Skiing Snow Creek
10K in a Day on Southern California's San Jacinto Peak
Palm Springs, California — If there has been one singularly conspicuous omission in the SierraDescents repertoire, it is unquestionably a ski descent of San Jacinto Peak via Snow Creek. There are many fine peaks and routes to covet in California, but among ski mountaineers in the know, Snow Creek stands alone.
To those unfamiliar with the San Jacinto Mountains, their scale may well sound like a misprint. From the bottom of Coachella Valley, some two hundred feet below sea level, San Jacinto Peak rises over 11,000 feet to its 10,834-foot summit*, creating one of the largest spans of vertical relief in the lower United States of America.
But it is the abruptness of San Jacinto's rise above the desert and nearby Palm Springs that is most arresting. The massif gains over 9000 vertical feet in less than four horizontal miles.
This close proximity of high alpine and low desert landscapes creates one of the most striking juxtapositions in North American geology—and the pathway connecting it is San Jacinto Peak's Snow Creek drainage.
Climbing Snow Creek, the massive 9600' net vertical gain from where you park in the desert to the summit above is itself a formidable challenge—but it is far from the only challenge.
The route has no established trail, and it passes through an often hellish combination of boulders, cliffs, and brush-choked gullies. The lower reaches can be insufferably hot any time of the year, making heat exhaustion a constant concern. Get off route, which is easily done, and you'll soon find your way blocked by impassible cliffs and plunging waterfalls.
Stay on route, and you must still contend with a mandatory class 4 or 5 pitch known as "the Chockstone." Above the chockstone you'll encounter giant piles of frozen avalanche debris, where collapsing snow bridges can pose a mortal threat. The upper vertical mile or so of the route is steep, often icy, and avalanche-prone, making for treacherous passage (in summer, the route is considered too dangerous to attempt).
Finally, as if all that weren't enough, the entire north face of Mount San Jacinto encompassing the Snow Creek drainage and beyond funnels into one lone bottleneck which provides essentially the only viable passageway up or down. That bottleneck happens to pass dead-center through one square mile of land owned by the Desert Water Agency, which provides water to the city of Palm Springs. And in a terribly cruel twist of fate for mountaineers, the DWA is adamant in its refusal to grant permission to anyone who wishes to cross their land.
*note: the latest NAVD88 elevation for San Jacinto Peak, adjusted for the position of the benchmark, is 10,842 feet. By the metric of Peak Prominence, SJP is ranked #6 in the lower 48 states and a remarkable #32 within the whole of North America.
To recap, in Snow Creek we have one of the most massive, spectacular, and savage big mountain climbing routes in the entire United States, if not beyond.
And at the very bottom of the route sits Palm Springs' Desert Water Agency, whose perfect one square mile bottleneck is closed without exception to all hikers and climbers. Let's leave aside for one moment the question as to whether or not it is possible to traverse the route without crossing DWA land.
On a personal note, I do my very best to respect backcountry permit processes, access points, and land closures—even when I don't happen to agree with them.
More so than actual mountaineering challenges—Chockstone included—it is this thorny issue of access that has most given me pause whenever I've contemplated skiing Snow Creek.
Given also that I tend to like to write about what I ski, it has never struck me as a particularly wise idea to go tromping around on restricted land and then document every forbidden footstep for all the world to see.
Other climbers, of course, have not felt the same reluctance.
It's hard to blame them. The effective result of DWA's hard-line stance on trespassing is that their tiny one square mile of land holds hostage the entire north side of Mount San Jacinto.
Prior to the Internet age, the DWA engaged in a quiet cat-and-mouse game with local climbers, who snuck across the property line in the dead of night, often hiding in the bushes or dashing blind across boulder fields to avoid detection from various DWA watchmen.
The advent of sites like Summit Post, climbing forums, and personal climbing blogs similar to sierradescents, however, have made what was once an under-the-rug game into a very public fiasco.
And with publicity, of course, comes exactly what DWA does not want: more climbers. Watching this saga unfold from the sidelines, it has been obvious to me for some time that something has to give. Increasing numbers of climbers willing to post photos and explicit information on exactly how to evade DWA security each Spring could not long go without some sort of a response.
