Winter Mountaineering and Mt. Morrison

With a rest after ice climbing at the SoCal Retailer Demo Days (see my last post), Larry and Scott met me at Sierra Mountain Center's office in Bishop, California, for four days of movement and technical skill instruction in winter mountaineering.  School started immediately with - breakfast!  Climbing in the winter is a calorie-intensive sport, we needed to charge up!!

Saturday was spent at Cardinal Pinnacle, learning how to use snow shoes, step kicking, and climbing in big plastic boots on the Regular Route.  We made it back to the truck just ahead of dark and made plans for the next day.

Sunday we met in June Lake and went climbing on lower Horsetail Falls.  For Scott and Larry, the three laps we climbed were a high point of the week.  Afterwards we had a few beers at the Tiger Bar, talked books, and made plans for Mt. Morrison.

Andrew, SMC's intern, joined us at Convict Lake on Monday and we hiked up to Lake 2980 in the upper Tobacco Flats at 9777 feet.  The snow was very wind-packed, and it took the four of us two hours to dig out a two-man snow cave for Larry and Scott.  Andrew and I opted to sleep on the benches of the snow kitchen instead.

Hiking to camp in upper Tobacco Flats
In the morning, we started to climb just as the sun reached the bottom of Mt. Morrison (12,277 feet).  First we climbed to the North Col, which seperates Morrison from Mini-Morrison at 10,827 feet, in just over an hour.  Here we cached our snow shoes and ski poles, donned crampons and pulled out our ice axes, and started up the hanging snowfields that seperate the East Slopes from the North Face.  You won't find this route in Secor's guide book, so I informally nick-named it the Northeast Corner.  But very quickly, I started pushing through deep snow that slowed us way down.  We even resorted to a short 30-foot mixed rock climbing to avoid trying to push through the belly-button deep, 35 degree-steep snow.  But as noon approached, our progress continued to slow down.  It couldn't be helped - it was taking three sweeps at the snow to move upward.  Once with my knee, twice with my foot, then 6 inches of progress.

The poor weather that threatened us all day finally hit us at 11:30am.  Suddenly the wind picked up, driving snow at us from all directions.  At noon we had only climbed 650 feet above the Col, and we still had 750 feet to climb.

I turned around.  "That's it guys!" I yelled above the wind's howl, "I'm pulling the plug!"

"Thanks Chris!" Larry yelled back, "It was startin' to get hard!!"

We reached camp again just a little after 1:00pm, amazed at how the wind had scoured so much of the hillsides in just a few hours.  Looking back, we could see how close we had come, reaching the bottom of the final snowfield just below the summit.  Now, though, the clouds had lifted and the sun was out again.  Still, we packed up confident that we had given the climb our best.

Statistics:  Cardinal Pillar, Regular Route, 4th class and 5.6, Bishop.  Lower Horsetail Falls, WI3, June Lake.  Mt. Morrison (12,277 feet), NE Corner, Steep Snow, Mammoth Lakes.  4 days total.