The 3500ft Birthday Scramble in my Backyard: Laurel Peak

A Red River halfway up Laurel Peak

Laurel Peak and Mt. Morrison are some of the most dramatic peaks one can see from the Eastern Sierra Highway-395 while driving past Convict Lake. The area in the backcountry is enchanting and leads towards an iconic Lake Basin. For my birthday (June 25th, 2020), my adventure partner Sadie “Alpine Babe” Skiles and I decided finally check out this beautiful and unstable 3500 ft adventure climb up the Northeast Gully (5.2).

Uphill Canyoneering

To reach the start of the climb we headed about 1.5 miles down the trail, until we saw the tail end of the Northeast Gulley. Bushwhacking upward until we reached the rock-sea of Laurel. We brought harnesses, a few pieces and a glacial rope as our light weight backup incase we got into something unexpected. However, none of these are needed and I highly recommend not bringing them because they get heavy after this climb with more elevation gain than El Capitan.

Entering the gulley proper
Looking down the gully after a short while up the canyon.

So begins what feels like up-hill canyoneering. For the most fun, we stayed in the gulley proper to get more real climbing and the canyon feel. In this early-alpine-season (late June) there was a lot of loose rock resting where you are climbing. Likely these rocks were washed down the climb in the spring with snow melt and we were the first ones up for the season. This climb obviously gets little traffic.

Loose rock, loose rock, everywhere.

One of the best characteristics of this stage of the climb is the large Quartz veins seen running through the landscape.

These fantastic quartz extrusions

The 2019-2020 winter was a medium-snow year. There was just a trickle of water and one large snow tunnel in late June. These provided more fun aspects of the climb than any obstacles.

The snow tunnel

Into the Red Sea

After about the 1000 ft of lightly-colored pumice rock, we reach the start of the Red Sea. A lava river of red flows through our ocean of white. The red river visually elevated through millennia of erosion, winding like a river. These types of banding can only happen in one type of rock: Metamorphic.

Taking a hard left from the river for the Red Sea of rock provides the next brittle, rusty, 1000 ft section. This reminded me of the Cambrian Sandwich in Banff where mostly quality limestone bands were separated by very brittle loose shale. Luckily it wasn’t ‘as loose’ as shale. This section is the easiest place to get off track since there is also a nice looking gully to the right that is not the right way.

Topping Out In Thunder

After 2,500 ft, we left the Red Sea for a light gray granite rock feel. I am getting quite tired and the weather has rolled in. We hear thunder and are watching for lightning. I am remembering the really rough top out and descent on Brewer’s Buttress, which is the worst case scenario.

We advance through this last 1000 ft and try to escape right to top out sooner. As is often in the High Sierra, each ridge leads to another and the talk of being there in a half hour turns into 1-2 hours.

Looking 3000 ft down the mountain
Sadie climbing the upper section

A few hundred feet from the top we start to see lightning in the area. Luckily not yet overhead or on our ridge. The rock became beautiful bending sediment layers that I barely enjoyed since I was exhausted and wanted to get off.

Mind blowing, bending sediment layers

Descent Avoiding Hell

The descent instructions were a little confusing. They are clear to not go down the obvious and wide gully, but that also encouraged myself to go into gullies too soon. Other than the one ‘good’ gulley the others are extremely dangerous, loose, steep and ankle breaking.

I am very comfortable scree-skiing, however, here in the lower Eastern Sierra elevations the ground is composed of Bishop Tuff ash. It felt like post-holing through gravel. Unclear if your foot will delve 6-12 inches in or stay on the surface. If my foot plunged deep into the material then other rocks around could be pulled into and on top of my ankle.

More than once did a softball to watermelon rock roll painfully into my ankle. Alternatively, I could step onto a big rock only to have its instability try to roll onto my ankle attempting to break or sprain. It felt just under the instability of an Alaskan Rock Glacier.

The right gulley

In all, I thought the climb was much more exhausting than I expected. Probably because I brought too much equipment as normal since I am cautious in the alpine. It is truly an adventure climb that keeps going for hours of scrambling and thousands of feet. A great test piece for any endurance athlete with some climbing ability!