Mt. Morrison, one posthole at a time

23 Apr 2009 - by Will Mollandsimms

I arrived at Convict Lake as the sun began to set slightly nervous about an attempt of Mt. Morrison the next day. The wind was already howling and with forecasted winds of up to 70 mph for the next few days I was starting to have second thoughts. I convinced myself it would be fine and headed off to sleep.

I awoke the next morning to find partly cloudy skies and very little wind, a good sign for sure. After a quick breakfast I headed up the hill south of Convict Lake before sunrise. Ascending the hill through sagebrush, cactus and various other pokey plants was not the most enjoyable experience. I picked up and lost again several use trails before finally reaching the top of the hill as the sun crested the horizon. From the top of the hill the large, shallow canyon/valley is easily recognized and easy to follow. The snow was more or less continuous up the canyon from where the Tobacco flats road terminated so I strapped on my snowshoes and headed uphill. After only a few minutes I came across an absolutely massive wet avalanche that came off Mono Jim Peak. This slide not only engulfed the canyon, but also flung piles of debris (rocks, trees, sagebrush, snow blobs) far and wide. It was certainly awe-inspiring, and also reason for concern as it was obvious this slide was no more than a day or two old. After navigating my way around and through this natural disaster I continued south towards the eastern slope of Mt. Morrison itself.

The snow was still firm and travel was relatively quick so it wasn't long before the Mono Jim/Peak 11,100 Ridge ended and the saddle between that and Mt. Morrison became obvious, although it was still 1000 feet above me. I turned right and headed towards the saddle initially walking over stable scree before hitting a small snow patch right before the canyon narrows around a small gendarme on the left. Once above this small rock feature the canyon turns into a large bowl and I was able to reach the saddle by staying on scree, which seemed to get less and less stable the higher I got. It was still early and there was, as of yet, no wind. I wondered how I had the good fortune to go against the weather mans advice and have it turn out alright. I dropped my pack to peer into the canyon dropping under Morrison's impressive NE face. I had brought my snowboard with me in hopes of cutting some pretty turns in the snowy canyon but it was littered with death cookies and heaps of other wet avalanche debris which would make it very dangerous to go down. Bummer. Looking up from the saddle I could easily point out 3 wet avalanches from the days before that had ended up in the canyon below. It also looked like from summit of Morrison there was no continuous snow band that would take me back my current location on the saddle. I decided to leave the board and continue with a lighter pack on the final push to the summit. Expecting firm snow I strapped my brand spanking new crampons on my feet and began my ascent.

The final summit push started out innocently enough. Walking over firm snow on the saddle and then up a large windlip before a broad face was a breeze. The snow was firm, easy to manage and pleasant to stroll over. Soon though I had to traverse left as the terrain ahead of me was steepening rapidly, leading me towards the trigger points of the 3 avalanches I had seen remnants of in the canyon far below. The first half of this traverse went fine but soon I ran into trouble. Deep, wet, soft trouble. Before I knew what had happened I was up to my waist in snow. I kicked around trying to find something more stable but there was nothing. I thought if I kept moving up it would improve but I was sadly mistaken. Eventually I came to a windliped ridge on my left and to my surprise there were someone else's steps in the snow! What I relief, now I didn't have to break trail through all that junk. It didn't matter. I sank through that persons steps almost as much and I sank in breaking trail. Eventually I got off the ridge and ascended a very loose chute for about 50 feet before finding myself back in spring flavored slupree snow once again. From my current position I could see that the main face to the summit of Morrison was not all that far to my right and that if I made it to that snow it should be better. So I pressed onward, following my friends footsteps from the day before until they ended well short of the main east face. Hmmm... I wonder why any would turn around here? Oh wait, I know. As I continued ever so slowly through the snow, sometimes sinking past my waist, it became clear any sane and rational person would turn around. Apparently I am neither.

As I came to the last section before the main face the snow became so soft that I had to kick a moat fifty feet across into the snow in order to avoid the frustration of digging myself out again. Finally I reached the main east face of Morrison. The snow here was firmer, much firmer. Instead of sinking to my waist every time, now I was sinking to my knees or slightly above. It was heavenly. Ever so slowly I plunged my way up the mountain. At long last I passed the last rock band and could see the summit but there was still a lot of steep soup to go. As the slope increased I found myself literally crawling with hands and knees trying to get my weight spread out enough to avoid sinking deeper. Finally I reached the last 50 feet and, of course, on one of the last steps I take in crampons I stick a hole in my pants. Damn! Well at least the crampons were useful today... I break on the summit for longer than I should in the ever softening snow conditions and then head back down. I thought about glissading but the odds of me going head over heels when trying to stop seemed too high, so I swam.

Back at the saddle I strapped on my snowboard and headed down the big bowl in front of me carving S turns as I went. When that snow patch ended I walked down to the next one and did it again. I managed to do this the entire way back to the Tobacco Flats road where I met the east side avalanche forecaster who came up to view the massive slide. As I talk with her I notice the wind has finally picked up and think to myself: Which would I have rather had? 70 mph winds or super soft snow? I'm not really sure. All I know is neither one is that great.

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