Morrison’s north ridge. With glowing reports on route quality, aesthetics and fun factor coming from a pair of great locals, it’s been on the list for a while.
For whom are they laying out the white carpet? This guy, that's who.
Funny, because the handful of times I’d been on Laurel Mountain’s summit directly to the west, I’d always looked at the north ridge and thought ‘boy, what a pile of choss.’ Bolstered by a rumored quote from Chouinard himself calling the mountain and its rock routes “vertical scree,” I discounted the positive recent feedback from the charging locals as sandbagging. Raising these observations only elicited the responses, “No, it’s really fun,” and “It’s loose, but manageable.” Enough for me, and the same for Mike…Morrison’s North Ridge was a go.
The ascent goes up the middle of the photo, descent down the col to the left of the peak. Picture from a previous ascent of Laurel Mountain.
With its proximity to Mammoth Lakes, minimal approach and beta saying belays and anchors were not necessary, an alpine start was joyously ruled out. “As long as we’re moving before 7, we’re good. After a sprint back to get sunglasses, we were moving on the trail by 0715. With the mediocre, but present snowpack, we wondered whether or not to boot up a couple of adjacent couloirs to get straight to the business. “Better make it full value and go from the start of the ridge.” Such was the way, so we circled the lake on its NW side and aimed for the junction of the north ridge proper and Convict Creek.
Post-holing going up...done. On to the business. Hot damn, Pinner Couloir, you are one of the most aesthetic lines in the Sierra.
The first 700 – 1000 vert were psychologically taxing as they involved anything from shallow, breakable crust to waste deep wallowing to slippery, sugar-covered smearing on half-exposed tallus. After two hours or so, we were finally in the business, and happily dropping to 4-low and putting our hands on bare rock. What unfolded was exactly to the description: loose, but manageable. The rock quality was never stellar – contrary to the typical MO with the immaculate granite blanketing the Sierra – but it was never dangerous or unsafe. Sections where the route got steep and the rock quality poor could be bypassed and we were even finding delicious hand jams and fun 5
"Dale, take this, make you strong like bull"
Oddly, about ¼ of the way into the pure rock part of the ascent, we were starting to see signs of another party on the route. “These tracks are fresh…really fresh…are we alone up here?” There was another vehicle in the parking lot when we arrived in the morning, but we dismissed the party as heading towards one of the copious couloirs, chutes, cols and basins Convict is known for in the winter. “I have to chew on my lungs a little bit, you mind if I do a couple of speed intervals?” Mike inquired. “Be my guest,” was the only response I could offer.
Hand Jams when you look for 'em...
Being alone on the route for a spell allowed some time to stop and take in the vistas, snap some pictures and absorb the subtleties of the route. Convict Lake and its nearest canyon neighbor, McGee are blessed with some of the most diverse and colored rock in the range. Though the quality may be poor at times, the reds, whites, blues, yellows and blacks of the different rock bands provide a palette of different colors to take in, making the views down as good as the views up and out.
Views: Never bad
When we reunited a few hundred vert later, our colleagues on the route were in sight. Nice gentlemen from the Tahoe area taking in a fun route like us, albeit at a different pace, and with certain 'performance enhancers.' The rest of the route passed smoothly. Mostly third class with an occasional 4
class move and a boot pack of snow periodically to remind us we were in the Northern Hemisphere’s calendar winter.
Hey Mike, don't slip. Doing so could end poorly. Our short cut to get directly to the col
We were snapping summit pics right on schedule: 5 hours up. The rats nest of a summit register now included more ink, we downed some calories and debated the merits of scrambling over to the south summit. “Better to come back, do it fast in the summer with less weight and better light.” Down we went.
Death Couloir? Looks skiable...sort of
Now, it should be mentioned Mike wanted to kick up the difficulty and…well…story-telling nature of the day by climbing the ridge in AT boots and skis on our backs. I vehemently declined, but did agree that once on the summit, losing 5k vert in the winter whilst not on skis is a recipe for a negative attitude, but ascending 5k feet, I countered, 4k of which would be on rock and none of which would be on skins is also a recipe to book a ticket to the tropics and forget about winter for a while.
