Monday, April 26, 2010

Folly Peak: NW Face Reconnaissance

The Snow Creek route on the north side of Mt. San Jacinto is well-known. It follows the East Fork of Snow Creek for nearly 10,000 vertical feet to the summit of San Jacinto Peak (10,804 feet). The climbing season for the route is mid-winter to mid-spring when the snow-filled couloirs provide over 5,000 vertical feet of continuous snow climbing. Although the normal route involves trespassing on Desert Water Agency property, there is no lack of information about the route on the internet. Given the popularity of the route, it is curious that there is, as far as I can tell, no information about climbing the equally impressive couloirs on the neighboring northwest side of Folly Peak (10,480 feet).

San Jacinto Peak and the East Fork of Snow Creek on the left.  Folly Peak (NW side) and the West Fork of Snow Creek on the right.  Photo by Norma Ryan.

The northwest side of Folly Peak drains into the East Branch of the West Fork of Snow Creek. It appears to me that straightforward snow climbing would begin at around 5,000 feet in season. But the approach looks tricky. The lower section of the West Fork crosses DWA property. However, the Pacific Crest Trail skirts around the property and reaches 3,600 feet before veering off in the wrong direction. From maps and satellite imagery, the terrain from 3,600 to 5,000 feet looks complex, brushy, and precipitous, which could explain why I haven't found a single recorded ascent of Folly's NW side. It was time to see for myself.

At 5:45AM on Saturday, I pulled into the PCT parking area near Snow Creek Village. Considering the DWA sting operation exactly two weeks prior, I was not surprised that my car was the only one there. Within a few minutes, a vehicle emerged from DWA property and made two passes. The driver, who shot me an expressionless glance, was wearing a green camouflage jacket, which was totally ineffective in his white truck.

In between chugs of water in the car, I made sure to pocket my precious wilderness permit. On Tuesday, I faxed a permit request, not entirely confident that I would get a response. To my astonishment, a wilderness permit arrived in the mail the next day.

The East Fork of Snow Creek leads up to San Jacinto Peak and the NE side of Folly Peak.  The West Fork of Snow Creek goes off to the right.

The East Fork of Snow Creek is left of the boulder.

Mt. San Gorgonio from the PCT.

For a leisurely 3.5 hours, I followed the PCT from 1,200 feet to a hairpin turn at 3,600 feet. The trail was narrow and overgrown in places and seemed to go far out of the way. While I labored up the trail listening to the constant buzz of bees, I envisioned plopping down at the aforementioned hairpin turn for a relaxing rest. Upon reaching it, I was delighted to see a welcoming flat rock that offered a commanding view of the West Fork of Snow Creek. It was the perfect place to rest. But the instant I touched the rock, the bees attacked. After one stung my shoulder, I ran up the trail with others in hot pursuit. After about 100 feet, they lost interest and I stopped. There I concluded wrongly that since one bee had already stung me, it was safe to return. Once again, as soon as I touched the rock, a bee stung me, this time in the chest.

"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."

Fed up with the bees at the hairpin turn, I scrambled a short distance uphill in search of a better viewing spot. That was as far as I got. My initial plan was to climb to the top of the ridge (4,630 feet) that splits the West and East Branches of the West Fork of Snow Creek. From there, I hoped to scout out the rest of the approach. But I was out of time, and between me and Peak 4630 lay nearly one mile of trail-less, densely vegetated terrain.
The NW side of Folly Peak.

Back at Falls Creek Road, I enjoyed some refreshingly cold water at the DWA drinking fountain. Moments later, a security guard drove up and stopped. He looked like a bad guy in one of Clint Eastwood's western films. He chewed on an unidentifiable object and got right to the point: "You know you're not allowed on the property up there." After responding affirmatively, I told him about being attacked by bees on the PCT. Satisfied with another successful sting operation, he drove off.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Smokin' the Bowl

The snow climbing in southern California has been fantastic this winter and spring. However, I was unable to get out last weekend and my only window of time this weekend was before 11:00AM on Saturday. Consequently, I awoke at 2:00AM on Saturday and was hiking toward Baldy Bowl at 4:00AM. Patrick Moran was the only one crazy enough to join me.

