The Guardian of Galena Peak: Panic on the Headwall

The Guardian of Galena Peak: Panic on the Headwall

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Mar 4, 2006
Activities Activities: Scrambling
Seasons Season: Winter

Up Canyon to the Headwall

Heading Out on Climb of Galena PeakHeading Out to Galena Peak
Galena Peak nests 9,324 ft. above the bottomlands in southern California’s San Bernardino National Forest. Due to its approach, it is not a heavily climbed peak. The route to Galena takes you up the rugged Mill Creek Canyon where you maneuver back and forth across Mill Creek trying simultaneously to navigate through the most accessible chutes and trying to avoid the notorious rockfall on the vertical north side of the canyon. Some 2.5 to 3 miles up the canyon you come to a massive headwall known as the Mill Creek JumpOff. The intensity of the fun ratchets up here.

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

Headwall Guarding Galena PeakHeadwall Guarding Galena Peak
When we reached the headwall(see photo above), we discovered that conditions were not ideal for scrambling up it. The coverage on the headwall was a mixture of extremely loose dirt and rock alternating with narrow sheets of thin hard ice. Another factor to take into consideration when climbing this headwall is that it is concave in shape and gets steeper as you go up it. We headed up wearing only our hiking boots. The preferred route up the headwall is to stay toward the south wall of the canyon. Twenty five meters or so before the top of the headwall, you traverse right to gain the ridge that takes you to Galena Peak.

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 Panic

I’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 Difficulty

However, 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

San Bernardino RidgeLooking north at San Bernardino Ridge from near summit of Galena Peak
Once back with the group, I quickly put out of my mind the adventure on the headwall and greatly enjoyed the climb to Galena Peak over a fresh carpet of snow. From the headwall, you follow the ridge southwest for about half a mile come upon the east summit of the peak. The views were magnificent on a clear day like we had. To the north looms the San Bernardino Ridge (see photo above) and Mt. San Gorgonio. The eastern view looks toward Mt. San Jacinto and to the west there is Mt. Baldy.

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!


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-13 of 13

BeDrinkable - Mar 23, 2006 4:16 pm - Voted 10/10

I know the feeling.

I'm all too familiar with that sinking feeling of being boxed into a bad situation. I'm glad everything worked out!

Augie Medina

Augie Medina - Mar 25, 2006 4:31 am - Hasn't voted

Re: I know the feeling.

Thanks for your post. There's something positive about knowing that you can get yourself out of what at first appears to be a hopeless situation.


Luciano136 - Oct 3, 2006 11:52 pm - Voted 10/10

Got in trouble there too

My girlfriend and I got ourselves in a similar pickle last weekend. I thought I could take a shortcut to the ridge via a chute (slide?) on the south side. The bottom part of it was horribly loose but not steep. The top part was steeper but had more rock, so I figured we'd be ok. Sure enough, when getting to the steeper part, the first hold I grabbed onto just crumbled off! So, getting up higher was downright scary and we already told ourselves we would definitely not come down the same way. My girlfriend was in a panic because we were basically stuck. Luckily I managed to get ourselves back down. Had no idea the rock out there is so rotten and crumbly. Scary stuff! Gives a great boost to your mental awareness though! I was drained when we got back down.

Augie Medina

Augie Medina - Oct 4, 2006 7:36 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Got in trouble there too

I think a lot of people don't realize you have to do some attentive routefinding to make your way up safely to this peak. It looks like the both of us got stuck in different areas on the way to the headwall, but what we had in common was that some chute or line looked like the way to go and turned out to be a bad choice. Hope your girlfriend doesn't get scared off by your experience.


Luciano136 - Oct 4, 2006 8:59 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Got in trouble there too

Yeah, that peak is kinda sketchy. Our line of approach would've been easy if there was some solid ground; crazy how bad rock can change things dramatically! Luckily she still trusts me :-). I actually had second thoughts about the chute but she agreed we should just give it a shot. I guess I should've stuck with my first thought of taking the 'standard' route. Oh well, live and learn, right ;-)?


