If I know only one thing, it’s that everything that I see
Of the world outside is so inconceivable often I barely can speak
Yeah I’m tongue-tied and dizzy and I can’t keep it to myself
What good is it to sing helplessness blues, why should I wait for anyone else?
And I know, I know you will keep me on the shelf
I’ll come back to you someday soon myself
–Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
The colors are what strike you first when you peer up at Laurel Mountain; a dazzling array of crimson red, slate, brilliant white and dark gray sit in neat horizontal patches like methodically placed paint brush strokes. At a height of 11,818 feet (3,602 m) Laurel Mountain creeps up above Convict Lake in the High Sierras. The mountain, like any other, is no laughing matter nor is it a walk in the park, but most people come here more for the adventure than for the technical difficulty. There is not a move above 5.2 and most of it is fourth class. However, the route, dubbed “Northeast Gully” asks the climber to contend with nearly 1 mile of vertical gain. Due to its low grade, most people, including us, free-solo this route.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this post is going to be more illustrative than text-heavy. The climb took us about four hours, but it is a very visual story more than anything.
Luckily, the approach to Mt. Laurel is not very long, it took us only 40 minutes – 1 hr to reach the base. Route-finding can be tricky but I did not find it too convoluted and I definitely am not a master route-finder. The entire approach is beautiful and you can’t help but keep your head up the entire time, tracing the route up through the red rock in your mind.
Emmanuel did the entire thing in his hiking shoes, but I put on my climbing shoes for the more technical stemming sections.
The neat thing about Mt. Laurel is that you really feel as if you are on a complete and total adventure, even though the car is only 3 miles away. Without a rope you can move on the rock unencumbered and fairly quickly as you feel privileged to be in the position in which you can behold a sea of red, green, white, black and gray rock unfold before you. My favorite part came near the top, when you follow a completely red streak of rock a good portion up the way. The memory of me dancing up this scarlet section of rock, a scar in its otherwise white surroundings, won’t ever leave me.
Now, the moment we have all been waiting for- a giant photo dump. Emmanuel was ahead of me the entire time so there are many shots of me peeking out of the rocks, some of which I find hilarious, others of which I may have rotated as my Facebook profile pictures now and again…
However, the real adventure came near the top. The forecast for that day said rain was unlikely, however some pretty gnarly clouds began to form and as we creeped closer and closer to the top we both got more and more nervous. As we hit a section of loose blocks, memories of me almost getting crushed to death on Crystal Crag flooded back and I found it difficult to rush. Still, under a mostly gray intimidating sky, we summitted. Nervously we celebrated and started to eat our lunch until we heard a few claps of thunder nearby.
To get off of Mt. Laurel you have two options. According to SuperTopo, one is not too difficult , but involes a long trek back to your car, and the other, which is much shorter, is a bit more dangerous and technically harder. We went for the first approach, considering the circumstances we thought it might be better to have to walk a few extra miles than being poured on in a very technical descent down loose rock.
So, we followed what seemed like a path in the pile of rock below the summit, trying to get down to the tucked away valley as quickly as possible. While getting down ASAP was my priority, I had to admit that watching the valley get showered on from a distance was one of the most awe-inspiring vistas I had ever taken in. From my (currently) dry state, it was quite a sight. I thought about stopping to snap a quick photo, but thought this may not be the most opportune life decision to make given the circumstances.
Thunder claps and a light drizzle reminded us we were not free of danger. Once we got down to the bottom we felt slightly safter, at least from getting hit by lightning, and stopped to consult the guide.
This descent was obviously not the one most frequently done and there is barely more than a few sentences about it in the guide. After looking at the map for awhile and debating our options, we found what seemed like a do-able descent down a steep slope littered with rocks. At first, I was intimidated but then Emmanuel demonstrated his “rock skating”- which is essentially just what it sounds like.. sliding down the rocks. Seriously, it is a lot easier than it sounds.
With my ankle bugging me a bit, it took me awhile to get down the slope, but I made it just fine and we were actually on an established trail. At this point, I elected that we sit under a tree and rest before we continued up the trail, which, according to the map, would link back with our approach trail. It was around a 6-8 mile hike back but at least we would be on an obvious path.
It began to rain harder and so we started on the trail. Neither of us had packed very warm clothing, but we were both okay; definitely uncomfortable, but secretly finding some sort of weird pleasure in the whole experience.
As we rounded the bend to what was supposed to be the rest of the trail, we were met by a wall of rocks up which a very narrow, very hard to see path seemed to navigate… until it didn’t anymore. At one point the trail just seemed to stop and, quite hilariously, there was a giant pile of snow there. It looked dangerous and sketchy. We argued for a minute about what to do and eventually decided to back track to a very rough road that we could hike on. It would take us to the 395, but miles away from our car. We figured we could hitch-hike back without an issue.
On our way ,we saw many cars who had driven this rather intensely shitty road to go fishing at some of the lakes nearby. Unfortunately, for awhile we didn’t see any actual people- just the metal, clunky evidence that they were around somewhere. Then, we saw it; a white jeep slowly making its way over the huge bumps in the road, headed toward the 395. Emmanuel ran over there and, to our luck, they were able to squeeze us in.
Immediately, though, as we started toward 395 I almost wish we had not taken the ride. I get car-sick, very, very quickly and the bumps in the road made this ride extremely uncomfortable for me. I basically sat there in agony for the 20-30 minutes it took us to get onto the highway and I’m still amazed I did not vomit.
Our new friends were two Russians who had moved to San Diego and were visiting Mammoth Lakes with their two sons. Emmanuel, trying to be friendly as I sat there green in the face and completely stoic, asked them were they were staying.
“We stay in very nice place by the lake. It has balcony, terrace, fireplace, kitchen, and they ask nothing, it is so cheap, $250.00 a night- nothing”
Emmanuel and I looked at each other and I felt his elbow hit my ribs- we had stayed in a $5.00 BLM camping the night before and hadn’t showered for quite some time. We were wet, smelled bad, and thought anything above $10.00 a night for camping was too much.
Ah, how the other half lives.
FINALLY- one bear sighting later- we reached my salvation, a good road. They were nice enough to drop us off back at our car.
As I stood outside, breathing the fresh-air, the weight of what we had done that day hit me.
With the colorful, vibrant face of Mt. Laurel just barely peeking out of the horizon, I got into the car stinky, sore, wet, tired and queasy; though I hadn’t felt this good in a long, long time.
On to something else…