Sunday, February 27, 2011

More Fresh Snow in SoCal

More snow fell on the mountains of southern California this weekend, which bodes well for spring snow climbing.  I took a short walk in south Orange County this morning to assess the snowfall.  Here is what I found:

Santiago Peak. The summit communication towers were plastered in rime ice.

Mt. Baldy

The San Gabriel Mountains with Mt. Baldy at far right.

Wild Cucumber growing on Laurel Sumac (according to wifey PhD). Mt. Baldy in background.

The parasitic "dotter" plant. I prefer some of the folk names, which include Witch's Hair, Devil's Hair, and (my favorite) Devil's Gut. As Eddie Vedder sang, "Don't call me dotter . . . ."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Fresh Snow in SoCal

On Monday, after the big weekend storm, my wife and I went to Top of the World Park in Laguna Beach for some snowy mountain vistas.  Actually, she went to geek out on plants and birds, but I was eager to see the fruits of the storm. 

The San Gabriel Mountains.  Mt. Baldy is right of center.

Rare snow on the Santa Ana Mountains.  Modjeska Peak on left, Santiago Peak on right. 

Prickly Pear Cactus

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Leatherneck Ridge, Mt. San Jacinto

While hiking the Skyline trail on Mt. San Jacinto recently, three companions (Fernando Lara, Steve Irvin, and Tina Fiori) pointed out a cross-country route they had done on the other side of Chino Canyon. Though they referred to it as the “north ridge” route, internet research suggests that it is commonly called Leatherneck Ridge (after marines who were rescued there).

Our Leatherneck Ridge short-cut.

The complete Leatherneck Ridge route apparently begins at an elevation of less than 1000 feet on highway 111 and tops out at ~8700 feet between Cornell Peak and the upper tram station. We, however, started just below the lower tram station at an elevation of ~2400 feet. With all of the ups and downs on the final north ridge stretch, the total elevation gain of our variation is approximately 7000 feet. Though there is no sustained rock scrambling, there is enough of it, including lots of awkward traversing, to merit a class 3 rating.

At 6:15AM on February 13, Patrick Moran, Dave Gillanders, and I walked across the parking lot and immediately encountered our first obstacle: a creek crossing. The east side of the creek is covered in a dense, bouncy carpet of grapevine that is riddled with trip-wires. After negotiating this unusual terrain, we were faced with an awkward crossing that resulted in one drenched shoe. Unfortunately, that shoe was on my foot.

Across the creek, we immediately began climbing steeply up the obvious ridge, with occasional bits of scrambling here and there. After 2700 vertical feet of climbing, we gained Leatherneck Ridge proper, which afforded a striking view of Mt. San Gorgonio. I found the terrain on this stretch to be really aesthetic, with varied vegetation, flat sandy patches, and interesting rock crags reminiscent of Joshua Tree.

Patrick and Dave low on the ridge, with the parking lot in the background.

Looking up toward Leatherneck Ridge.

The complex Chino Canyon drainage. The upper tram station sits atop the ridge left of the central notch.

Patrick and San Gorgonio.

 Looking up Leatherneck Ridge toward the conifers.

Eventually the ridge became steeper and brushier, leading to a gorgeous stand of tall conifers. These conifers were followed to the point where all of the subsidiary ridges, including Leatherneck Ridge, converge into a single, north ridge. At this point, we were suddenly rewarded with a breathtaking vista of the Falls Creek drainage, including the spectacular northeast face of Miller Peak.

Patrick enjoying the shade of the conifers. 

 The upper reaches of the Falls Creek drainage. 

The final stretch along the north ridge involves several peaks and notches and lots of tedious side-hilling. The last half of it was plastered in snow that was either icy or unconsolidated, which slowed progress. Further slowing progress was a bout of stomach flu that hit Dave with a vengeance. Consequently, that final 1.5 mile stretch took over six hours.

Patrick astride the final north ridge. 

Dave enduring one of many stretches of side-hilling.

Only a few more notches to go until Shangri-La.

By the time we reached the crest, it was dark. Although the half moon directly overhead provided just enough light to illuminate our way, we donned headlamps anyway. Not wanting to take any chances, I consulted map and compass and closely monitored our bearing until the light of the tram station came into view. We entered the upper tram station at 6:45PM, 12.5 hours after starting.

 The northeast face of Miller Peak.

Dave's photos are here.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Review of "The Last Man on the Mountain"

In 2002, Jennifer Jordan was wandering around near the base camp of K2 when she stumbled upon the remains of Dudley Wolfe. Wolfe, or what was left of him, had not been seen since 1939 when he was left for dead at nearly 25,000 feet on K2.

