Thursday, March 25, 2010

Baldy Bowl

I told my wife I could be back in the OC by around noon. Thus it was that my alarm sounded at 3:00 this morning. By 5:15 AM, I was walking toward the ski hut in pitch black, guided by my headlamp. Several other hikers started up a minute later, quickening my pace.

More than half of the way to the ski hut was on snow, which was hard and icy. Reaching the ski hut shortly after dawn, I put on my helmet, swapped trekking poles for an ice axe, and strapped on crampons. Anticipating hard, moderately steep snow, I brought my old steel crampons instead of my new, lighter aluminum crampons. Last week on Ontario Peak, the aluminum crampons performed poorly on icy, 40+ degree snow.

Looking up at my route.

Just as the sunlight was illuminating the crest of the bowl, I began crunching upward. It was immediately apparent how much more traction is provided by the steel crampons. My route zigzagged up to a chute terminating near the highpoint of the bowl. After a golfball-sized rock careened off my boot, I kept a wary eye on the cliffs above and forced a steady pace.

Looking down at the route behind my right shoulder.

Above the bowl, and especially on the summit, the wind was strong, relentless, and cold. Five minutes of stumbling around on the summit was followed by a hasty retreat to a warm patch of scree out of the wind. I checked the time: 8:55AM. There I unstrapped crampons and prepared for glissading.

Ontario Peak

The sun had yet to soften the snow, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I sat down and let myself slide. I glissaded for over 1000 vertical feet and learned a few things about glissading on 30-40 degree, hard, icy snow. First, it is strenuous. I had to dig the ice axe spike in forcefully to control the speed and had to flop over several times to self-arrest when the acceleration became worrying. Second, it decreases the lifespan of non-metallic equipment that is in constant contact with the snow. The bottoms of my technical wind/rain pants and backpack got severely scuffed. Third, it is painful. Impacting an immovable chunk of ice with ones butt or passing over a large, solid posthole at high speed hurts.

The descent from the ski hut was uneventful. In fact, it was so uneventful that I risked making it eventful. At around 7200 feet, I crossed a snow-filled couloir that dropped 800 vertical feet to the hairpin turn in the road. I could see the uppermost 300 feet of the couloir and the hairpin, but nothing in between. It could be a good shortcut. It could also funnel into a cliff or be filled with brush. I couldn't resist.

The shortcut couloir turned out to be a great decision. With the exception of 100 vertical feet of rock/scree/brush in the middle (including one spiky plant into which I threw my hand to catch a fall), the couloir was filled with delightfully consolidated snow and deposited me at the hairpin turn.

The shortcut couloir heading up to the right.

The numbers: ~4000 vertical feet, 5.5 hours round trip.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Ollestad Memorial Route on Ontario Peak

After climbing the right branch of "Ollestad Canyon" on Ontario Peak last week, Norman Ollestad remarked that the plane crashed in the left branch. This revelation, coupled with fantastic local snow conditions, compelled three of us to head up again five days later.

The Ollestad Memorial Route on Ontario Peak.  Photo by Miguel Forjan (March 5, 2010).

If the buckthorn that complicates access to Ollestad Canyon had eyes, it would have seen three headlamps approaching in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday, March 17. Those headlamps were strapped snugly around the heads of Dave Gillanders, Norma Ryan, and Sam Page (that's me). Inside two of those heads swirled memories of battling the buckthorn five days prior, along with the secret knowledge, won by trial and error, of how to avoid most of it.

