I have been skiing at mammoth for the past 4 years and its hard to miss Mt Morrison as you drive by. Alex wanted to climb it as well so we decided to put it on our calendars pretty early in the season but of course it was all dependent on the weather.
We decided to climb it via the east face which has two routes to get to the main slope and we chose the east face variation route. In summer the east face is a considered a class 2 climb, its about 4-4.5 miles with about 4k of elevation gain. So we figured it shouldn’t be that bad of a climb in winter but it turned out to be something else.
The previous week it was full moon and on friday night the moon was going to be at around 85% illumination so we decided to take advantage of that and get a 3 am start to give us plenty of time for summit. We were contemplating taking skis with us for the ascent and descent but given the beta we got for the route and the expected conditions we decided not to take them along. One of the other reasons that we didn’t take them is that i would have had to rent the skis which i could do only on saturday and there was a small storm moving on saturday night so climbing during that time wouldn’t have been a good idea.
Since we were going to start at 3 am, i decided to leave work little early on friday so that i could reach mammoth before 9pm and get some decent amount of sleep. Alex stopped by and we divided the gear that we were planning to take with us, not knowing what to expect we took little bit of everything. Couple of cams, set of nuts, couple of hexes, pickets, a 30m rope, few biners and avy gear. We also carried a jet boil and emergency bivy, better to be safe than sorry.
Met Alex at convict lake parking lot and we were on our way by 3.30 am, the first mile of the route is along the lake and the trail is very well established so we had no problems getting to the main part of the climb. Even with 85% illuminated moon it was still pretty dark mainly because there was a light cloud cover. We knew the general direction in which we had to go so we started climbing on a ridge which would take us there.
The snow wasn’t firm at all, there was a nice crusty layer on top which would break as soon as we put some weight on it. Sometimes we would sink to our knees and at times it would get waist deep. It wasn’t fun and we tried to move around to find some good snow or get away from it. We managed to find a patch of scree but it was only a brief respite. It was really slow going and we had to pull ourselves up using the twigs and the bushes that were partially buried under the snow.
Even though the conditions were less than ideal, we didn’t want to give up so early and kept on going. After couple of hours of slogging, the sun finally rose and it did present some good photo opportunities of laurel mountain. My goal was to be at the saddle and facing the main slope of Mt Morrison by sun rise but that wasn’t the case to be. We took turns breaking the trail and it was a struggle, one can only imagine how tiring it can be at higher elevations.
We found a patch of good snow where we could stand without the snow collapsing underneath but it only lasted for few feet. It was physically demanding but at the same time it was mentally frustrating as well and i was having a hard time trusting my foot steps because i couldn’t tell whether the snow would hold me or it would collapse causing me to sink up to my knees or further.
We were on top of the ridge by 7am, it wasn’t ideal but we weren’t late by any means but at the same time we were really exhausted. I was quite beat up from the slog and it was pretty slow going from there on. We got to the base of Torre de Miedra and looked at what lay ahead in front of us.
We still had a long way to go to get to the saddle.
It was going to be long day and to avoid the crappy snow we had to find rocks to step on and some time we had to step on snow. We sunk knee deep few times and it was the kind of terrain where one could easily twist ankle or something like that. After a few falls/collapses in the snow we had enough of it and it was time to turn around.
It was an easy decision to make, even if we got past this snow/rock area, we didn’t know how good the snow was going to be further up. If it was anything like that we faced earlier it could easily take us another 4 hours just to reach the saddle and then depending on the conditions we would have to climb for another 2-4 hours on the final slope. Not to mention we had to get back down and i don’t think it would have been wise of us if we returned back to parking lot in the dark.
We started descending back at about 8 am and i thought glissading back would be easy but no it was another adventure. We had started climbing on a ridge but there was a small gully which was an obvious route to glissade down so that we wouldn’t run into bushes or shrubs. It was little steep so we decided to use the rope while glissading for protection in case one of us slides out of control.
It would work as follows, We both were tied in at the end of the rope and then one of us would glissade and he would be on belay all the time. The idea is to let you glissade at your own pace but if you loose control there would be some protection to hold you.
I went down first and the snow as expected wasn’t firm so when i got to one rope length i just used my ice axe as anchor to keep Alex on belay. He got down to two rope lengths and now it was my turn to start glissading and after a while i hit this slick section of snow. Before i knew it i was gaining speed and i had to self arrest but the rope also got tangled somehow and i did come to a stop. Only if we had found this gully on the way up, it would have made our lives so much easier.
The snow was really hard and instead of glissading i was being lowered, glad we decided to use the rope. When it was Alex’s turn to start glissading i decided to use the picket along with my axe for the anchor.
We had to be really careful while glissading and not build up any speed which wasn’t easy. The proper glissading technique is to use the shaft of ice axe to drive the spike into the snow to slow you down but out here the snow was so firm that the spike wouldn’t dig in to slow you down. I had to use the pick of my axe to prevent me from building up speed. We did few pitches like this which were combination of glissading/lowering and then decided to get off the gully and into the scree/soft snow which would be lot easier to descend without using any rope.
Since i keep my nalgene water bottles on the outside of the pack, while glissading i lost both of them but at the same time managed to find them on the way down. Lesson learn’t on the way down don’t keep your water bottles unsecured specially if they are in outside pockets of the pack. It was easy going from there and we finally made it back to the parking lot at around 11 am.
Even though we didn’t make it to the summit it was a fun trip which gave us some valuable lessons. Sometimes it is very easy to get carried away (aka summit fever) and not make a decision to turn around. I am glad that we decided to turn back and i don’t have regrets whatsoever, the mountain is not going anywhere we can always come back at a later time and climb when the conditions are better.
Using the rope while glissading was a great call by Alex and it definitely saved our asses otherwise it would have been a real test of our self arrest techniques on 40-45 degree slope with real firm snow and not sure how that would have gone. Lets just say that i am glad that we didn’t have to find it out. Yes we could have found the same gully on the way up and saved us lot of effort/time but breaking trail in those snow conditions was an experience in itself.
Mountaineering to me isnt always about reaching the top, its about being out there in nature, climbing with your friends whom you trust with your life, making decisions together, learning from each other, having fun no matter what the conditions and most importantly coming back safe at the end of day.