Monday, January 31, 2011

Goode Canyon, Mt. Baldy

On January 30, we climbed the obscure Goode Canyon into a winter storm on Mt. Baldy. Although there were ten strong climbers in our group, only two managed to claw their way through the whipping winds and white-out conditions to the summit . . . and I was one of them! Actually, the other eight may have summited, but by the time I finally summited they were already descending, so I didn’t see them on top. Considering the poor visibility, any pictures they produce that purport to be taken on the summit should be suspect, because those pictures could have been taken much lower on the mountain (or on another mountain).

A controversial summit shot by Patrick Moran.

Joking aside, all ten of us summited and the weather was nasty. But first, I want to discuss an incident preceding the climb that will give me pause the next time I consider organizing a mountaineering trip on the internet.

A few weeks ago, a friend was fishing around to see if anyone was interested in a SoCal snow climb. Given that my last two snow climbs with him were memorable, I jumped at the chance. But I jumped a little too fast, because the next thing I knew, I had been reeled into organizing the outing.

My friend had good reason for delegating the organizational duties. Last year, he organized a private mountaineering excursion on an especially demanding route. Without his consent, one of the guests turned the outing into a public Meetup and invited who knows who many other people. It would be an understatement to say that the trip became a total fiasco.

Now fast forward to last week. Since most of my climbing friends are on Facebook, I decided to organize the trip with Facebook’s “event” feature. All went smoothly until about 48 hours before the outing, when people I didn’t know began RSVPing. I logged onto Facebook. To my surprise, about twenty strangers had suddenly and inexplicably appeared on the invite list. As I sat there trying to make sense of it, I thought: “Well, it could be worse – someone could have turned my trip into a public Meetup.” I chuckled at the ridiculous thought and felt a little better. I stopped chuckling shortly thereafter when I learned that someone I didn’t know had turned my trip into a public Meetup . . . .

After resolving the Facebook/Meetup debacle, I turned my attention to the weather forecast, which looked a little grim. However, as we gathered in the pre-dawn dark at Manker Flat, the twinkling stars seemed to bode well. At 6:15AM, Patrick, Dave, Matt, Brian, Phil, Tina, Miguel, Ryan, Norma, and I began marching toward Goode Canyon.

Goode Canyon, which starts at around 5500 feet on Mt. Baldy’s south side, could be described as the west fork of San Antonio Canyon (with the east fork leading up to Baldy Bowl). There is no trail in the canyon and it is apparently a popular destination for lost and missing climbers. Fortunately, two Goode Canyon veterans (Phil and Dave) were along, so I wasn’t worried about getting lost.

We accessed the bottom of Goode Canyon by descending a loose and rubbly wash for nearly 500 vertical feet. From the confluence, we scrambled up class 2 terrain for about 2000 vertical feet, at which point we encountered an important fork. Here we went right and negotiated about 700 vertical feet of loose, class 2-3 terrain.


The mist raced up the canyon in about two minutes, subsided for an hour, then covered us for good.  The north side of Ontario Peak is in the background.

During the class 2-3 section, we were enveloped by a cold mist that had been pursuing us up the canyon. This section was made more engaging by the discovery of a ski boot. Miguel yanked the boot out from under a log, where it had been wedged firmly, while Matt inquired about its contents. The boot was the subject of much discussion and curiosity, and almost everyone took a photo of it. We all agreed that the last person to wear the boot had a very bad day.


At roughly 8200 feet, we landed on continuous, consolidated snow. Before beginning a long traverse of a 40 degree slope that was plastered with hard, slick snow, we strapped on crampons. At around 9000 feet, I encountered a major fork and waited for the others to come into sight behind me in the eerie yet somewhat exhilarating mist.

Norma and someone else approaching in the mist.

While waiting, I consulted the map and concluded that the right fork would take us to the saddle between West Baldy and Baldy, which is what we wanted. In hindsight, I was wrong. We went right, and after several hundred vertical feet of zigzagging up snow in low visibility, Ryan pointed out that we had intersected the Ski Hut Trail. The visibility was about 100 feet and nothing looked familiar, even though I have crossed that ground about ten times before.

The weather deteriorated as we plodded toward the summit. The wind became increasingly strong and at some point I realized it was snowing. After about ten minutes, enough things were bothering me that I had to stop. My glasses were completely fogged up, my head was cold, and I was hungry. Solving those problems made my hands very cold.

Nearing the summit, I heard what I assumed was my group over to the left, but looking in that direction exposed my face to sharp lashings by wind-whipped ice crystals. Plus, I could barely see them through the snow and mist. After a few minutes, Patrick staggered over and explained that they had already summited. Patrick offered to wait, but then decided to just climb back up to the summit with me. I appreciated that.

Stopping for a rest on the summit was out of the question. If the wind were any stronger, it would have been hard to remain upright. And the constant sting of snow and ice particles on exposed skin was painful. So after a perfunctory 360 degree turn on the summit, I headed down. The time was roughly 11:45.

A few steps below the summit, we met Cindy Abbott, who summited Mt. Everest last spring. She was accompanied by a few other Everest veterans, including Bill Burke, the oldest American to summit Mt. Everest. As we stood there chatting (er, yelling) amiably in a strong winter storm near the summit, it occurred to me that this is a fitting place to meet these people -- this is their natural habitat.