After about two hours on loose scree (which involved ascending, traversing, descending, and more ascending) and a manageable amount of thrashing through brush, we plopped down for a rest. At this point, roughly 5800 feet, the slick, hard snow was unavoidable, so donning crampons seemed sensible.
While Norma and I were fiddling with our crampons, Dave unexpectedly announced, "I'm bailing." Dave had injured his calf on our climb two weeks ago, strained it further on our climb last week, couldn't resist coming on this climb, and was consequently suffering. After a prolonged silence, during which time I quietly contemplated how this news would impact my immediate future, a discussion ensued about the logistics of Dave's solo descent. The main points of discussion were loose scree (especially the descending, traversing, ascending, and descending thereof), Dave's civilian shoes and clothing (which were in Norma's car a mile east of the trailhead), and Dave's car (which was parked miles west of the trailhead). I offered Dave the key to my car, which was parked at the trailhead (though it's not really a trailhead, because there is no trail). Dave paused for a few moments and looked pensive. Then he exclaimed, "Fu(;k it", and all was well with the world again.

Were it not for Dave screaming words that rhyme with "shuck" and "fit" every fifteen minutes for the rest of the day, I would have blithely forgotten about his calf injury. Even so, it was easy to forget about Dave's persistent agony, because immediately after each profanity-laced outburst, he apologized so profusely that it felt as if we, not him, were the ones suffering. But enough about Dave's young cow . . .

With crampons under foot, we climbed hard, icy, 30-40 degree snow for about 800 vertical feet to the base of the central buttress that divides the left and right branches of Ollestad Canyon. During this stretch, my left crampon repeatedly loosened, especially when it was on the downhill foot. I stopped three times to tighten and re-adjust the crampon to no avail and began worrying about how it would fare on the anticipated 50 degree terrain above.

From the central buttress, we ascended the wide couloir on the left for another 800 vertical feet of hard, icy, 40 degree snow.

During this stretch, my heart raced as I panned around for signs of the plane crash, thinking it was nearby. About halfway up, a rock outcropping on the right caught my eye. It seemed to resemble aerial footage I had seen of the crash site. In a fit of enthusiasm, I began literally running up the slope, until it occurred to me that such shenanigans could themselves produce an accident. Gazing at snowy crags and gnarled trees, I imagined the young, battered Norman Ollestad picking his way down this very slope, with the pilot and his father dead above, and Sandra somewhere below after she slipped and plummeted out of sight. But alas, I could see no signs of the plane crash, and the reality of the long, icy slope reasserted itself.

Video of the left branch of "Ollestad Canyon".

At its top, the wide couloir narrowed into a finger of snow which extended 1000 vertical feet to lower-angled ground below the summit. The climbing in this long, final chute was the most exhilarating of the day. The chute became progressively narrower and icier, and eventually steepened to around 50 degrees. In the steepest, iciest section, I was no longer able to side-step and was forced to front-point. Here my aluminum crampons exhibited another disconcerting weakness: they tended to slide out from under me when I front-pointed. Norma had her own difficulties in this section, as she was unable to plunge the shaft of her ice axe through the ice for secure self-belays. An unarrested fall in this section could have led to a slide of over 2600 vertical feet.

Norma in the crux section.

Exiting from the shadows of the chute, we were struck by the hot rays of the sun, which made for a slow, sweaty plod to the summit.

After lounging around on top for close to an hour, during which time Norma had a rum and Coke (it was St. Patrick's Day after all), we began a series of glissades all the way down to Icehouse Canyon. I was pleased to descend the 500 vertical feet from Sugarloaf Saddle to Falling Rock Canyon in one continuous slide that took no more than 30 seconds. The bottom few hundred feet of Falling Rock Canyon had melted out considerably in the last five days, including several stretches of hazardous undermined snow.

All in all, we ascended about 4400 vertical feet, including 3000 vertical feet of continuous snow climbing. The ascent took 6 hours and the descent 2.5 hours. Now, compare all that with Baldy Bowl. Climbing Baldy Bowl entails under 4000 vertical feet of elevation gain, with only about 1800 vertical feet of continuous snow climbing from the ski hut. That said, whereas our route on Ontario Peak is bounded by trees, Baldy Bowl is mostly devoid of trees, which lends it more of an alpine, big mountain feel. And, of course, Baldy Bowl has something else going for it: a friendly road and trail leads from the parking lot to its base. But for those of us who prefer to get off the beaten path, opportunities still abound.

