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


Lord of the Files said...

Nice TR - We were up on Gorgonio yesterday afternoon - beautiful!

Anonymous said...

Since I was one of the people that cleared the avalanche debris off the Sourh Fork trail I take minor exception to the caption on your picture "Avalanche debris on the South Fork Trail at ~7,800 feet". So many people get their trail condition information from the board it is always helpful to be as accurate as possible.

Sam Page said...

Anonymous: Thanks to the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association Trail Crew for clearing the trail on May 8. It took them four hours to do it by hand. The caption has been changed.

Lord of the Files: Thanks! And nice user name!