Perhaps the only dayhike that had been on my mind as long as Mt Brewer was an ascent of Mt Goddard, and nearing mid November, it seemed like I might finally realize my goal. Rafee, Daria, and I planned to start an early morning hike out of South Lake to the peak, but the sudden eruption of both the Camp and Woolsey fires resulted in both the east and west side of the Sierra being inundated with thick smoke and the hike was called off. I wasn’t terribly upset by this as I’d much rather do the hike with more than ten hours of sunlight and above-freezing temperatures.
Instead, Rafee and I opted to do a link up of Mts Morgan and Stanford. The two peaks are joined by a ridge and interestingly neither of them are uniquely named in the Sierra. Both peaks are overshadowed by other peaks to the south which are about 1,000 feet taller and they are therefore commonly referred to as Mt Morgan North and Mt Stanford North. Very strangely, Mt Morgan South is barely 8 miles south of Mt Morgan North — each peak is visible from the summit of the other!
Rafee and I met at the Hilton Lakes Trailhead at 6:30 and started up the trail in the frigid early morning light. It was so cold in fact that I opted to start hiking with my sweatpants. After half an hour of hiking through the naked aspen, the sun finally hit us and it was warm enough to take my pants off. I set them on a rock alongside the trail and placed a cairn atop them, hoping to dissuade any passing good samaritan from getting ideas about returning lost items. As it turned out, we didn’t encounter a soul all day, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we were the only hikers crazy enough to be on the trail so late in the season.
The trail climbed gently through pine forest and crested a ridge after about four miles providing us with our first view of the Mt Morgan which we’d be climbing. We continued along the trail down the north side of the ridge and turned up towards Hilton Creek Lakes, heading first for Mt Stanford. We came upon the first lake and were amused to find it completely frozen and frostily reflecting Patricia Peak above.
We continued along the trail to a second frozen lake and heard bizarre noises echoing off the cliffs. We realized the sounds to be the resounding cracking of lake ice in the morning sun and I was reminded of winter days spent skipping rocks on Lake Chautauqua. Along the shore where we stood, the trail happened to be littered with great skipping rocks (a rarity in the Sierra!) and Rafee and I spent a couple minutes lobbing rocks out onto the ice and reveling in the alien sounds produced.
The trail ended along the shore of this lake and we briefly picked up a use trail through the ankle deep heather before transcending the tree line.
A vast granite canyon rose up before us and we climbed along, more or less following the base of the cirque. I desperately wanted to climb up the west wall of the canyon to gain the ridge and avoid a few possibly loose talus slopes at the head of the canyon but Rafee was set on taking the more obvious route. However as we approached the head of the canyon we found an easy route up the slabs on the right. We later found that had we gained the ridge on the left we probably would have had some stiff class 4 climbing separating us from the summit!
Some unremarkable class 2 scrambling brought us to the summit of Mt Stanford around 10:30 am.
We had beaten the onset of smoke and the views in every direction were spectacular. Far below us to the south were the many lakes of Pioneer Basin, covered with a layer of early winter ice. Beyond them rose Bear Creek Spire, and Mts Dade, Abbot, and Mills. To the north, the stunning McGee Creek drainage crowned by Red and White Mountain and Red Slate Mountain.
To the northwest, The Minarets, Mt Ritter, and Banner Peak were visible, and to the south rose the massive summits of Mt Humphreys and Mt Darwin.
Northward, the ridge stretched towards our second objective for the day, Mt Morgan. There were three high points along the way but it was unclear whether we’d need to ascend each of them, or if we’d be able to contour around them and save some effort. We continued high along the ridge to the first high point which afforded us a great view down toward Mt Stanford. Below Stanford to the the west, a large talus field showed obvious signs of erosion and looked more like sand than the giant pile of car-sized rubble which it was.
We were able to traverse around the second high point along the east side of the ridge, although it was quite steep and we carefully calculated how close we could afford to approach the shear cliffs below. In all we ended up traversing the ridge for about two and a half miles, most of it being class two with some occasional class three moves. In general, staying along the top of the ridge was class three and sometimes became a quite exposed class four arete. These moves could always be avoided by downclimbing to one side or the other, but they were quite fun and we mostly stayed atop the ridge.
As we neared Mt Morgan we suddenly found a wide sandy ledge which obviously held snow through most of the year and had some strange markings on it from an earlier visitor. Neither Rafee nor I could make sense of the drawing so we continued up the talus on Mt Morgans broad south slope, reaching the summit around 2 pm.
The smoke had gradually filled in throughout the day to the west and I was glad that we’d opted to climb Mt Stanford first. The stellar views of other Sierra peaks we had in the morning were no longer quite as pristine. I scampered further along the ridge alone, toward another highpoint to gain a better view of Owens Valley.
I rejoined Rafee on the summit and we found a sandy gully on the east slope of Mt Morgan which looked like an easy route down to Davis Lake. The descent started slowly on loose talus but soon transitioned to the sort of granite gravel which makes for the best plunge stepping. I tried to keep within sight of Rafee, but couldn’t contain myself and eventually started running down the sandy slope, fully of glee!
Unfortunately the beautiful sand slope continued through the trees and I still couldn’t bring myself to stop so I soon lost contact with Rafee. I found a high spot on a ridge which was still had the barest spot of setting sunlight and sat down, emptying the gravel from my shoes and keeping an eye out for my companion. After a few minutes, I heard some noise and shouted for him, finding him only a few hundred feet south along the slope.
We descended the rest of the way to Davis Lake, traveling through dense aspen over the last couple hundred feet. I couldn’t help but be frustrated that I hadn’t come earlier in the year when they were in color!
We picked up a use trail along the shore of Davis lake and followed it counterclockwise past its inlet, taking one last glimpse 3,000 ft up towards the summit of Mt Morgan which we’d stood atop only an hour ago.
The trail crested the ridge we’d gained eight hours earlier and we began the gentle descent back toward the trailhead. The trail was nothing like I remembered however, and seemed to undulate constantly! Every time I thought “surely that was the last uphill section” the trail climbed another twenty feet, and every time I thought “surely we’ll see the road around this corner” there was yet another corner.
Rafee must be halfway to sainthood for tolerating the amount of complaining I did on the last four miles of the this hike! Eventually we came upon my sweatpants and we knew we really were approaching the road. The temperature had rapidly dropped and I quickly donned my pants before continuing in the dim twilight. It was probably dark enough to merit a headlamp, but now that the road was in sight I was reluctant to stop and pull mine out, so it was in near darkness that I arrived at the cars, slightly ahead of Rafee.
We quickly made dinner plans in Bishop and hit the road.
Elevation Gain: 5,900 ft