The Ollestad Memorial Route (yellow) shown on a GoogleEarth image.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Crazy for Ontario Peak (Ollestad Canyon)

Since reading Crazy for the Storm this past fall, I have wanted to climb the drainage on Ontario Peak that I think was the site of the storied plane crash. After surviving the crash, Norman Ollestad was forced to make a harrowing descent of the steep, icy drainage down which the only other survivor plummeted 2000 feet to her death. A recent photo of the snow-filled drainage rekindled my enthusiasm for the climb.

Our route on Ontario Peak.  Photo by Miguel Forjan (March 5, 2010).

Ontario Peak (8693 feet) is located in the San Gabriel Mountains of southern California, not far from the popular Mt. San Antonio (a.k.a. Mt. Baldy). The drainage I am talking about extends for over 3000 vertical feet on the northwest side of Ontario Peak between Cherry Canyon and Kerkhoff Canyon. I have never seen this drainage named on any map, so I'll tentatively call it Ollestad Canyon. To complicate matters further, a large rock buttress divides the canyon into two main branches that I will (again, tentatively) call the left and right branches of Ollestad Canyon.

The fact that I could find no information about climbing Ollestad Canyon made it more appealing. Another interesting fact is that access to the bottom of the canyon is blocked by private property and dense brush. I overcame the private property obstacle by asking for and receiving permission from the owners to cross their property. The owner's remarks about practically impenetrable buckthorn did not discourage me. I would just have to see that for myself. Patrick Moran was similarly intrigued, as was Dave Gillanders, who could not pass up the opportunity even though he was nursing an injury sustained on our last outing.

So it was that at 4:15AM this past Friday (March 12), I was driving toward the San Gabriel Mountains on roads I have come to know so well. After missing an exit and spending about ten minutes backtracking, I continued on my way asking introspective questions like, "Why am I such an idiot?"

At around 6:00AM, the three of us set off from a parking lot near Chapman Ranch. Within one minute we were in dense brush and retracing our steps. It was a small taste of what was to come. In order to preserve the pioneering spirit and adventurous froth of uncertainty involved in the approach to Ollestad Canyon, I will provide no specific details. But I will offer this photo of the approach, which should provide a vivid sense of what can be expected:

The approach to Ollestad Canyon.

After an approach of about two hours – an approach which entailed optimistically following game trails to dead-ends in thick brush, turning around, yelling "how is it over there?", scrambling up crumbly rock while thrashing through branches, cursing, turning around again, yelling "how does it look?", bloodletting in the buckthorn, slipping suddenly on slick roots and falling violently onto the same, cursing more loudly and creatively, yelling "hey, where are you guys?", flopping sideways on loose talus and sliding painfully downhill – we arrived at the bottom of Ollestad Canyon.
  A jubilant Patrick after the worst of the bushwacking.
After a few hundred vertical feet of scree, we found ourselves on deep, consolidated snow. For the next 1200 vertical feet, we climbed 35-40 degree snow to the toe of the buttress dividing the left and right branches. Just below the rocks we swapped trekking poles for ice axes and strapped on crampons. A reminder to don helmets came in the form of a softball-sized rock that whizzed by Patrick at around 100 mph.

Looking up at the central buttress.  We went right.

While Dave and Patrick started up the right branch, which had been polished to a glassy sheen by an avalanche, I struggled with an annoying problem. One of the fingers of insulation in my glove had become inside out. Consequently, I could not get my glove on. For ten increasingly irritating minutes, I tried to force the hidden finger of insulation back into position, but couldn't. Desperate, I pulled the entire insulation liner out to have a look. Quickly realizing that this wouldn't help, I began stuffing the mass back into the outer shell of the glove. Of course, now I couldn't get any of the fingers of insulation back into their respective slots. A brief but vigorous temper tantrum ensued in which gloves were hurled at the ground and curses were shouted. Recalling that I had packed extra gloves, I regained composure and began catching up to Dave and Patrick.

