Monday, March 16, 2009

Solo Ascent and Ski of Snow Creek Couloir

I tried to find a partner - I really did, but problem one was that I don't know very many strong skiers in SoCal. Problem two was that the few people I knew strong enough to ski it, weren't too keen on earning their turns from the bottom up. Problem three? The two I did know who were strong enough and "willing" were busy, and this was the last weekend of winter and the only weekend I had time for it. 3 strikes, I guess it's solo time...

After a couple quick stops to pick up some batteries, and visit friends on the way north, I arrived at Snow Creek Rd. around 22.30 Friday evening and drove up the road until reaching the "no trespassing" signs for the private community of Snow Creek Village. Taking a look around, and getting oriented for later in the night when I'd be back to trespass on my way up the trail, I turned back down the road, drove past the power station on the right, and headed out into the washes to review route notes, and grab a couple hours of sleep before parking at the power station, and starting the ascent. Although quite excited about the route, and the long day ahead, I was a little apprehensive since I'd never been on the climb before, and was going to be doing the first alpine test of my ankle that I broke at the end of summer, but I crawled into the back of my '87 Land Cruiser (the SNOOZE), and tried to konk out under the bright 3/4 moon, and Snow Creek looming above.

Das\' pack and boots and skis

00:59 AM - after laying in the back of my truck awake for two hours, and before my alarm had time to sound, I turned it off and began breakfast. Wanting to get moving, and feeling too tired to get the stove going for hot water, I pored hot mint-green tea on my instant oatmeal, and scarfed down a few packets (surprisingly, green and brown oatmeal with mint-green tea isn't too bad) before driving back to the power station. The moon was bright, and my surroundings were well-lit as I left the snooze at around 1180' and headed up trail with my skis and touring boots strapped to my pack. In order to make better time on the first half of the route, and for comfort's sake on the long slog, I'd decided to wear my usual running shoes until I reached the snow around 4000' above. A half-mile from the power station I came upon Snow Creek Village and turned left onto Falls Creek Rd. Passing a few houses in the silent night, I hopped the gate guarding the Desert Water Agency's property, and continued up Falls Creek Rd. My ankle was stiff, and a little sore, but I decided to continue on and see how it loosened up over the next couple hours. If it got worse, I'd bail, else I'd go on.

Entering \Perhaps 30 or more minutes after leaving the car I came upon the first two buildings guarding the water agency's property on each side of the 1-lane road. Passing by the security camera directly overhead, and walking as silently as possible, trying not to crunch any gravel on the pavement, I walked past the open windows of the buildings and continued on into the night. A few hundred feet later, the road split - with the trailer of the caretaker and a large storage tank on the right, and a bridge crossing the creek on the left. Figuring I needed to get on the other side of the creek, I crossed the bridge, and scouted around for the beginnings of a trail. After a short while I decided to give up on the trail, but immediately after crossing under a small pipeline, I gained it by luck and started up the switchbacks of the brushy and rocky slopes above. Traveling purely by moonlight I continued along, soon losing the trail in one of it's thinner sections, and went for the SFU (direct) approach up the hill. Around 3000' the slopes leveled out into a gradually ascending plateau, and I continued up following the contours of the ridge, hoping to regain the trail before the entrance to "the tunnel" above.

Around 4000', in a place where the ridgeline steepened and narrowed, I passed a group of 3 sleeping climbers, and soon regained the trail again, now better marked with cairns and more traveled. Turning on my headlamp so as not to lose the way again as the bush thickened, I continued up for another few hundred feet until reaching the entrance to "the tunnel" at around 4400'. The tunnel is a nice path cut, and woven through clearings along the brushy hillside to connect the initial ridgline between the East Fork of Snow Creek and Falls Creek with the actual East Fork. Resting for a few minutes and grabbing a bite at the entrance, I was happy to have made 3200' of elevation gain, and a decent amount of horizontal distance in less than 3 hours. My ankle was holding up well (thank you brace), I felt refreshed, and was excited about the possibilities of soon being on snow. At this point, I was also hoping to gain the summit by about 11am and make it back to the Perris area to meet friends for dinner around 6... unfortunately that wasn't going to happen thanks to a blunder soon afterwards.