Nobody who survived the 1939 American K2 expedition saw Dudley Wolfe die. The three Sherpas who were positioned to rescue him never returned and subsequent attempts did not get close. The controversy surrounding Wolfe’s death persists to this day. Inspired by her discovery of Wolfe’s remains, Jordan published a book in 2010 about the controversy, entitled The Last Man on the Mountain: The Death of an American Adventurer on K2.

Dudley Wolfe was rich. His father had married into one of the wealthiest families in America. Perhaps that is why Wolfe was recruited by Fritz Wiessner, the expedition leader. Unfortunately, the team Wiessner managed to assemble was relatively inexperienced and unprepared for the undertaking.

Some Himalayan expeditions are utterly miserable from start to finish, and this was no exception. Before even setting foot on the mountain, one of the team members nearly died from illness in base camp. And the group dynamics were atrocious, with nearly everyone seemingly despising Wiessner.

Though lacking experience, Wolfe proved to be one of the strongest climbers. Only two other climbers got higher than him, and he probably spent more time than anyone high on the mountain. But this is presumably what did him in.

After Wiessner and Pasang Lama got tantalizingly close to the summit, they were forced to descend. Wiessner and Lama reunited with Wolfe at one of the higher camps, but for reasons that may never be known, left him at the 25,000 foot camp. As Wiessner and Lama descended to resupply at a lower camp, they were mortified to discover that all of the precious camps above base camp had been inexplicably emptied. They were thus forced to descend all the way to base camp. By this point, some of the team members had started home. But poor Dudley Wolfe was stuck at 25,000 feet. The attempt to rescue him resulted in the disappearance of three Sherpas. Wolfe was not seen again for 63 years.

Some books about major expeditions are exceptionally well-written and even funny. This one is neither. But the writing is clear and the research thorough, with the possible exception of one factual error. Contrary to Jordan, I thought that Wiessner first saw the Gunks not from the Shawangunk Mountains (the Gunks are in the Shawangunk Mountains), but from Breakneck Ridge in the Hudson Highlands. But that is an exceedingly minor point.

Breakneck Ridge. A fun scramble on the Hudson.
This book will lack appeal for those seeking a heroic, romanticized, and inspiring account of a Himalayan expedition. But for those with a deeper interest in the genre, Jordan’s book is an engaging and realistic analysis of a low point in American mountaineering.

Monday, February 7, 2011

My First Skyline

Looking down at Skyline from the upper tram station. The trail follows the east ridge, which curls down to the right.

The Skyline (or Palms to Pines) Trail on Mt. San Jacinto is notorious. First, it gains about 8000 vertical feet in under ten miles. The trail starts at an elevation of 500 feet at the edge of Palm Springs and terminates at the upper tram station, which sits at roughly 8500 feet. Second, it is a frequent site of rescues and, unfortunately, fatalities. The accidents seem to be caused primarily by extreme seasonal heat down low and steep seasonal ice up high.

A few weeks ago, Tina Fiori, a local Skyline aficionado, had offered to take me up. Tina has done Skyline 100 times, including twice in one day (and she has done that twice). About a week ago, I called her bluff. But Tina was not bluffing. She jumped at the opportunity to introduce me to her favorite local hike. Thus it was that in the pre-dawn dark of February 6, I could be seen chugging fifty ounces of liquid and furtively watering the bushes in the art museum parking lot.

At 6:00AM, Tina, myself, and two other Skyline newbies (Mike Ostby and Phil Incikaya) were just about ready when the last of our group arrived. When I saw who it was, a little voice inside my head said, “Get in your car and drive home.” Between the two of them, Steve Irvin and Fernando Lara have done Skyline 350 times. Perhaps more impressively, they have each done it three times in one day – that’s 24,000 feet of elevation gain in one day.

I had gone “hiking” with Steve and Fernando once before and it was (1) by far the most elevation gain I have ever done in one day (10,000 vertical feet), and (2) possibly the most exhausted I have ever been. But there were two details that encouraged me. First, Steve and Fernando were looking ragged. Optimistically hoping that they were extremely hungover, I instead learned that they were recovering from a huge hike the day before, from which they returned well after dark. Second, they were accompanied by a delicate and unassuming lady named Patti Jones who looked to be another Skyline newbie. Surely she would be keeping Steve and Fernando to a civilized pace. But something in Patti’s appearance conflicted with my first impression. Her hair looked curiously windblown, as if she had been driving 90 mph in a car without a windshield. I would soon realize why.

We set foot on the trail at around 6:15AM. For the next minute or so, I watched Patti appear to get smaller and smaller until she disappeared over a hill high above. It was like watching a balloon rising into the heavens and then vanishing from sight. The next time I saw her, she was sitting patiently at a table in the upper tram station, still looking delicate and unassuming. She had been waiting there for nearly three hours and her hair looked even more windblown.