The avalanche path just right of the central buttress.

From the bottom of the buttress, we climbed unconsolidated, 40-45 degree snow for about 800 vertical feet until the right branch forked into two chutes.

While Patrick veered left, Dave and I climbed the narrow chute on the right which was bound intermittently by rock walls. We climbed that chute, which steepened to around 50 degrees, for about 1000 vertical feet to the ridge crest.

The beginning of the final chute.

Dave on the final chute.

Dave topping out on the final chute.

The ridge crest was then followed for nearly half a mile to the summit of Ontario Peak. It took us seven hours to reach the summit from the parking lot. Patrick, who had taken a more direct line, had been waiting on the summit for an hour.

Patrick on the summit.

From the summit we descended the Sugarloaf Ridge route, availing ourselves of the many glissading opportunities. The snow was in perfect condition all the way down to the bottom of Falling Rock Canyon. Our descent took two hours. With the exception of a desperate and humiliating pee in the parking lot of a random condominium complex off of route 5, my drive home was uneventful.

Ollestad Canyon must be one of the best snow climbs in the San Gabriel Mountains. The climb involves over 3000 vertical feet of continuous snow climbing at a steadily increasing angle from 35 to 50 degrees. After adding in the approach and ridge traverse, the total elevation gain from car to summit is about 4500 vertical feet. And though the approach to the canyon is relatively challenging, it has the merit of ensuring solitude.

Satellite image by Google.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Telegraph Peak, South Couloir

Telegraph Peak (8985 feet) is a striking peak, especially when snow-covered, in the San Gabriel Mountains of southern California. Having never climbed it, I was inspired by a recent photo of a big couloir on its southern aspect.

The South Couloir is the big one in the photo's center.  Telegraph Wash is on the right.  [Photo by Patrick Moran]

Though the couloir has probably been climbed and/or skied, I could find no information about it. At around 7:00 AM yesterday (Thursday, March 4), Dave Gillanders, Patrick Moran, Norma Ryan, and I gazed up at it from Icehouse Canyon.

The South Couloir as seen from Icehouse Canyon.

Our first problem was finding the path of least resistance through the jungle of Manzanita and Buckthorn at the bottom of the couloir. After a small amount of thrashing (just enough to realize that this route would be awful in non-winter conditions), we followed a finger of snow on the right for a few hundred feet until it opened into the broad couloir. From there, the couloir reared up for over 2000 vertical feet at a 30 to perhaps 40 degree angle. Since the snow was hard and somewhat icy, we donned crampons, ice axes, and helmets early. Two additional reasons for helmets were the loose rocks far above and the constant stream of rime ice tinkling and careening down the slope.

Dave and Patrick near the bottom of the couloir.

The snow conditions were more or less perfect. After a long, continuous snow climb, we emerged happily (except for David, who tweaked his foot) onto the fairly narrow summit ridge.
Norma and Dave nearing the top of the couloir.
Norma on the summit ridge above the couloir.  Mt. San Gorgonio is on the left and Mt. San Jacinto is on the right.

The video above was taken from the top of the couloir.

By 11:00 AM, we were being whipped by chilly winds on the summit of Telegraph Peak.

Patrick, Norma, and Dave on the summit.

View of Mt. Baldy.

In keeping with my preference for loops involving descents with a margin of uncertainty, we headed down to the corniced saddle below Thunder Mountain. From there, we descended Cedar Canyon on perfect, knee-nurturing snow for over one mile until the snow petered out revealing loose rock and unaccommodating brush. After some tipping and thrashing, we stumbled onto the Chapman Trail and zigzagged back to the parking lot.

The numbers: 4000 feet of elevation gain, 8 hours round trip.