Bushwhacking back into Snow Creek...Leaving my skis on the pack as I entered the tunnel (I should have just carried them by hand through the brush), I hunched over and made my way through the bushes (skis catching on regularly of course, and making scrambling a bit tricky), eventually dropping into Snow Creek still near 4400' and a little way below a split in the creek. Right before I dropped into the creek, I could see the headlamps of the party that had been sleeping as I passed them earlier, get up and start heading up the trail behind.

Snow Creek a little below the chockstoneContinuing up the creek only a few hundred feet, I came to a cliff blocking the route. Not taking time to glance at my map, and remembering incorrectly, I made the big mistake of assuming this was part of "the chockstone" and followed a steep, loose, dirt slope up to the right to circumnavigate it. Crawling up in the dark, I began to think it was probably about time to traverse back left into the creek, and followed the beginnings of a trail in that direction. Unfortunately, had I got only 20' higher, I would have seen the correct trail going to the right into the East Fork of Snow Creek proper, but instead I continued left into another creek coming down from above. After some short, but hellacious bushwacking (especially with those darn 190cm skis and poles... no light touring set-up yet), I entered the gully and continued up a few hundred feet more. Around 5200' I found a windbreak/camp built up of stone, and as the dawn sky began to light up the ridges around me I realized "oh crud, I'm in the wrong gully". It was now probably around 06.20, and I'd just wasted a lot of time bushwacking, up and down, back and forth, into a gully that I didn't want to be in. Bloody-friggin' hell.

Looking at the map, it was quickly apparent that this gully would soon gain a ridge (probably more hellacious bushwhacking involved) and not be nearly as fun as the Snow Creek option. So, cranky, and pissed at my own stupidity for not checking my map earlier (or using my headlamp as much as I should have instead of relying on the moon), I started side-hilling and bushwacking to Snow Creek. Every move took extensive effort to get my pack, skis and poles around as thick brush and regular boulders and small cliffs got in the way. About halfway through I finally just took my skis off the pack, and although this made boulder scrambling more difficult (except for when the skis would catch on boulders while still strapped to the pack), it made getting around, over and through trees and bushes much easier. Another two hours later I dropped into snow creek, thoroughly exhausted, and pretty upset with myself. I continuued up the gully for a short while, topping off my water on the way, and soon came upon the "real" chockstone, which was quite obviously named such for a reason.

Examining the easy 5th class to the right of the chockstone, I decided that with the trouble the skis had already given me, I didn't want to get stuck on 5th class terrain with skis hanging-up on rocks, and me already feeling exhausted, so I took the easier option of third and fourth class scrambling through the trees to the right. The skis and poles were a nightmare through here, even though I had again taken them off the pack, but I eventually popped out above the chockstone - totally spent and in need of a break. It was now 9 o'clock, and I had just wasted four and a half hours on what should have taken me a maximum of one and half. I was pretty spent, torn up (especially my new soft-shell pants - bummer), but happy to be on route and looking at snow above.

As I got my ski gear on, and enjoyed a nice PBJ, the group of 3 I had passed earlier caught up. They had also done some bushwacking, having missed "the tunnel", and had nearly followed my lead into the wrong gully. Luckily, however, another experienced group in hot-pursuit redirected them in the right direction and they avoided doing my off-route bushwacking as well. Upon chatting with these three, I found out that they were from Riverside Mountain Rescue (RMRU), and were up here to both experience the route that they often rescue people off of, as well as retrieve some gear that was blown away during a rescue a little over a week prior. Being from another mountain rescue team, SDMRT, it was nice to meet some other colleagues, and catch up on their recent operations in the area. Around 09.30 though, I headed up, and left them to finish their own snack break below.

I initially tried skinning up the firm ice/snow at the base of the gully, but it quickly turned too steep and hard for skins, so I strapped the skis back on my pack and began the tedious process of side-stepping in my crampons up the slope above. After about 1000' I hit sunshine, the first RMRU member caught-up, and I could see a large group of 8 coming up from near the chockstone. For the rest of the climb, I'd leap-frog with the RMRU crew, mostly taking breaks in alternate spots, until two of the three slowly pulled away during the last couple thousand feet to the summit. Sticking to the right at most junctions, we continued up the couloir, zig-zagging back and forth as we side-stepped up the 35-45 degree slope, occasionally front-pointing when necessary. I had brought a new set of crampons for this trip to replace my well-worn BD sabretooths, and they seemed to perform quite well.