Crampons no longer needed: Hey what's that to your left Mike? Vertical Scree, that's what
From the summit to the col started out with an easy glissade, but quickly deteriorated into a wind-board down-climb. Good thing the steel crampons and axe were in tow [the axe anthropomorphized with the moniker
due to its short yet powerful and oft-overlooked effectiveness]. We took a shortcut and even scampered over some rocks in a steep, no-fall couloir to make the descent closer to full value and get directly to the North Col.
Keeping the slog going, we were at the col, then down into what I refer to as the Morrison amphitheater by 1500. The down-climb to the col soaked up more time than expected - we weren’t aiming for any speed records and the beauty of the area begs one to stop and soak it in. We stared and took pictures of all the interesting rocks, squinted, but couldn’t make out a lick of ice to climb anywhere on the face and continued our downward March.
Yeah, maybe the death couloir isn't skiable. "You see any ice up there? Neither do I."
On both of our minds was the condition of the death couloir: a ribbon of snow descending off the west shoulder of Morrison’s North summit that – given the right conditions – forms a smear of ephemeral ice and is a notable notch in an alpinist’s belt. From the top down, sections appear almost skiable, but looked at from the amphitheater, there is a sizable rock band in dire need of snowmelt and freeze-thaw cycles to be worthy of a tool swing.
The views on the way down were so good, we almost forgot about all the slogging...almost
Convict lake – in a rare year of unseasonably cold weather – was frozen everywhere, allowing for a civil stroll on welcome flat terrain directly to the car. After glissading down wet, deep snowpack for an eternity, I’d been on sidewalks in worst shape than the solid lake top. A chorus of ice plates moving about is enough to keep the ice axe in hand should the worst occur, but there were no signs of anything but safely think ice, and a direct route to the car.
Red up, green down: A splendid outing
All told, I highly recommend the ridge to anyone comfortable on exposed Sierra ridgelines. Areas on the route with 5
class moves [seldom, and almost all avoidable with 4
class options] don’t really have good protection options with the loose rock, so the recommendation is to go light [but bring good glass for your SLR, the views of Laurel and Bloody are very good], go fast and be cautious. We played it safe, and though beta was that no gear was necessary, what’s a little training weight should the winter conditions with unknown cornices, ice and wind lips make things spicy? We brought a half rope, a minimal rack and some draws - begetting the harnesses and belay devices - none of which were ever used.
Bust out the big glass and go exploring: you won't be disappointed
Hemming and hawing over dinner on what to do Sunday saw another lapse into laziness. Given the ascent and descent of Morrison, we saw no indications that skiing in the backcountry would be high quality, and my ambivalence with the gorge left me with a delayed decision until the morning. I decided to explore an area of the Sierra I saw from a flight the week prior. Mono craters – a chain of extinct volcanoes strung out in a line directly south of Mono Lake. Flying over them, I was intrigued to see them up-close, and to scout a good locale for future urbane camping options.
Arid high desert: 1, exposed root system: 0
I figured I would tour around on the AT gear to get full vistas, but the drive to the base of the northernmost crater revealed their snowpack was anemic to the point that I was delighted to stay in my approach shoes all day. After a long day in boots, and weekends in AT gear, I forgot how comfortable it is scrambling around tallus and scree in a light pair of sneakers. Ah…Sunday fun-day. The views and the craters didn’t disappoint. When the snow melts, it’d be fun to either run the length of them [running, who does that!?], or bring a mountain bike and ride the ubiquitous 4wd roads webbing the area. Looking forward to a return.
Heat and cold while rooted at 7k feet: no problem. Fire: problem.
On the way home, the increasing cloud cover hinted at a potential fireworks sunset display, so instead of pulling on plastic like a disciplined climber, I tossed on the AT gear and skinned toward the setting sun. Results weren’t what I expected, but with a cool winter wind hitting the face and glimpses of snowfall elsewhere in the range in front of a brilliant orange backdrop, I couldn’t ask for a better bookend to the weekend.
Super Bowl? What Super Bowl?