“O-Launch-A winter attempt at the northeast ridge of Olancha Peak” said someone, or rather something, two weeks ago when I was in an unproductive vicodin daze after going through oral surgery to remove all my wisdom teeth. The next thing I knew, I was at the desert floor near the town of Olancha staring up.
Olancha Peak is listed as an Emblem Peak by the Sierra Peaks Section of the Angeles Chapter, thus named for its dominance over the other peaks in the vicinity. The idea of climbing the mountain from the desert floor, hence gaining as much elevation as possible without starting from sea level, appealed to me after climbing the lower nearby Cartago Peak a few weeks ago in the same fashion. It is also one of the most widely seen peak in the Sierra as it forms the skyline behind some of the “Crystal Geyser: Natural Alpine Spring Water” bottles.
Moreover, the renowned guidebook author Jim Jenkins described the Northeast Ridge route as being “the most challenging climb” in his book. Scouring through the scant literature, I couldn’t find anyone who had done it in the dead of winter, and just a handful who had done it in the summer or late spring. Thoughts of a first winter ascent fueled me, and to top it off, I planned to finish the route in fine alpine style – completing the entire route in one push and with minimal gear and maximum motivation. Along with the full winter paraphernalia of ice ax, snowshoes and crampons, the only other gear I brought beyond a usual dayhike was a 10-degree bag, a short length foam pad and a light stove to melt water on the higher flanks of the snowy peak.
The day started out beautifully in the dawning desert light. Jenkins’ directions to the trailhead are accurate and the dirt road posed no challenge for my small sedan. I headed west aiming for the second ridge south of Cartago Creek. It was a pleasant hike up the steepening slopes, and the desert sagebrush slowly gave way to the welcome shade of pinyon pines, white fir and Jeffrey pines. I reached snow at about 7000’ and the views of the snowy ledges of the adjoining canyons to the north and south were stunning.
Higher on the ridge, the first milestone is a hill, point 7540’, which is a steep set of pinnacles that bars further progress on the ridgecrest. I scrambled directly on the crest to a point where it was impossible to maintain 3rd class climbing. At this point, I traversed on the south side through a narrow opening between some shrub along a ledge system that bypassed the first outcropping. This gave access to a small gully, the higher flanks of which looked to be more difficult rock. I descended about 60 feet south down the gully and climbed a steep but easy class 3 crack that led to another ledge, which brought me to a notch directly below the high point of the hill. I crossed over to the north side of the notch, where more class 3 boulders bypassed the hill. Very careful routefinding is required through this whole rock maze. The fresh snow atop the rocks and between the cracks mildly complicated the situation for me, but I knew it would pose a bigger problem higher up.
The ridge from this point gets rougher and extends further as an army of pinnacles. I left the ridge on the south side contouring across the slope to join the canyon below. The fresh snow here accumulated to a frustratingly deep level and out came the snowshoes. The 1600’ up the narrow canyon slowed me down considerably. The unforgiving powder snow sunk me to my waist and at times, upward mobility was more akin to swimming than climbing. I despairingly watched as the sun moved past its zenith without ever touching the canyon floor, thereby explaining the deep fluffy snow that didn’t have any time for the freeze-thaw cycles needed to consolidate. Swimming through the deep snow had wet my maps, reducing them to a psychedelic blur, leaving me to rely on the image I’d engrained in my head over the past two weeks.
The canyon walls eventually come together and form an east facing slope, at the top of which a gentler grade leads further southwest. After exiting the canyon, it is important to carefully look back and study the route as finding this point on the descent is tricky. On the way down, be sure not to descend into the canyon between point 7212’ and 7540’ because it is tempting to do so and may potentially spell an unpleasant experience.
The crux of the route now behind me, I resigned myself to enjoy the mountain scenery. Travel across the forested slopes dotted with the emotionally wrenching figures of foxtail pines made for a pleasant ascent. The snow was still deep, but not nearly as bad as the canyon. I skirted just below the ridgecrest, bypassing point 10,010’ on the north.
A light wind picked up and the breeze felt good in the afternoon sun. High cirrus clouds danced swirling patterns that mirrored those of the wind-blown snow. I knew that the last winter storm from the past weekend deposited nearly all the snow present, and felt great following through the forecasts before the trip, which spelled out perfect conditions. Little did I know that half a mile further this would all change, and leave me skeptical again of weather forecasts.
I reached a point on the crest that angled sharply west and was greeted here by a powerful gust of wind. It was now 4:00 pm and about an hour below the summit. Since I had expected two full days to climb the mountain, being so close prompted me now to take my time and settle to enjoy the alpine scenery. Besides, I figured that the push up the final slopes to the summit would be a lot easier with the firm snow of dawn.
