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.


Joan said...

Thanks for the trip report! :)
Glad you guys reached your goal safely and had a fine time exploring.

Sam Page said...

Thanks Joan! It was nice meeting you on Monday. Maybe next time you can join us!

Ash Gambhir said...

thanks guys , do you have any GPS coordinates on where some of the land marks for this are located?

Sam Page said...

Sorry, but I don't have any GPS coordinates for that one.