gotta laugh...to keep from crying
"I am glad to hear that you are doing something on that cliff on the north side of Strawberry...I read with much interest Ruth's account of the first ascent..."
--Royal Robbins, May 17, 2009, via e-mail correspondence
Some info here has been revised after a solo climbing effort on this cliff, May 10, 2009 (Some route information is at the bottom)
Strawberry Peak's magnificent North Cliff is our own mythical never-never land. It's truly a "lost" cliff, enduring endless periods of solitude; it's a vague mystery to many climbers. Taller and steeper than it looks, many miles from the nearest trailhead, and mounted above 400ft of shifting blocks, it's the dictionary definition of an "adventure crag." My guess is that it averages all of two technical ascents per decade, and I'll try to explain the reasons for that. About every six years I wander up to this foresaken rock and stagger around at its base; the passing years, however, never seem to make it more climber friendly. On Jan 13, 2009, I made yet another pilgrimage to the hermit kingdom...now armed with a digital camera. I apologize for the image quality; very low light that day. Turning your room lights off helps a bit.
I always hike in from Redbox, where it's an easy 4.5 miles to the base of the cliff--hoofing it up the talus is the hardest part, next to dodging the speeding Ducatis while crossing the Angeles Crest Highway. A couple miles into the hike, past Lawlor Saddle, you get these unforgettable, sweeping views of that stupendous watershed country; then you gradually descend into Strawberry Meadows, where there's always a spooky "murkwoods" feeling--it's a shadowy place full of mysterious old oaks and ghostly pinetrees. It's also famous as one of Southern California's genuine beauty spots. The old-timers called it "Little Yosemite." For more intense solitude, I always choose to come here on a quiet weekday.
On Jan 13 the area was still under its Christmas snow and icicles, though the Santa Anas were blowing hard. My perpetual companion, a thermos of hot tea, added moral support. I took the left edge of the talus field to get up to the towering North Cliff, and found that the cliff is still geologically active. Recently, massive blocks had shed off and come crashing down through the talus, shattering tree trunks into fresh toothpicks and cleaving apart huge boulders, like the path of a meteorite. Every year or so, I'd guess the staff down at the Methodist Camp (3.5 miles away) hear these monster rockfalls. As usual, I encountered shifting and trapdoor talus blocks--use caution if you visit here. Everywhere on this cliff the rockfall can be intense; if you get anywhere near this crag then helmets are advised.
Like I do every time, Tuesday I spent 3.5 hours examining the cliff, stumbling from its left end to its right end, looking for route possibilities, getting a stiff neck. But, as usual, nothing came from my inspections, though it's fascinating just to study such a massive-but-virginal crag, even if it's a bit like a lecherous old man glaring at a fresh young girl. Truly an awesome cliff system, about 1200ft along its base, and maybe 240ft in height. (CORRECTION:the cliff's maximum height is at least 400ft) Just left of center is a huge whitish slab, featureless except for its rubble and its high menacing fangs of loose-looking rock. Right of that white slab is the North Cliff's "most obvious route," a grungy wide crack that goes right-ward up a dark gray buttress, steep at the bottom and the middle. It's maybe somewhere between 5.6 to 5.9, and the crack may be packed tight with dirt--bushels of Miner's Lettuce sprout from it. You might also encounter unstable, detached blocks and poor protection. (Route Info at bottom.) 30ft to the left of this wide crack is a bolted sport/face route. You will see its first four bolts near the base of the rock. The start looks at least 5.10+. Gear may be needed on this route, beside quick-draws.
Going a little further right, you then encounter the stunning "Main Face." Looking upward from a ways back, any serious climber will be awestruck by this 300ft-wide section of aesthetic granite; it's from 65 to 85 degrees steep in most places; you see a few rusted bolts and slings around trees. But it suffers from two little problems: it lacks obvious cracks, and it lacks obvious holds. Though I saw plenty of "discontinuous" cracks which could be linked together with steep sections of gritty face climbing. (Old-school climbing: protecting a steep, thin crack with wireds, then sustained, thin face moves to yet another tiny crack, which might actually require knifeblade pitons--ughh!) Nevertheless, the Main Face does boast some great climbing potentials: it has steep, shallow dihedrals, some finger/hand cracks, nice ledges, corner systems, and some good-looking, steep slabs. There's also lichen...and more lichen. And some of the rock I climbed felt grainy/flaky and ball-bearing, some cracks had soft, crumbly edges...well, you get the picture.(Correction: the rock is generally of good quality, and lichen isn't much of a factor.)
