Sunday, November 22, 2009

unfinished business: cactus to clouds to cactus

As is typical for me I couldn’t stop fixating on returning to complete the full Cactus to Clouds out-and-back that I had attempted several weeks prior. A slightly late start and Jascha’s injuries led me to shorten my original plans to a Cactus to tram plateau out-and-back. As the target day (14 Nov) approached I saw a cold front approaching and I did not want to be up at 10,000 feet with highs in the 40s. I decided to postpone my trip until the following Tuesday when temps were predicted to warm up again. It had taken me 8:40 for my abbreviated out and back, so I was hoping to do the whole thing in under 13 hours.

I headed down to Palm Springs the night before and hoped that my intermittent insomnia would subside for at least one night. With 50 km and 10,000+ ft of gain ahead of me I
needed the sleep. It did not, and I drug myself out of bed at 5:15 am with only a few hours of restless sleep. I arrived at the Museum trailhead just after 6 am with enough light to keep my headlamp in my pack. I borrowed Jascha’s GPS but I suspected that I wouldn’t need it, having just done the Skyline Ridge Route portion in both directions a few weeks prior.

The temperatures were mild and I made good time to the familiar landmarks: the picnic tables, the big horn sheep closure sign, the first glimpse of Coffman’s Crag, and the flat rock. I took mental notes on the places where the trail swung far from the ridge proper so I could ensure I was on track during the dark descent. As before I was glad the striking scenery was there to distract me from the steady grind. If I kept this pace I knew I could make the tram area in 4:30. Unfortunately, my left TFL and calves were screaming and I slowed on the grueling upper section. My time was almost exactly the same as before, 4:53.

I made a beeline for the Long Valley ranger station for my self-service permit. Having a copy of the San Jacinto park map was helpful, as there
was no sign coming off of Skyline Route directing you to the ranger station and not all of the trail junctions mention San Jacinto Peak. The fresh looking tourons were coming off the tramway, oblivious that they were blocking off the entire trail perhaps due to altitude stupor. Although my legs would appreciate the gentler grade for the next 11 miles, I knew this would be the mental crux for me as I am not fond of flat, meandering trails.

The route to the summit was slow going and I was not pleased with the
long shallow switchbacks. On the final portion I must have passed under the summit at least three times barely gaining any elevation. Finally I hit the talus pile that sits atop the unremarkable summit. I took my requisite summit photo, refilled my hydration bladder, and headed back down. I ran ~2 miles of the descent, not wanting to aggravate my chronic TFL issues before the brutal descent. I reached the top of the Skyline Route just after 3 pm. I knew I had at least 3 hours of technical descent in store, but if I kept the same pace as my previous attempt I could make 13 hours.

The sun was setting quickly and by 3:30 the shadow of the range extended far out into the surrounding valley. I hurried down the trail to get in as much distance as possible before darkness fell. My ascent homework paid off and I wasn’t caught off-guard this time when the trail made significant diversions from the ridgeline. I was feeling surprisingly good and was able to run some of the rolling terrain. At 5:15 I was forced to extract my light. Shortly thereafter I had a close encounter with a thorn bush, which left me with two nice scratches on my face.

After what seemed like ages I finally passed the big horn
sheep closure sign. I knew the picnic tables (and trailhead) were not far below. The trail below the picnic tables is the most technical and a particularly punishing finish to the long day. I checked my watch and I was on track for a sub 13 hour finish as long as nothing bad happened. At 6:47 pm I reached the trailhead, 12 hours and 45 minutes after I had started. I hobbled across the art museum parking lot, which was filled with valets and fancy cars for what appeared to be a museum benefit, feeling grimy, worked and completely satisfied.

solar musings

My mom and stepdad were on their way back to WA from southern UT, so Jascha and I agreed to meet them for dinner in Vegas. We used the opportunity to spend the day checking out another of Dow’s fine recommended link-ups, Beulah’s Book to Sunflower (5.9). The route proper ascends ~1400 ft over 8 pitches on Solar Slab Wall, a perfect November destination with its sunny southern exposure. My only reservation was that much of the route was on the softer white sandstone, not exactly my ideal rock with its slopey eroded holds.

With the dwindling daylight hours I woke us up at 5:30 am. I did not want to have to deal with stuck ropes on the rappel in the dark. We arrived at the Oak Creek parking lot around 7ish and were on the trail by 7:30. We had a
small shrubby detour getting to the base of Beulah’s Book, but it gave the party in front time to get up to the second belay.

