The Creek That Drains a Great Bowl
Imagine ice cold water with the seeming force to rip your head off and you will appreciate the conditions along San Antonio Creek on Saturday morning, March 12, 2011, as ten of us, part of an informal regional southern California network of canyoneers, embarked upon rappelling these massive falls.
Scrambling toward drop in point
San Antonio Creek drains a great rock-rimmed bowl on the southeastern flank of Mt. Baldy (10,064’) in southern California. In its lower reaches, the creek slithers into a great vertical gorge where the ice cold water succumbs to the law of gravity in breathtaking fashion over four large waterfalls known as San Antonio Falls.
We met at the Manker Flats trailhead to organize gear and prepare mentally for the day. Everyone would need a wetsuit and dry bags because wet was the order of the day.
There are different route options for getting to the drop-in point for this canyon. One option is to take the Ski Hut Trail and drop into the stream just before the ski hut. We took a more direct cross-country route starting up to the right of the last waterfall. We made a couple of wrong turns in the route-finding and did a fair amount of scrambling up and down the steep terrain, but soon enough we were suiting up for the wet, cold descent.
After donning wetsuits, harnesses and helmets, we exchanged self-encouragement and mutual advice to have fun. We then made our way to the first of a series of stop-you-in-your-tracks waterfalls ranging in length between 40 and 90 feet.
Having fun! And more fun
Ice Cold Descents
Starting down the first of the San Antonio Falls
Each of the watery rappels had its own challenges. Some had awkward starts and all dared the rappeller to stay out of the thunderous cascade of icy water. This took concentrated effort and luck because it was usually difficult to find a line of descent near enough the waterfall to be aligned with the anchor (that is, to avoid setting yourself up for a major pendulum) yet keep your feet from sliding off the slippery rock into the fall. I wasn’t successful on every rappel in holding a line outside the waterfall and got hammered by the weight of hundreds of pounds of icy liquid. As you would go under, the water nearly ripping your helmet off your head, the only thought was to keep moving the rope through your rappel device because even a momentary pause would cause you to lose your breath as the water slamms unrelentingly into your face. One word to describe the scenario is scary, but I chose to relate it to my partners as “exhilarating.”
The third big fall was about 80 feet.
Into the deluge
The start was over a narrow lip and the water crashed down a vertical slot to a beautiful pool below. At this drop, it was especially difficult to avoid going into the maelstrom.
The last of the San Antonio Falls proper is one that is seen by every hiker moving along the fire road from Manker Flats (the road makes a big curve to the right as you pass this bottom fall). Plenty of people detour from the fire road to get close to this fall. This day was no different and so we had a fairly large audience to watch us complete this last rappel. And what a magnificent rappel it is. It is unique owing to the configuration of the car-sized boulders toward the bottom of the fall. One boulder is positioned such that it forces the water to shoot out at an angle virtually parallel to the ground. So, once you get to this part of the rappel about 20 feet from the bottom, what has up to now been a vertical rappel turns into a horizontal ride. For added fun, I let the water shoot me out horizontally and then pendulumed myself back in, and then let the water shoot me out once again. WAY, WAY BETTER THAN RAGING WATERS.
That’s my report. The bottom line is, if you want to make a descent of this canyon memorable, pick a time of the year where the water is running fiercely like it was on our March outing. You will not be sorry but you will get cold and wet. But it’s all part of the fun, right?
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