Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Mt. Baldy, Northeast Face

After setting out to climb the northeast face of Mt. Baldy (10,064 feet) last week, but inadvertently climbing the north face of Mt. Harwood instead, I was eager to settle unfinished business. So at 5:20 yesterday morning, Ryan Dacey and I starting hiking west up the drainage from Stockton Flats.

Though it is only two miles from Stockton Flats (~6,000 feet) to the base of Baldy's northeast face (~8,000 feet), it took us over three hours to cover that distance. The first mile is easy walking, but the second mile passes through a narrow canyon that is littered with avalanche debris and flanked by steep, loose slopes.

Ryan negotiating typical terrain in the upper half of the drainage.

Approaching Mt. Baldy's northeast face.

Our route up the northeast face followed a couloir system for roughly 2,000 vertical feet. The angle averaged about 35 degrees, with one section in the middle that approached 50 degrees. We were on consolidated snow the entire time.

Ryan near the summit.

At 11:00AM, we arrived on the summit. Moments later, several hikers appeared, and we were pleased to say that we had ascended the obscure northeast face. Two of the hikers said that a friend had attempted the northeast face last week with two guys. We were also pleased to say that those two guys were us.

Ty Sutherland, Greg Lucker, and Ryan Dacey (L-R) on top.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Other Side of Mt. Baldy

If you look closely, you can see our tracks.

Now that the south-facing Baldy Bowl had melted out, it was a good time to go in search of snow on the northeast face of Mt. Baldy. The fact that I could find no information about climbs there enhanced the appeal. Perhaps one explanation for the lack of information is the approach, which involves several miles of rough dirt road followed by two miles of groveling up a trailless drainage. Perhaps there are other explanations. Anyway, I wanted to find out, and so did Ryan Dacey and Patrick Moran.

A little before dawn on Thursday, a billowing cloud of dust formed behind an SUV that was barreling toward Stockton Flat (~6,000 feet). Inside the vehicle, two passengers bounced around helplessly while Patrick Moran attempted to break the sound barrier.

At around 5:15AM, the three of us started walking due west up the drainage toward the northeast face of Mt. Baldy. The first mile was relatively easy walking over rocks in and around the gradually narrowing streambed. Once the canyon narrowed, in places to the width of the briskly flowing creek, we were treated to half a mile of slow and tedious groveling. Through several stretches we were forced to scramble on steep dirt and loose rock above the creek. On one memorable occasion, I found myself on a steep, loose slope about 100 feet high. Moderately exposed third class scrambling led to a steep, dirty chute. From a relaxed position upstream, Ryan and Patrick enjoyed watching the substantial dust cloud generated from my barely controlled slide down the chute.
Me moments before creating a large dust cloud. 
[Photo by Patrick Moran]
Roughly two hours after leaving the car, we arrived at what was unquestioningly the base of Baldy's northeast face. Stopping for a well-deserved rest on the snow tongue at ~7,250 feet, we donned crampons, ice axes, and helmets while scoping out the route above. Unbeknownst to us, we were below the easternmost couloir on Mt. Harwood's north face. The bottom of Baldy's northeast face was a half mile further upstream.
The first 800 vertical feet involved continuous snow climbing up to 45 degrees, including 200 vertical feet through a narrow, shady chute bounded by rock buttresses. At the top of the chute, the couloir was split by a short cliff. My intuition was to continue up snow on the left, but Ryan's was to cross a rib on the right and traverse over a hundred feet. Ryan was right. My way would have taken us onto the northeast ridge of Mt. Harwood. Traversing over the chute, I slipped on the slushy snow and quickly self-arrested with my ice axe. With the steep, shady, chute looming below, an unarrested fall there could have been bad.

Patrick in the first chute.

Ryan leading the way on the traverse.

Joining Ryan and Patrick in the couloir proper, we saw an uninterrupted expanse of snow extending 1500 vertical feet to the summit. By now, it was quite warm and the snow was slushy. For the next two hours, we labored up the slope, taking multiple breaks.

Finally, sometime after 10:00AM, I approached the headwall, where the angle steepened to around 60 degrees. As I made the final moves in thankfully consolidated snow, I eagerly anticipated surprising whoever was on the summit of Mt. Baldy. But to my disappointment, when I peered over the crest, nobody was there. And oddly, the lower West Baldy looked considerably higher. Suddenly, I realized that I was on the summit of Mt. Harwood (9,552 feet), not Mt. Baldy. Nonetheless, we had just completed a relatively remote 2,200+ foot snow climb in mid-May in southern California.

