Monday, April 25, 2011

Miller Peak, Northeast Face

 Patrick Moran on Leatherneck Ridge.  Our route on the northeast face of Miller Peak is marked in red.

From the usual vantage points, Miller Peak (10,400 feet) is an unassuming shoulder of Mt. San Jacinto. I had overlooked it until February of this year, when I was afforded rare views of its northeastern aspect while climbing the obscure Leatherneck Ridge. The spectacle of Miller’s northeast face absolutely blew me away. I knew right away that climbing it would become a major priority.

Considering (1) the grandeur of Miller’s NE face and (2) its’ proximity to America’s second largest city, I wondered why I had never heard of anyone climbing it. In the weeks to come, I would find out.

Miller’s NE face bottoms out at around 6600 feet in Falls Creek – that’s 5400 vertical feet above the nearest road. Factoring in the ups and downs on that trail-less approach amounts to about 6000 vertical feet of travel, much of it through horrendously brushy terrain. In early March, Patrick Moran and I attempted that approach. In nine hours, we were only able to make it to 5500 vertical feet, still 2-3 hours shy of the base. Two weeks later we returned and made it to the base in ten hours. But at that point it was after 2:00PM and we were in no condition to ascend nearly 4000 vertical feet more to the summit.

For the next month, we bided our time and hoped the snow wouldn’t melt too much. Then, on Sunday, April 24, Patrick and I boarded a special 4:30AM tramcar scheduled to take worshippers to a sunrise Easter service at the 8516-foot Mountain Station. Instead of ascending 6000 vertical feet to the base of Miller’s NE face, we would climb a few hundred vertical feet to the crest and then descend 2000 vertical feet to it. It was an ingenious plan, if I can say so myself.

We left the tram station at around 5:00AM, filled out a wilderness permit, and then followed the trail by headlamp for about twenty minutes. Navigating from the trail to the crest in the dark was not easy. The terrain is convoluted and there is nothing obvious to aim for. Plus, we left the trail far too early. Nonetheless, by 6:00AM we were standing at the crest prepared to descend a couloir toward Falls Creek. We had to be careful about which couloir we descended, because we had previously seen a huge cliff in one of them.

After a few hundred feet of loose, dry ground, we found ourselves on hard, icy snow that dropped for over 1000 continuous vertical feet. For the next hour or so, we carefully made our way down the couloir, braced for a quick self-arrest if necessary.

 Patrick descending toward Falls Creek.

No Falls Creek experience is complete without some strenuous bushwhacking, and this was not to be an exception. But after our previous two experiences, one hour of thrashing and stumbling through brush seemed a small price to pay to gain the Falls Creek snow tongue by 8:00AM.

Patrick crossing Falls Creek at the base of our route.

 Looking down Falls Creek.

Looking up Falls Creek toward Cornell Peak.

To our slight disappointment, the bottom few hundred feet of our intended couloir had melted away, but that still left about 3500 vertical feet of snow climbing. The snow began in earnest at around 7000 feet. From there, we just followed the couloir straight up to the 9200-foot saddle between Miller Peak and Kristen Peak.

Heading up.

Since the NE face gets first light, the snow was slushy and somewhat uncooperative by 9:00AM. It got progressively worse as we got higher. Perhaps because I only managed one hour of sleep the night before, I was dragging.

After finally catching up with Patrick, I resolved to break trail for a while. Within minutes, a boulder the size of a microwave oven crashed into the couloir about 200 feet above and began hurtling its away straight toward us. Yelling “run”, I quickly moved over to the rock wall that bounded the right side of the couloir, flattening myself against it. Seconds later, the boulder ripped through the very spot where I had been standing. Patrick was much more nonchalant about the whole affair, and simply watched the boulder bounce by him. Though climbs like this are sometimes better done at night, because the snow is firmer and there is consequently less rockfall, we might not have been able to dodge that boulder in the dark, because we wouldn’t have seen it.

