The NW face of Folly Peak from my spring 2010 recon.
After climbing the notorious Snow Creek route on the north face of San Jacinto Peak in 2010, I became intrigued with the equally impressive face around the corner – namely, the northwest face of Folly Peak. Though accounts of climbing the north face of San Jacinto are legion, I was only able to uncover one sketchy, second-hand reference to anyone climbing the NW face of Folly – and that party was alleged to have been several days overdue. This, of course, made it even more intriguing.
Climbing the NW face of Folly from bottom to top would involve 9000+ vertical feet of elevation gain up the east branch of the west fork of Snow Creek (the standard “Snow Creek” route up the north face of San Jacinto actually follows the *east* fork of Snow Creek). The lower section of the east branch of the west fork is trail-less and densely vegetated. After Patrick Moran, Zach Cyrus, and I made two unpromising attempts (one in 2010 and one earlier this month) to find a way up the lower section, we decided to approach from a completely different direction. Thus it was that in the wee hours of December 10, the three of us pulled up to a locked gate that a ranger had assured me was open.
With one eye on our maps and another on the full moon that was becoming increasingly eclipsed to the west, we reviewed our options for accessing the trailhead that was now several miles beyond the unexpectedly locked gate. This was an inauspicious start to what was already going to be a pre-dawn to dusk (hopefully) outing. After driving around on dirt roads for another half hour and encountering two more locked gates, we finally settled on a plan and parked. It was pitch black and cold when we finally set off at 6:00ish, following an unsuccessful search for a missing wallet (another inauspicious development).
Nearly 3000 vertical feet of walking on trail and off landed us on the sunny crest of Fuller Ridge. There we swapped trail shoes for mountaineering boots, replaced trekking poles with ice axes, and donned helmets. Then, at 10:00, we stepped into the cold shade and unconsolidated snow on the north side of Fuller Ridge and began our descent into the other Snow Creek.
Our first view of the route. We climbed the couloir to the visible bottleneck chockstone, then ascended the ridge on the left to the top.
Since daylight was in short supply and we were descending into terrain for which there was no known record of prior travel, we opted to enter the drainage at a relatively high point, which turned out to be roughly 7800 feet. The snow in the couloir was about three feet deep and mostly unconsolidated. Patrick led the way through the snow until we reached a chockstone at ~8300 feet that we deemed to be impassable. At that point, we scrambled up rocks on the left and aimed for the sunny ridge that would put us even further into the NW face.
Patrick and Zach accessing the couloir.
Our destination is the highpoint 2500 vertical feet above.
Patrick and the chockstone that blocked our way up the couloir.
While we were scrambling up the hillside toward the ridgeline, Patrick made a surprising discovery: two large, rusted gas cans. They were sitting right next to each other in the snow and were barely dented or scratched. A speculative discussion immediately ensued about how they got there.
Zach presenting the mysterious gas cans.
We gained the ridge at around 8800 feet and for the next two hours labored through unconsolidated snow, boulders, and branches – the kind of tiring terrain I’ve become well-acquainted with on Mt. San Jacinto. As expected from satellite imagery, the ridge steepened considerably at the final headwall, involving 100+ feet of strenuous third class scrambling over big boulders.
Looking up the ridge.
It's a loooooong way down.
Zach on the ridge.
Topping out at ~10,350 feet, we saw what we thought was the summit at roughly ~10,420 feet. Reaching that point after fifteen minutes of tedious boulder-hopping through loose snow, we saw the true summit of Folly Peak at 10,500+ feet a few hundred yards further. The time was 2:30 and we were very tired. Concerned that we only had 2.5 hours of daylight left, Patrick and I stopped there while Zach powered on to the tippy top. By the time Patrick and I finished eating and hydrating, Zach was back and ready to descend.
That's the tippy top over there.
Patrick on the subsidiary summit with the 5000 vertical foot NW face below.
It took a little over an hour to descend 1700 vertical feet down the trail-less and brush-covered Fuller Ridge to our gear cache. After a hasty break there to replace mountaineering boots with trail shoes, we moved as fast as possible downhill in the hope of finding the trail before dark. We never did find the trail, but eventually found ourselves on a road about one hour after sunset. Shortly thereafter, a brilliant full moon rose to light our way back to the car.
Racing down to the trail at sunset with our route in the background. I think Zach is finally tired.
The numbers: ~5500 vertical feet (including ~2500 on the NW face); 12+ hours round trip.
Photo by Norma Ryan.