Thursday, November 29, 2012


Most mountaineers and alpine climbers know and understand that mountaineering is type 2 fun. For those that have not heard this mentioned before, it means that its not fun until your objective is over and you are back in the comforts of civilization. Many times mountaineering just feels like downright suffering. Mountaineering involves, extreme physical exertion, poor often dangerous weather, mind numbingly boring logistics, and very few comforts. This is before factoring in the difficulty and commitment of the chosen route. Now I'm not going to get into what drives climbers too pursue this sport or how it can affect your life, thats a completely different discussion for another time. What I will bring up is that out of all those things I mentioned, only one can really be controlled by the participant and that is their physical fitness. When one is fit and has no nagging injuries, the whole experience can be made more enjoyable. I have a few friends who have some of these nagging issues and it really tests their mental toughness every trip. If you love the mountains as much as me, love them more, get in shape and work on fixing those nagging issues. Maybe the man in this video can inspire you.

Happy training and good luck!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Bushwhacking, Rattlesnakes, Cold Food, and Free Soloing: A Snow Creek Adventure

Date Climbed: Early April 2012
Peak: Mt. San Jacinto (10,834')
Route: Snow Creek- Grade IV Class 4/5.7 WI 1 Moderate Snow
Gear: Helmet, Crampons, Ice Axe, (rope and a few nuts could be helpful)

Disclaimer (sort of):
This was one daunting climb. Plagued with access issues, poor snow, and difficult route finding, its not recommended for the beginner. With regards to access, be sure to research the Desert Water Agency's rules on the area. There is a one square mile plot of land that must be avoided. Lets keep this jewel open for others in the future.