Predictably, the Desert Water Agency has aggressively stepped up efforts to stop trespassers. It's hard for me to believe the DWA is at all happy with the current situation. In practical terms it is all but impossible to stop determined climbers from violating their boundary. And yet, DWA may not be capable of creating a public access corridor across their land even if they want to. DWA representatives have stated that recent water quality laws preclude them from allowing hikers to cross their critical watershed.
So, unless something changes, the access issue remains in stalemate. Those wanting to respect the law have little choice but to resist the fantastic allure of Snow Creek. And everyone else must sneak through the bottleneck like thieves in the dark.
The Chockstone is gone. Ending a string of marginal winters in Southern California, 2010 is an El Nino year, bringing impressive snowfall to the local mountains.
Reports begin circulating that there has been enough snow on San Jacinto this year to completely bury the Chockstone. Until the snow melts, Climbers and skiers can pass this crux section of the route, with its technical climbing and mandatory rappel, without even knowing it exists.
With the added temptation of excellent conditions on Snow Creek come more climbers.
Not long after that comes news the DWA is now employing electronic surveillance plus "ambushes" to catch trespassers.
This escalation of tensions leads some climbers to begin looking for alternatives to crossing DWA land. And, as it turns out, at least one such alternative exists.
From one of Southern California's ultra marathon-class hikers, I learn of the existence of a traverse connecting the upper Snow Creek drainage to a prominent ridge outside the eastern boundary of DWA's closure.
Though it adds nearly two extra miles of travel over rugged ground plus potentially an extra thousand vertical feet to the route, this east ridge traverse appears to be legal provided you first obtain a wilderness permit. It's far from certain how feasible the bypass actually is, especially for people coming down and carrying skis, but it exists. And this information is exactly the break I've been waiting for to launch my own ski attempt.
And so friend Dave and I find ourselves standing in the desert outside Palm Springs on a hazy Saturday morning, staring up at San Jacinto Peak's imposing massif. It looks...big. Defying the usual tricks of perspective, that wall of granite rising directly south of us is wholly intimidating. Dave and I carefully scout the proposed east traverse, trying to assess its viability.
The line appears to go—but it's just so hard to tell from the desert. The bottom section, scrambling along the ridge's knobby end, appears reasonable. But the traverse connecting the ridge to the actual Snow Creek gully and snow looks like it could be problematic. Still, we're committed to this idea of finding a legal way to ski the route. We drop a car along Snow Creek Road and head for the tram.
A Serene Menace
The Palm Springs Aerial Tram is typically an integral part of a Snow Creek attempt, used by climbers heading back down, or skiers—like us—heading up.
Purists should note Snow Creek has been climbed and skied in a single day by the hardiest of Southern California mountaineers, though not (to my knowledge) via the longer east-ridge approach and exit.
In any case, Dave and I are quite glad for the Tram's 6000 vertical-foot boost, which will get us from the desert floor to Round Valley in a speedy fifteen minutes.
We buy our tickets at Desert Station, elevation 2600', and soon we're rocketing upward fast enough to make the ears pop.
Every time I ride the tram up I am first of all very glad for its existence and secondly scared out of my wits.
The tram provides the best introduction I know to the San Jacinto Mountains' outrageous topography.
Slender steel cables carry us over a maw of serrated granite teeth both menacing and serene, as if aware all things human shall one day pass—but not today, let's hope.
Inside the relative safety of our little metal box, soothing music plays, and the cabin floor rotates about, ensuring a fair view is had by all.
When we reach the top we exit Mountain Station, elevation 8516', to a new world of green alpine forests and gleaming white snow. Dave and I fix skins to the bottoms of our skis and begin a leisurely ascent of San Jacinto's east face, heading due west across Tamarack Valley.
The snow on the east face is gorgeous: gleaming Spring corn that's as smooth as the best groomed run you could find. Maybe we should just call call this whole crazy thing off and ski these inviting slopes instead? Yes, the east face beckons, but today's objective lies to the north, I know, so I promise myself I'll come back before the season is done and this perfect snow is gone.
As I make my way upward, slowly crunching vertical toward San Jacinto Peak's summit, my thoughts soon return to that blasted DWA closure. I am excited by the prospect of finding a legitimate traverse that will avoid the matter entirely. But a worrisome thought occurs to me: if finding a fix to this seemingly intractable problem were that simple, wouldn't someone else have discovered it long ago?
From the snowy summit of San Jacinto Peak, elevation 10,833', Dave and I can easily see cars and trucks cruising along Interstate 10 and windmills spinning in the desert 10,000 feet below.