On our way up to the ski hut, we first lost the summer trail and then the winter trail. Pausing at one point to pan around in the dark with our headlamps, we were surprised to see the ski hut fifteen feet to our right. It was strange that we had almost passed the ski hut in the dark. It was 5:15AM.

After equipping ourselves with crampons and ice axes, we began crunching up the bowl on hard, icy snow that was perfect for cramponning. It was just light enough to climb without headlamps. Our route ascended the right side of the bowl and finished on an exhilarating 50+ degree pitch. While I was in the midst of the final section, I hollered down to Patrick to photograph me. As I was imagining myself in the photo frontpointing boldly toward the lip of the bowl at sunrise, Patrick was watching his digital camera slide rapidly down the bowl until it disappeared from sight. So you will just have to use your imagination too.
We went straight up to the rocks and veered left.
Note the recent rock slide to the left of Patrick.

Looking down at our route from the lip of the bowl.

Patrick nearing the top of the chute.

Snow lingering on northern aspects.
Patrick on the summit of Mt. Baldy pointing out our obscure route on Ontario Peak.
At 7:15AM, we stepped onto the summit and celebrated by swordfighting with our ice axes. We then fruitlessly scanned Iron Mountain and San Antonio Ridge for our friend Zach, who was soloing the dreaded and much-maligned ridge that entails 10,000 feet of elevation gain. After twenty minutes on top, we descended to the ski hut on snow that was too steep and icy for much glissading. One of my two glissades involved immediate and alarming acceleration followed by a prompt self-arrest.
Below the ski hut, we passed scores of hikers, including Jackalopes, who is a follower of this blog! Jackalopes was accompanied by Kurt Wedberg. During our trailside conversation, I learned that although Kurt has climbed Mt. Everest twice, he has never climbed Mt. San Gorgonio. Now, I have climbed Mt. San Gorgonio four times. Does that mean I have climbed Mt. Everest six times? I hope not, because my wife would kill me.

Continuing down the trail, we opted for the shortcut couloir which leads directly to San Antonio Falls. To my surprise, there was almost as much snow in the couloir as there was a month ago. With the exception of 100 feet of scrambling in the middle, we boot-skied all the way down. By 10:00AM, I was swallowing a Vivarin in the parking lot and inspecting blistered heels. Notwithstanding the several police cars that roared by on Mt. Baldy Road, the drive back to the OC was uneventful.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Mt. Shasta Fatality

On March 28, a 26-year old climber, Tom Bennett, died after spending the night near the summit of Mt. Shasta (14,162 feet).  The previous day, Tom and his climbing partner had reached the summit and dug a snow cave to escape strong winds.  The following morning, Tom's eyesight and balance suddenly and rapidly deteriorated.  After descending a short distance, Tom collapsed and was presumed dead.  Tom's partner secured him in another snow cave and reached civilization two days later.  The cause of death has yet to be determined.  For more details, see The Sacramento BeeThe San Francisco Chronicle, or SummitPost

On a personal note, my only experience on Mt. Shasta almost ended similarly.  One of my climbing partners nearly had her head smashed by a basketball-sized rock that careened down from the summit.  At the last instant, she whipped her head back and raised her hand.  The rock broke her hand, resulting in a helicopter rescue.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Snow Creek: 10,000 Vertical Feet in a Day

Snow Creek is a notorious mountaineering route on Mt. San Jacinto (10,804 feet) in southern California. It is notorious for a few reasons. First, it involves about 10,000 feet of elevation gain. Second, in big snow years, like this one, it provides around 6,000 vertical feet of continuous, moderately steep snow climbing. Third, the normal beginning to the route crosses land owned by the Desert Water Agency and can involve a show-stopping encounter with the vigilant DWA caretaker. There is, however, an alternate start that skirts around the one square mile (grid 33) owned by the DWA. A call to the DWA confirmed that (1) they would not grant passage through their sacred square, but (2) their property rights do not extend beyond it. Thus, by securing a San Jacinto Wilderness permit and avoiding the DWA property, one can ascend Snow Creek with a clean conscience.

