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.


S Kay Murphy said...

Poor Dave!
I am ever amazed that Norman ever made it off the mountain alive. Sam... you be careful out there!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing information about the ski conditions in Ontario. How is the weather there today?

Anonymous said...

Gnarly! I just received the book this morning and have already completed it. Norman and his father are incredible and your trek is a reminder of the feat of human endurance he wrote of. Well done, but please remember; young Normans trek was during a blizzard with emotional and physical injury and no equipment.
Thanks for the post!