I snapped this photo seconds before the rockfall.  Note the orange water bottle in the rocks on the left.  Evidence of a prior ascent?  Or dropped from the ridge above?

In light of our close encounter with the projectile, I felt that we should move faster. Almost immediately, the snow became considerably softer and slushier, making quick progress impossible. The final several hundred feet to the saddle were brutal, with loads of exhausting postholing and sliding. The snow was solid enough to kick steps in, but once full weight was applied, it would often collapse, throwing us into awkward, off-balance positions that expended too much energy. After a solid hour of this, we finally hauled ourselves onto the saddle between Miller Peak and Kristen Peak, where we were immediately blasted by wind.

Slushy, 45 degree snow.  Very tiring. 
Dazed from exertion, I wandered around slowly and snapped photos from this rarely visited spot, while Patrick quickly mobilized and began making his way up the final 1200 vertical feet of Miller’s north ridge. The ridge was plastered in deep snow that alternated between rock hard and unconsolidated. I found the climbing to be completely exhausting. Every ten steps or so, I would crash through the surface or slide awkwardly. Leaning on my ice axe for a rest, it would suddenly sink all the way to hilt, leaving me bent completely over. To my frustration, it sometimes seemed that I could not find a stable place to stand.

Patrick on the Miller/Kristen saddle at the top of the couloir.  Miller's north ridge looms above.

 Looking north toward Kristen Peak.

 The upper reaches of the East Fork of Snow Creek. 

Another view of Miller's north ridge.  It looks benign, but it wasn't.

After a painstaking hour of being slapped by cold wind while floundering around in unstable snow, I lost composure and screamed a slew of profanities. The outburst was effective, as it unleashed an untapped reserve that powered me upward with a force that surprised me. In a final intense push that involved extremely loud pressure breathing, I caught up with Patrick. Unfortunately, that final push had propelled me above the peak, so we actually had to descend to Miller’s craggy summit, which we reached before 1:30PM.

I'm a little fired up.

Patrick was so beat that he mentioned something about not climbing the final few feet to the summit, which amused me. But of course he did. Still buoyed from my profanity-inspired charge to the top – not to mention completing a route that had required 40+ hours of recon – I let it all hang out on the summit, woo-hooing with arms thrust victoriously in the air. Eventually I calmed down and let my hand come to rest in a bowl of sour cream (sorry, that’s a Woody Allen line I’ve always liked). At 4:00PM, eleven hours after setting out, we were calling our wives and ingesting Advil, caffeine, and pizza at the upper tram station.

The numbers: 4500+ vertical feet, 11 hours round trip.

Patrick's photos are here.

Another angle on our route, taken from Leatherneck Ridge. 

While we were two thirds of the way up the couloir, Ryan Bracci happened to be flying overhead.  He snapped this photo:

Photo taken by Ryan Bracci while we were climbing the couloir. Our route is marked in red.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Mt. Baldy, North Face

Our route up the north face of Mt. Baldy.  We approached via Baldy/Dawson saddle on the far left skyline. 
[Photo by Norma Ryan]

I had heard of people skiing part way down the north face of Mt. Baldy, but never of anyone climbing it from bottom to top. Emboldened by Ryan Dacey’s climb of the north face of West Baldy earlier in the year, Patrick Moran and I decided that conditions were conducive to an attempt on Baldy’s north face.

Because of concerns about rockfall and avalanches, I insisted on a party of no more than two. So a little before 4:00AM on April 15, Patrick and I started walking up the Ski Hut trail by headlamp. Shortly after sunrise, we arrived at the 9400-foot saddle between Baldy and Harwood. There we donned crampons, ice axes, and helmets in preparation for several hours on snow and ice.

Looking back toward Harwood/Baldy saddle during the traverse.
The icy traverse to the 8800-foot saddle between Baldy and Dawson was straightforward, though an unarrested slip anywhere on the traverse would have led to rapid slide of 1000 vertical feet into the South Fork of Lytle Creek. From the saddle, we descended into Fish Fork, arriving at the 7450-foot base of our intended route at around 8:30AM.