My alarm sounded this morning at 1:30AM. By 2:00AM, I was driving toward Palm Springs, drinking strong coffee and listening to The Way of the World by Ron Suskind. Shortly after 4:00AM, seven of us were walking briskly toward Mt. San Jacinto under the light of the moon.
Accessing the snow tongue involved about 4,000 vertical feet of cross-country travel, which included boulder hopping, fording a creek in the dark, thrashing through thick brush, and ascending steep, loose dirt. Twice I fell flat on my back in the brush with my head angled downhill. And despite 10-year old boots, blisters formed under extra large band-aids on both heels. After a particularly nasty section – which combined thick brush, steep dirt, and loose rocks – we crested onto a ridge just above Snow Creek and beheld the snow tongue. It was roughly 9:00AM.

With water bottles full and crampons afoot, we began crunching up the snow at around 5,000 feet. The snow was hard and icy, as it would be for the duration of the ascent. After a few hundred vertical feet, we reached what is usually the crux of the route: the chockstone. In drier years, surmounting the massive boulder suspended between canyon walls requires a pitch of 5th class climbing or a circuitous 3rd-4th class traverse. But this time, the boulder was just a large lump under a thankfully thick blanket of snow.

The buried chockstone is just above the climbers.

Above the chockstone, the angle steepened to around 40 degrees and remained that way for 5,000+ vertical feet. For the next five hours, I zigzagged upward, trying to move efficiently and concentrate on breathing. Blistered heels required side-stepping the entire way. Lagging behind the others, I missed two of the three group rest stops in order to keep up.

Climbing into a cooling wind at around 8,300 feet. 

I really faded in the final 1,000 vertical feet and had to pause for several seconds at the end of every zig and zag. The zigzags became shorter and shorter as the chute narrowed and steepened near the top. From my private hell in the midst of the final chute, I watched enviously as one after another of my companions topped out far above and turned to holler encouraging words and woops. Complicating matters for me was a cough that worsened as I ascended, reducing my voice to a croak.

Getting steeper at around 10,000 feet.

Eventually, I reached the rocky headwall at the top of the chute. There I paused to watch a companion scramble over intermittent rocks up and left of me. Another companion yelled down that I should try the steeper section to the right leading directly to the summit. Though exhausted, I followed his suggestion. Traversing a few feet to the right, I ascended 50+ degree snow for roughly 30 vertical feet to some steep rocks. Surmounting this final ten feet of third class rock in my crampons was the hardest climbing of the day. It seemed like a fitting end to a marathon climb. Amid clicking cameras and helpful suggestions about dry-tooling, I grunted, lunged memorably, hauled myself over, and walked the final few feet to the summit. The time was roughly 3:40. Thinking it was much later, I was pleasantly surprised. It took me 11.5 hours to ascend the 10,000 vertical feet.

That's me climbing the final steep pitch directly to the summit.

Settling down for a much-needed break to hydrate, eat, and take Ibuprofen, I was called urgently for a group summit shot. That's when I realized there would be no much-needed break, because some of the others had been waiting in the freezing wind for nearly an hour.

One great thing about Mt. San Jacinto is the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway that runs from the desert floor to 8,400 feet. Thanks to this, all we had to do was descend 2,400 feet over roughly three miles to the tram station. I was anticipating an easy, enjoyable descent, during which time we would reminisce about the climb and chat amiably. But this was not to be. My left big toe pulsed painfully with every step. In order to alleviate the pain, I decided to remove my crampons, which the others had done earlier. Due to a complicated strap system that was further complicated by frozen buckles, this took ten minutes. During this time, I fell far behind the others. Wandering alone for a while in a world of pain and exhaustion, I came upon one of my companions, who had run back to find me. It's a good thing he did, for although I had a map and compass and was following a boot path in the snow, I wasn't familiar with the route to the tram station. His pleasant banter also lifted my sagging morale.

2.5 miserable hours after leaving the summit, I arrived at the tram station. There I confronted the last obstacle: the paved, winding walkway that gradually ascends to the station. While people laughed and ran by in the spring of their youth, I inched upward with the slow, agonizing steps of a centenarian, pausing more than once to rest. That said, it is amazing what thirty minutes of sitting, 400 milligrams of Ibuprofen, a bottle of caffeinated soda, and a rapid, effortless descent of several thousand vertical feet can do to one's spirits.

After being entertained by upbeat flamenco music on the tram's airwaves while admiring massive canyon walls, we landed at the lower tram station, but not before being informed that the music we just heard was available for purchase at the gift shop. From the tram station, taxis took us back to our cars, where we bid farewell as night fell. At 10:00PM, 20 hours after leaving, I was home again.