Mt. Laurel - NE Couloir
by Rowan Trollope
Saturday, April 5th, Danny Wade, Taylor Wade and I decided to try a winter ascent on the east side of Mt. Laurel. Mt. Laurel is an ~11,800' peak just south of Mammoth Lakes. The North East couloir is a long climb, involving 2 miles of low fifth class rock climbing. According to the guide book, the route meanders through a "confusing maze of vertical gullies".
All the beta we had on Mt. Laurel was a short summary of the summer route from the North-East. The description of the route admitted that it is "just about as good as a ouija board". After a short approach round the beautiful Convict Lake, we got to the snow gulley (around 10am) which was detailed in the route description. The initial climbing was relatively low angle (rated a 5.2 rock climb in the summer). With all the snow, it was just a long snow climb, which involved lots of step-kicking. You can see our route here
After slogging for a few hours, we got to the crux of the climb (shown here)
. A very short section of mixed rock and ice. Given the relatively easy nature of the crux, we all free solo'ed it. After the crux, the climbing got steeper (click here for pics)
, and the snow got icy and hard. We roped up and alternatively kicked steps or front-pointed. This was much slower, but we all felt we were making good time, and we were safely roped together.
At around 1pm, we stopped for a quick lunch, and debated which way to go. The guide book said "when in doubt, go left", however Danny felt we should go right up the primary couloir. We agreed to continue going left, which was probably mostly at my insistence that we follow the guidance of the book. This turned out to be a poor decision. At this point we set out again, intent to pick up our pace and make better time.
By 3pm, we'd exited the top of the steepest couloir, shown here
. We had arrived at some unconsolidated lower angle snow. The going got much tougher here. While there was less exposure, every step involved sinking in, sometimes almost to your hips. This slowed us down dramatically, but by now, we could see what we thought was the final section. By 5:35pm we got to the end of the snow, and onto the final bit of rock, which we thought might lead us to the summit. Taylor quickly got his crampons off and scrambled up the low-angle rock to have a look. Turning around, I could hear the disappointment in his voice "A cliff! We cliffed out!". It turned out that we'd taken a wrong turn, and had peaked out at 11,400 (just 400 feet from the true summit), but separated by a huge cliff and a thousand foot drop-off. The views at the top were absolutely spectacular and we had a quick bite to eat while we discussed our predicament.
Based on what he'd observed, Taylor pointed out that we'd have at least a 1,500 foot downclimb to get onto the right line. Given that it would be dark in an hour and a half, we discussed briefly, and decided that the only course of action was to down-climb the entire route. We debated roping up for the steep parts of the descent and determined it would be too slow, especially since it would be dark in an hour or so. Instead we decided to down-climb unroped -- go slowly and don't slip!
Our goal was to make it back to the crux before dark (where we knew we'd need to rappel). The crux was in a steep couloir with exposed rock and ice about 10 feet wide in the middle, with steep rock walls on either side. We began the downclimb, and made it back to the crux within about 1.5 hours -- here we decided to rappel. At first, I placed a snow picket into the steep snow directly above the rock. It went in, but the snow wasn't firm enough, and I decided I might be able to find better placements for Pitons in the side-walls of the couloir. As darkness fell, I scrambled around on the rock with crampons on, using my ice tools to hold me to the walls. It was a bit precarious, but eventually I found a crack and in desperation pounded in a short Piton with my hammer. The piton went in about half-way, then stopped. I wouldn't trust my life to that placement, so I found another crack, and this time hammered in a longer piton, which went all the way in. It felt very secure.
Taylor arrived, and I asked him to grab my pack and the pickets I'd placed higher on the snow. He gathered everything up and started to traverse across the ice towards me. About half way across the gully, he had to stop since it was too dangerous to continue the traverse encumbered with the ropes, pickets and two packs. I climbed back up to him to relieve him of the load, and we both completed the traverse to the other side of the couloir. At this point we both descended to the piton anchor we'd placed, and clipped in -- safe at last. Danny arrived a few minutes later with the other rope, and we quickly setup the first rappel.
I rappelled first to test my piton anchor placements. I bounced a few times, and the pitons seemed to hold up fine. Slowly I put my full weight onto the rope and began to lower myself down. After a few feet of descent, the sketchy piton I'd worried about made a pinging sound and popped out! I dropped a couple feet onto the single remaining Piton, which thankfully held fast. Hanging there when one of your two Pitons pops out will get your heart beating! I looked up at Danny and Taylor whose eyes went wide. They inspected the remaining Piton and declared that it looked bomber, so I continued and the three of us finished the rappel with no incident.
At this point we all felt safer, but still hustled down the remaining slopes with headlamps on, and then the long hike out. We made it back to the car at 10:35pm. We were starving and dehydrated but we were in great spirits. Car to car we'd spent 13 hours climbing, and despite the false summit and the popping pitons, it was really quite fun.
For anyone attempting this climb in the winter, we suggest ignoring the "when in doubt, stay left" advice, and instead carefully study the route from the ground. After the first few turns, try to head straight up to the summit, rather than staying left.
Here are a few of the pictures of the climb