After a successful ascent of Mt Tom last Saturday I decided that I’d follow up with an ascent of Mt Morgan South the following day. The two near 14ers bookend Pine Creek Canyon and I was aware of Mt Morgan South since climbing its all-too-near neighbor, Mt Morgan North. Mt Morgan (South) is a picturesque peak between Rock Creek and Pine Creek which I’d heard described as a fairly annoying talus slog and therefore seemed like an obvious candidate to ski.
Heading out of the Pleasant Valley Pit, as the day before, took much longer than expected and by the time I started hiking from the Rock Creek SnoPark it was well past 9:30, leaving too little time to summit before the snow turned to slush (or before the high winds which heralded an approaching storm). Instead I took the opportunity to scope out the region for a return trip. I saw lots of interesting ski descents to be had, including some couloirs down the north side of The Bupkin and the Wheeler Crest. I also figured out that the still-buried road between Rock Creek Lake and the SnoPark was the fastest way up and down the drainage.
You can therefore imagine my disappointment when I arrived at the Rock Creek SnoPark to find that the road had been plowed, but was still gated. I started skinning up the shoulder of the road around 8 am, expecting that it would only be plowed another hundred feet or so, but soon realized that it was plowed much further. Had I known that the road would be plowed all the way to Rock Creek Lake, I would have turned around and worn my trailrunners. Unfortunately, I could not predict this so I hiked all three miles up the road in my ski boots.
Even my touring boots which are made for hiking are less optimal than trailrunners, but it was pleasant to be able to more than double my uphill speed on skins (on skins, you cannot step onto your heel, so each step is closer to a half step). As long as I could forget my woe in not being able to speedily descend the road on the return trip, I was able to enjoy hiking up the road on a beautiful spring day!
I arrived at Rock Creek Lake just after 9 am and spied Mt Morgan’s summit high above me. Although it looked quite close, I knew that there were still several miles of flat travel before I’d begin the climb in earnest. Several strips of snow rose from Rock Creek Canyon up Morgan’s west slope toward the summit and I entertained the idea of climbing one of these. I was fairly certain that such a route would be more direct, but I was interested in skiing a line off of the north face and wasn’t keen on skiing a technically challenging line blind.
I hiked to the east shore of Rock Creek Lake before heading uphill and starting the traverse into Francis Canyon. The next two miles involved a frustrating compromise between excessive contouring around ridges and excessive elevation gain and loss. I tried to stay low to minimize both, but eventually met up with a summer trail which seemed to cross several possibly large creeks at intelligent locations and decided to follow it for a while. As it turns out, both creeks were completely buried and I probably wasted a decent amount of climbing along this traverse. Eventually I found a tree-free slope which appeared to climb in the correct direction and I descended to join it, following it up into the canyon north of Mt Morgan.
The canyon floor was wide and rose gently toward Mt Morgan but I finally had the impression that I was making progress toward the peak. After 3 hours and 6 miles, I still had more than 3,000 ft to climb and I was antsy to get started. The snow lining the convex walls of the canyon, however, seemed to focus all of the rays of the sun directly towards me and before I could go much further, I stopped for some lunch and some sunscreen at Francis Lake.
The climb towards the summit continued more deliberately with the goal in sight but was still frustratingly flat. On the ground to my right, I spied a hole in the snow and suspected that it was from a rock being heated in the sun and pushing its way through the snowpack. There was no logical place for a rock to fall from though, so I took a closer look and saw that the hole was several feet deep. I noticed an abundance of animal tracks around the hole as well as two nearby adjacent holes and realized that some subterranean or subnivean animal must have excavated its burrow to prepare for spring!
After hiking two miles up the canyon, I finally had a clear view of the Francis Gullies which I intended to ski! The gullies were beautiful and steep and I took a careful look, trying to decide which line I wanted to ski. Most of the gullies to the right looked to have fairly wind scoured (and even bare) entrances. Towards the center, most gullies looked skiable top to bottom, but several appeared to have some weird wind slabs in the entrance. I decided that I’d ski one of the gullies furthest left and made mental note of a few landmarks. I’d probably need to do some small rock-hopping to make it into the gully, but it seemed well worth the effort!
The terrain at the bottom of the gullies was filled with small, complex moraines and it was hard to judge which way was uphill. It looked like it might not be possible to ski out of the gullies without some small amount of uphill hiking. I did my best to note a decent path out, but didn’t put too much stock in my assessment. I climbed toward the snow patch right of the gullies with minimal rock hopping.