About 2000' from the top, a group of 4 skiers and a snowboarder came down from the summit, knocking debris down the gully, and the occasional rock - but nothing too sketchy. Just to round-out the mountain rescue crew, one of them happened to be from San Bernardino Mountain Rescue! I gave them what info I could on the route down (they had never been on that trail), and they continued on out of site. Probably around 1500' from the top, the leader of the group of eight from below caught up, and passed ahead. Myself and the slowest of the three from the RMRU group continued plodding along, following the others' steps in the softer sections, and getting passed by a few more from the group of 8, until we crested the summit around 15.00. The top few hundred feet was pretty soft, and I was definitely grateful that someone had set the steps ahead of me...

At the summit, we were met by more of the RMRU crew that had taken the tram up in the gear retrieval operation, and I was told the story about their contacting the water agency in order to try and get a permit to access the route legally. Being as ridiculous as they are, the water agency wouldn't even give the mountain rescue team a permit citing the importance of the purity of the water. Apparently, the agency seems to believe that only 1-2 people even go back there a year, right...

Making the pose on the summit of San Jacinto - now time to turn around and ski back down...

A quick nutella snack, and a couple summit shots later (with my Vasque txapela hat for kicks), it was time to head out and use all the daylight I could to ski out. The RMRU guys thought it was pretty funny I was going to climb and ski it in one day, but I soon dropped in (literally), and after a little rock navigation was in the firm, and at times quite icey and bumpy, Snow Creek Coulior and on my way back out.

I skied back down the snowy 5500' of the route, taking frequent breaks, and making few nice looking turns thanks to the firm and bumpy snow/ice and my pooped legs. Shadows covered most of the route again, and so even the parts that had softened slightly during the day were again firm and slick. In short, the skiing was pretty lame as conditions go, but it was still a great place to be and a lot of fun (and relatively technical) skiing down. By around 04.30 I had reached the chockstone, kicked off the snow gear, and scrambled through the trees around it. Descending another few hundred feet, I filled up my water bottle again, passed a couple funny guys making a two-day trip out of it (and enjoying some nice looking PBR's and steaks), and continued along the part of the trail I had missed before... dropped back down into the gully to the cliff where I got off-route, then back through the tunnel (much easier with skis in hand instead of on the pack), and down the ridgeline following the marked trail, and taking a couple breaks to grab a quick snack here and there.

Looking down the couloir during a break.As I headed down the final 1000' to the water station, dusk started to settle, and the attendent of the water station returned home and started driving around to check on the facilities. I carefully worked my way down the hill when he was turned away, staying behind rocks and bushes when he was looking my direction, until hitting the road again right as dusk fell. Under the cover of darkness, I crossed the bridge and dropped into the wash circumnavigating his trailer and the houses on the road, until rejoining it one sprained ankle and about 1/2 mile later for the final walk to the car in the dark. Around 20.15, a little under 19 hrs after setting out, and one great day later (and after probably 10,500' of climbing instead of 9600' thanks to a bunch of extra vertical gained during my off-route escapades), I was back at the car - and ready for a big burger and rest before heading back to San Diego.

Final Note: The skiing is technical, with serious consequences should you fall, but it is a fun way to do the route, and it would probably even be skinnable in sections with the right snow conditions (it'd help to have an AT setup with crampons attached), and a nice way to avoid the cabfare to get back to your car! Plus, you've got to earn your turns...

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1 comment:

Alaska Jack said...

WOW! This trip was kuhl! (imagine two dots above the 'u').

I couldn't physically handle it, but I would've gone. The altitude had to sap, too.

Solo is OK, but you gotta be careful (I know you know, but I'm old enough to preach a little). Of course, with San Bernadino & Riverside MRT guys around, you're fine on Snow Ck Cooler. But, when by your true lonesome, no hucking, etc.