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previously climbed Sun, Mar 27, 2005|
The Snow Creek route on San Jacinto has the reputation of being the premier snow route in all of Southern California. It may be over-hyped some, but with nearly 10,000ft of gain (half of that over snow) it is a route to be reckoned with. And everyone that's heard of it wants to do it at least once, it would seem. The problem is, the lowest part of the route, where the creeks flow out to the desert floor, is closed to public access. A square mile of land at the mouth of the converging canyons is owned by the Desert Water Agency, a water supplier in the area. In order to "preserve the quality of the watershed" they have prohibited access through their land - never mind that 95% of the watershed is on National Forest and State Park lands, or that 90% of the agencies water comes from deliveries via the Colorado Aqueduct. In order to keep folks from trespassing they employ a caretaker who lives in a trailer at the mouth of the canyon and takes his job very seriously. And so a cat and mouse game ensues on any given weekend in springtime when the route is in shape and folks are apt to want to climb it (although the cat doesn't think much of the game in this case).
Miguel, our fearless leader, had already climbed the route six previous times, twice in just the past few months. What prompted him to want to do it yet again I didn't quite discern, but I was eager to join his small party in the wee hours of the morning. I had climbed with Miguel on several occasions, most recently the previous year when we climbed El Pichacho del Diablo in Mexico. I knew he was a strong climber with great reserves - it would be a challenge just to keep up with him. The others I knew nothing about, trusting to Miguel to assemble a team with like-minded determination.
When I pulled into the prescribed parking area at the power substation off Snow Creek Rd at 10p, there were four other cars already there. Our party had grown to eleven in the last few days and would be possibly the largest group to ever start out together on this route. By 10:30p most were sacking down for the night, with a planned 4a wakeup call providing incentive to get some shuteye. All but two slept inside their cars or trucks, fairly soundly despite the wind howling outside. The unfortunate two would get a poor night's rest for their trying to sleep under the stars.
By 4:30a all were up and ready to head out. Despite the partially cloudy skies, there was plenty of moonlight to see the ground without headlamps (which would have been out of the question given the need to go ninja). The clouds may even have helped, providing more surfaces off which to reflect moonlight. We hiked down the road towards the small community of Snow Creek, turning left off the main paved road shortly before reaching the homes. Two of our party got behind almost immediately, possibly because they weren't packed up and ready to go with the rest of us, but in the dark it was hard for anyone to keep track of everyone else in our large group. A dog from the community started barking though we were probably a quarter mile off. How could it have detected us? The mystery was solved when Miguel's phone rang. One of our two wayward companions had missed the the turnoff and wandered into the community. Miguel gave him the missing information and he eventually regrouped with us. Someone kicked something in the road, startling us, a flashlight revealing a large gopher snake that had been unhappily awaken from where it had fallen asleep during the night. No rattlesnakes, thankfully.
Faint lights in the distance revealed the location of a home at the south end of the road we traveled, and Miguel had us off the road and in the boulder-strewn flood plain to one side. Here we could stay off the road and out of sight far more easily than walking along the road. We were not long on this uneven terrain when headlights were seen cruising down the road - the barking dog seemed to have arroused the caretaker to come look for us. The next half hour was a stealthy game of hide and seek as we continued to ply the creek (having some minor trouble crossing it and a bit of bushwhacking), headlamps seen at various times on one road or another in the distance. Daylight was soon approaching and it we would not be able to hide in the dark much longer, particularly with our brightly colored jackets and packs we were sporting. We hid out for a short time before crossing a second paved road at the far southern end. Once past this road we began to hike up into the canyons and by 6a we were safely out of range of detection and off the private property.
At 6:30a we stopped for the first of a number of breaks throughout the day. These weren't the two minute eat, piss, and maybe take your jacket off breaks I was used to, more of a leisurely breakfast dining outdoors. Where all the food came from I wasn't certain, but there was a good deal of it that got consumed on these breaks. Sunrise had come to the upper parts of the mountain, a play of subtle pink colors on the clouds and snow. The weather was improving rapidly and I was eager to get moving, but the slower pace of the larger group prevented this unless I wanted to strike out on my own - not too likely since I wasn't familiar with the route yet.