No trick of photography is required to capture this wild proximity. Perhaps nowhere else on the planet are such disparate worlds found so close together. It is a mind-bending collision of landscapes—and somehow we intend to traverse it in its entirety today, on skis. Mostly.
We drop our gear beside the summit blocks and perch cautiously on the edge to scout the route ahead.
The upper 150' of San Jacinto's north face is comprised of a steep and currently discontinuous headwall. We'll have to find some way around this section—either pass it to one side or the other, or just downclimb it.
Farther down, what appears to be a slim and minor patch of snow is actually 5000'+ of skiing on snowfields as wide as one or two football fields.
And beyond that, of course, we'll be carrying our skis down the inarguably rugged-looking Snow Creek drainage for the remaining 4500 feet or so between us and our car.
I am reminded of the sensation of staring at a cold pool of water when you're thinking about jumping in. It's best, sometimes, to just take the plunge and do your contemplations later.
And so, after a short break, we snap into our bindings and begin a westward traverse along San Jacinto's airy summit ridge, looking for a good place to drop in.
A week ago, a late-season storm brought about a foot of fresh snow to these slopes.
Our hope is that several days of Southern California sun have subsequently not only stabilized the new snow on San Jacinto's north side, but consolidated it into something that will actually make for good skiing. We traverse westward along the summit ridge and find a nice narrow chute which provides reasonable passage through the headwall.
I play the role of guinea pig, dropping in to see what mother nature has in store for us. The answer is a sort of trifecta of challenges: an icy but also breakable crust covered with gloppy unconsolidated snow. It's skiable, to be sure, but it ain't pretty. The unconsolidated snow slides readily off the icy crust in small sluffs that act like slabs, while my skis' edges alternately whoosh across ice or abruptly punch through and grab. Well, we never thought it would be easy...
Steeps and Slabs
It would be nice to write we encountered perfect snow from top to bottom on San Jacinto Peak, making for the ski run of a lifetime. And surely, someone sometime enjoyed exactly that.
But the reality of Snow Creek is that adventure is much more likely than good skiing. In midwinter you face the possibility of massive avalanches and deadly ice—so powder chasers beware. The threat of avalanches and ice diminish (somewhat!) in the Spring climbing season, and there is at least the hope of finding velvety sun-kissed snow on the face.
Today we're just hoping the snow will consolidate as we get lower. 'Burn the Video' is my motto.
As soon as I drop in off the summit ridge, I feel like I'm flailing, battling this combination of collapsing crust and glop on 40-45° slopes without much elan, I'm afraid.
That said, there is satisfaction to be had in managing snow like this: finding a way to make solid turns even when the snow isn't cooperating.
If that fails to motivate you, you can always try to flail less than your partner—though the rock-solid Dave isn't really cooperating in that regard.
So, it's a bit of survival skiing up here on top.
I wait for Dave to pass. When he's reached a safe perch, I resume my descent, stopping frequently to let the snow sluff past me.
We are presently in the camera right or westward arm of the giant Y couloir centered about San Jacinto Peak's north face, a feature prominently visible from the desert floor.
With a little patience and a lot of hard work, we continue our descent.
What's interesting about this is that as we descend, the desert doesn't seem to get any closer.
Normally skiers can traverse large vertical distances rapidly, so it is alarming to find yourself skiing down, down, down—and not having the sense that you're actually getting anywhere. The direct cause of this, of course, is Snow Creek's almost supernatural double-mile drop, which offers a scale of verticality that vastly exceeds anything I've ever seen before.
To be honest, it's intimidating. What time is it? I ask Dave again. I'm starting to eye those sandy flats far, far below with more than a little longing. To get there, we'll be carrying our skis on our backs for nearly a vertical mile through what promises to be exceptionally rough country. But first, we've got a vertical mile of snow to ski.
If you're going to go through all the trouble of taking on a route like Snow Creek, with all its rigors, you at least want to be dazzled now and then by the scenery.
Passing through the 9000' elevation, we come to the first of several prominent junctions in the couloir. And the view here does not disappoint: the couloir widens, plunging and then disappearing into the narrow granite of the Snow Creek drainage beyond.
Below that are the vibrant reds and oranges of the desert: seemingly close enough to touch, yet impossibly distant at the same time.