A rough route
To help train for our May trip to Mt. Rainier, Scott and I decided that the time was right for a trip up the Snow Creek route on Mt. San Jacinto. This route is by far the most difficult in Southern California, and easily one of the best alpine routes in the country. However, there is not much in the way of information about this route. There is no trail, there are hardly any cairns. This is a true mountain route that requires a complete knowledge of backcountry travel and route finding. Anyways. We drove from our home in Orange County out to Palm springs in the early morning hours. We arrived at the pullout of the road right at sunrise.
The DWA land
Twenty minutes later we set off across the desert unsure of where we were going and how long it would take us. We wove our way through the brush until we reached the base of the ridge that is used to skirt the private property. Just a few years ago, the common practice was to try and cross the private property in the early A.M. hours. Now you are guaranteed to be caught and fined. Climbing up the slope below the ridge was loose and complicated. There was a lot of shrubbery to be avoided and the threat of rattlesnakes always loomed in the back of our minds. We had read other trip reports where people had gained the ridge and taken it all the way passed the private land and then dropped back down into the drainage for a huge elevation loss. We decided to try and avoid that and just contour the slope just above the DWA land. The process was slow. Sometimes it would cliff out. In the end we found out that this way was more of a pain than we had hoped. We finally dropped back down to the left fork of the creek about a quarter mile after the waterfall.
The left fork of Snow Creek
Waterfall just above Scott's head
The creek offered some welcomed shade from the desert sun, but our enjoyment was ended by the rattle of a very pissed off snake. Scott had disturbed him when he stepped over a fallen tree. I still had to make it passed this tree as well and there was no way around. I bit nervous and ran and jumped over it in hopes I would be moving to fast for the snake to strike. Luckily I succeeded. From then on we were very cautious of where we stepped and where we placed our hands. We scrambled up the other side of the creek onto this sort of plateau that is in between both forks of the creek. From here we thought we could see a faint use trail here and there, but it seemed to fade in and out. Every once in a while we would randomly stumble upon a cairn. Our technique was to just use the path of least resistance(more rock, less bushes). It seemed to do the trick because all of a sudden out of nowhere we came upon this tunnel through the shrubs. From a highpoint we realized that this seemed to be the only way through the dense vegetation without a machete. So we were lucky that we found it. By this time we had been in the hot desert sun for 5 hours and we were out of water. After the shrub tunnel, and some steep loose terrain, we found a small creek, and filled up our water bottles. From here the route stays left of the creek proper and continues up a small gully that looks like it will cliff out above the creek. Just keep going this is the right way. Scott and I were getting pretty beat down from all the bushwhacking, so when we crested the gully and found a small trail into the creek proper we felt a bit rejuvenated and relieved.
The point of relief
The Chockstone, 4th class terrain on right just out of frame
Once in Snow Creek itself the terrain depends solely on the amount of snowfall. If there is a lot of snow, the whole couloir can be filled with snow and avalanche debris. We were unfortunate and found there to be no snow at the start of the route. We boulder hopped up until we came to the Chockstone, a key marker on the route. In high snow years it can be completely covered. In our case it was completely dry and we had to take the 4th class ledges on the right. I could have sworn the top move was in the low 5th class range, especially in mountaineering boots and with a large pack. The use trail then takes you winding through small trees for a few hundred vertical feet. On the way through the trees, two climbers came down, one of them covered in blood. We asked what had happened and if they needed help. The hurt climber said that he was fine is was just a cut. Apparently they had gotten off route and climbed the wrong gully up a peaklet. Near the top of the peaklet it began to cliff out on them so they retreated and the climber fell and cut his hand. This made us pretty nervous. We wondered if we could find the right way. We wished them luck on the bushwhack back out and continued up through the trees. We exited the trees above a gully and were greeted with our first real glimpse of the route.
Our glimpse of the route
From there we tried to contemplate where the other two had gone wrong and tried to scope out the best route through the multiple steps. We descended into the gully and a few hundred feet up the creek later we found a nice flat spot to put our sleeping bags. While unpacking we realized that we had forgotten fuel for our stove. We couldn't believe it. A few weeks before we had forgotten a lighter on Whitney. (checklists are a good idea) We opted to rehydrate our food with cold water. It wasn't to cold outside so this was tolerable. We sat around and studied the map a bit more before we went to bed. It was still pretty early but the steepness of the canyon made it pretty dark.
Scott at one of the first rock steps
The next morning we stayed in our sleeping bags till the sun rose and a faint amount of light entered the canyon. We packed everything up since we would not be coming back down the same way. Crampons, ice axe, and helmet ready to go, we began the climb. At first it was a mix of low angle snow and some boulder hopping. Then there was a short 10ft frozen waterfall, I would rate at WI1 or neglegable. We continued up some more snow and then we were hit with cliffs on all sides. We weren't sure what to do. The easiest way seemed to go the wrong way(this is where the other two got lost) We tried the next point of weakness. About 20 ft up we realized it was far to loose to safely climb so we backed down that as well. The only other viable option was a 25ft solid headwall. There was a small trough running up through it that looked like it could be climbed, but when we looked at it closely, it didn't look as easy. We decided to just climb the face itself. Luckily this could be done in two chunks. Scott went first and it didn't look easy. I handed him his pack and mine as well then I tried it. It was only 3 or 4 moves, but they were easily in the 5.7 range. It required smearing in bulky boots while only being able to grab sloppy oddly angled holds. Needless to say it scared the crap out of me. The second half wasn't as technical but it was just as scary since a fall would be very serious. Luckily we both made it to the top fine, and were relieved to see that it was snow the rest of the way.

Scott just above the free solo

Me just after the first fork
Nearing the second fork

Me headed up to the last fork
The right of the left forks (there are two take the one on the right)

The last few soggy feet
Looking down the route
From that point the snow got steadily steeper. Nothing over 50 degrees though. The upper part of the mountain can be pretty confusing. The way I remember it is that at the first fork stay right, at the next fork stay right, and at the third go left. By the time we were almost near the top the snow had gotten super soft and the microwave effect from the canyon and the snow put the temperature around 90 degrees. We were cooking. We stopped once or twice in some shade to catch a break from the sun, but we knew the snow would just get more unstable. We pressed on and near the top we encountered the steepest climbing. In the loose snow it required all four limbs to get up it. We stood on top a few minutes later. We talked to a nice couple for a few minutes and they offered us some of their sandwiches which we accepted graciously even though I'm vegan and their ham and cheese wasn't. We could tell that they really wanted to help us and that they really didn't want their sandwiches. They took a picture for us and then we raced off down the main trail to get back to the tramway. On the way down we tried to make a b-line through the woods. Soon we got pretty worried that we might get lost because the forest was so dense and we couldn't see any landmarks that would be visible on the map. We decided to just continue in the same direction. Eventually we came upon some areas I recognized from when I came bouldering. In the end it only took us an hour or so to hike back to the tramway. Once at the bottom, Scott's dad was nice enough to pick us up and take us back to the car. At the end I checked my altimeter watch and it said that we had done a total of 13920 ft. of elevation gain over the two day climb. And according to the map it was roughly 20 miles of distance. "I think we are ready for Rainier."