My plan was to take the arête variation on pitch 2 to avoid both the bomb bay chimney and having to haul up a #4 cam. The first pitch was uneventful, a 5.6 dihedral to face. As I got closer to the belay I could see my first major obstacle above the arete, the slanting, lieback dihedral from which the route gets its name. It looked strenuous, off-balance and very parallel. As usual I had skimped on the gear to save weight, ignoring the recommendation for 2 sets of cams in the 0.4” to 3” range. I belayed Jascha up.

The bolted arête variation started off with fun thin face holds then turned onto the arête before rejoining the main route at the top of the chimney. I paused below the dihedral for a while trying to figure out my best strategy with my limited gear supply. Fortunately, there were decent face holds and I was able to sling a horn before moving left toward the crack. After 2 cams (and some grunting) I was through the first 5.9 crux. Jascha cruised the lieback and we were soon on to pitch 3, which was run out but easy.

Before long we were at the base of upper Solar Slab wall. The party ahead of us was two pitches up Solar Slab. We took a snack break and I tried to get psyched about leading 5.9 trad on crappy white sandstone. We scrambled up the fourth class slabs to the varnished corner that marks the start of Sunflower. The varnished section was slick, but fortunately there were plenty of other holds available. I arrived at the first belay ledge that is shared with Solar Slab and belayed Jascha up.

The crux pitch looked innocuous from below, but I knew better. I headed up the curving hand crack which soon turned into tenuous hand jams with seemingly insecure friction holds for feet (I admit that the friction was far better than I anticipated). I was happy that secure gear placements popped up just when I needed them. The scary part behind me, I soon arrived at the belay ledge and waited for Jascha to join me.

Dow’s description was right on for pitch 6. I followed the 5.8 corner to
face, then angled up and left to the bolted belay. Pitch 7 was a bolted slab pitch on somewhat hollow holds. To stay in the 5.9 range the route meandered right and then left of the bolt line. I had a difficult time recognizing “the pod” mentioned in the climbing descriptions so I ended up running out the rope, which I figured would work out to our advantage on the long final pitch.

After Jascha arrived I started up pitch 8 which heads up toward a roof then traverses up and left before reaching it. From here the route diagonals significantly leftward to join up with the top of Solar
Slab. Because it’s low angle you have to guess the exact trajectory, but because it’s easy terrain you don’t have to worry too much about route finding errors. With the low angled slab, the rope drag was significant and I was glad we were almost done with the technical part. Jascha was happy to be off the hanging belay and was soon at the final anchor.

It was a little after 3 pm and we contemplated our descent options. I had read that the quickest option was to rap Solar Slab (4 double rope raps), then downclimb (or rap, 6 single rope raps) Solar Slab Gully. With the rope eating cracks and clingy edges typical of Red Rocks I found it hard to believe that this was a faster option that the 2 single raps required for the Black Orpheus descent even though I knew
we had several hundred feet of elevation gain to access the rap stations plus a longish walk-off. The Black Orpheus descent it was.

We had climbed Black Orpheus earlier in the year, and I posted an annotated descent description on summitpost, so the details were still fresh in my mind. The Solar Slab walk-off heads right initially then left to gain the huge ledge system below the summit. We found the cairns that lead left down the gully and to the first rap station. We didn’t bother with the second rope, but instead angled climber’s left to the intermediate ledge and rap station. One more rap and we were in Painted Bowl. We cruised down the slabs and finally down the slick slab into the canyon floor. I had forgotten about the huge boulders that line the canyon floor for quite some time. We passed the party that we had seen on Solar Slab and finally reached the trail. Darkness fell as we were approaching the parking lot. It had taken us 2:20 to descend. Showers and Japanese food awaited us.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

cactus to clouds intro

I first heard about Cactus to Clouds a few months ago from one of my coworkers, Dominic. The route to the tram gains 8,000 ft in ~11 miles (10,000 ft in ~16.5 miles if you include the summit of San Jacinto Peak). October rolled around and with the more reasonable daytime temps, I decided to give it go. I talked Jascha into accompanying me. I had read varying reports about what to expect for time. The most authoritative C2C site said that that middle of the pack marathoners can expect to reach the tram in 4-5 hours. I’m not exactly in ultra shape and although I’ve been doing my usually shorter hill runs during the week, I haven’t done any long alpine days since August. One of the Summitposters I know took 16 hours to do the full out-and-back so I figured I’d be in that ballpark if I did the whole thing. There was also a lot of online chatter about the steepness of the trail and the difficultly of navigation the lower trail system, so I had Jascha download a GPS track. I also printed a topo map, but I wasn’t sure about the accuracy of the hand drawn route annotations. Unfortunately, the Tom Harrison topo series only covered the areas in close vicinity to San Jacinto State Park, not the portion of the trail that passed through the Agua Caliente Reservation.

