It turned out that getting into the High County a few weeks earlier only made me want more. It didn’t help that a friend had invited me on a couple of backpacking trips in the same area and had shared his photos of high lakes and alpine scenery with me! Matteo could tell I was itching to go back and asked if I thought he could hang with the Mt. Morgan summit attempt. He’s 13 now and has some excellent fitness thanks to our 4x weekly running and kettlebell routine of the last year, plus whatever time we squeeze in on the mountain bikes. I was game to let him take a stab at it — his first High Sierra peak.
August 10-13, 2021
Since we were going to be near Mammoth, I suggested we should take our bikes and hit up at least one day of lift-accessed MTB fun. We also planned to do some fishing at the lakes and creeks in the area. So, we packed up all the bikes and associated gear, a light spinning rod, a light fly rod, and a bunch of fishing tackle, plus all of the running and hiking gear for the summit scramble. My car looked like a legit dirtbag motel, which fits right in with the East Side scenery.
We camped at French Campground, which is where I also stayed on my last trip. There are a handful of Forest Service campgrounds along the road leading to Mosquito Flat and they’re all really nice. I settled for car camping this year so I could spend time with a friend and my son where backpacking would have been different style trips. Camping anywhere in the Crowley Lake area makes for a good jumping-off point into all kinds of adventures.
On day 1, we arrived and set up camp in the afternoon. The Dixie Fire had been burning for a while and smoke was a concern, but the wind was favorable and the AQI was well under 100, so that turned out to be ok. We decided to go fish at Rock Creek Lake for the evening. The fish were rising but the bite was off. The lakes are warm because of low snow levels and warm temperatures; there was also word that the hatchery had not stocked the lakes this season due to some issue. So, there were native fish and some hatchery fish from the previous season, but they were hard to catch. I managed to hook one decent-sized rainbow trout using a #16 Parachute Adams (dry fly). Unfortunately, that was the only fish of the trip, and Matteo was set on fishing every day.
One afternoon, we fished at Convict Lake, which is a cool spot. Suddenly, the wind came up in long massive gusts from nowhere. The entire lake turned to white caps. To make a long story short, we ended up with a broken rod. Matteo was crushed; thankfully the general store there had some good deals on rods and we were able to replace it! Unfortunately, he didn’t catch any fish on the trip. Next time, we’ll go earlier in the summer when the water is cool and running well.
We decided to go to Mammoth for day 2. Having never been to a trail center with lift access, we weren’t sure exactly what to expect. It was cool though and after our first run, we felt like we had the routine dialed in. Bikes go up first on the chairs, second on the gondola. Stay on the gondola from the mid-mountain station to go all the way up, or get off there. We started with an intermediate run, which had some built-up banked turns and small table tops. It was more like the flow trail we ride in Marin and less like the gnarly stuff we had been riding in Moab. With our confidence up, we took the gondola to the top of the mountain, just over 11,000 ft elevation, and rode down Off The Top — a long intermediate run. There was a bit of smoke in the air, but it dissipated throughout the day as cooler weather and clouds moved in, so the views were outstanding. I took some video but was having too much fun to stop for photos.
Off The Top starts out on trails through the sandy scree (kitty litter, really) and a few small rock gardens, then enters the forest. The forested section was really fun with a lot of cool drop-offs and hits over tree roots and larger rocks. Eventually, the trail branches into some expert runs, which we decided to check out. They were more technical, closer to some of what we ride at Annadel, with a few exceptions! There were some constructed wood features with decent-sized jumps, drops, and step-downs that pretty much had to be sent. Matteo was first, and properly sent everything, I followed. His assessment was “holy crap!” Mine was more or less the same, except he was a little freaked out after the fact; I wanted to go again! We had never really ridden any features like that and he was content to keep his bike mostly on the ground, so we sought out other trails, at one point riding all the way down to the village for lunch. We rode over 25 miles and would have done a second day if we had the time. It’s going to have to wait until next summer. We’ll be back!