Patrick climbing the headwall.

Ryan climbing the headwall. 
[Thanks to Sean Neilson and John Martines for image editing.]

At around 11:15AM, we began descending Mt. Harwood's northeast ridge, which Ryan had previously ascended. The ridge was a moderately unpleasant combination of soft snow and loose blocks. At around 8,000 feet, with rocks sprinkling down from above, I took two short, albeit fast and jarring, slides on the snow. Frustrated, I retrieved my ice axe and decided to glissade straight down to the creek, nearly 1,000 vertical feet below. Contrary to Ryan's repeated preference to stick together, I set off alone.

What is this? Moments after seeing it, I made a stupid decision to set off alone down an unknown gully.

After cruising down on perfect snow to within 100 vertical feet of the creek, the snow ended in a debris-choked gully. "No problem", I thought. "I'll just traverse around onto easier ground". Unbeknownst to me, I was traversing into what the map now reveals to be the most precipitous terrain in the entire drainage. In fact, it is the only section in the drainage where the contour lines are so close together that they form a solid band of color.

Gaining the ridge, I was alarmed to find steep and complex ground on the other side. Surveying the terrain, I saw what looked like a viable descending traverse. After about twenty feet of somewhat stressful third class scrambling on loose, dirty rock, I dropped onto a bench and peered down. To my dismay, I was on the edge of a cliff. Starting to feel nervous, I took a break and strapped on my helmet. Though it looked like a narrow ledge system might lead around the corner to a snowfield, the exposure was extreme. As much as I didn't want to reascend an indeterminate distance, it was the only safe option. So that's what I did.

After climbing about 100 vertical feet of loose third class rock and dirt, I gained the next ridge over. Descending into that gully, I was disappointed to discover that it funneled into a cliff. So I scrambled up to the next ridge only to repeat the exercise a few more times. Eventually, a steep, muddy gully provided access to the creek. After one last bit of serious groveling in the canyon, Ryan and Patrick came into view. An uneventful stroll on sore feet got us back to the car a little after 1:30PM.

The numbers: 3,500 feet of net elevation gain, including 2,200+ feet of continuous snow climbing in the couloir. ~5.5 hours up, ~2.5 hours down.

Our route of ascent is marked in red. 

Monday, May 17, 2010

Jepson Peak, North Couloir

At 11,205 feet, Jepson Peak is the second highest peak in southern California. It is higher than Mt. Baldy and Mt. San Jacinto, two of the big three regional monarchs. However, it is nearly 300 feet lower than neighboring Mt. San Gorgonio, so it sits in relative obscurity. That said, the bowls on the north side of Jepson Peak provide some of the most impressive alpine terrain south of the Sierras.

Jepson Peak and Jepson Bowl. The couloir I climbed is immediately right of the summit.

I hesitate to admit this, but I dread picking up permits from the Mill Creek Ranger Station alone in the pre-dawn dark. Isolated on the outskirts of Mentone, it seems like the kind of place where one could get ambushed. Nearing the station, I was mentally preparing for a dash to and from the permit kiosk, when I saw something that only heightened my sense of dread. Walking down the middle of the undivided road was a ghost. Actually, it was a person completely covered in a white sheet. Bewildered, but also concerned for the safety of the specter, I came to a stop in the road. The person, whose face was covered by the sheet, walked right past and continued along the median, disappearing in the darkness behind my car. I briefly considered asking if the person needed help, but thought that the person might be crazy, so I drove on. Moments later, I apprehensively pulled into the ranger station parking lot and parked as close as possible to the permit kiosk.

After retrieving my permit while watching out for a maniac in a ghost costume, I drove to the South Fork Trailhead parking lot (~6,800 feet), arriving at around 4:30 AM. There I participated in another exercise that I dread: making final preparations alone in the car in the pre-dawn dark with the interior light on. Under such circumstances, I can see nothing outside of the car, but anyone outside can see everything inside of the car. By 4:50 AM, I was hiking by headlamp up the South Fork Trail. Incidentally, hiking alone by headlamp is also something I take little pleasure in, but it was the only way I could climb Jepson Peak and be home in time for a 5:00 dinner date in San Clemente.

