Lessons learned on a Sierra classic
By Leonie Sherman
The beige and red buttresses of Laurel Mountain tower over Convict Lake like psychedelic sands swirled in a 12,000-foot glass bottle. I first saw the peak from the steaming waters of Hilltop Hot Springs, but it never occurred to me to climb the thing. With all the gleaming granite in the Sierra Nevada, why would a person mess with the crumbling metamorphic rock of the Morrison Cap?
Because alpine master Peter Croft says you should; in his guidebook The Good, the Great and the Awesome, he claims the Northeast Gully on Laurel is one of the top 40 rock climbs in the High Sierra. And when you climb that gully you’re touching climbing history; John Mendenhall led the first belayed climb in the Sierra on this route in 1930. Mountaineering misanthrope Norman Clyde was the first European to touch the summit.
But if Croft, Mendenhall and Clyde can’t convince you to climb Laurel Mountain, consider the sheer scale and spectacle of the thing. This behemoth rises 5,000 vertical feet from lakeshore to summit and is plainly visible to tourists disembarking at Mammoth Lakes airport. The bulk and distinctive bands of swirling complex rock are unmistakable and intimidating even to a casual motorist on 395.
The Northeast Gully, Laurel Mountain’s classic route, is rated 5.2 It’s a prominent declivity in an ocean of crumbling rock, a rude notch in the friable flanks, a deep gash in the fractured face. Normally I avoid routes that feature the word “gully,” but Croft claims the rock is “wonderfully solid.” One day I convinced a 5.11 climber friend to attempt the route with me. We brought harnesses, a rope and a minimal rack, but fully intended to free solo it.
The approach involves three and a half miles of pleasant lakeside trail and a quarter mile of talus-littered dry riverbed. As we left the trail behind, we craned our necks to contemplate over 4,000 feet of uninterrupted wicked gothic drama; complex gullies, sheer faces and crumbling fissures stretching into a searing blue sky.
A tongue of dirty snow spilled out of the gully onto the talus. An astute alpinist might have reconsidered the venture right then and retired to Mammoth for a beer. A mature mountaineer knows that the quality of a climb is more important than the top of a mountain. A seasoned soloist would have realized the route was choked with rotten snow, and retreated, understanding that eventually the snow will melt, and that’s when you climb a northeast facing gully. Tragically, there was no astute, mature, seasoned climber in our party and we didn’t even pause upon discovering our route was obliterated by the winter’s consolidated precipitation.
My partner started grabbing solid dark rock just skirting the edge of the gully and I followed eagerly through dull edges, positive holds and stable ledges covered with gritty dust. We hugged the southern rib of the gully, making steady upward progress, hoping to re-enter the route proper once the snow thinned out. The rock was okay, but we strayed significantly from the route, though it was still in sight.
Of course as we climbed higher the snow only thickened. Our molded rib was swallowed by smears of icy, gritty snow. Pushed way off route, we ventured further and further from the gully, into increasingly desperate face climbing. At a scrappy ledge, no longer sure which distant fold was the Northeast Gully, my partner dug through his pack for a harness. I flaked the rope without a word. He led up through rotten rock. Falling pebbles zinged past my head as I gazed upward, following his progress.
A tug on the rope signaled my turn to climb. Huge holds and an obvious route calmed the anxiety building in my throat like sawdust. I couldn’t duplicate my partner’s grace and ease, but I yarded on knobby protrusions and pulled myself upward, soothed by the presence of a top rope.
I reached for a rounded chunk the size of my fist and pulled hard. It exploded into powdered dust in my hand and the top rope caught me dangling in space. I glanced between my legs at hundreds of feet of air terminating in huge blocks of talus. I looked around at my immediate surroundings — there was no gully or wonderfully solid rock in sight, and every hold blinked with a neon warning of instability. The rest of the day featured delicate mantling, smearing and stemming. I didn’t pull on a hold for the next eight hours.
My partner and I had tackled classics from Tuolumne to Yosemite Valley and over the course of about two dozen pitches, I’d never seen him hesitate. But as daylight faded on Laurel Mountain, I waited long minutes between paying out rope while he decided which of the terrible options above was least dangerous. I’d never heard anything but laughter and chatting while he climbed, but as he struggled upwards, leading every pitch, whimpers, groans and grunting filled the air.
We gnashed our teeth and groveled up the interminable crappy pitches, cursing Croft and our own stupidity, making desperate promises to the gods of our future alpine ascents. As the last shreds of alpenglow dissipated in the west, we suddenly popped out onto solid ground just a few hundred feet of easy climbing below the top. Exhausted, we gazed at the tantalizing summit, looked at each other, and turned our backs.
The descent features sandy slopes and faded use trails. Soon we were engaged in hand to hand combat with thorny chaparral. Mountain mahogany shredded our clothing and tore at our hair as we pushed on. The dull surface of Convict Lake, gleaming in the burnished indigo of night, was our beacon of hope. Sometime around midnight, our aching feet registered the hard surface of a trail. The car was a 15 minute stroll away.
Since then I’ve spent hours staring at Laurel Mountain from the comforting waters of Hilltop Hot Springs but I still haven’t been to the top. Maybe that Northeast Gully has solid rock, but the rest of the mountain is a tower of crumbling loose terror. Maybe I’ll climb it one day, but I’ll always trust my own senses over a gushing guidebook. Maybe failures like this are how eager climbers become astute alpinists, but I’ll need a few more epics and a lot more gray hair before I earn the mantle of mature mountaineer.