Norma Ryan (L) and Cindy Abbott (R) discuss alpine starts at the Ski Hut.  "Always make sure your alarm is set to AM, not PM", advises Norma.  [Photo courtesy of Norma Ryan]

The descent to the ski hut was rather miserable. I find descending hard snow in crampons to be tedious and eventually painful, and this was no exception. Although Phil was baking cinnamon rolls for everyone outside of the (locked) hut, I had to hurry. My mantra in the days leading up to the climb and throughout the climb was, “I have to be driving home by 1:30, so I may need to race ahead of everyone else.” Considering that, it is noteworthy that I summited last. That is a testament to the fitness of our group (or perhaps to my lack of fitness). Tina, for instance, had ascended 8000 vertical feet in under five hours the day before. Miguel had spent the previous day rock climbing and finished our climb by literally sprinting to the bottom with Matt. So much for these super fit, mountaineering nuts. Next time I’m inviting my out-of-shape music friends.

 Norma and Brian descending the Ski Hut Trail.  [Photo by Patrick Moran]

The numbers: ~4500 vertical feet, ~7.5 hours round trip.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Ontario Peak: Ollestad and Falling Rock Canyons

On January 22, Patrick Moran and I climbed an obscure canyon on the northwest side of Ontario Peak to the summit. The unnamed canyon is between Cherry Canyon and Kerkhoff Canyon. I call it “Ollestad Canyon” to honor the sole survivor of a 1979 plane crash that occurred in its upper reaches.

At 5:15 AM, we left my car half a mile above Baldy Village and began negotiating the rather unpleasant, trail-less approach to the canyon by headlamp.

A memorable part of the approach.

Entering the canyon about two hours later, I was astonished to see how much less snow there was compared to last spring. Continuous snow coverage didn’t begin until the central rock buttress at around 6700 feet.

Mostly dry below the central buttress. 

It begins . . .

At the bottom of an avalanche tongue (seen above) to the right of the central buttress, we donned helmets, crampons, and ice axes, and got quite chilly in the process. From there, we ascended roughly 2000 vertical feet of 35-45 degree consolidated snow, staying in the shade the whole time. We were constantly panning around for plane debris, but saw none.

In the thick of things.

 At 11:00 AM, two tired climbers were relieved to set foot on the summit. We had ascended almost 4500 vertical feet (including ups and downs at the bottom) in under six hours.

Goode Canyon leading to West Baldy on the left. San Antonio Canyon leading to Baldy Bowl and Mt. Baldy on the right. 

The South Couloir on Telegraph Peak.

In order to keep things exciting, we decided to descend a canyon neither of us had done in its entirety: Falling Rock Canyon. It took 3.5 hours to descend, with only two short breaks. The hard and icy snow in the canyon, which lasted until around 7000 feet, necessitated crampons. At around 6800 feet, we encountered an impressive waterfall that was skirted with some difficulty on the canyon’s west side. The ground on this detour was extremely loose, requiring one of us to wait while the other descended. At around 6300 feet, we encountered another waterfall that was easily circumvented on the west side. This waterfall is at the bottom of the scree slope that leads up to the Saddle between Sugarloaf Peak and Ontario Peak. The lower section of Falling Rock Canyon was completely snow-free and, as always, tedious. A third waterfall near the bottom of the canyon was skirted on the east side.

Patrick enthusiastic about (1) successfully circumventing the precipice, and (2) discovering this awesome waterfall (which is the upper waterfall).

The middle waterfall below Sugarloaf Saddle. 

We saw nobody all day until we merged with the Icehouse Canyon Trail for the final half mile to Patrick’s car. Then we saw a lot of people. The usual battle to stay awake on the drive home was more gruesome than usual, because of doctor’s orders to avoid caffeine.

For my previous trip reports on Ollestad Canyon, see here and here.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

First Snow Climb of the Season

After sequestering myself for a few months to produce an album (yay!), I was eager to punch my ice axe and crampons into some southern California snow.  What better place to kick off the snow climbing season than Baldy Bowl with a bunch of fun-loving friends?

(L-R) Ryan, Tina, and Patrick, with Baldy Bowl in the background.

At 5:45 AM on Saturday morning, six headlamps began a gradual ascent to the Ski Hut.  Once there, headlamps and trekking poles were replaced with ice axes, crampons, and helmets.  The helmets were especially important, as several golfball- and baseball-sized ice/rock projectiles whizzed by every minute in the bowl. 

Patrick and Zach pretending to be ants.

 Mike midway up the bowl.

The snow conditions in the bowl were about as good as they get -- mostly firm with a few soft patches here and there.  Rime ice encrusted trees at the crest of the bowl added interest to the ascent.  After plodding up the bowl for roughly one hour, three of us finished in an exhilaratingly wild and steep chute.

Ryan nearing the crest of the bowl. 

The final slope leading to the summit was a fairyland of those aforementioned rime ice encrusted trees.  On the summit, we gazed in the direction of Ryan's recent and spectacular route on the north face of West Baldy, pointed north to the snowy Sierras, and tried to stay vertical in the wind.

Tina on the final summit slope.

Ryan regaling Zach and Patrick with tales of his recent north face ascent.

 The Sierras in the distance.

For those who enjoy glissading in perfect conditions, the descent to the hut took about fifteen minutes.  There we snacked and watched a long line of climbers all ascending the same chute in the bowl.