Avalanche debris above the South Fork Trail at ~7,800 feet.  The San Gorgonio Wilderness Association Trail Crew cleared the trail by hand on May 8.

Sarcodes sanguinea

The trail was mostly covered in snow from about 8,000 feet. At the junction of the Dry Lake and Dollar Lake trails, I replaced my light hiking shoes with heavy mountaineering boots and cached the shoes in a tree well. Then, with compass in hand, I stepped off the trail and began heading south through South Fork Meadows, which is also evocatively called the Valley of the Thousand Springs. Over an hour later, somewhere around 9,500 feet, I was surprised to find a series of faded, orange, triangular trail markers on trees. They were spaced 50-100 feet apart and led into Jepson Bowl, which, until now, had been obscured from view.

The couloir I planned to climb extended all the way to the crest of Jepson Bowl, terminating just below the summit. Involving over 1000 vertical feet of 40+ degree snow, the couloir culminated in a steep headwall. Though the headwall was only about 45 degrees on the right, I went straight up, finishing on an exhilarating, but short, section of 60-70 degree snow.
Looking up the couloir

The top of the couloir

The snow in the couloir was in perfect condition. I was equipped with crampons, an ice axe, and a helmet, and was glad to have them. During my climb, several projectiles up to the size of a baseball whizzed past.

From the top of the couloir, I walked for about one minute to the summit. It was 9:40 AM. After lounging around for half an hour, I walked back down to the top of the couloir, this time without crampons. Sitting on the lip of the couloir, I gripped my ice axe firmly and braced for action. Then I pushed off. In five minutes, I glissaded what had taken an hour to ascend. The price of such convenience: several tears in my pants. From there, the descent was a combination of perfect snow and easy trail. At 12:30 PM, I was drinking warm water in the car and discovering that last week's spilled coffee had ruined one of my favorite CDs.

At the McDonald's in Mentone, I was strangely clumsy. Normally deft with plastic straws, I fumbled with the task, twice losing hold of the straw as it spun off to the side. Worse, on the way to retrieve my food, I collided spastically with a highchair to the uproarious amusement of some slackers slacking nearby. I was glad to leave. But there was one more humiliating consequence of my McDonald's meal about an hour later: a desperate pee on the side of the highway as scores of cars roared by.

Photo by Jeff Scofield

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Baldy Bowl: One Last Time

Moments after a sharp switchback overturned my coffee this morning, spilling the contents onto CDs, maps, batteries, and other stuff, I arrived at Manker Flat. It was 3:45AM. Shortly thereafter, a lone headlamp began illuminating the path to the ski hut.

As I was swapping light trail shoes for mountaineering boots at the ski hut, dawn revealed the bowl to be much drier than expected. But there was a single, nearly continuous finger of snow that extended to the crest. Was it the middle finger? I decided to find out.

With the exception of two short stretches of scree, I was able to follow consolidated snow all the way to the rim of the bowl, finishing in a 45+ degree chute. From there, hard snow led to the windy summit, which I reached at 7:30AM.

The final chute to the rim of the bowl.

The north side of Ontario Peak from Mt. Baldy summit.

I descended consolidated snow in the east bowl for about 1000 vertical feet, and then scree-skied the remaining distance to the hut. At 9:30AM, 5.5 hours after departing, I was wiping coffee from various things in my car and singing a ridiculous song that had been running through my head all morning.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Pigs at the Trough: A Retrospective on the Grand Teton Climbers' Ranch

The Tetons.  Photo by Sean Neilson.

As summer approaches, climbers with pending free time might consider volunteering for Work Week at the Grand Teton Climbers' Ranch from June 7-11. "Work week is an opportunity for volunteers to help prepare the Ranch for opening in exchange for free lodging during the month of June."

The Ranch, which is operated by the American Alpine Club, provides rustic accommodations at the base of the Tetons in Wyoming. The ranch consists of about a dozen communal cabins, an indoor library/lounge, and a large pavilion for cooking and socializing. The ranch is only open from early June to mid-September, and is inhabited mainly by mountaineers who stay for as little as one night or as long as three months. It is a great place to meet other climbers, swap information, and plan spine-tingling climbs.

