Tuesday, March 3, 2009

north face


Upper reaches of Falls Creek and Snow Creek on San Jacinto

By Guy McCarthy

SNOW CREEK VILLAGE - Alpine-trained volunteers and a helicopter crew today plucked two overdue climbers high off the north face of Mount San Jacinto, one of the steepest escarpments in the continental United States.

Andrew Hillery, 24, and Chris Cannizzaro, 23, both of Playa Del Rey, started early Saturday and ascended more than 7,000 vertical feet by early today, according to rescuers.

But the pair got bogged down in deep snow, ended up off route, and ran out of food Monday, they told reporters after they were safe at the base of the mountain.

"We want to thank everybody here," Hillery said, gesturing to members of the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit and the Sheriff's Department. "We thought it was going to be a two-day climb. But we didn't know the trail. We didn't realize how steep the peak was."

Route-finding was perhaps the most difficult part of the ordeal, the climbers said.

"We were just trying to keep the summit in our eyes," Cannizzaro said. "We thought we knew where to go, and here we are four days later - starving."

Their primary error was leaving the Snow Creek drainage, Hillery said.

"We did it twice, to get around the steep rocks," Hillery said. "That was our mistake. You have to stay in the creek."

Winds in the San Gorgonio Pass blasted lower elevations this morning as rescuers and a helicopter crew worked to reach the climbers. But conditions at higher elevations were nearly ideal for flying and hoist rescues, crew members said.

"We were about 50 feet off the deck and the winds weren't bad," said sheriff's Deputy Andy Rasmussen, 39, the hoist officer on the rescue helicopter today.

"Coming up and down the mountain there was a lot of turbulence," Rasmussen said. "But the hoists were smooth. They had picked out a fairly level area."

The climbers initially waved off the helicopter when they realized someone had come to their aid, said RMRU volunteer William Carlson, 23. But they were relieved at the same time and gladly accepted the offer of help.

Carlson said he got lowered from the rescue airship twice, at about 7,000 feet and again at 9,300 feet, near a secondary summit unofficially known as Kristin Peak. That's where the climbers were hoisted to the helicopter.

"I think they were pretty overwhelmed by the time they got to where they were," Rasmussen said. "Out of food - that's difficult. No food means no energy."

Hillery and Cannizzaro were reported missing Monday afternoon by Hillery's girlfriend, Ashleigh Chandler, 26, of Playa Del Rey.

"I'm so grateful to everyone," said Chandler, who arrived at the base of the mountain as Hillery and Cannizzaro were being interviewed by broadcast news crews.

"I know they know what they're doing," Chandler said of the climbers. "But they were supposed to be done Sunday. After I didn't hear from them - I had no idea what happened to them."

Hillery has experience on Mount Rainier in Washington and Mount Elbrus in Russia, and Cannizzaro has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, they said. They are not the first experienced mountaineers to require help on San Jacinto's daunting north face.

The rugged drainages of Snow Creek and Falls Creek rise in five miles from about 1,400 feet at Snow Creek Village to San Jacinto's summit at just over 10,800 feet elevation. The north face direct route requires walking, scrambling and technical climbing over more than 9,000 vertical feet - including snow and ice in ideal conditions.

"It's a classic alpine route when the snow is right," said RMRU volunteer Pete Carlson, 59, of Lake Arrowhead, who has climbed the north face route a half-dozen times. "You can do it in 12 hours when the route is hard underfoot.

"These are not ideal conditions," Carlson said. "Right now the snow is soft and there have been numerous huge avalanches in the past 10 days. You'd be walking through boulders of snow - the size of basketballs to Volkswagens. When it's good, it's like a smooth ramp, at 35 to 40 degrees."

The size and steepness of San Jacinto's north face made it a popular challenge in the 1940s and '50s, according to RMRU veterans and mountain historians.

Last week at funeral services for RMRU founding member Jim Fairchild, photos were displayed of Fairchild and members of Boy Scout Troop 13 after they successfully climbed the north face route in November 1956.

But the Desert Water Agency based in Palm Springs - which owns the land at the base of Snow Creek and Falls Creek - has tried to limit access to the north face since the 1960s, Carlson said.

"It's understandable - they don't want the water polluted," Carlson said. "But how can they close the whole mountain like that? Dozens of parties still try it each year. All the climbing web sites say it's trespassing, so do it covert. Just do it."

Dave Luker, general manager for the Desert Water Agency, said today he was disappointed to hear climbers still cross closed lands to get to the north face drainages.

"Our property has been closed for a couple decades now," Luker said. "It's a rough canyon and that's probably why they (Hillery and Cannizzaro) had to be rescued.

"Those are two very valuable watersheds - Falls Creek and Snow Creek - for our drinking water supplies," Luker said. "We closed them because of surface water treatment concerns. Those are pristine waters there.

"We don't have bear or bighorn sheep or any other animals in there often, because it's so steep," Luker said. "The only mammals in there from time-to-time are humans. We don't close the whole mountain either. We just ask people to stay off the water agency land. They can do whatever they want as long as they stay off our property."

Although Hillery and Cannizzaro may have trespassed to get on the north face route, they were not cited or charged with anything today, said Herlinda Valenzuela of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.

"We're just glad everybody got down safe," Valenzuela said. "That's a steep part of the mountain."

Hillery and Cannizzaro both recently moved to Southern California from New Orleans, they said. They indicated they plan to continue alpine training for other ascents.

-30-


Troop 13 with Jim Fairchild, seated at right, November 1956.
Original photo by Don Ricker, RMRU.
For more about Fairchild click here.

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