We headed down to Palm Springs the night before to avoid adding 2+ hours to the start time. I set my alarm for 5:30 am. My alar
m didn’t go off and I woke up at 6:30. We left the well-marked Museum trailhead at ~7:20. Below the picnic tables there was a fair amount of trail branching, some of which was obvious switchback cutting but some also fed into alternate systems that headed off to the east and west. For the most part at the alternate trail junctions the correct trail was to the right. Parts of the trail are marked with painted white dots and arrows, although at one point the markings led in the wrong direction. The trail heads up the ridge initially in a northerly direction then diverts to the northwest, with the primary visible landmark being a major drainage the east. The Mojave desert flora included Mojave yucca (Yucca schidigera), creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) and various species of cacti (the most striking being the red-spined barrel cactus, Ferocactus acanthodes). Along with the backdrop of granite boulders the plant life provided some major eye candy to take my mind off the long path ahead.

After the picnic tables we passed the warning signs about the strenuous nature of the trail and lack of water and the one for big horn sheep lambing season closures (1 January to 30 June). With the exception of one primary junction (which I suspect led to the Ramon road trailhead), the trail was well marked and there were less side trails. Before long we hit the ~ 3.5 mile section where the trail flattens out somewhat. We took a short snack break and I found out Jascha had
accidentally deleted the GPS track while recalibrating the elevation from our recent Peru trip. The intermittent winds kept the temperatures down, although it also kicked up eye-stinging dust. As we approached the crest of the ridge we caught our first glimpse the large pinnacle that marks the top of the tramway. With the introduction of manzanita and pine trees, the Mojave desert flora slowly transformed into that of the Peninsular Ranges.

The trail contoured below the ridge proper and crossed the stream bed with the huge water worn granite slab marked on many maps as “Flat Rock”. After the slab the trail again steepened. To add to the psychological crux, the trail was in worse condition than below (due to the its above snowline
elevation) with deep sand and loose rocks in spots. I checked my watch and knew that I could likely break 5 hours to the tram if I kept a steady pace. Near the top Jascha started to lag behind, but told me to keep going. I passed 3 guys and made it to the top of the plateau (the other side of the rock from the tram station) in 4:55. In ~10 minutes Jascha crested the trail and announced that he was done due to hamstring issues. He encouraged me to do the whole route, but I felt bad making him wait and have to shell out $25 for a taxi to go the 6 miles back to the car. Plus, I knew I’d likely finish in the dark and wasn’t sure how easy it would be to navigate by headlamp and topo map. I decided to backtrack to retrieve the car, which I estimated would take somewhere between 3 and 4 hours.

I managed to avoid most of the side trail detours on the return trip. Fortunately, I remembered some of the distinctive rock formations from the ascent and was able to confirm that I was on route. I could see the golf course below the museum so I knew in what cardinal direction to head. About 0.8 miles from picnic benches I thought I may have taken a wrong turn and was headed for the Ramon trail system. It was hard to tell with the trail weaving in and out of the large granite boulders. I could see where I wanted to go, but not which trail system to take. I decided to cross the boulder field to a trail that I was fairly certain was headed in the right direction. Finally, I made it to the warning signs. When I got to the bottom Jascha was there to meet me. He reported that he had caught the tram almost immediately after we had parted and scored a ride back to his car from two of the guys we had passed on the trail. He passed the time at the coffee shop and napping on the grass. Total time: 8:40. I'd like to head back and go for the full out-and-back before the days get too short and the snow starts to linger. Stay tuned.

The trail is similar to Mt Wilson in terms of steepness, but longer. The bottom section is navigable without a GPS, but it may add some extra time with detours; a descent of the lower section in the dark would be trickier. If you get off-route the terrain is accommodating to x-country travel.

Additional References:
San Jacinto State Park topo map
Summitpost description
Trail topo (from the Cactus to Clouds Hiking Guide site)