I drove out the night before, planning on parking next to the power station and getting some sleep before the big day. That night it was supposed to be dropping below freezing above 7,500ft, and snowing a half inch to an inch, not ideal, but the window this year was short, and we had to go. I pulled into the turnout around 8pm, the final bit of sun just illuminating the North Face enough to see the route for tomorrow. I'd be lying if I said it didn't look intimidating, and my nerves slowly began to creep up, but I was still calm and prepared, knowing it would be just another day in the mountains.
The wind was the first to start around 9:30pm and it was howling down at 1,500ft, and was shaking my car back and forth, offering little opportunity for sleep. The peak was still slightly visible through the clouds building up around 9,000ft, giving me some assurance. Finally the rain started up shortly after that, starting as a light drizzle then eventually picking up to a consistent rain. The peak was now obscured by clouds. I didn't end up getting much sleep that night, the nerves of the upcoming day and the constant shaking of my car kept me awake for longer than I'd have liked.
My alarm woke me at 3:30am on Sunday, March 20, 2022. I think I had finally drifted off to sleep around 2am, giving me some opportunity at sleep. By now the rain had died off, and there was just a light breeze blowing. I put on my clothes for the day, my hardshell feeling like a knights armor. I looked through my bag, making sure I had all of the small items I would need for the day.
My partner pulled up shortly before 4:00am, just as I was going through my final mental checklist. Not too many words were spoken then, I think we both were too busy worrying about what lie ahead. Just about at 4:00am exactly, we began the hike across open desert, aiming for the base of a hill, which would ultimately take us around the DWA property entirely, making the approach completely legal. By this point the rain had died down almost completely, leaving just humidity and stale desert air. The walk across open desert was relatively simple, we followed a GPX line from a previous party, not wanting to stray too far from their line, knowing we were straddling the DWA property line.
Around the base of the hill we crossed a massive pipeline, an obvious reminder of the current state of the watershed. Shortly after beginning up the hill it turned into a loose, sandy slog for a thousand feet or so. Not fun at all. There was the occasional rock to pull on, but even then the hold broke off half the time. This created a slow ascent of the hill, getting to the top sometime around sunrise. From there it was a pretty easy and painless hike on the side of the ridge over to Falls Creek. The fire from some yars ago had burned most of the area, leaving it fairly open, and there was cairns where it wasn't. The initial worries of route-finding in the approach to the isthmus were turning out to be false. Descending down to Falls Creek was a bit of a loose nightmare again, but nothing bad. The creek was flowing very well and we stopped to fill up, drinking straight from the creek with no worries.
The isthmus was more obnoxious than the last several miles of the approach we'd done, but there was some sections of maybe class2/easy 3 so it made it worth it. This section was less burnt, so navigation was a little harder, we almost dropped into Snow Creek too early, but caught ourselves and had to bushwack over to the actual entrance. Once in Snow Creek proper we were faced with a couple scrambles below the chockstone, nothing harder than class 3 though. It was easy going from here up to the chockstone, following the creek up.
Once reaching the chockstone we opted for the 3rd class gully to the right. We had brought a short 30m rope and a set of nuts (which I won't be doing again) just in case, but we reached the chockstone around 10:30am, a little later than anticipated. The 3rd class gully was easy, but my partner sent down a large block towards me at the beginning, so I was careful what to reach for and step on. The top of the gully is followed by a traverse on easy ground up Snow Creek, spitting us out somewhere around 6,200'. From there it was two short sections of easy 5th class soloing up (what would normally be under snow) some rock walls. Our predictions were correct that the snowline would start aroud 6,500', but it wasn't a considerable amount.
We stopped on the side of the couloir to finally switch to our boots and crampons. I had an old pair of Koflach plastic boots I was given for a good price, and some old Simond front point crampons I had found while digging through the storage where I work. I decided to go with two ice tools for the route, which I would consider a standard now. I had a Petzl Gully adze and a straight shaft Black Diamond x15 hammer, which was also given to me for a good price. The snow down low was rotten and we had to make sure to stay out of the main watercourse, so we don't punch through into the creek. The initial snow field was broken up and ended at an exposed band of rock, Folly Falls. I had taken lead on the last 300' up to it, and got to the base of the bypass first. I was presented with the option of a short ~20' WI2 step up the watercourse, but the ice looked thin and there was still water gushing underneath it, or I could solo a 30' slab that looked doable. Being more comfortable on rock than ice, I chose the rock. The first 15' went smoothly, it was my first time climbing rock with crampons on and I'd like to think I was styling it, ice tools slung over my shoulders and all. The slab quickly became less featured and more "slabby" giving less and less for my front points to hook on to, and my hand holds became far worse than before. I was now 25' up the slab, over rotten snow and a waterfall, kind of cruxing out. Luckily I had spent the last winter in Joshua Tree, so it wasn't completely foreign to me. I traversed onto what looked like better hands and feet but ended up being worse, and I couldn't traverse back over. The final move was bad feet and no hands until you could stand up and grab a small (but bad) rail, and beached whale yourself up.. at least that's how I did it, YMMV. This same move my partner had some trouble with, and spent a couple minutes figuring out the beta.
Once past the slab the angle kicked back for a brief moment, and the snow became better. Finally we had made it to "Snow Creek". The snow was the most variable I've ever experienced, we were knee deep in powder one step and the next we were crunching our way up almost neve. By this point it was around 1:30pm, and we still had the whole snow part, or 4,000', to gain. The sun was in full exposure around this point, and even though it was around freezing it was still pretty warm.
