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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You and me have a same trip. Thank you for this. I would like do the same trip, one day, maybe. i recently finished to read the book of Ollestad story(survivre a tout prix).But for me it will be a long trip. Beacause i`m leaving to Chicoutimi(quebec)Canada.Look at in a map.i`m really in the north.Still again thank you for your pictures.Roger.(