Ignoring the wind, I pulled out my camera to take in the beautiful panorama of Mt. Whitney, Langley and Russell to the north shrouded in white and blanketed by a fiery orange glow. I took three shots when the damn thing suddenly died! I had installed fresh batteries before the trip, and it was frustrating to continue on without a photographic record of the winter Sierra. I’m not sure if it is my camera that can’t handle cold temps (Canon Powershot A70), or if it’s the bane of AA alkalines, but it was reminiscent of the cold conditions atop Mt. Hood this past summer that cheated me of a summit shot. If anyone can give me advice on how to remedy this, I’d be eternally thankful.
I set up my bivouac site under the shelter of a thick mountain juniper on a flat spot high on the ridge at 10,500’ and made my preparations for the evening. The winds were now howling at about 30 mph from the south, which prompted me to retire soon after melting some snow for the next day. The lazy sun now creeping down behind Olancha, and with the wind whistling celtic melodies, I drifted to sleep early with thoughts of fine weather and a victorious summit the next day.
The blissful sleep would be shattered not 20 minutes later when a commanding gust of wind lifted my feet a few inches above the ground. Fearful of being blown off into the east face of Olancha, the rest of the evening found me at a heightened level of vigilance. The wind seemed to be directionless now, blowing from the south at one moment, then coming from the east. The gusts were reaching 50 mph and the sound of the wind piercing the pines was almost deafening. So much for “light winds up to 10 mph” as the forecasts predicted.
After a night of restless sleep, I woke up at 5 am for an early start up the mountain. Unfortunately, the wind hadn’t let down one bit, and any travel would be ludicrous. Back to sleep again. I hoped the morning sun would somehow drive the winds away. It did not.
Stealing a look outside the three-inch perimeter of my sleeping bag’s breathing hole, I could see no farther than my ice ax and crampons planted five feet away from me. I denoted the wilderness boundary with these trusty companions; anything beyond was clearly hostile terrain given the current conditions. The wind now sprayed scores of delicate white crystals all around me and I was caught in a blinding whiteout.
I was in my sleeping bag for 14 hours now, and growing ever so restless. I couldn’t do anything. When I lifted my back, the force of the wind would make it difficult to stay up. After 16 hours in the bag, with conditions not getting any better, I decided that I couldn’t take it any more. In a series of precise, planned motions between gusts, I got all my stuff together, put on my boots, donned ice ax and snow shoes and headed out. I could barely make out the summit ridge through the snow.
Ironically, the blue sky above was completely clear. My plan was to move as fast as possible, grab the summit, and head back with no stops in between so I could descend low enough to escape the prevailing winds on the crest. Trudging up the final slope was tedious, to say the least. Whenever I saw a particularly powerful spindrift heading towards me, I braced myself in my most powerful self-belay stance to avoid being knocked off.
Now my toes were starting to go cold the moment I left camp. 30 slow minutes later, I found myself 20 feet below the final summit plateau. The wind had developed a two-foot cornice at the top of the slope and the 40-degree snow was very avalanche prone. I opted for the class 3 blocks to the north, and negotiated these cautiously.
Now taking the full brunt of the north wind, and on the summit plateau, I could see a beautiful plume of snow blowing from the high summits of Whitney and Langley. It reminded me of the signature shots of Mt. Everest where a slender drift of snow pierces the blue sky behind. I was 15 minutes away from the top and the Crystal Geyser had erupted in full force.
My toes hadn’t warmed up one bit, and by now, were numb. I am very familiar with the feeling of cold feet in snow, but this time it was different. My toes were stiff, swollen, and now, had lost all sensation, even that of cold or pain. They felt like stumps, or pebbles that wouldn’t shift around and for the first time on the trip, I was genuinely scared. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing any digits.
Somewhere between the gusts halfway across the plateau, I turned around. Ed Viesturs, the respected Himalayan alpinist coined two phrases that haunted me at that time on the plateau like never before: “climbing is a round-trip journey,” and “ten fingers, ten toes.” I knew I would get back even if I pushed to the summit, but about my toes, I wasn’t so certain. As I embarked on an orgy of self-pity for not making the summit, I reminded myself that no peak is worth losing a few digits. In retrospect, as much as I was tempted by the summit, I am proud of myself for having made that decision. I had completed the route, got a taste of winter mountaineering and subsisting in marginal weather, and in all honesty, was content.
Two hours later, when I was below 7500’, I finally felt my toes coming back to life. The steep slopes down the desert sagebrush on the lower mountain hurt, and although I knew I hadn’t lost any digits, my toes wouldn’t look very pretty when I got back to the car. The outer layer of skin had peeled, and they were very tender, but nonetheless, had escaped the terrible prospect of amputation.
Looking back at Olancha, I paid my final respects to her for rewarding me with a beautiful solitary wilderness experience and promised that I would return once again. After a well-deserved drink of natural alpine spring water that I had bottled myself the previous night, it was time to head back to the routine of college life and let warmer thoughts occupy my mind – beer, philosophy and Bob Marley.