Trip Report: Laurel Mountain
This is a classic sierra scramble up a stunning peak. It’s different than many of the backcountry climbs for a few different reasons. For one, it’s not really backcountry- you are less than an hour from your car and the route starts barely off the trail. The route itself is mostly slab climbing/walking up a large face for thousands of feet, and the much of the rock is limestone and shale. This feels different than the granite ridge climbing often experienced in the high sierra.
The trailhead is at Convict Lake just shy of Mammoth Lakes Airport. Park on the far south side of the lake as close to the end of the road as possible. You honestly can start on either side, but I prefer hiking this side of the lake as it’s shorter and shadier. Hike the trail around the lake until you reach the main trail into the canyon. From this direction your first left will be a packer’s trail and the second left the main trail. Once on the main trail there will be a few switch backs as you work your way towards Laurel Mt. Your objective will be in front of you throughout so it’s hard to get lost. Wait until you hit the obvious washed out zone of lighter talus before leaving the main trail and heading to the base of Laurel Mt.
We encountered snow in the base of the route but opted to still climb the snow and around it rather than exit into the loose unstable slopes up and right. I do think the slab climbing was made a bit more difficult due to the snow. Though nothing was harder than low 5th class. The main issue with the snow was that it lasted way longer than we expected and made the bottom half of the route wet. Even on the upper end of the route we encountered seeping water. All of which was pretty easy to climb around but occasionally moved you away from the more preferred and protected climbing.
Navigating up this huge gully/slope looks easy but feels a bit weird once you are in it. So here are a few pointers:
- Try to take the main gully up.
- At the first ‘Y’ most people take the right-hand gully. I tried the left this time- and it was also good climbing, though I didn’t take it all the way to the red band. We switched back over below the main red band of rock that streaks over this full face.
- Once you hit the red band you will want to generally trend left. Still following what feels like the main gully.
- At the classic red dike you have the option to climb left or follow the fun red rock up.
- Shortly after this small red dike of rock and a bit more slab climbing you will enter into lower angle broken rock. From here there are many options to the top. All of them feel like a slog.
Both times I have climbed this I descended the north ridge. It’s seemed the most logical and easy. I’ve walked the ridge down until I could descend the loose scree slope. Make sure you have passed all the large rock ribs indicating steeper terrain before turning right. The boot skiing was amazing and very rewarding. This brings you back almost to the exact location you stepped off the main trail.
If you want more details on descent options I highly suggest reading the Super Topo High Sierra. It goes into lots of details on these options to descend than the route itself.
I think this route offers an interesting dilemma when it comes to protection and gear. It’s touted as the first belayed route in the Sierra. Belaying techniques and gear have changed a lot since then. Most people don’t tend to be that comfortable with the idea of body belays. Essentially the nature of the slabby rock makes finding placements for gear few and far between. I do think there’s options to place gear for some hard section but not all.
I think that the way the first ascensionist likely belayed (body belayed) would be the best option if using a rope. Body belaying and short roping are both very valid rope techniques. However, they ARE NOT BEGINNER rope techniques. To do them well is very advanced rope work.
So, for the average climber I suggest the following options to mitigating your risk on the route.
- Have a solid climbing background
- Only choose to climb up things you can also down climb (this is a must if you are climbing without a rope- the most common way nowadays)
- Consider a rope and small rack, but still follow the first two rules. Don’t expect that you can protect everywhere you want
- Still wear helmets- there’s loose rock above and wind and animal generated rockfall.
Start early so you aren’t time crunched
Here’s a little video summary of the trip in under 4 minutes.