My eyes bugged out as the photo loaded in my browser. I was checking out a trip report of a snowboard descent of Mt. Morrison that someone had just posted on the internet. Since I was headed there in a couple of days, I thought it would be good to get an idea of what the conditions were. In my haste to scope out our intended route, the northwest ridge, I had neglected to look closely at the topo. I simply assumed that, like most Sierra Peaks, there was a nice, easy snow descent we could follow after our climb up the ridge. Wrong! The picture that unfolded before my eyes was far from easy; it was mostly cliffs, with ribbons of snow snaking their tortuous way down.
Sure, the picture was of the opposite side of the peak, but I remembered enough of the topo to recall that the two sides looked more or less the same. I pulled the map up on the computer and carefully worked out the average angle on the peak’s west side. Fifty degrees, more or less. This embarrassing discovery came only a day after I had assured my partner, Mike Boyer, that there were plenty of easy class 2 bailout opportunities should that become necessary. Mike is from Washington state, and was relying on me to choose an appropriate objective for our three days together. Tail between my legs, I tapped out a message to Mike asking him to please bring a harness and his 6mm rap line after all.
That Friday, Mike and I hooked up in Mammoth Lakes, as previously arranged. We remarked upon the incredible warm weather. For early March, the daytime highs had been in the sixties all week, with night time lows just around freezing. The most recent avalanche forecast credited the warm weather with stabilizing the snowpack to the point where the danger was rated low for all but the steepest alpine slopes. This, of course, was a relief after week upon week of moderate to high hazard levels due to the huge snowfall of the past three months. On the other hand, I was kicking myself for not bringing shorts. I knew I was going to cook on the approach.
From Convict lake, the northwest ridge of Mt. Morrison is an imposing sight. The technical part rises over 3,000 feet, with drop-offs on the north side of up to 2,000 feet. Most of the route is class 2, but comparing the class 2 parts of this ridge to your typical class 2 talus walk is like equating Everclear with beer because both contain alcohol. The class 2 sections of the ridge are at most a few yards wide, with huge drops on either side interspersed with some of the loosest obligatory class 3 and 4 terrain to be found in the Sierra. Under winter conditions, where water ice and snow cover a significant portion of the rock, the class 3 sections feel more like class 4.
But we were blissfully ignorant of the magnitude of our undertaking as we shouldered our packs for the walk in. In fact, I was feeling pretty good about our effort when we made camp in just over two hours. A party carrying light day packs in summer could have made it in half the time, but with conditions varying from crampon-hard crust to poorly bonded wind slab to faithless slush, we worked quite hard and took our time. Not to mention that the tracks we were following crossed two very recent wet snow avalanche paths. As we picked our way across the icy rubble we carefully considered the potential for more of the same to occur.
These, and the other recent avalanches we saw higher up, were clearly point releases triggered by falling snow and/or rock from far upslope, where the angle steepened to over 45 degrees. There were dozens of J-shaped tracks terminating in huge snowballs on the west-facing slopes. While most of the activity was harmless, the potential, especially as the hot afternoon wore on, for something larger was definitely there. We took comfort in observing that even the largest slides involved only the top few inches of the surface, and didn’t pile up deeper than a foot or two at the bottom. Big enough to knock you down and pound you, but not likely to bury you, nor take out both of us at once.
Once in camp we enjoyed a full hour of warm sunshine before the shadow of Laurel Mountain crept over us and put a stop to our tenement-style clothes drying enterprise. After dinner, we discussed plans for the morning. We agreed that we wanted to depart around sunrise, but when Mike suggested we set the alarm for four-thirty I swallowed hard. He was right; in winter it takes a good while to get going, and first light would be about five-thirty. I couldn’t argue with the math, but geez, four-thirty? This was my weekend away from the kids. I was hoping to sleep in. Why didn’t I take up a sport like beach volleyball or badminton that could only be done on warm, sunny afternoons?
By seven o’clock we had nothing left to do outside but donate our body heat to the great outdoors, so we crawled into our bags. We soon discovered we shared a common interest in how environmental policies get decided and implemented. Mike is an environmental planner for the state of Washington, specifically working in the area of air quality, and I had spent six years stopping a nasty subdivision slated for the hills above my house. We swapped war stories and congratulated ourselves and each other on our wisdom in these affairs, until neither of us was able to put together a coherent sentence.
Thankfully, Mike’s alarm didn’t go off. But I awoke with an urgent need around quarter of five. I tried to hold out for as much blissful warmth as possible, but by five-fifteen it was useless. I really wanted to keep my down bag dry. My thrashing about with boot liners woke up Mike, who checked his watch and announced that it was five-thirty: time to get going.