Our first glimpse of Fish Fork from the Dawson/Baldy saddle.

From my study of photos (thanks to Mike Ostby and Ryan Dacey) and GoogleEarth imagery, I assumed that the crux of the route would be a cliff band between 7900 and 8300 feet. Seeing this section from below, I was relieved to see a snow-filled couloir cutting through the middle of it, though my comment to Patrick was that it looked “gnarly”.

Our first view of the north face route, including the crux bottleneck couloir near the bottom.

The bottleneck couloir.
The snow conditions in the bottleneck couloir were the worst we would encounter all day. Though some of the snow was consolidated, a mix of deep fluff and hard ice made it thought provoking. The meat of the bottleneck was a 100-foot stretch of roughly 50 degree climbing that felt steeper than it looked from below (which, in my experience, is rarely the case with snow). There were a few steps of third-class rock scrambling and also some spots meriting hard swings of the ice axe. The final hurdle was an awkward chimney-style maneuver between a boulder and undermined powder snow. Then we were out of the bottleneck and into an ocean of perfectly consolidated snow.

Patrick climbing above the crux section of the bottleneck couloir.

The next 1800 vertical feet was on mostly icy-hard snow that increased from 30 to around 45 degrees. An unarrested slip anywhere on this slope would have led to a long, rapid slide into the rocky bottleneck couloir. On the few occasions that my crampons balled up in soft patches, I was extra cautious and quick to knock the snow off with my ice axe.

 Patrick coming up for a rest a few hundred feet above the bottleneck couloir.

Looking up at our route, which was a race against the sun. 

It was neat to see the singer and guitarist of the newly formed Sam Page Band on the route.

Watching Patrick come up as I take a quick break on some rocks.

At around 11:00AM, I climbed over the cornice that had been looming above for the past two hours and walked a few steps to the summit. Blasted by cold wind, I put on a few layers and then hurried back to the crest to photograph Patrick climbing below. But Patrick was already up. After a high-five and a quick snack, we made a rapid glissade and scree ski to the hut. By 1:30, we were ingesting Advil and caffeine at the car and talking about the Tetons.

Patrick topping out on the route he was been working toward for several years.

The numbers: 5800 vertical feet, 9.5 hours car-to-car.

Patrick's photos are here.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Baldy Bowl

On Sunday (April 3), Augie Medina, Ty Sutherland, Patrick Moran, and I climbed Baldy Bowl.  Though the bowl was melted out in places, the snow conditions were excellent in the mid-morning.   

We left Manker Flat around 5:15, which was later than we had planned.  The trail was mostly free of snow to the ski hut.  After a long break at the hut -- during which time we were harassed by a hungry, determined dog -- we walked up a few hundred feet of scree to where the snow began in earnest.  There we donned crampons and commenced crunching our way up very nicely consolidated snow.

Augie at the bottom of the bowl.

 The western side of the bowl.

Midway up the bowl, it got hot and the snow started getting slushy.  As usual, the final, steep stretch to the crest was exhilarating.  At the crest, it was windy and cold.  I was glad to have brought a down jacket.

It's all snow from here.

Augie in the foreground with Ty picking up the rear (literally!).

The north side of Ontario Peak.

Click to watch the video.

Since Patrick and Ty were going at their own paces, Augie and I walked to the summit together on very firm snow.  After a few chilly, face-stinging moments on top, we descended to the lip of the east bowl, but not before Augie nearly lost his sunglasses and a glove to the wind. 

Augie on the summit.
The glissading conditions were nearly perfect.  According to Augie, the descent to the ski hut took 23 minutes. Whilst sliding down the snow, I did not envy the dozens of climbers starting up the slushy bowl in the baking SoCal sun.

Lots of climbers heading up. 

The falls were gushing at the bottom.