Reflecting on sights of the Eastern Sierra
October 24, 2008
If you’ve ever wanted to know what silence sounds and looks like, the collision happened last Saturday deep inside the Eastern Sierra.
A red hue rose from the mud at the bottom of a natural hot spring and methodically changed shades as the sun set to create a unique variation of colors both in the sky and in the reflection on the water.
As the hand of night fell with linear precision along a dirt road on public land, so came a chill in the air with it.
A couple who sat a hundred meters away inside the steamy hot spring didn’t seem to mind. They huddled chin-deep in the water. Behind them in the dying light, 14,000-foot-plus High Sierra peaks jutted out in stark contrast from the valley floor.
Down the road some, Alkali flies swarmed around the tufa formations of Mono Lake.
Mark Twain wrote about this place long before, in a time now fogged by progress. Yet strangely, the Eastern Sierra aura ” for our sake ” remains frozen in time.
Recommended Stories For You
“Mono Lake lies in a lifeless, treeless, hideous desert, eight thousand feet above the level of the sea, and is guarded by mountains two thousand feet higher, whose summits are always clothed in clouds,” Twain wrote. “This solemn, silent, sailless sea ” this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on Earth ” is little graced with the picturesque.”
While we love Twain’s imagery, we disagree with his conclusion. The area may seem as though it has little surface life, but it actually is quite picturesque.
Tribune outdoors writer Jeremy Evans and myself traveled to the area Twain wrote about decades ago and encountered the opposite of what he described.
Here’s our view of the High Sierra landscapes around Mono Lake, Convict Lake and Mount Morrison.
Between Bridgeport and Lone Pine, the Sierra Nevada has a different feel than in the Lake Tahoe Basin. With 120 peaks over 13,000 feet, most of them jagged, granite spires piercing the sky, the High Sierra is dramatic and provides some of the best mountain scenery in the country.
But descending Conway Summit, when the heart of the High Sierra comes into view, there is one peak in particular that commands one’s attention. Even 50 miles away, Mount Morrison, with its near-perfect symmetry and pyramidal shape, stands out among a sea of peaks.
Its vertical north faces rises 2,000 feet above Convict Lake and has been dubbed the “Eiger of the Sierra Nevada” by several authors. It also has a steep couloir flanking its north face that has earned the nickname of “Death Couloir.”
With those types of monikers, one would think climbing the 12,268-foot peak would be a death wish. However, there are two established routes that peak baggers can accomplish with little technical ability.
The more difficult of the two is the Northwest Ridge, a striking skyline that’s gained from the head of Convict Lake. It’s an aesthetic line but poses some route-finding challenges, and inexperienced climbers might feel more comfortable with a rope for exposed sections.
The more straightforward route is the East Slope, which provides the easiest and quickest route to the summit. Those qualities were exactly what Tribune photographer Jonah Kessel and I were concerned about Tuesday.
Both of us had to be back at the Tribune office Tuesday night to make Wednesday’s paper, so we decided to camp nearby at Crab Cooker Hot Springs on Monday night, then drive to the route Tuesday morning. We woke up to a brilliant blue sky and proceeded to the Tobacco Flats 4×4 road, which led us to a small parking area near a drainage at 8,500 feet.
The trail ascended immediately up this dry drainage that was filled with shale, providing a clear path to a hanging valley at over 9,000 feet. From the valley, a granite needle called the “Great White Fang” came into view at the back of the canyon, while the east slope of Mount Morrison emerged to our right.
Rock cairns marked the way from the hanging valley to the peak’s upper slopes, which became steeper the higher we went. The loose rock was an unavoidable challenge, but the route’s direct nature brought us to a final chute that connected us to the summit ridge. Although the route was obvious, there were some interesting variations on Class 3 terrain as we continued to ascend.
A little more than two hours after we left the car, we stood on the summit ridge and walked north to the summit. With 360-degree views that included the White Mountains, Crowley Lake, Mono Lake, Mammoth Mountain and the Palisades region, Morrison offers one of the better views of a Sierra high point.
WHAT: Mount Morrison
ELEVATION: 12,268 feet
EASIEST ROUTE: East Slope, Class 2
DISTANCE: 4 miles from Tobacco Flats 4×4 road
DURATION: From Tobacco Flats 4×4 road, 2-3 hours for ascent; 2 hours for descent
RECOMMENDED READING: “The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes and Trails” by R.J. Secor (The Mountaineers)
One of the best times of year to visit the Eastern Sierra is September through November. Indian summers are common, and crowds are minimal. But another reason to visit is for the free camping.
Most of the region is under the supervision of the Bureau of Land Management, an agency that rarely requires fees for camping areas. Numerous designated campsites around Mono Lake are free, which also is the case for the Hot Creek area near Mammoth Lakes.
To reach Hot Creek, drive south on Highway 395 past the turnoff for Mammoth Lakes. At the green church, take a left. There is a network of dirt roads from here as well as numerous hot springs, including the popular Crab Cooker and Shepherd. Once you enter this area, choose your own adventure, as camping is allowed anywhere.
For Mono Lake camping information, stop at the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitors Center, a quarter-mile north of Lee Vining on Highway 395.