Once on the snow along Morgan’s west ridge, the climbing was direct and quick. I met with the top of the ridge around 12,500 ft (still more than 1,000 ft from the summit) and had my first view back towards Rock Creek Lake. To the southwest, the towering ridge composed of Bear Creek Spire and Mts Dade, Abbot, and Mills was very impressive.
I strapped my skis to my pack for the next section of climbing which presented sturdy talus and little snow, but soon transitioned back to skinning towards the summit. I was happily surprised by how easy the climb was and soon found myself just below the summit. I stashed my skis in a safe location, leaving the skins on to dry in the sun before hiking the remaining 100 ft to the summit, again on some fun class 2 rock.
I arrived atop Mt Morgan at 2 pm. From the summit, the views of the Rock Creek and Pine Creek drainages were striking and all the usual suspects were visible on the horizon. Mt Tom was satisfyingly close, especially considering I’d stood on its summit so recently!
I was also surprised and delighted to see yet another stunning granite wall high up in Pine Creek Canyon (very similar to the one I’d spied from Mt Tom)! The geologic feature must run the whole way up the canyon!
I signed the register before hiking back to my skis and beginning the descent toward the Francis Gullies. I was a bit dismayed to find that the heat and sun had combined to bake my skin glue onto the base of my skis. I spent a minute scraping off as much of the glue as I could, knowing that I had a nearly flat journey back to the car after leaving the canyon. I headed towards the gullies, but based on the landmarks I remembered it seemed like I would have to do a decent amount of sidestepping to make it to the chute I’d had my eyes set on. I also knew that chute below me had looked decent, so I decided to settle for a second choice.
First choice or second, the skiing was delightful. The slope was not as steep nor the snow as deep as I’d found the previous day in the Bloody Couloir, but perhaps it was all the more enjoyable!
I would have loved to ski some more laps in the gullies, but I still had a long and mostly flat return to the car so I started out of the canyon, elated to find that very minimal side stepping was required to bypass the numerous moraines. I was surprised to find that Francis Lake had melted appreciably between my visits and now looked the color of a ripe bruise.
I skied out of Francis Canyon and started the barely-downhill journey back to Rock Creek Canyon. The terrain was soon flat enough that skating wasn’t feasible and I opted to release my heels and continue in hiking mode without skins. This was well and good until I encountered a downhill pitch above Kenneth Lake and realized that, despite my (limited) Telemark experience, making downhill turns with free heels on alpine touring gear does not exactly work. After a small crash and recovery, I continued hiking across the lake, wondering if someone might come across my track and what they might think.
I continued toward Rock Creek Canyon on mostly flat ground, finding a snowmobile track headed in the right direction and followed it, grateful for the compacted snow which made skating easier.
Since I knew the road was plowed and wouldn’t afford easy return, I decided to stay as high as possible on the east side of the canyon, hoping that I’d be able to find a mostly downhill route. For a while it looked like this might be the case, passing through lovely old growth juniper forest, but soon the chaparral grew dense and thwarted easy traversing. Rather than fight the scrub oak, I descended to the valley floor, hoping that I might find another easy snowmobile track to follow.
Rather than a snowmobile track, I found some recent nordic ski tracks and was glad for them — these tracks surely originated and ended at the SnoPark and should therefore lead me back to my car. Instead, they took several confusing turns before crossing a snow bridge along Rock Creek. I soon found however, that it hadn’t crossed the entirety of Rock Creek, rather just one of several braids. The track made a circle before heading back towards the bridge I’d just crossed.
I wasn’t keen to backtrack so close to the car and the creek seemed to be only 4 inches deep at the deepest so, skis and all, I waded across the creek. After a while I came to several more small snow bridges which I chanced crossing without great misfortune, returning to my car around 4:30 pm.
As usual I laid out my gear to dry in the sun and enjoyed a slow lunch. While I ate, several cars came and went, most of them seeming disappointed that the road dead ended without much to do. One car stopped and a family unloaded. The driver came over to me and with great enthusiasm asked me about my day. He seemed to understand the basics of backcountry skiing and asked me where I skied and after I pointed out Mt Morgan, asked if I found any “untracked snow.” I laughed and told him that even if there were a lift which serviced that area, I could have spent all day skiing the gullies without once touching another track! Truly a magnificent day of skiing!
- Snow line below 8,500 ft
- Normal spring conditions
- No new snow
- Well consolidated snow pack
- Firm in morning
- Softening with solar exposure and rising temps
- Soft, unconsolidated shin deep snow in the Francis Gullies
- Small isolated 1-2″ wind slabs in exposed areas above 12,500 ft
- Large (6-12″ thick, 1-3′ overhanging) cornices on SE side of summit ridge
Elevation Gain: 5,200 ft