Some years ago, I participated in Work Week and then base camped at the Ranch for the rest of the summer. Though I had a fantastic time mountaineering in the Tetons, those lofty spires and my adventures thereabouts are not the subject of this article. Rather, what I want to focus on are the jaw-dropping eating habits of climbers at the Ranch. To put it bluntly, they eat like pigs.

Allow me to begin the rogues gallery tour with a wildly disheveled, middle-aged mountain man I'll call "Compost Heap". Why I call him Compost Heap will become clear later. Let me first paint a vivid portrait of his appearance. I think this can best be accomplished by imagining one of those illustrations that charts the evolutionary progression of man from a crouched chimpanzee-like creature, through various stages (each less hairy and more erect than the last), to the clean-shaven office schlep of modernity. With that picture firmly in mind, direct your attention to the creatures in the middle of that progression. That is where you will find Compost Heap. Now that you know more or less what he looks like, I'll briefly describe his eating habits, which will make it clear why I call him Compost Heap. The reader will also find that his eating habits correspond to his place on the evolutionary scale. Getting to the point now, what made Compost Heap stand out was that he ate all of the vegetable parts that others threw away (or tried to throw away). He chomped on rejected broccoli and cauliflower stocks and munched the outermost leaves of lettuce and cabbage. He savored carrot and celery ends and chewed onion skins and potato peels with a flourish. And he ate them all raw, and sometimes right out of the garbage. To the incredulous stares of his unwitting patrons and other spectators, he claimed that the vegetable parts they profligately discarded contained the highest concentrations of nutrients, or some such nonsense.

Unlike Compost Heap, the climber I will call "The Poet" was more dignified. He was well-groomed and eloquent, even philosophical. However, he was unable to keep up appearances, and around meal time he regressed, like Compost Heap, into savagery. For instance, during casual breakfast conversation one fine morning, The Poet suddenly cried "wait!" as someone deposited a burnt pancake into the garbage. He lunged at the garbage can, plunged his hand through the small swivel door at the top, and began fishing around inside. After a few tense seconds of looking back and forth out into space at nothing in particular (as people do when they are searching with their hands for something they cannot see), he pulled out the pancake. Appearing more annoyed than triumphant, he mumbled something about it being "a perfectly good pancake". In fairness to The Poet, it was only black on one side. Then, after a final cursory inspection, he ate it. It had all happened too fast. The reader must understand that the garbage can was completely covered and the contents not visible, meaning that The Poet had little idea, beyond what he had felt with his groping hand, what the pancake had contacted inside. After this incident, I was not surprised to see The Poet eating meals of plain white rice directly out of plastic grocery bags.

There are those who march to the beat of a different drummer, but they don't last. Take "Can Man". Can Man did not eat out of the kind of can into which Compost Heap and The Poet intrepidly ventured. Quite simply, Can Man only ate food from factory-sealed cans. Thus, there would be no symbiotic relationship between Can Man and Compost Heap, and you can forget about grabbing a burger or pizza with him after a climb. In regard to climbing, his backpack must have weighed a ton, which is perhaps why he disappeared faster than you can say, "Star Kist and Campbell's and Chef Boyardee, the food never spoils was his repartee."

Eye-opening eating displays were not confined to the Ranch. Some of the worst displays occurred at the notorious Dornan's All-U-Can-Eat Barbecue in the nearby village of Moose. Dornan's served only a few items, each simmering away in enormous black cauldrons that were lined up on, yes, a trough. The customer ladled barbecued beef and beans onto his plate, and returned as many times as he liked (or dared). A group of us returned too many times one gorgeous evening and spent the next few hours back at the Ranch concentrating on one thing: keeping it all down. Good training for high-altitude climbing, perhaps. As we sat around groaning and trying not to laugh, Dean (I will use his name since he deserves some credit, as the reader will soon discover) suddenly looked as if a tremendous weight had been lifted from him. He had at that instant made a bold decision that, in fact, promised to do just that. Dean rose slowly with a solemn air of resignation. He walked deliberately, though not hurriedly, across the creaking floor boards of the cabin, out onto the porch, down the front steps, and into the brush behind the cabin. The sound of his footsteps grew faint.

As Dean gagged himself and threw up violently out back, making quite a lot of horrible noise in the process, I grimly contemplated an aphorism by John Stuart Mill to the effect that it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. On that gluttonous night, we were not even pigs satisfied.

Sean Neilson (L) and Sam Page (R) on the summit of the Grand Teton in 1996.