And that latter impression is the correct one. In terms of total distance, we've only just begun.
Skiing through this section, I can feel my skis collapsing randomly through the surface of the crust, making for jittery protected turns and a quick burn in the thighs.
Meanwhile, in addition to desert views, we are pointing as well toward the impressive mass of San Gorgonio Mountain, at 11,502' the highest point in Southern California.
And so it is, stranger than fiction, that sea-level dwelling Los Angeles residents enjoy fast access to not one but three major ranges, all of which rise over 10,000 feet from the not-so-distant shores of the Pacific Ocean.
The Sierra, in case you're wondering, is not among that trio.
But it is only three hours from my house to Lone Pine and Mt. Whitney, highest point in the lower 48 states, whose net vertical rise of 10,900' over Owens Valley falls roughly 200 feet short of...Mount San Jacinto's.
Here on San Jacinto, evidence of avalanches great and small is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.
I somewhat optimistically speculate that the relative lack of large downed trees in our present location suggests the area sees mostly wet slides rather than large, destructive slab avalanches. Dave points out another possibility: maybe avalanches have already scoured all the big trees out of this massive gully. Hmmm. In any case, a quick survey of the stunted and abused trees around us suggests the area does get scoured quite a lot.
In fact, a large wet slide appears to have happened within the last day or so. This, oddly enough, has the beneficial effect of smoothing out the snow. In the path of this large wet slide, we find a 50 yard-wide section of smooth consolidated snow that makes for easy skiing. The slide path goes on and on, much farther down than expected, and we take full advantage of it, quickly burning through another thousand feet of vertical.
When we eventually reach the piles of debris at the bottom of the slide path we've been following, we discover that the avalanche was indeed a big one.
This last thousand vertical feet of snow is comprised almost entirely of avalanche debris. Embedded rocks, branches, and stumps of broken trees make the snow almost unrecognizable. Looking at this epic spectacle of destruction, it's hard not to feel humble—and suddenly very mortal.
On this scale, even slower wet snow slides can pose a dire threat. This is especially true for climbers, as they lack a skier's speedy mobility.
Speaking of climbers, as we round a corner, we run into a weary group making their way slowly upward. We stop to say hello, and ask a few questions about the route below.
Turns out they've taken the east ridge traverse to avoid crossing DWA land. Their endorsement of the bypass is hardly enthusiastic, however: in addition to a lot of extra vertical, it has added a solid three hours to their already lengthy day.
But at least we now know for certain that the route is doable.
Dave and I thank the trio of climbers for the information and resume our descent around and through giant debris piles.
As we near the Chockstone, and the snow grows softer, I start worrying about a new potential threat—snow bridges.
Beneath us, I know, running water is slowly eroding the snowpack, creating pockets of empty space in the depths below.
As the day lengthens and the sun warms the snow, it weakens the roofs of these caverns. Collapse through a hidden snow bridge, and you may well plunge into rushing water and be swept away beneath the snow. Only the sunniest of optimists would consider that a survivable event.
So at the very same moment that I'm contemplating such a terrible possibility, what should I see but the dark shadows of several collapsed snow bridges just to my left. I peer into these de facto crevasses with the utmost caution, trying to see how far down they go. Answer: far enough that I sure don't want to fall in.
I find myself wondering if the climbers above were aware of how dangerous this section presently is. On skis, at least, my odds of collapsing through a bridge of snow are a little less, but I'm still spooked by the sight of them. As I back carefully away from the area, I hear the sound of Dave skiing toward me—and the snow caves. I do my best to wave him in the opposite direction, but he doesn't understand what I'm pointing at and skis right through the middle of the mess.
A close call? Yes. I don't think anything particularly puts the terror in me as much as the thought of falling through a bottomless snow bridge. And the depth of the snow here is hammered home when we reach the completely buried Chockstone, implying there's at least fifty feet of piled snow and avalanche debris beneath us. We pass the Chockstone without further incident, and the snow at last comes to an end.
Boulders and Brush
My fantasy is to take a time machine back 10,000 years or so to the last ice age—with my skis. No doubt it would then be possible to ski Snow Creek all the way to the desert.
Today, however, we are forced to remove skis and boots around 5500' or so, where the snow ends. From here on out, we'll be hiking and scrambling up and down boulders and through brush-blocked gullies, and doing our best to stay on-route.