TripoliRick - Apr 8, 2008 11:13 pm - Hasn't voted

Galena Peak

A friend of mine and me tried going up Mill Creek and straight up one of the chutes that goes directly to the summit. We did it when there was more snow (the creek bed and chute were totally covered but late enough in the season to be firm enough to walk on. After playing dodge ball up the chute with grape to baseball sized rock fall, About 500' below the summit I heard some large noises that could only mean something big was coming. We both retreated off the perfect crampon snow/ice of the chute to opposite rock cliffs on the sides. Sure enough a torrent of rock came bouncing down the biggest being the size of a refrigerator that took about six bounces as it flew past us (reminded me like we were in a pinball machine. Needless to say, we retreated after that (it was only getting warmer as the morning wore on and rock continued. The rock in the area is in such bad shape because Mill Creek is one of the branches of the San Andreas Fault.

Augie Medina

Augie Medina - Apr 9, 2008 3:14 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Galena Peak

Thanks for your story. Close call. Good thing you were paying attention. I'll remember never to try that route!



cammed - May 19, 2012 7:01 pm - Hasn't voted

problem solving

The description of your predicament is well captured. I often tell people that one of the things I enjoy about rock climbing is purely the problem-solving aspect. You are provided with X, Y, and Z, and you have a goal to accomplish (whether to reach a summit or to solve a single crux, or even to escape a predicament). While I enjoy your story, I hope you also find value in bringing along a rope and using for sections like this in the future!

Augie Medina

Augie Medina - May 19, 2012 9:42 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: problem solving

Thanks for your comment. You're right; there's nothing like a problem-solving situation with the adrenaline flowing!. You know, I don't think that section could have been protected. I just shouldn't have gone off route not knowing what was up higher.


cammed - May 30, 2012 3:17 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: problem solving

Overall, was the approach a Class 4 if you stayed on route? I've looked at Galena a few times, but most of the horror stories about falling rocks send me away.

Augie Medina

Augie Medina - May 30, 2012 4:25 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: problem solving

If you stay on route and if it's not icy, it is like Class 2-3, actually.


pawl - May 9, 2013 7:29 am - Hasn't voted

It's crumbling away

Regarding the headwall (not the climb up to Galena Peak from the jumpoff), here's what I know from my limited experience, and something I've not seen mentioned: the place is crumbling away. I've tried it only twice, once making it up, another time almost making it [before inching my way back down from 40 feet below the lip]. I've been on top of the jumpoff several other times (arriving via the Vivian Creek Trail above and south). Each time I've been, the place is different. Truly morphed! First time, there was a sandy beach (with bear prints), 30 feet back from the lip to the bushes. Next time I was there, that beach had been reduced to a few feet. The place is literally crumbing away in real time.
First time up from the bottom, hiking alone, I found myself at the point where the angle gets so steep and the ground so loose, without helmet or gear, that I bailed. It was just before that moment of commitment you've described, so I made it down safely, with tail between legs. Couldn't figure out what had happened, since I'd read so many times about how everyone and their 85yo grandmother had climbed this thing.
Here's the thing, when I went back with some friends just two months later (or less), the wall had lost about 10 feet of thickness. The face of it was utterly different. Yes, a major storm had been through, the route up the Mill Creek was strewn with 10-15 foot boulders that were not in the same position as before, etc., etc. So, don't be fooled into thinking that route up the headwall you are reading about now will be there when you arrive.
The other thing is, even if you think that a 5 foot rock lodged in the side of the wall, near the top, looks solid, it's probably not. It is VERY disturbing when said rock begins to slide beneath you and you don't find any handhold to transfer your weight to. At 55, I've still got things to do in life; the thrill for me is not in the danger. Glad I can say I climbed it once, though.

Augie Medina

Augie Medina - Oct 11, 2013 3:25 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: It's crumbling away

Thanks much for your observations. Your comments are helpful because people contemplating this climb need to be aware of what they're getting into.

Viewing: 1-13 of 13



Parents refers to a larger category under which an object falls. For example, theAconcagua mountain page has the 'Aconcagua Group' and the 'Seven Summits' asparents and is a parent itself to many routes, photos, and Trip Reports.

Galena PeakTrip Reports