In The High Sierra ~ Mount Morrison (1974-1985)

Up until 2008, our adventures were retained only as memories and on Kodachromes. While our memories may have faded (just a bit), the Kodachromes haven’t – and we have a lot of them. So we’re digitizing a select few to bring some of our past adventures into the 21st Century. This is one of those.

My first trip to California’s High Sierra was on a backpack in 1968. That started, haltingly, a granitic attraction to The Range of Light that has now endured for more than 50 years. The first “real” mountain I ever climbed was (appropriately) Mount Hood in 1972. I did a NOLS Mountain Guide course the next summer during which our attempt on Gannett Peak (Wyoming’s high point) was foiled by a blizzard. My first attempt at mountaineering in the High Sierra was on Mount Morrison (12,241 ft (3,731 m)) in 1974. That was the start of an eleven year long saga of uninformed optimism.

Mount Morrison’s pointy summit, and the truly impressive couloir bisecting its northeast face, are both clearly visible from Highway 395 near Convict Lake. Morrison is a lot more visible from afar than is the Sierra’s most famous peak, Mount Whitney. I think it was this visual proximity which first drew me to Morrison in general and specifically to its couloir. It looked so doable – from a distance.

So, in 1974, I got some members of our tiny university mountaineering club to join me on an attempt of this couloir, then innocuously named the Northwest Couloir. We had a good hike on snow to camp, then a nice snow climb up to the base of the couloir, then a sudden burst of common sense, followed by a nice hike back to camp. After a night on the snow, we hiked out and went home.

Hiking to camp with Convict Lake below (April 1974)
Camp, with Laurel Mountain in the distance (that orange REI pyramid tent (L) is now a collector’s item on EBay)
A museum diorama of 1970’s backpacking and climbing gear
A Svea kerosene stove (now also a collector’s item)
Climbing to the base of the couloir from camp
Once we saw the couloir (arrow) close-up, going back seemed like a great idea

With a changing cast of climbing partners, I would try climbing this couloir six times over the next eleven years, failing miserably each time. On our best and last try, in 1985, got us to the top of the lower rock band before we were forced off by snow cascading down the chute. Never before, or since, have I spent so much time and effort on one route.

Snow shoots over the lip of the lower rock band during the April 1985 attempt

By 1999, the guidebooks were clearly stating that this couloir (now called (perhaps more accurately) the Death Couloir) is only climbable with minimal safety when filled with snow from top to bottom. Which it rarely is. And which it never was during any of our attempts. If I’d only known. 🙄

In 1983, Larry and I lead a weekend Sierra Club snow climb up Morrison’s comparatively gentle Eastern Slope. We hiked in the first day to a great campsite nestled in a broad gully, then did a not-too-difficult, but very fun, climb to the summit the next day. The group was competent and congenial, the weather perfect, the snow just right for climbing, and the view from the summit magnificent. This climb was everything that trying to climb the Death Couloir was not.

Climbing to camp (April 1983)
Nestled in camp
Toward the summit
Perfect snow for climbing
On the summit
Looking east over Long Valley from the summit
Mountaineering in the 1980s
You don’t always know how magic a moment was until you look back.

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9 comments

  1. The CMC is definitely on my radar…there are a couple different mountaineering schools here but I just haven’t been ready to pull the trigger.

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  2. No, I quit in 2008 after climbing all of the PNW volcanoes. Good times, but you have to know when to step back. Now I’m into hiking. If the Colorado Mountain Club still offers mountaineering classes, you might try one of those (once the virus is dealt with). It would be a safe way to learn the basics and also meet people with the same interests.

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  3. Your big orange tent! Our old faithful A16 tent! The windscreen for the stove! Ah, memories…
    The one guy I remember is the one who wore blue jeans and you admonishing him on his wardrobe selection.
    Thanks for the great story and photos. I did not remember that you had tried this multiple times.

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  4. If it had been named Death back in the day, we very likely wouldn’t have even gone up there. I think the 3rd tent was some rock climbers I met at Gibraltar Rock – but I can’t remember their names. 😦

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  5. Great story.
    So my first foray into mountaineering was the Death Couloir, no wonder I never really got into it 🙂
    Do you remember who was in the third tent on that 1974 trip?

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