Snow Creek is becoming enough of an institution that there is in fact a use trail through the lower drainage, cairns included.
There are perhaps three critical sections to deal with.
The first is a very important left-hand bypass you must take (descending) soon after the snow ends into a neighboring mini-drainage.
Miss this, and you'll follow Snow Creek right over a series of waterfalls.
The second critical find is the aptly-named Tunnel section, in which the use trail does indeed 'tunnel' through a vicious and lengthy stand of brush.
It is possible to miss the Tunnel and still successfully climb the route, though one shudders at the prospect.
And finally, critical section three is the junction of the normal route and the East Ridge traverse/bypass, in which climbers heading down must decide whether or not they're going to try to avoid DWA land.
Individually, these are each significant challenges. Taken together, they make me very glad we collected every possible bit of information we could find about the route before actually attempting it.
Meanwhile, hiking down with skis and boots on your back makes for its own special experience. Boulder problems become that much harder, while ski tips seem to catch on practically every damn twig on the mountain.
Acting in concert with these considerable forces of opposition are the rising heat of the nearby desert plus all the effort we've expended already above. Despite my exhaustion, however, I'm starting to feel kind of...euphoric.
I tell Dave I'm starting to feel it: the massive, magnificent energy of this place.
In terms of pure vertical, nothing I've ever done compares to this mind-boggling path connecting San Jacinto Peak's lofty summit to our car in the desert below. But this is about more than just numbers, more than just the fact that the route exists in Southern California. No, this place would be equally special were it in the heart of the Sierra, or any other of the planet's great ranges.
Snow Creek is the sort of route that mountaineers live for. It is one of our great natural wonders, and and such it does not belong to any one person or entity. And...well, you can see where this is headed. Because while I've been waxing poetic about this sublime masterpiece of granite, ice, and desert, we've been steadily drawing closer to the heart of the controversy—the bottleneck of land controlled by the DWA.
I had hoped, after hiking the East Ridge bypass myself, to be able to report that the gordian knot of the Snow Creek-Desert Water Agency access conflict had at long last been resolved.
Ah, how hopelessly naive that sounds now! The sun is setting as Dave and I reach the flat plain of the Palm Springs desert, and I must confess I'm feeling more than a little twinge of disappointment. Does a bypass around DWA land exist? Yes—to the best of my knowledge. But is it viable? That, as it turns out, is not such a straightforward question.
It does not help matters that the DWA is not exactly forthcoming with regard to what, exactly, its actual boundary is.
In fact, DWA posts closure signs at points that are clearly outside its control zone, including for example the road leading to the Pacific Crest Trail (as seen in the photo above).
Anecdotal evidence suggests DWA would prefer people believe it owns the entire north side of Mount San Jacinto.
So, assuming the East Ridge traverse does in fact avoid DWA land, here is my gut reaction: it is significantly longer and more rugged than the lower (illegal) section it bypasses.
In Snow Creek we have a route where even experienced mountaineers in excellent physical condition will likely be operating near their limits. The Bypass takes a very difficult route and makes it even more difficult—and, potentially, more dangerous as well.
I hope, in writing about my own journey, I have not in any way understated how long and challenging Snow Creek is.
The route is generally not a favorite of Palm Desert Search and Rescue squads, who regularly pull victims from it. People get lost here. They get trapped here. They get heat stroke here. They fall and die here.
I am especially concerned about the scenario of people coming down from above (as we did) trying the bypass for the first time. There is a strong possibility of getting lost or simply overwhelmed, and the entire area is ringed with cliffs, boulders, abominable sections of brush, and difficult climbing. Plus you'll be adding another thousand vertical feet of up-and-down to your day. That extra travel greatly increases the likelihood of ending up behind schedule.
Aesthetically and practically, there is no question the normal route is the superior of the two. It is also absolutely against the law, no exceptions. I certainly do not advocate violating the DWA closure—quite the contrary. But I understand that climbers will continue to do so, and DWA will continue to step up its countermeasures, and the whole sorry mess just makes me very, very sad.
It's not the coda I would like on a trip like this—a ski descent that otherwise stands among the most memorable I've ever done. But, as they say, it is what it is. And for now, there appears to be no hope of a solution. Try the bypass from the desert first to see what you make of it. Be safe and be conservative. And try, as best you can, to respect the DWA's decision to close off its land—even if you don't agree with it.