Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Galena Gauntlet

The Galena Gauntlet is in red.  Galena Peak is on the left.

On February 15, Miguel Forjan, Jeff Scofield, and I had an exhilarating outing in the San Bernardino Mountains. We climbed a couloir for nearly 2000 vertical feet on the north side of Yucaipa Ridge, and then traversed the south side to Galena Peak. We were on snow the entire day.

The idea to climb the route was hatched two weeks prior when, from the CPR route on Dobbs Peak, I spotted a continuous couloir snaking from Mill Creek Canyon to Yucaipa Ridge. Intrigued, I suggested to a few Facebook friends that we give it a shot.

At 5:45 AM on Monday, I picked up Miguel at a gas station in Riverside. Though I had never met Miguel in person, his impressive mountaineering reputation preceded him. Jeff, who I had climbed with once before, greeted us bare-chested at the wintry Vivian Creek parking lot at 6:30 AM. Somehow that seemed like an auspicious start. A little before 7:00 AM, we began crunching our way over consolidated snow up Mill Creek Canyon. Roughly two miles later, our intended couloir came into view. Much pointing, squinting, and nodding ensued.

The Galena Gauntlet as seen from Mill Creek Canyon.

As we approached the couloir, we lost sight of it in the woods and Miguel and I disagreed about which way to go. Having studied photos and satellite imagery, I insisted the couloir was to the right, bolstering my case with repeated mention of my research. Unimpressed with what he could not see – namely the photos and satellite imagery I had studied – Miguel insisted the couloir was to the left, pointing out various topographical features to bolster his case. As Miguel pointed to a lone tree atop the jumble of buttresses and ridges, it dawned on me that Miguel was correct. That tree, which sits atop the couloir, thereafter became known as "Forjan's Tree".

Miguel's routefinding judgment was confirmed a little while later when we rounded a corner and looked up at the most obvious feature of the couloir: a narrow constriction bounded by vertical rock walls. Miguel considerately offered to call it "Sam's Gate", but I think a more evocative name is "The Gauntlet". The American Heritage Dictionary has two definitions for "gauntlet" that seem appropriate. One definition is "a severe trial; ordeal". The second definition is "two lines of men facing each other and armed with sticks or other weapons with which they beat a person forced to run between them."

The Gauntlet

Climbing from the first on-route sighting of the gauntlet to the gauntlet itself involved several hundred vertical feet of 30-40 degree snow of varying consolidation. Standing just below the gauntlet was intimidating for three reasons. First, there was the sound and occasional sting of the ice crystals whizzing through it. Second, there was the vast cone of avalanche debris below it. Third, there was the realization that anything falling from above will pass through it. This seemed like a good place to don my helmet. Considering the steepening terrain above, it also seemed like a good place to swap trekking poles for an ice axe. Crampons, however, remained in the pack.

With helmeted head down and ice axe in hand, I began running the gauntlet. Just past the gauntlet, my progress was slowed by bare ice under several inches of unconsolidated snow. Without crampons, I was forced to laboriously sink the ice axe shaft to the hilt every few steps. On the few occasions that both feet skated out from under me, the solid self-belays prevented an unwelcome slide back through the gauntlet. After about 100 tiring feet of this, I finally emerged into consolidated snow and climbed a few hundred vertical feet to where Miguel and Jeff were waiting.

Miguel Forjan climbing toward his namesake tree atop the couloir.


Video from near the top of the couloir.

With only a few hundred more vertical feet to Forjan's Tree at the top of the couloir, we considered donning crampons, but decided not to because of the soft snow. That turned out to be a bad decision. Within about 50 vertical feet of the top, conditions again turned icy. While Miguel struggled with the ice in the final stretch, I opted to climb a steeper and longer chute on the left. Though the snow in that chute was consolidated and not icy, the chute involved the steepest climbing of the day – probably 50+ degrees – with serious exposure just off to the left. The final few feet of the chute steepened even more, causing a few pangs of fear which were suppressed by the knowledge that the snow was exceptionally firm. I was relieved to mantle onto the crest of the ridge and delighted to see that Miguel was nestled under his namesake tree. However, I didn't relax until Jeff, who had followed my steps, also heaved himself onto the ridge crest.

Jeff Scofield near the top of the final chute.

Our plan was to traverse the south side of Yucaipa Ridge to the summit of Galena Peak. Unfortunately, the ridge was steep and convoluted on the south side (and much more so on the north side). Noises were made about descending what we had just come up. I was not eager to do that. After a relaxing break, Miguel traversed the south side of the ridge for about 100 feet, thought better of it, and then began ascending the crest of the ridge toward a precipitous, rocky peak. While Miguel was scrambling up the ridge toward Peak 9164, I took a long look at the traverse on the south side and saw what looked like a potentially feasible route to a saddle below a vertical rock buttress. Beyond that, the terrain was not visible. As I was slowly picking my way across some moderately steep chutes, Jeff yelled something like, "Wow, Miguel's rock climbing. I'm not doing that!" Nervous about what I would see on the other side of the saddle, and now baking in the southern exposure, I crept along. The final 20 feet to the saddle were steep. Peering over the top, I was happy to see a forested hillside.