Mt. Whitney's Mountaineers Route: Five Years in the Making

Date Climbed: 4/29/2012
Peak: Mt. Whitney (14, 501')
Route: Mountaineers Route- Class 3/4
Gear: ice axe, crampons, helmet

The Mountaineers Route

A quick route description: 
Approach- Starting at the Whitney Portal Trailhead, follow long sweeping switch backs to a sign near a small waterfall that marks the way to the Whitney Trail. 
Turn north here
Turn right up the hill and follow trail through dense trees. Once the trail comes out of the trees, there will be a large sandy clearing. look to the left for the trail to continue behind a fallen tree. This will then take you across to the south side of the creek. Stay on the south side of the creek(more pertinent in the winter) until the trail drops back down into the willows surrounding the creek. (In the winter it is also possible to stay on the south side of the creek all the way to Lower Boyscout). Once you cross the creek back to the north, turn west and follow through a tight clearing in the willows right up against the cliffs that make up the Ebersbacher Ledges. You will know when you are at the base of the ledges when you see obvious class 3 terrain in the form of boulders and steps. There is also an obvious tree about 50ft up the class 3. A lot of people may be nervous of what the ledges have to hold, but as long as you stay on route the exposure and difficulty are very low(there are no narrow ledge systems on route). The ledges soon turn into another winding trail system and before long you are at Lower Boyscout Lake. 
On the talus above LBL
The lake offers some good camping options if you are not in a rush. Stay to the left side of the lake, the trail skirts the slope just above the lake and heads up through and obvious talus field to the southwest. Once at the top of the talus field follow the trail through the brush and onto the slabs. Once on the slabs follow the cairns all the way to Upper Boyscout (In the winter you can slog across the open field).
The shrubs on the way to the slab and UBL
UBL and Mt. Russel in the background
 Upper Boyscout Lake also offers some camping options but not quite as many as Lower Boyscout and it seems the wind gets funneled though there from Mt. Russell. A better option in my opinion is to continue up the use trail to the south and follow it to a small rock outcrop on the left. The south side of this outcrop offers good flat wind protected ground to camp on. From here continue up the trail to near the base of Whitney's east face. 
First peek of Whitney since the trailhead
The cairns here are good and finding the way up to Iceberg Lake should not be an issue. Once at Iceberg Lake many options for camping exist though few are protected. This offers the best views of Whitney and in my opinion the best experience as well.
The Iceberg Plateau and Mt. Russell

The Route- Walk across the Iceberg Lake plateau to the base of the obvious couloir that is the Mountaineer's route.
Midway up the main couloir
Follow couloir to the notch and crest the notch and continue down 20 feet or so. From here you have a choice, the steepest class 3/4( best option in my opinion) immediately on your left, slightly less steep a few hundred feet further on the left, or the 3rd class option which contours to the west until the western slope is reached. The first is the most classic.

