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.



nice job. you guys are on a roll!

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