The precipitous northwest face of Galena Peak from just east of Peak 9164.

After traversing the hillside under the cliffs of Peak 9164 for about 200 feet, I climbed a snow slope for a few hundred vertical feet to the ridge crest. There I cautiously peered over the edge and saw steep snow and rock sweeping 2000 vertical feet down to Mill Creek Canyon. Ascending a few more feet to a subsidiary summit of Peak 9164, I was disappointed to see Galena Peak more than a quarter mile away, with a low saddle in between. I yelled the news down to Jeff and Miguel, who had wisely not followed me up to the ridge crest. While they traversed two hundred vertical feet below me, I began a descending traverse to the bottom of a large rock buttress below the aforementioned saddle. From there I labored up soft snow for about 20 minutes to the westernmost (and presumably highest) of Galena Peak's three summits (9324 feet). Before long, Miguel and Jeff appeared and we enjoyed the summit while remaining several feet from the edge of its precipitous northwest face.

Miguel on the summit ridge of Galena Peak.

Yucaipa Ridge as seen from Galena Peak.  Peak 9164 sports the steep, snowy face in the center of the photo.

Video from the summit of Galena Peak.

The descent was uneventful. We followed the normal route to Mill Creek Jumpoff, glissaded, and walked back to the cars on mostly consolidated snow. Now for the numbers. It took us about 7 hours to get to the summit of Galena Peak and under 10 hours round trip. Though the elevation gain from the parking lot to Galena Peak is 3300 feet, with all of the ups and downs on the Yucaipa Ridge traverse, we probably gained close to 4000 feet. Finally, there is the issue of the route's name. Casual internet searching yielded no information about the couloir we climbed. Thus, I propose the following name: The Galena Gauntlet.

The image above was copied from Google Maps and edited.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Tech Update

While the big three mountain ranges in southern California were blanketed under yet another foot of snow this week, I worked on improving my mountaineering-related cyber-skills.  First, I finally figured out how to capture and edit a map image.  Here is one such result:

Second, using the first skill, I created my first route page on SummitPost, for Falling Fir Ridge on Ontario Peak. 

And third, I began the process of "claiming" (or registering) this blog on Technorati, a website that reports on the blogosphere, ranks blogs, etc.  Technorati weeds out the technologically weak with a series of irritating hurdles.  It took me eight (8) attempts to sign up.  Most of the failures were the result of inadequate username proposals (though in most of those cases it was unclear what the problem was).  Anxiety was added to this series of failures by my three-year old daughter, who was pacing around frenetically while repeatedly asking me to play and threatening to pee in her pants.  After finally overcoming the sign-up hurdle, I was required to demonstrate proficiency with RSS and atom feeds, of which I had none.  After some research, I bashed through that hurdle and arrived at yet another, which requires putting BCYQ45PKTV56 here.  If you don't know what BCYQ45PKTV56 is, then you have no business being on the internet.  Just kidding.  But seriously, you really should look into BCYQ45PKTV56.  If BCYQ45PKTV56 works out, then The Mountaineering Review will soon be on Technorati's radar screen.

Considering that it was not long ago that I learned, by trial and error, how to answer my cell phone, I am proud of my modest cyber-accomplishments.  But this is child's play compared to what is happening at the Hiking Science Blog.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

CPR on Dobbs Peak

Several days after the mountains of southern California were blanketed under a few feet of snow, the Vivian Creek parking lot was finally plowed. Getting word of this, six of us decided to climb the West Ridge of Dobbs Peak.

Clouds enveloping the West Ridge of Dobbs Peak

At 10,459 feet, Dobbs Peak is overshadowed by its higher neighbors in the San Bernardino Mountains. It also has no maintained trail to its summit. But it does sport a long, well-defined, and easily accessible ridge on its western side. Having enjoyed the West Ridge when it was covered with consolidated spring snow, I thought it was worth trying in winter.