To my surprise, we were on our way by six-fifteen under paling skies and a light breeze. We had hoped that low overnight temperatures would have frozen yesterday’s slush good and hard, so we could quickly crampon the five hundred feet of snow that lead onto the ridge. No such luck. My thermometer read 32 degrees as we left, and we consistently punched through the thin sun crust into poorly consolidated snow underneath. Though spring seemed to have arrived down at the lake, it was clear that the higher elevations, and especially slopes with a northern aspect (like the one we were climbing), were still firmly in the grip of winter. As the slope steepened to forty-five degrees the surface quickly transformed from congealed corn to a fine-grained wind slab that forced us to alternate between front points and the breast stroke as its thickness varied. We had high hopes of following the snow as high as possible to avoid the steeper rock, but as the wallowing got more desperate the rock looked more
Mike reached the rock first, and started up ahead of me. He hadn’t gone ten yards when he remarked that this was the worst rock he’d been on in many years. Having discovered that I could get a reasonable stick in it with my front points, I wasn’t inclined to disagree.
The poor quality of rock forced us to move more slowly than we might otherwise do on the same level of terrain. We banged and pulled and kicked each hand and foothold before trusting it. Some day someone may convince me that portable handholds are a real convenience, but for the time being I prefer them to stay firmly attached to the mountain.
The rock on Mt. Morrison is so bad that there is hardly any scree or talus. Everything just kind of slides off at the slightest provocation. There isn’t anything sturdy enough to hold back more than a grain of sand in its pursuit of lower elevation. That, and the fact that water ice and snow covered key footholds here and there, made the terrain feel more like class 4 even when my rational mind told me it was probably class 3. One stretch of about three hundred feet above a notch felt particularly dicey. On the descent, we both carefully down climbed this section face-in.
We climbed for almost three hours in the shadow of the summit block, with a chilly breeze probing ceaselessly for opportunities to steal heat from our bodies. On most climbs, I find myself removing a layer within a short time of getting under way, but not today. If anything, I felt colder than when we left. And so we were doubly glad to reach a section of ridge that was not only easy class two, but also bathed in full sunshine.
Soon, however, it became apparent that Mike was feeling the effects of altitude. Whereas we had been moving comfortably at the same pace at the beginning, I now found myself stopping and waiting longer and more frequently. Now that we were in the sun, that wasn’t totally a bad thing, but there was the issue of how much daylight remained, and whether Mike would be able to descend unassisted. Watching him plod wearily along, it was clear to both of us what we had to do.
We reached a steep step at the base of the large tower that lay between us and the summit and took a rest. Mike checked his altimeter. We were still 1,500 feet shy of the top. Way too far down to make it up and back out to the car before dark, even if Mike were feeling better, and neither of us wanted to descend by headlamp. We still fantasized about spending a day on front points in Lee Vining Canyon the next day.
We made it back to camp by noon, and spent a leisurely hour eating lunch and packing up. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as warm as the day before, so the long snow slope between us and Convict Lake was still quite firm, though not firm enough to support body weight. My dream of making broad, lazy turns all the way down was replaced by tedious traversing, with kick turns at each end. I didn’t get down much faster than Mike, who was on snowshoes, until we were just above the lake. There, traversing put me on a straight line path for the car, and the only thing that slowed me down was a miserable quarter mile of icy tree skiing.
When I got to the car I was sure Mike would be just a few minutes behind me, but after a half hour I began to worry. Scanning the opposite shore of the lake I finally spotted him, plodding slowly along at the water’s edge. He looked tired, but by that time I had changed into street clothes, and didn’t relish the thought of putting that sweaty stuff back on just to give my buddy a hand, no matter how well-deserved it might be. Then I saw Mike on his hands and knees. Oh, the poor guy, I thought. He fell down.
I decided to walk as far as I could around the lake and take his pack from him. By the time I got everything in the car and all locked up, Mike was almost to the trailhead. I met him about a hundred yards from the end of the line and offered to shoulder his load. He didn’t have to think about it much. As he undid the straps and wriggled out he explained that he had broken through the ice. His right boot was full of ice water. I apologized for not having waited for him, but he shrugged it off. “There was nothing you could do,” he said. In a practical sense, he was right, but I could have at least offered moral support.
But that was all in the past. As soon as Mike changed out of his soggy duds we focused on more important things. Like beer. And food. Large amounts of food. Despite the fact that I had been gobbling gels and energy bars all day, I was famished. So was Mike. Within forty-five minutes were swilling beer at Grumpy’s in Mammoth Lakes, and feeling considerably more human. David Brower once said, "Don't knock the amenities." Somebody buy that man a beer!