Up Canyon to the Headwall
Our group of California Mountaineering Club members left the Forest Falls trailhead early one Saturday morning headed out on our snow covered route. We dropped into the river bed and headed up the canyon. The climb up the canyon is not particularly steep as long as you avoid the steep chutes on its southern boundary. On the other hand, you absolutely have to avoid getting close to the north wall of the canyon. The rock on that wall is particularly prone to come loose and deposit into the canyon bottom. All day long, we would hear the disconcerting sound of rock ripping loose from high on the wall and the “thump, thump, thump” of these missiles accelerating down to the bottom.
A Traverse Gone Wrong
The traverse was a little uncomfortable for most of the group given the conditions making good footholds problematic. But yours truly thought he saw a line of traverse just below the top of the headwall with better holds than the line everyone else was on. As I got close to the anticipated traverse line, I came to the realization that my plan had to work because I would not be able to downclimb the section I was going up. I believe they call this “commitment.” But for a little while longer I felt confident that I could see holds just below the lip of the headwall that would serve comfortably to accomplish my traverse to the ridge. By now I was pulling myself up on loose rock and iffy tree branches growing down from the top of the headwall. When I got to the place where I had intended to start traversing, I saw a chilling sight.
The rocks had disappeared and there was nothing but large, dead branches to hold onto. Plus, to the right of the dead branches, I could not see what if anything besides air there might be there.
Looking at the lifeless branches, I nevertheless acted like someone who has been told that the fence has just been painted. In other words, I needed to touch the fence to make sure. I reached over to my right and gently tugged on a massive branch hanging down the headwall. It came loose without a struggle. Now I knew. I could not traverse that way. I could not go straight up because the area immediately above me was an overhang. The only way out of this predicament was down. I would either come loose from the mountain and slide down the headwall who knows how many hundreds of feet before I stopped, or, I would downclimb the route of my ascent, something I dismissed as not being possible when I was going up.
Managing PanicI’m sure others have been where I was and know the feeling. Trapped. You can't move in any direction, but neither can you hang on where you are for very long. My mouth immediately went dry as if choked with dust. I felt sick at heart and mind. Yes, real panic. The feeling is so overwhelming that you feel for a moment like simply letting go for then the problem is resolved and the panic that is consumming you will go away.
I will tell you that the most positive thing I got out of this experience was the opportunity to learn to manage your terror. It was a valuable experience in this sense. I told myself that I had to downclimb no matter what the result. I took several deep breathes and said out loud to myself that I’d be alright if I just took my time. And that’s what I did. I slowly and gingerly took it step by step making sure I had solid handholds before reaching for footholds below that I could not see. At times, it took me a minute or two before I located a handhold and a foothold that I could trust. Several times, I encountered potential handholds that pulled right out when I applied cautious pressure to test them. And it was mainly handholds that I was relying upon because most of my footholds consisted merely of smearing the toe of my boot onto the smooth headwall. I was thankful for my weight training regimen that has given me excellent upper body strength. About twenty minutes after that first surge of panic, I was down to a spot where my heart stopped pounding.
And the rest of my group? Fortunately, I was out of view so no one could see what was going on. I don’t think I would have welcomed an audience for my treacherous downclimb. In any case, no one could have helped me. I knew I had to extricate myself. One member of our group was aware that I was having to “detour” and I did yell over to the group at one point that I would be delayed getting over to them. So my companions knew that I was within range of them.
A Remaining DifficultyHowever, my difficulties were not over yet. Of necessity, I traversed in the opposite direction of where I needed to go, and I found a section where I could get to the top of the headwall. Traversing the top of the headwall to the right would get me where I needed to go to join my group. I scrambled up to the top only to discover that the vegetation was so high and so thick that it would be impossible to get through. So I had to go down again. Fortunately, I was on much easier terrain for this downclimb. I descended far enough to get to a flat spot where I put on my crampons. I wasn’t taking any more chances. I then made the still difficult traverse over to the ridge where the rest of my companions were taking a break. No one seemed particularly interested in getting the details of my delay and this was fine by me.
A Great Finish
As we headed back down, everyone was noticeably apprehensive about getting down the top section of the headwall given its cruddy condition. But everyone made it down safely and soon we found ourselves along the creek enjoying the brisk weather that accompanied us back to the trailhead.
Another day of luck and adventure!