My alarm sounded at 3:00 AM on Sunday, January 31. Having been asleep for only four hours, I was disoriented and forgot why the alarm was ringing. Then I remembered. At 5:15 AM, I pulled into the Vivian Creek parking lot just as Bill Bryson was reading the last sentence of his engaging and hilarious audiobook In a Sunburned Country. The timing could not have been better. Things were looking up.
Galena Peak in the San Bernardino Mountains
After the five others arrived, two decisions were made. First, we would be taking the Vivian Creek Trail to the bottom of the West Ridge. There had been talk of climbing the steep slope due north of the parking lot, but in the dark it didn't look promising. I think that was a good decision. Second, we would be leaving the snowshoes behind, since the snow around the parking lot was frozen solid. That was a bad decision. Before starting up, I concluded my preparations as I normally do, with some quiet moments in the cold, dark outhouse. Centered and refreshed, I began plodding through the snow in pursuit of the others.

After crossing Mill Creek, we ascended uphill, lost the trail, and found ourselves climbing a steep gully. As rocks and other debris began rolling down, two members of our party decided to bail. That left four of us. While Norma, Patrick, and Zach continued up the loose gully, I veered right to avoid the rockfall. Before entering a steep, narrow couloir, I donned my helmet and swapped trekking poles for an ice axe. I then climbed about two hundred feet of solid, 45+ degree snow with a few sections of third class rock. Though I wished my crampons were on in the steep, hard snow, they would have seriously complicated the rock sections. I was relieved to reach the crest at the top of the couloir, but somewhat concerned to find a slope dropping steeply down on the other side. After traversing the slope for about two hundred feet, the angle lessened and I found myself in a flat drainage that I assumed was Vivian Creek. Within a few minutes, the three others popped over another crest and we were reunited.

Since we thought we were in the Vivian Creek drainage, we assumed the ridge to the west was the West Ridge of Dobbs Peak. But after postholing up to that ridge, we realized that Vivian Creek separated us from the West Ridge. Contemplating the terrain, and not wanting to lose too much elevation, we decided to make a descending traverse into Vivian Creek and then ascend a broad snow slope to the upper reaches of the West Ridge.

The CPR route on Dobbs Peak

After sinking to our knees all the way down to Vivian Creek, we were relieved to find a consolidated snowshoe track. While Norma, Zach, and I enjoyed the faster pace provided by the solid track, Patrick repeatedly plunged to his waist. We all agreed that Patrick was making a good decision when he decided to turn around. That left three of us.

At about 7,700 feet, we stood at the base of the broad drainage we had seen earlier. Here we left the trail and began plodding upward. The snow was in perfect condition. There was neither a breath of wind nor a cloud in the sky. It was almost too good to be true. Zach found a balloon and festively tied it to his pack. We were having fun.

Near the top of the CPR route

All good things come to an end. After a few hundred feet of elevation gain, it became very warm, the snow softened, and I began to wilt. Hours later, three bodies weary from sustained postholing flopped down at roughly 10,000 feet on the West Ridge. Though we were only about 500 vertical feet below the summit, the snow on the ridge was unconsolidated, which made for grueling progress. To make matters worse, the moist snow repeatedly caked all around my boots, making them very heavy.

Norma and Zach on the summit of Dobbs Peak

We finally arrived at the summit of Dobbs Peak at around 2:30, nearly nine hours after departing. We had ascended 4,500 vertical feet, much of it through unconsolidated snow. I was tired. Norma seemed rejuvenated. Zach had done more than his fair share of trail-breaking, but his balloon made him appear much more playful and energetic than he should have been.

Norma insisted that I take this picture of Zach, saying he looked cute.

Though we had hoped to continue to the summit of San Gorgonio, the late hour made that out of the question. So after having a snack which included peanut butter cups that Norma shared, we headed down.

Starting down the West Ridge of Dobbs Peak

Norma descending the West Ridge

It took 1.5 hours to descend 2,800 vertical feet to the trail, thanks to lots of glissading. During that time, we were enveloped in cool mist. From the trail, it took another 1.5 hours to reach the cars in the dark at 6:00 PM.

Hiking down the Vivian Creek Trail, I mentioned that I had never heard of anyone doing the route we had just done on Dobbs Peak. Though the West Ridge is a relatively popular route, our route ascended roughly 2,300 vertical feet between the Vivian Creek Trail and the West Ridge. To make a long story short, our route needed a name. Norma jokingly suggested the West Buttress, but I countered that associating our route with one on Denali would demean ours. Norma also jokingly suggested the Western Cwm, and though we all agreed that the word "cwm" has a lot going for it, we also realized that our route did not ascend a cwm. I facetiously suggested calling it the Cyrus-Page-Ryan route, which somehow sounded awfully presumptuous. But then, in a stroke of genius, Zach blurted out "CPR". And thus our route was named. CPR was fitting in several ways. The first way is obvious. Secondly, Norma and Zach both work in the medical field. Third, we were all close to needing CPR at various stages of our posthole marathon.

Jeff Scofield took this photo while we were climbing the CPR route on Dobbs Peak.