Mt. Morgan (13,760 ft) was waiting for us on day 3. We fished in the morning for a bit, but I wanted to get moving by 8:00 am. The trailhead started at Rock Creek Lake. We passed by a family who was camped near the trail and said good morning to them; they looked curious about our running vests, sun hats, and other attire.
The trail starts as a fire road, then single track which climbs up steeply the forest for a mile or so. We followed signs leading us toward Tamarack Lake and then Francis Lake, where the trail would end.
That part of the day was easy, and we ran a little of the trail. There’s no cumulative effect of spending time at elevation over the years, however, there is a familiarity that some people develop with the feeling of it. It’s a lot like getting familiar with how it feels to run long distances; you just get used to it. This helps with keeping comfortable, and I feel pretty comfortable running at elevations up to 11,000 feet now. It slows me down but otherwise doesn’t bother me too much as long as I don’t redline my heart rate — that’s easier said than done, of course, so all of the practice helps.
We stopped at Francis Lake to filter water, filling our bottles. We also carried up an extra 3/4 liter each for the summit attack, which we ended up needing.
I may have made the effort more difficult than necessary by believing that I knew enough between reading Secor’s (and others’) description of the mountain, and trusting that I would find “the way” to the peak. It turned out, the area is fairly large and ambiguous. We scrambled from the lake up a loose scree slope to a bench, which was easy walking. Our mistake was gaining the ridge (north of the peak) from there too soon. The views from the ridge were great, however, the talus was really big up there and it turned into a lot of climbing. We noticed a more plausible route about a hundred or two feet below the ridge that was defined by some sand between more manageable rocks. We reluctantly descended and followed it, which worked much better. The elevation (above 12,000 ft) was starting to get to Matteo by this time.
The slope gets steeper leading to the North face of the mountain. Once we got onto the face, it was easier, and we eventually (slowly) progressed to the summit. Matteo was super pumped that he persevered. He was determined to find the summit register. After taking a look at the view and the steep drop off down the south face, he crouched down next to a small ledge — and there was the summit register! It was stashed in an ammo box near the USGS marker and tucked under the ledge.
We read the oldest (2017) and most recent entries, then, he thumbed through looking for other youngsters who had reached the peak. The youngest we saw was 19, so for the last four years, he’s one of, if not the youngest person (13) to summit, which he was jazzed about. He wanted to scree surf down the Southwest face, toward the lakes basin, but I wasn’t so sure what we would find there beyond the range of sight. Supposedly, it’s doable and fun. It looked like it, but it was still an unknown and it was late in the day. I wanted to stick with what we knew.
We signed the register then starting heading down. It was getting late in the afternoon and the clouds were becoming dark grey. Picking our way down the rock was a little sketchy until we got to the bench below the North face. It started raining lightly on our backs as we made the easy walk along the bench. We scree surfed down the slope above Lake Francis, so he got his wish and I was happy we were out of any danger from possible thunderstorms.
On the way down, Matteo, “Eagle Eye,” spotted a couple of interesting things. The first was some fungus pushing up through the pine needles not far from the lake. This was around 11,000 feet and I have never seen fungus that high up! The fungi were boletes of some sort (most likely edible). The other find was a big, ugly bug that looked like a cross between a cricket, locust, and potato bug. It was fatter than my thumb. My Seek app said it was a Mormon Crickett. It was creepy. He noted it along with other “weird insects” he saw at the campground, near the bathroom at night. Good stuff to spark the imagination.
We arrived back at the trailhead just before 6:00 pm, having been out almost 10 hours and having hiked 13 miles. The family we saw in the morning was surprised to see us come in so late and wanted to know what we’d been up to. Matteo was proud of his summit effort and I was proud of him. This trip was packed with fun and was one of the best I have done. Seeing my son enjoy the same things I do feels good. It all started for me in the same way. -JD
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” ~ John Muir