As we continued on, Miguel did a good job of shepherding the group in the proper direction. I and others out in front were favoring the main drainage to our right, but Miguel would signal to us to move left and remain on the higher slopes leading to the isthmus between the two major drainages. Another break ensued when we reached this narrow strip of land between the two. On our left was Falls Creek, aptly named for the large, scenic waterfall visible from the isthmus. To the right was Snow Creek, but we would need to do a high traverse around the creek on the left in order to avoid heinous bushwhacking nearer the creek. It was nice having a veteran with us to save us learning the same lessons.
Above the isthmus we found the start of a ducked route that made easy work of the bushwhack section. A fairly clean route had been clipped through the heavy brush, and aside from an ugly section of steep dirt and rock, most of it was pretty straightforward. At the end of the hour it took to negotiate this section we came upon a lone backpacker, Paul, camped out just above the creek. We came to find that he had been responsible for the ducking and clipping of the route through the brush over a number of outings, and we thanked him for his generosity. He also explained that he had taken a route far to the east that avoided the private property, though easily a couple of hours longer to traverse the steep hillsides and creek drainages found in that direction. He had spent the night here getting rained on, and was waiting for his gear to dry out before heading back out. The group used this opportunity to take a third break (it wasn't yet 8:30a) and fill up the water bottles before we hitting the snow (where we would find no more flowing water).
I grew impatient after about twenty minutes and decided to shoulder my pack and head up to the chockstone and the start of the snow - just to have a look around. I didn't know if this would incentise the others to start moving or not, but I just couldn't see sitting around this much, burning daylight as the saying goes. There was some snow below the easily recognized chockstone, and I managed to climb this using the debris frozen onto its surface for traction without having to resort to crampons. I wanted a close look at the class 5 cracks that bypass the chockstone on the right, to see if I couldn't solo it. Will and Miguel eventually came up behind me with the same idea in mind, the rest of the group having started off on the class 3 shrubwhack that starts lower down.
Had it just been myself at the chockstone I would probably have backed down and gone the class 3 route. But as Will came up to join me, we both started kabitzing about this possibility or that, and before either of us had really thought it out to any degree of certainty, we were halfway up and committed since we could hardly have climbed down safely. Miguel was underneath the two of us, using an even harder start to climb it more directly. Where Will and I had gloves and a less-demanding effort, Miguel was climbing a crack with bare hands and freezing them in the process. He'd stop every 30 seconds or so to blow on them and complain about how cold they were. Perched in his precarious stance and looking for a bit of sympathy, Will and I did what any normal climbing partner might do - we made fun of him. We not only managed to get the three of us atop the short cliff without mishap, we were also a good fifteen minutes ahead of the others still thrashing their way through the brush on the class 3 route. At least one of the others emerged from the brush with crampons strapped to his feet, making me wonder what they had encountered on the alternate route. Maybe we'd gotten the much better deal.
It was 10a as we sat around the snow above the chockstone, strapping on crampons and regrouping on another longish break. We had another 5,000ft of climbing to do from this point which would take the fastest of us 4hrs, and the slowest more than an hour longer. The shade in the canyon lasted only for another hour, after which we were fully in the grasp of the blinding sun. The early morning clouds had lifted, but the sun wasn't at all welcome. It had rained in the lower reaches of the canyon the previous day, but up higher there had been some new snow. Most of it had been blown into drifts to one side or the other, making for some soft, fresh snow that would slough off without much effort, but with a slightly meandering path back and forth up the canyon it was possible to stay mostly on the older, harder snow that provided far better security. Ahead of the others, I would have to guess at each fork which way to go. Miguel had given the simplified instructions earlier to go "right, right, left, right" at the various forks in the canyon. Problem was, there were six forks by my own count and I was just as likely to chose the wrong direction as the correct one. At each fork I would have to wait for Miguel to catch up or have to do some downclimbing when he would shout up to me that I was going the wrong way.