The Main Face was actually first climbed in 1938 by John and Ruth Mendenhall, who set aside a hot summer to do "pioneering ascents" on Strawberry's North Cliff. Their recorded route was "so devious" they named it "Strawberry Roam," and it took numerous Sundays to complete it, likely with direct aid. Ruth Mendenhall was then a world-famous "woman climber." An SP Member here has mentioned climbing "Strawberry Roam" back in 1996, from a topo sourced to Ruth Mendenhall. If he has the time, perhaps he can post this historic route and offer some details. Teen-aged Royal Robbins climbed everywhere in the San Gabriels, climbing down deep canyons to solo nameless 600ft towers of rubble. Robbins as well climbed with the Mendenhalls; I suspect then he has climbed Strawberry's North Cliff. Also, an article in Rock&Ice once mentioned ice setting up on this crag, presumably like the clear water ice I've climbed beside Williamson Rock--but I have my doubts about that. (The legendary Royal Robbins responded to my e-mail, and was glad to hear of this crag getting some online press. He confirmed a long-ago visit to the cliff, and recalled that it was not quite as "firm" as Tahquitz. Later, I linked him to this Trip Report, and he replied again, saying he enjoyed the memories. Far as I'm concerned, Robbins is THE MAN.)
So what did I think of the North Cliff? First thing, there's no frogs lurking about to spoil the fun, to close access. It's also wild, beautiful and amazing, but it's slightly uninviting to the climber. It simply lacks obvious lines of ascent. You don't really know what to climb there, where to rope up. Everything is of interest, but nothing specifically commands your attention. It would take an obsessed, super-committed person to "develop" the climbing on this lonesome cliff, to separate the good from the junk, while going through a ship load of wire brushes. (He'd have to be a honed specialist of thin, difficult cracks, with superb edging skills.) A year's worth of Saturdays might then result in merely a dozen quality rock climbs, culled from all of that granite. But maybe just one or two ultra-classics would finally attract some new visitors to this old and strange paradise.
January 15, 2009
Disclaimer: If you aspire to be Strawberry Peak's next Junior Alpinist, then realize that you might also be its next victim of rockfall. Climbing on Strawberry Peak's North Cliff or its talus could be extremely dangerous. Do so at your own risk. Any of the information here could be inaccurate or wrong. (SM)
Buttress of The Winter Wind: On May 10, 2009, I attempted to rope-solo this feature, climbing up to about 275ft, perhaps 175ft short of the top. I used the simplest method of soloing, tying everything off with figure eights, and just pulling up 10 to 20ft of slack at a time. With a Rawl-style drill and hammer, I also installed four new bolts on this climb, adding two new bolts beside an ancient and rusted two-bolt belay/rappel station, and two bolts much higher up, just above sections of grungy and crackless climbing. The added bolts are 5/16" by 1.75"; a 7/16" wrench tightens them.
(from Steve1215: for better or worse, this was a misguided effort...and the only time I've carried a Rawl drill in the Angeles Forest. As they say, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions--see Comments. "Buttress of The Winter Wind" was my own nickname for this feature...since 1987)
Begin climbing this route in a steep, 14" wide crack--the North Cliff's most obvious feature. About 30ft up is a poorly-protected step-across left onto the face, at least 5.8 in difficulty. From this position you can reach over and insert a cam into a 4" wide crack. Then climb the squeeze chimney behind a chockstone until you can move left again onto the ledge with bolts. Above, 70ft of fun stemming on superb rock leads you to a belay on a pedestal, with a vertical 2" wide crack for anchors.
Above that, climb up to a short, vertical crux section; this move is on excellent rock, and rated 5.7. A 3" slot offers protection here. Then climb a low-angle dihedral. Above that is about 80ft of climbing that will separate the mountaineers from the rock climbers: the granite is somewhat decomposed but still solid, cracks are sparse, and gravel and bushes are abundant. The climbing is strenuous and awkward 5.6. In this area I saw a half-dozen slings and biners where people had retreated, doing CRAZY rappels from small tree roots even. You'll find two new bolts I added to this section.
After thrashing past this grunge, I stopped. I'd run out of daylight and my hand was mangled from hammering the drill, so I made four careful rappels to get back down. Above my high point, though, the rock appeared to be of good quality; and the climbing looked excellent, possibly steep. I'd guess that a couple more bolts would be welcome in this last 175ft, maybe to replace old, rusted ones. Below, I hadn't run across any good cracks for pitons or wireds, but cams 1.5" to 4" were useful. The climbing I did was reasonably protected, except for the first 30ft. Bring plenty of slings, and a few old biners for possible rappels.
May 12, 2009
"Let me not mar that perfect dream..."