...it's a good day to suffer
"Climbing is everything and nothing."
--Randy Leavitt's own Zen riddle
Approaching Red Box, any climber or skiier who's blasting down the Angeles Crest Highway during winter probably looks left to gaze for a moment at the steep snow couloir that's on San Gabriel Peak's north face. Twenty years ago, being rather foolish, I free-soloed this gully when it was dry, while wearing a heavy pair of leather mountaineering boots. It was in the late spring then, and parts of the gully were beautifully decorated with moss and ferns. It reminded me of a Japanese rock garden.
The "Oriental Gully" is unique in the San Gabriels. Most couloirs here are merely low-angle sand chutes, but this gully is mainly composed of granite, very short sections of which are steep and technical, interspersed with 40-degree platforms of scree and sand. It's a true mountaineering route, maybe 700ft of 3rd to 5th class climbing. I've climbed it a few times ropeless since, but the cruxes seem more strenuous as the years go by. Funny how life works that way. On May 22, 2009, to get my first photos of Oriental Gully, I took a rope and self-belayed during sections of this climb. The exposure is not bad, so if you are a highly-experienced rock climber you'd probably enjoy climbing this ropeless. But do so at your own risk.
Warning. Like on any mountaineering route, you will suffer during this unusual adventure, and during its descent. "Grunge" means loose rock, dirt, sand, leaves. If you bring a rope, competent climbers can easily 4th-class this route, but finding anchors is a real pain, and sturdy bushes are fair game. (Bushes are considered unreliable anchors!)Get protection anywhere you can find it. On the short sections of steep rock, the actual climbing moves are rated between 5.2 and 5.7--purposely over-rated here because you must do a few high-steps and long reaches just to avoid the occasional loose holds. And get used to the idea of dirt and sand landing in your face--sunglasses help. This route is for mountaineers who are experienced at recognizing loose holds, and getting in tricky pro, and who are accustomed to steep, grungy descents.
Route Info as of May 22, 2009: From Redbox, drive 0.8 miles along the Mount Wilson Road and park at the right-hand-turnout; you'll see the north face high above you. Wander up the canyon about 275ft; a rock tower will be on your left, with gullies on either side of it. The right-hand chute, usually wet, is the entrance to Oriental Gully. After gulping a few extra-strength Tylenol, I started up this route--with 4 large camalots, one 72ft rope, a few slings and locking biners, and of course a helmet.
The initial 300ft is 3rd-class scrambling on very interesting rock. Move fast here because the first 150ft is a shooting gallery of falling stones. You'll follow an unusual white dike, trending right, which leads to a nice granite staircase, after climbing a 10ft step. Keep going and you'll come to an 18ft rock wall. Climb this directly, using nice holds on the overhanging bulge. Avoiding any loose rock, maybe it's 5.5 in difficulty. Then wander upwards about 100ft on 3rd-class sand and dirt.
The gully narrows down then, and now you are looking at another steep granite wall, maybe 22ft high. To find an anchor here, I had to dig like a rabid rodent into the dirt, unearthing a shallow slot for half a cam. The climbing on this somewhat loose granite is about 5.2. Climb this short wall to another 3rd-class platform.
At the back of this platform, the granite narrows down again into a steep V-slot, which features a tapered "crocodile head" chockstone. This is Oriental Gully's technical crux--climbing up to and past this chockstone; it's a little exposed. I used another high-step and long reach to avoid some loose flakes and a small loose block, so the moves felt about 5.7--under that chockstone you can get a shaky 3" cam, in a bomb-bay, flared slot. Overcome the "crocodile head," and there's only ten more feet of steep but easy climbing...after which I had to dig 5lbs of gravel from behind another chockstone, to thread a runner behind it. Bombproof!
Okay. 150 more feet of 3rd or 4th class to safe ground. Be careful though; it's full of detached rocks, steep dirt hummocks, slippery pine needles...snakes, rats, bats--all sorts of evil stuff. Then keep hiking upward till you reach the summit, which is actually a northern, subsidiary summit of San Gabriel Peak. Mt Baldy can now be seen from here, and cool breezes will bathe and refresh your dirty face.
Descent: A bit of an epic, but also a very scenic cruise into a remarkably beautiful canyon. From the "summit," angle downward in the direction of Mt. Disappointment's relay towers. Look for a 50-degree, 400ft dirt slope with a massive fallen log laying in it. Thread your way carefully down, keeping among the bushes for safety. Near the bottom you'll see a steep ramp cutting left; this leads safely into the canyon. (Warning: the north face is skirted by 100ft cliffs, slabs and pillars; if you don't see a clear path to the canyon bottom during your descent, you may be headed toward vertical granite cliffs.)
Once near the canyon bottom, you'll be staring down at a remarkably steep talus field, of what looks like one million granite bowling balls--an amazing sight. Work left around this, and keep heading down until you can safely access a deep gulch on the left. Follow this rocky gulch down through a beautiful old-growth forest, maybe another 900ft to your car. Drink from the ice-cold spring before you leave. A safe descent takes at least an hour.
Disclaimer: Any of the above information could be inaccurate. Climb SGP's north face at your own risk.
May 25, 2009