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. 


Anonymous said...

About 27 years ago I participated in a late spring/early summer backpacking trip that took off from behind the Mountain High Ski Resort and quickly descended into "Fish Fork Canyon", winding its ways towards the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. After nearly a day of trekking our trail slowly petered out into a precipitous loose slope of rock and scree, quite similar to the ones you described on both your ascent and descent. Suffice it to say that a campsite never appeared and we retraced our steps until we ended up covering 16 plus miles that day. Ever since enduring this epic in the shadow of Baldy's northern flanks at the age of 11, I have always been curious to return to this very wild corner of the Angeles backcountry. Your foray and report were about the closest I have got.

Sam Page said...

Anonymous: Great story! Thanks for sharing.

Mike Ostby said...

Was up that very draingage solo a couple of times this past winter. Once to just explore and another to attempt the NE ridge of Harwood. I cliffed out on some pretty exposed terrian. Tried to go back after getting some beta from Taco but the road was washed out/closed until recently.'s on the to do list for next winter along with the NE ridge of Timber from Third Crossing.