Date: 7 May 2020
Objective: North Couloir Mount Morrison, Lost River Range
I first laid eyes on this line in April of 2014 on my first attempt at skiing Mount Borah. Mount Morrison rises south of Chicken Out Ridge and is a proper looking line: true north, direct fall line, about 2500 feet. Dutifully, I took a picture, logged it, and vowed to return again to ski the damn thing.
Needless to say, I finally got around to it last week. The route was relatively familiar to me, for better or for worse. It’s nice to know an approach and the general heading; it’s less fortunate to know that it’s a heinous slog through a narrow creek bottom replete with deadfall, rotten snow, loose rock. Ah well. At least I knew. For the uninitiated, this is what approach sadness looks like:
This was my third journey up Cedar Creek this year (not to be confused with Lone Cedar Creek, Upper Cedar Creek or Lower Cedar Creek, all of which are drainages on the west side of the LRR). The first adventure resulted in skiing the south face of Sacagewea Peak (11936’), the second voyage ended abruptly due to extreme winds and limited visibility. Being that (1), I was rolling solo, and (2) there’s a pandemic, I only had one strike remaining for the entire affair to justify a turn-around. I chose weather conditions erring on the side of safety, meaning I wasn’t aiming for a full late afternoon corn harvest, opting instead to ski the top half of the run on firm snow rather than risk wet slide hazard. Enough backstory. Let’s get to the meat and potatoes of this thing.
With luck, the approach will take around 2 hours. Having done this before, I at least had minimal decisions to make in this department. Detailed instructions are at the bottom. Everything went according to plan this time, meaning that yelling nonsensical profanities, happiness, slipping, snagging my skis on trees, absolute frustration, wallowing through isothermic snow, and casual ambulation all happened at various times in distinct proportions during the following two hour period. I vaguely recall yelling “Are you having fun yet?!” at some point.
I ate lunch at the bottom of the line, swapped muck boots for ski boots, and dumped all my unnecessary gear. It’s hard to describe bootpacking to people who haven’t ever done it. It’s like walking but worse. My goal is to get in the rhythm, a kind of flow state, where I keep my head down and let my mind wander freely while persistently making my way uphill. If I can hit this pace, things are golden and the bootpack flies by. Needless to say, I counted every step on this bootpack in Spanish.
There are two types of people in the world: those who can infer information from incomplete data sets.
As I approached the summit block, I was pleasantly surprised to hear a slight ringing in my ears, not that tinnitus is ever a welcome thing. The wind was absolutely dead calm and silence reigned, other than my panting breath and the snow crunching beneath my soles. I stood on the summit for quite some time appreciating the rarity of the moment.
The descent was unremarkable in the fact that everything was somehow according to plan. The top third was firm, the pitch moderate; things softened up and mellowed out as the descent progressed. By the bottom, I was carving giant turns through the natural groomer of the freeze/thaw cycle and airing small rocks.
Actual Approach Directions:
I tried three different ascent options this year: high side north of the creek (side hilling through gravel/chaparral), near the creek bottom (lots of slow crossings, some snow) and high side south side of the creek (best choice, mostly just sidehilling!). Here’s the skinny.
Ascend the ridge south of the creek to the 1983 earthquake fault line (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1983_Borah_Peak_earthquake) and then contour around to climber’s left. If there is no snow, there is a faint trail starting high in the chaparral that is an absolute godsend. Follow that. The trail will continue uphill through the pines, slowly angling up until it reaches the bottom of the first scree field, a relatively flat area. From the top of the flats, downclimb below the next big rock/cliff and continue upstream on the south side of the creek. If there is no snow, the trail becomes far more evident through this next section. If there is snow, good luck. Remain on the south side of the creek to the ice bulge/climbing area (picture below). I don’t know who is developing this area, but it’s bolted, there’s some gear cached in a 5 gallon bucket, and I thank them for keeping the summer trail maintained. As soon as the ice prohibits casual travel (as though any of this is casual), cross the creek and begin Phase 2: Deadfall Boogaloo. Dodge, duck, dive, dip and dodge through the deadwood, again parallelling the stream but now on the north side of the creek. There’s really not much more to say. It’s about another mile until things open up. For entertainment, I like to play the game ‘Age or Avalanche’ to try and guess the demise of the trees. There’s at least one inconvenient pile of trees from a big slide.