After 2,000ft of fairly hard snow and easier cramponing, the slope gave way to softer snow and it was now necessary to kick steps. Any evidence of previous parties had been wiped out by the mild storm and winds that raked over the slopes. For two-thirds of the remaining 3,000ft I was out in front of the others feeling quite good, kicking steps and enjoying the workout, but my energy started to flag before I could finish the job. Miguel, fueled by 3/4 of a medium pizza he had consumed during the various breaks, caught up to me and almost flew right by. It took all of my waning energy just to keep up with him in the steps that he now took over creating. I rode his coattails for those last 45 minutes to the summit, the rest of the party strung out in a long line behind the two of us. Miguel led us up what he described as the Direct Finish, and true to expectations it finished right at the summit of San Jacinto. The last several hundred feet were quite steep (maybe 35 degrees) and there was some mixed climbing over rocks to exit the couloir.
The summit was sunny but windy, and almost immediately we sought shelter behind some blocks, out of the wind. There was another climber at the summit who had come up from the tram. An acquantance of Miguel's, he had originally planned to join us for Snow Creek and hoped to ski back down with another skier. The hardpack conditions for most of the route did not favor that option, and he would descend back to the tram with the rest of the group. I hung out at the summit for about 20 minutes until I could no longer keep myself warm. Most of our group had reached the summit, but there were two others on the route still, who were not expected at the summit for some time still. I told the others I was going to start back and shook hands with all of them before heading down.
Having been to the summit twice before, once from the tram on snowshoes, I did not expect it to be difficult to find my way back. One could almost see the tram station from the summit. I followed an existing path of tracks down to the stone shelter, and then lower through the ever-softening snow on the SE side of the peak, sunny and nearly windless. It was easy enough until the snow started to give way to bare patches and eventually the snow was left in patches and the bare ground dominated. I lost the tracks in the snow in this shift of coverage as I continued downward. I came across a signed campsite with a port-a-potty, but found no trail leaving it. Strange. Afraid of dropping too far down and getting myself below the tram, I favored a traverse more to the left, utilizing a series of faint use trails that led me through the forest understory. I ended up much too far to the left, on the ridgeline between the summit and the tram. I found myself looking across at the water tank located high above the tram on this ridgeline, but noticed the ridgeline itself was very rocky and would be difficult to follow. So I dropped back down through the trees and eventually landed among the many visitors milling about outside the tram.
I was rather exhausted by this time and found it difficult to make my way up the concrete ramp leading to the tram. I had eaten only a handful of granola bars throughout the day, far too little for the effort involved on this outing. I had trouble standing in the crowded room waiting for the 4:45p tram, and I leaned against the trash recepticle for support. The ride down was crowded as well, to be expected on a Saturday afternoon. Mostly I studied the steep chutes under the tram lines, wondering if one could climb to the summit in that manner. It looked like a lot of loose talus - probably not much fun.
The taxi arrived just as I was exiting the tram building (I had asked the ticket agent at the top to call for one before I rode down). It was pleasant to sit comfortably for the ride back to Snow Creek, even as the fare machine was ticking off each 28 cent increment of what would be a $45 ride. It was only 5:20p when I got back to the waiting cars. One was missing, undoubtedly from the 11th climber whom we lost in that first half hour of the morning. No tickets on the window - a good sign. I took the time to rinse with the sunshower that had been heating nicely on my dashboard, then headed out. The whole car-to-car outing had been just under 13hrs, not a bad day's work, one I enjoyed thoroughly.
A few days after I got back from the road trip I had a letter from the Desert Water Agency. They had gotten my contact information from the DMV based on the van's license plate. The letter accused my of doing exactly what I had done in trespassing across their property, restated the reasons for their policy, and finished with, Please be advised that anyone found to be trespassing on Desert Water Agency property will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. This is especially the case for anyone trespassing in future and linkable to the vehicles observed on April 11, 2009. I have been warned...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: San Jacinto Peak
This page last updated: Sun Apr 11 11:43:33 2010
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