Laurel Mountain is a woman.
She is beautiful and broad, expansive in spirit and warm at heart. She is transparent at times, and elusive at others.
It was warm when I awoke at her base on Monday. I didn’t feel scared or jittery like I do some mornings before climbing, instead I felt welcomed. I felt like Laurel wanted me and John there, and that maybe she would allow us to climb her safely and smoothly.
John and I walked around Convict Lake, and started up the sage-covered hillside to gain her North Ridge. Halfway up the approach I said that I’d drink water when I gained the ridge. “Why not drink now?” John asked. “Because I run off incentives, John.” On the ridge we breaked for water. John laid out in the grass like he always does, letting his body sing an aura of complete belonging in the mountains— “the scree is my couch, and the sage is my pillow.”
We turned the music on for the ridge, dangling speakers from our packs to let the Beastie Boys push us up in elevation. Laurel let us climb her North Ridge steadily, enjoying stable, spiny lines and a mixture of rock from slick pumice to grippy granite. Her northern plateau offered us a vast view of Mammoth and the land northeast of town. The rock changed from white to red, and sometimes into zones of black rock covered with vibrant green and orange lichen. John and I were in the zone, working together like efficient climbing partners to discuss risks, but also choosing our individual routes based on the movements we sought to experience. There were snowy patches and bits of ice along the ridge, but Laurel always felt safe and warm to me.
We summited before lunch. John and I jammed to the Nelly songs he had on his iPod and celebrated the smoothness of our ascent. John ate a PB&J and I put down a brick of tempeh and an apple. We looked at the gaping saddle between Laurel and Bloody Mountain and discounted our plan to traverse over to Bloody and back. We also sussed out the ridge to the south, connecting Mount Morrison to the Baldwin Cirque, a line that has been calling both my and John’s names.
The obvious descent was to retrace our steps down the North ridge. But first we wanted to look down all the ski lines that weren’t in. We ran over to the Mendenhall Couloir, and then a little further to the granite hallways of the Pinner Couloir. Laurel had us enamored with her beauty, intrigued by the intricacies of adventures that she had to offer, and we felt comfortable. Comfortable enough to be lured in further.
What about descending down her South side? We hadn’t brought the map, any description of routes, or the Oh Shit Rope, but the scree slope we saw hanging below us was so golden, and the sun so warm on our bare arms, that it seemed feasible and appealing to complete a full traverse of the mountain.
I sat down to put on my gaiters. And I peed twice. John ran a bit west to put space between us on the scree, and we yelled back and forth a couple of times about if the couloir didn’t go— if the couple of hundred feet that we couldn’t see at the base of Laurel were actually a cliff. We both had enough food and water to re-climb the South couloir if it was absolutely necessary, and we would be fine on daylight and an alternate descent route, but we also both recognized the potential challenge of having to re-climb Laurel’s noble 4,000-foot prowess. We felt comfortable and confident. So we dove in.
The first thousand feet went quickly. The sliding scree sounded like a rainstick and lulled me and John in our descent. We climbed up on a rocky outcropping to gain a vantage point to decide when to drop into the couloir. There were obvious dark cliffs further west, so we knew we had to drop soon. We decided to drop right below the highest trees. I made the traverse onto a snow-covered ledge system and then into the flowy pile of loose tallus. John and I took turns traversing the chute and taking the fall line. There were times when the scree flowed for minutes over rocky drops and we stood there in silence, letting Laurel play as she wanted.
We descended for a long time in the couloir, longer than we had imagined it would be to the bottom. Despite the small amounts of progress we made toward the drainage that lay far below, we never gained an improved perspective on the bottom section of our line, we still didn’t know if it went through. “We’re all in John!” I exclaimed. We talked about how we had lots of options if it didn’t go. We could try right or left of the obvious line. “We got options, Maggie,” John repeated with a grin, even though it was obvious that we were at the whim of Laurel. My mantra that “the scree has to go somewhere” maintained my faith that Laurel would let us out, and despite the uncertainty, I still felt safe and warm within her rocky corridor.
The rock in the couloir sounded metallic. It was black and heavy, heavier than granite rocks of the same size would feel. As we neared the bottom of the chute, John and I started procrastinating. Yes, we wanted to know if Laurel would let us out where we had hoped she would, but we also weren’t ready to face the possibility of re-climbing the 4,000 feet back to her summit. John and I talked about rocks, about sound healers, we juggled the little rocks and sat on the big ones. We talked about Mount Morrison, whose behind we were staring directly at for the entire descent. But we didn’t talk about what was below us or even prospect about what was below us. In fact, we didn’t even walk directly to the line that we expected to be let free from. We traversed around the base of the couloir and looked at all of the cliffs that we wouldn’t be able to descend without the Oh Shit Rope. And then we saw that Laurel would let us into the line we hoped to be let free from, but we still couldn’t see if that line actually went through to the drainage.
I took the west side and John took the east side of the line. Laurel wound us around in her narrow couloir, leading us left and then right, giving us little fifth class downclimbs and thin patches of scree on slab to keep us alert. She was playing with us. She was being gentle, but she was having too much fun to let us go without a game.
And then we were out. John and I stood on a scree slope above the aspen-filled drainage. Morrison was standing tall above us, and I could see Convict Lake and a groomed trail leading to it.
John and I looked up to where we had been shot out of the mountain, and there was no sign of the couloir that we had descended from. The last twists and turns that Laurel had led us through allowed her to keep this passageway a secret. We walked out on the trail, trying to understand what had happened when we were inside the flanks of Laurel, trying to make sense of the adventure she had given us and the complete surrender we had given her.
That night at the hot spring, we floated in warmth below Laurel’s silhouette and joked about how we could be re-summitting her at that moment to descend the North Ridge. She had been good to us, she let us up and she gave us an adventure before she let us go.
About Our Contributor
Maggie Crawford lives in Santa Barbara, the Eastern Sierra, and everywhere in between. She spends her days climbing rocks, surfing waves, frolicking atop mountains, and running trails. Maggie is a UC Berkeley graduate who teaches writing, works as an outdoor educator, and serves as a committed scientist in the field of obesity and diabetes prevention. She is a Type I Diabetic herself, and enjoys pushing herself past improbable limits. Connect with Maggie and learn more about her adventures through her website, her Facebook, and her Instagram!