Mike down low.

 Where's Tina?

I managed to keep up with Steve until about 6000 feet. My strategy was to slow him down with difficult questions that required him not just to think, but to stop and think. It worked. While Steve gave me a veritable guided tour of Skyline and the surrounding terrain, rich with fascinating stories and anecdotes, I conserved energy and mumbled “wow” or “really” as needed. One of his more interesting stories was about being helicoptered onto the ridge to install a few safety boxes for distressed hikers. Somewhere in the midst of that, Fernando (or something that looked like Fernando) suddenly flashed by, seemingly out of nowhere, and then disappeared around a bend as quickly as he had appeared. I didn’t see Fernando again until the upper tram station.

Steve in his element.  And yes, we are going all the way to the highest ridge in the background.
Eventually, I had to stop for a rest and encouraged Steve to go ahead while I waited for Tina and Mike. Finally able to proceed at his own pace, Steve literally sprinted away. Like a changing of the guard, Tina promptly emerged from the dense chaparral and informed me that the pretty, wispy bushes surrounding us were called Ribbonwood. I’ve since learned that Ribbonwood, also called Redshank or Red Bush, can induce bowel movements and vomiting. That was one hazard I had not anticipated. After waiting a few minutes for Mike, Tina emitted an impressively loud yell that could have been heard for miles. To our amused surprise, Mike calmly replied “yes?” from about ten feet away.

Tina and Mike, with San Gorgonio in the background. No, we are not going that far.

Tina, Mike, and I continued on together for about twenty minutes, until we reached a place called flat rock. It was here that I again encountered Steve, who had found something that made him sit down – fresh baked cinnamon rolls. This obviously requires some explanation. Phil had never done Skyline, but he clearly wasn’t worried about it, because he carried a portable oven in his pack. By the time we caught up to Phil, five cinnamon rolls were baking in the oven. After smothering them with frosting, Phil distributed the cinnamon rolls to four people who had all, in a relatively short span of time, been reduced to staring wide-eyed at a small stove, around which they crouched, while licking their chops.

Phil and his cinnamon rolls. Steve appears to wonder why Phil hasn't served him one yet.

Above flat rock, we entered an expanse of thick Manzanita, through which the trail is carved. Beyond that, we finally entered the shade of conifers, and with that, snow and ice. Here, the trail makes a sharp right (northwest) turn and remains horizontal for roughly a third of a mile. This is the dreaded “traverse”. It is dreaded, because the traverse crosses at least one chute that can be treacherous for the poorly equipped when filled with ice or consolidated snow. An unarrested slip here could send one rocketing down the chute for several hundred vertical feet. However, this has been a light snow year, so the chute was only partially covered in snow. But there was enough snow and ice that some of us opted for friction underfoot. While Tina waited for me to adjust my Stabilicers, I encouraged her to go ahead. Her response was, “Nope, I’m waiting”. Considering all the people who have become lost, injured, rescued and worse in this section, I appreciated that.

Tina and me shortly before the traverse to Coffman's Crag, which is directly above us.

A view of San Gorgonio from the traverse. 

After the traverse, which ends near Coffman’s Crag, we headed more or less straight uphill over consolidated snow for about 300 vertical feet. And then we were in the sun again. It took only a few more minutes of scrambling before we stepped over a fence and onto a deck at the upper tram station. It had taken Tina and her three newbies about seven hours to ascend 8000 vertical feet. Last weekend, she had done it two hours faster.

Mike on the home stretch after the traverse.

One of the great things about Skyline is that you don’t have to descend it – you can simply take the tram down. There are many amazing sights to behold on the ride down, but for me, the most amazing sight was Steve and Fernando standing still. Fernando compensated for his lack of action by talking a mile a minute. He spoke in hushed tones and whispers about secret routes up canyons and ridges, about hot springs and shortcuts, all the while pointing this way and that with a wild look in his eyes. It was as if he were revealing the location of buried treasure. In a way, he was.

Back at the parking lot, Mike and I joked about heading back up the trail for another Skyline. Steve and Fernando weren’t joking as they discussed their strategy for doing it four times in one day. At one point during the hike, Steve had stated earnestly that sometimes he feels like he could just keep doing it over and over and over again. I keep thinking about that.

By 4:15PM, Mt. San Jacinto was far behind me as I drove into Newport Beach. I felt very agitated. First, I had been suppressing the urge to pee and struggling to stay awake for thirty minutes. Second, I realized that I had overshot my exit by ten miles and needed to turn around. I don’t think I’m ready for a Skyline doubleheader just yet.

Our track, courtesy of Phil Incikaya. Skyline essentially follows the east ridge of Mt. San Jacinto from the desert floor to the upper tram station.