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.


Mike said...

-Mike Ostby

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a fantastic and detailed write-up! I and my buddies will attempt your route this weekend.

Anonymous said...

could you maybe find a different mountain to climb for a change?

Norma said...

awesome climb on a familiar mtn but an unfamiliar route! that north face is a beaut! very cool that you can now saw you have graced it in snow. extra cool that you saw that rock genius out there. i hope to run into him soon ;)