Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Merry Little Bushwhack in Falls Creek

Falls Creek is a major drainage on the north side of Mt. San Jacinto in southern California. It drops 9000 vertical feet from the summit of Miller Peak to the desert floor. The upper reaches of the drainage contain some of the most spectacular alpine terrain south of the Sierras. Admiring the terrain from Leatherneck Ridge recently, I wondered why I had only heard of one ascent of those upper reaches. On Sunday, March 6, I found out why.

Patrick on a previous ascent of Leatherneck Ridge with Falls Creek drainage in background.

The fact that the only ascent of the Falls Creek drainage that I was aware of had ended in a helicopter rescue was not discouraging. Noteworthy, but not discouraging. What was discouraging was all the fresh snow on the mountain and a forecast calling for very strong winds all day and an evening rain/snow storm. Nonetheless, at 4:30AM, Phil Incikaya, Steve Irvin, Patrick Moran, and I left our cars at 1200 feet on Snow Creek Road and began walking across the desert floor by headlamp.

The plan was to skirt far around the notorious DWA property and intersect Falls Creek at about 4400 feet. From there we would follow the creek until 6000 feet, at which point we would climb a couloir for 2600 vertical feet to “Shangri-La” (the bouldering area where Leatherneck Ridge intersects the crest). A short walk to the upper tram station would then conclude our glorious ascent.

View of Mt. San Jacinto from the "legal approach". Falls Creek on left, Snow Creek (East Fork) in center.

Steve had done the “legal approach” to Falls Creek several times, so he led the way, keeping us on very manageable terrain for four hours. In the midst of a traverse at around 4200 feet, I had a bright idea to traverse higher. Almost immediately, we were thrust into dense brush that persisted until we returned to that very spot nine hours later.

Falls Creek with Leatherneck Ridge in upper left corner.

 Phil (L) and Steve (R).

At 9:30, after a solid hour of bushwhacking, we gained a rib that afforded arresting views up Falls Creek. Wisely, Steve and Phil opted to stop here and enjoy a leisurely jaunt down to the creek, while Patrick and I stubbornly plowed ahead under packs laden with heavy alpine gear, which included mountaineering boots, crampons, ice axes, and warm clothing. For the next three hours, Patrick and I thrashed and scrambled our way across the slopes above Falls Creek. Whilst Patrick responded to the unrelenting thrashing with stoicism, I cursed and whimpered openly.

 Patrick emptying debris from his shoes in a relatively open patch. 

In addition to awful bushwhacking, we encountered several stretches of rock scrambling. One stretch in particular stands out in my mind. It involved climbing a very exposed, albeit featured, slab while being buffeted by winds. Above that, there was a precipitous section bounded by dense brush. While I was failing to find a passage, I looked up in surprise to see Patrick crawling along a narrow ledge above me on all fours. He then turned a corner and disappeared from sight. I put on my helmet. Though there were plenty of holds, the climbing was awkward. It culminated with a really awkward move around the corner, followed by an all-out, violent thrust through dense brush.

At around 5500 vertical feet, we intersected a large gully. Filling up our water bottles, we contemplated our future. Within minutes we decided to bail. The decision was difficult because we had just endured four straight hours of miserable bushwhacking that would now have to be repeated. In addition, with all of the ups and downs, we had about 5000 vertical feet to descend. But the 50 mph gusts that were continuously knocking us off balance would only be worse on the open slopes and ridges above. Plus, we still had to gain over 3000 vertical feet, would likely encounter deep snow, and knew there was an evening storm in the forecast.

Looking down Falls Creek at the top of a cliff below our turnaround point.

In the hope of avoiding some bushwhacking, we opted to descend to Falls Creek and follow it back to the traverse. After getting cliffed out in the gully, we were forced back onto the brushy slopes until we finally reached the creek. What we found in Falls Creek was far worse than anything we had encountered all day. Though there were a few short stretches where we could walk normally, it was mostly a tangle of brush and deadfall that brought progress to a complete standstill on several occasions.

A brief respite from the brush in Falls Creek. [Photo by Patrick Moran]

Click to watch video.

Contemplating the fact that ribbonwoods are known to induce bowel movements and vomiting. [Photo by Patrick Moran]

After finally escaping the brush at around 5:00, we raced downhill for an hour until darkness overtook us. Taking refuge from the wind in a cave, we donned headlamps, snacked, and called loved ones. Little did we know, we were off route and had stopped at the edge of a precipice.

Shouldering our packs and starting downhill, I was unnerved at the increasingly steep, rocky terrain that my headlamp was illuminating below. After only a few minutes, I reached a vertical section that would have entailed a fifty-foot fall before the first bounce. I couldn’t see what was below that. Had we climbed up this in the morning? I took a few tentative steps down, but pulled my foot back each time. I thought about my kids and felt nauseous. There was absolutely no reason to take this risk. Without further hesitation, we climbed back up to the cave and found easier terrain nearby.

After an hour or so of relentless 40-degree grass, we finally hit flat ground and let out whoops of jubilation. But Falls Creek wasn’t done with us yet. Encountering the creek for the last time midway across the desert, and with no stepping stones in sight, we were reduced to simply walking through it, drenching our feet. At 8:30 PM, 16 hours after setting out, we sealed ourselves off from the wind in my car and began drinking copious quantities of caffeine. Moments later, it began to rain.

We had ourselves a merry little bushwhack.

Patrick's photos are here

 Our route of ascent: 1200 feet to ~5500 feet, 16 hours round trip.


Norma said...

Maybe getting stuck in that traffic jam was a blessing in disguise for me! Though i have a feeling i would have done the Steve & Phil opt out. Sam, as always, great TR and congrats to you and Patrick for prevailing as far as you did. Rain, moments after you got in the car? Your timing was divine!

Hikin' Jim said...

Oh, yeah, that was a fun day. Yipes!