The next thousand feet went by pretty uneventfully, there was a lot of walking up steep snow. I had only seen two water ice flows at this point, one on the bypass and the other on the right side of the couloir, probably because it sees shade most of the day. There was no significant avanalanche signs or danger, I never even really saw evidence of any slides, all things considered it was a pretty stable snowpack. The previous week had been warm even up at elevation, but the past 48 hours were below freezing above 8000'. There was one section where I lost my balance, but I corrected myself before having to self arrest, or even worry about self arresting. It was becoming monotonous at this point, we'd been doing basically the same thing for the past 2.5 hours and we still had 2,000' to the summit.
Around 8,500' the sun dipped below Folly Ridge, giving us the first time we had shade since starting up the snow. Up until now I had only had on a light pair of gloves, a baselayer and a hardshell, but I added a nano air to the system not long after the sun had left us. I remember thinking how long the run-outs were, and that it would be a long fall, but rather than thinking about injury in the event of a fall I was thinking "don't fall or else I have to come back up this again". The snow was soft enough I think a self arrest would've been doable, but as always in snow/ice climbing, falling is never really an option. My partner began to slow down by this point, we had been out for going on 12 hours at this point, and the majority of that we were active and moving. I still felt relatively good, and was creating landmarks in my head that I had to get to before taking another break. This helped a lot more than I can give it credit for, it kept me moving and gave me a goal to reach, and a reward.
At 9,000' the wind began to pick up, first being just a slight chill when stopped. It was 5:30pm at this point, hour 14. I was about 100 feet ahead of my partner, still moving slightly faster than him. The storm from the previous night turned out to be not so cold after all, there was a thin layer of unconsolidated snow on top of the snowpack that resembled flakes of ice rather than snow. The wind picked up substantially now, and we were now stuck in 50mph spindrifts, still 1,000' below the summit. The temperature with wind chill was easily dipping into the single digits, and the slope angle combined with terrain gave me next to 0 opportunity to stop and put on my belay parka, let alone eat or drink anything. I couldn't even really take my pack off.
The wind was blowing up the couloir, which was the one good thing about it. We weren't having to brace ourselves for the next gust, not that there was gusts, it was sustained. Being ahead of my partner and out of talking distance with them, I was left alone with my thoughts. The thought that this is real alpine climbing and what I came to experience, but also that the snow was hardening, and if I were to fall and not self arrest I would be faced with a very real and possibly deadly issue. There was no getting a helicopter into the north face with that wind and visibility, and ground teams would take hours to get back here, and we had no bivy gear to spend the night, especially in the couloir. I had never felt that "alone" before, and this wasn't a good head space to be in, still 500' below the summit.
The slope angle increased to it's steepest around the final 500', and the snow became the softest we'd seen all day. I was now truly postholing, ranging from knee-waist deep, depending on where it was. The rocks towards the top were also exposed, and drifts being deeper and softer around them. I was swimming through the snow basically, the spindrift and temperatures worsening as I got higher and higher. I found I could hook my tools into the other side of the rock, find an edge for the pick, and pull myself up, tiring but effective.
The last 50' the snow gave way to rock, and I was once again mixed scrambling, this time with the thought of a 2,000' fall looming over me, just 50' below the summit. It wasn't difficult scrambling by any means, but I was ready to be out of the couloir and on the summit. My partner was still a hundred or so feet below me, making his way up the same way I came up.
The rock gave way to more snow, and I found myself standing on the summit ridge, a mere 30m right of the summit. I hadn't expected to top out this close to the summit, but I wasn't complaining. I walked over to the summit (there was even a sign!),summitting at 7:13pm, snapped a picture, or five, and walked back to the top out to wait for my partner to top out, who eventually did 10 minutes after I had.
We talked for a second when he topped out, and decided we probably wouldn't make it back to the tram by the time the last car left, or that we would even have the energy to make it back. A short walk to the summit hut was all it took to decide that's where we'd be spending the night. I took the left bunk, my partner took the right. There was a single sleeping bag in the hut, which I let him take because I had an emergency bivy. I tried to choke down some energy cubes but since I hadn't ate or drank in several hours it was difficult, and I didn't want to, even though it was obvious I needed to, I was hungry.
I felt it before it happened, so I got up, walked to the door, and could barely open it before I started puking, all over the snow on the doorstep of the summit shelter. I had to have puked six times before I felt better, a lot better actually. Bet not many people can say they puked on the doorstep of the summit shelter. Now it was a little easier to eat and drink, so I did.
The cabin helped block some of the wind that night, but didn't do much help against the bitter cold night, so it was still in the teens in there. Funny enough, I got great sleep that night, even though I was sleeping on 2x4's with an emergency bivy. I woke up a few times to eat more food and that was it, a pretty uneventful night.
The next morning we woke up, my partner called out of work, and we hiked down to the tram. The workers seemed very surprised when we told them where we came from. Coming down the tram we were picked up and taken back to our cars, finishing the trip.
I have a lot to reflect on regarding Snow Creek. This route was more to me than another route to tick off. It was the basis of all my goals up to that point essentially, I had known and fantasized about Snow Creek since I was 10 years old. It was my first real big route, first time on an "alpine" route, and I felt I needed to do it to prove myself. The San Jacinto's hold a special place in my heart, they were the first mountains I explored, and have taught me just about everything I know about climbing and hiking. I'm glad to have done it, even in a low snow year everyone said wouldn't go and I was faced with a lot of uncertainty, from a lot of my climbing partners. I really suffered in the mountains for the first time on that day, and it taught me a lot about my own limits and how I respond to them. I came out a better person, and a better climber. Now that I've done Snow Creek, it's sparked an interest in bigger mountains, longer days, and more technical routes.