When I first got the itch to become a mountaineer, I stumbled upon a picture of Mt. Whitney and its Mountaineer's Route. Back then it looked impossible. The couloir shot straight out of the terrain and the route just disappeared behind the mountains east face. It was so aesthetically pleasing, even to someone with no experience whatsoever. This combined with Whitney's claim to fame, makes the Mountaineer's route one of the most popular routes in the world. I knew that I had to do it.
It was not until 3 years later that I would get my first chance to try the route. A friend and I had just climbed the Baldy Bowl a week prior and we wanted something a bit more challenging so we set our sights on Whitney. It was the middle of December in the snowiest winter the Sierras have ever seen. Knowing of a recent 15 foot dump of snow the week prior we decided to test our luck. We drove up on a Thursday evening and parked at the usual road closure on the portal road. From there we hiked up the road with snowshoes, passing multiple cars trapped by the sudden storm. We finally decided to set up camp right on the road a few hundred yards ahead of the Whitney portal. That night it was cold. Really cold. The temperature in the tent got down to 3 degrees F. Both of us had frozen boots. It took us quite a while to get going in the cold. I could not seem to get my hands or my toes to warm up. By the time we started for the trailhead we were already defeated, and after a few hundred yards and deepening snow, we turned around and went down. We later found out that it was two weeks before someone broke through, but they still did not summit.
My next chance to climb the route came in March of 2012. My friend Scott and had been training for Rainier. Scott had done the East Buttress of Whitney before and had no real interest in the Mountaineer's Route, but Rainier beckoned and we both needed the training. This time the snow was a non issue, 2012 was a terrible snow year in the Sierras. However when we got to our camp at Upper Boyscout Lake we realized that we had forgotten a source of fire for the stove. We went to bed hungry with cold water. The next morning we both felt a bit drained having not replenished our bodies. We both decided that a summit attempt was out of the question, but a quick 30 min. jaunt a bit higher to catch a view of the mountain was in order. After a viewing session we packed up and headed out, determined to return more prepared.
Scott just after the trail split
It was a month later, on the verge of permitting season, that I finally had a successful attempt. Again, Scott and I, fresh off a successful ascent of Snow Creek on Mt. San Jacinto(by far more difficult), set off up the 395 at night, on the way to Lone Pine. We slept in our car the best we could, and lighter packed we set off the next morning. This time we decided it would be better to go all the way to Iceberg lake to have an easier summit day. This was fine with me, but Scott was worried since he suffers from debilitating altitude sickness occasionally.
Mtn Harwear EV2 and Mt. Russell
In my infinite wisdom I chose to take a minimalist approach on this trip and only brought a 35 degree Mtn Hardwear UltraLamina and a +15 degree liner. The forecast was for 20 degrees. No surprise I was freezing all night even wearing all of my clothes. This wasn't the first time I had done this either. You would think I would learn. I guess a part of me likes the suffering. Well after a bad night sleep for both me and Scott, which more often than not is the case, we made some breakfast and then set off up the route about 30 min. after sunrise. The snow was decent at the start but was quickly softening in the morning sun. We hurried up the couloir which by this time of year was part rock part snow. It was not till the last quarter of the couloir that it was mostly all rock and dirt. We took a short break at the top of the notch to pack away ice axes and crampons and eat a bar. We then descended the 20 ft to the base of the top section. It was half rock and half snow/ice. There where two teams roped up. We had no rope. This worried us slightly but it appeared a route through the rock could be managed and we opted to go cramponless. We climbed some class 3/4 slabs dotted with ice to a nice ledge. Scott decided to throw the crampons back on for a short traverse across the snow. I decided to just take it really slow. It was pretty nerve racking walking across the small snow walkway with now crampons, looking down the north face to some lakes 3000ft below. I sucked it up and kept my balance and after 10 feet was safely to more class 3 rock. Once on the right side of this chute the climbing is pretty easy with maybe 1 or 2 class 4 moves. The snow and ice made it a bit more dicey but it was easily managed. Before we knew it were were at the top of the chute a few hundred yards from the summit.
Scott taking a quick break mid way up the couloir
Finally on the summit of Whitney(Russell looks tiny)
We scrambled the class 2 talus to the true summit where we celebrated with a few photos and another small snack. For me it was great to finally climbed and summited something that had possessed my thoughts for so long. We decided to take the less technical class 3 contour back to the notch. This was actually very exposed in places and one slip would result in a desperate self arrest situation. Looked great for skiing though. Once back at the notch we quickly made our way down the deteriorating snow to our tent. Round trip tent to tent was in the 2 1/2 hour range. It took us another 4 hours to hike out. Great route. Next I'd like to try the East Buttress.

The Iceberg Abyss
 More Pictures:

LB Meadow
Scott resting on talus field above LBL 
Water streaks above LBL
Crooks, Keeler, and Whitney
Me in the couloir
Scott enjoying the summit
Looking north to Russell and Williamson

Scotts Summit pic

Is this really the Sierras?