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Trip Report: Mt Morgan South

Last Saturday, I attempted my first ski tour along the Eastern Sierra. I say "attempted" because while we didn't summit, it was a fantastic day and learning experience.

Mt Morgan South lies up Rock Creek Canyon, near Tom's Place between Mammoth and Bishop. Our party of five set out to ski the Francis Gullies, a route that the guidebook lists as a 6 mile approach with 4,400 feet of vertical gain.

Logistically, the hardest part of the trip was determining a start time. The forecast projected temps in the high 20's the night before with highs at the summit only in the low 30's. None of our party had been up Rock Creek or had much knowledge of conditions, so our best guess was that the freeze-thaw would put corn o'clock somewhere between 11:00 AM and 1:00 PM. Estimating 5 hours for skinning, we decided to hit the trail at 6:30 AM.


Unfortunately, big groups tend to travel slower, and our 6:30 start time actually became more like 7:15/7:30. On top of this, the trailhead was far warmer than forecasted (I could tell because my toes were hardly cold in my sandals). The gate was down at the Sno-Park, so we set off in shoes with our skis on our backs.


A mile in, one member of our group had a minor gear crisis when she feared she had left her skins back at the cars. Packs were dropped and she ran back to the car to check, only to realize that her skins had been in her pack all along. At that point, we were probably two hours behind schedule and I knew the summit was not going to happen.

We skinned up the road, which was flat but suncupped. Arriving at Rock Creek Lake, we skirted around the North side of the lake before beginning to ascend up toward Kenneth Lake. It was mid-morning and hot already, with the snow starting to get sticky.


Deep snowpack for mid-May!


The view from Rock Creek Lake. Mt Morgan South is in the sun, dead center.

One thing I always have to keep in mind when skinning is patience. Progress is always slower on snow than trail, probably due to fact that every step on skis is effectively half that of hiking. Overall, our skin track was great, but in an effort to make up time we contoured up toward Francis Lake earlier than we probably should have. This led to some slow kick turns and wasted energy. In fact, the snow around 10,600' was already turning to slush, making it hard to hold a footing as we side stepped. Type 2 fun indeed!


Fortunately, once above the small band above Kenneth Lake, travel gets much easier. Snow coverage was great and we made quick work heading toward Peak 12,352 and the base of the Francis Gullies. The guidebook says the gullies are only 35 degrees, but from the distance they looked quite vertical to me! I was nervous about skiing something that challenging and remote, but today I wouldn't have to. Given the degrading snow quality, we had made the decision to turn around no later than noon. Instead of continuing, we adjusted plans and worked up toward the ridge and Peak 11,950, which I arrived at right at 12:00.


Mt Morgan South towering in the distance, with the Francis Gullies clearly in between.


Letting our skins dry a bit in the sun, I enjoyed the view across the valley toward Mount Starr, as well as South toward Mount Mills, Abbot, Dade, and even Bear Creek Spire poking out. We ate lunch on some rocks before transitioning to ski the northeast side of the ridge back to the car.


Shortly into our descent, we hit another snaffu: a member of our party lost a ski, which proceeded to slide hundreds of feet down a gully. Fortunately, his pride was the only thing injured. It took time, but I will say that he did an impressive job mono-skiing down to his lost plank. From there, we cruised back to the road and ski-skated down to where the plowing stopped due to down trees and avalanche debris over the road.

As a cherry on the top, another member of our group had his ski slide off the road and into the Rock Creek drainage when transitioning back to shoes. I didn't see the incident, but it took close to an hour to find this second missing ski, which put us back to the car around 3:30.

Despite all the setbacks, the day was a huge success. We skinned and skied over 12 miles in the Eastern Sierra, by far the longest and most strenuous tour I'd ever attempted. My body, gear, and nutrition held up great. Our decision to set a turnaround time had been a smart one, and there was still plenty of fun to be had skiing our way back down.