SoCal Ice Climbing

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Socal ice climbing seems almost antithetic to the land of beaches and sunshine... but it exists and it's glorious! The accomplished local first ascent duo of Alois Smrz and Miguel Carmona comment, “we both feel these climbs [at Tahquitz] included some of 'The Best' and certainly 'The Wildest' ice climbing we have ever done, ANYWHERE.” There are some traditional, short frozen waterfalls in the Southland, but much of it is reminiscent of Ben Nevis in Scotland: lots of rime, some scratching, and, if you're lucky, some terrific, thin water and alpine ice.

NE Face of Tahquitz in winter


The best winter climbing is by far at Tahquitz. Tahquitz Rock in the San Jacinto mountains was the cradle of rock climbing in the United States, and many of the great climbers of Yosemite cut their teeth here, including John Long and Lynn Hill. Indeed, one of the first 5.9's in the world was established here as the Open Book. The Yosemite decimal system was developed at Tahquitz by a local group including Caltech scientist Charles Wilts. When there is a decent snow pack atop Tahquitz rock and consistently cold temperatures for a week or more, ice will form. After five trips there during winter 2010, the author found forecasts untrustworthy for predicting ice since the temperature almost never dips appreciably below freezing for long; since it hovers around 32F, there is just too much variation in conditions to tell without checking first-hand. SummitPost and Supertopo are good resources for conditions reports, as is the club mailing list. According to Idyllwild locals, the rock seems to ice up well once per several years.

Pitch 2 on the NE Face of Tahquitz

The Trough (summer 5.4) forms fairly consistently and features a 2 ft-wide ice runnel. Approach by the normal use-trail from the lower parking lot at Humber Park. Alternatively, use the north face approach from the upper parking lot to scope out conditions on the north face; this might not be necessary because in good weather, the ice will be visible from Humber Park. The traverse from the north face to The Trough may be easy, arduous, or dangerous, depending on how much snow has sloughed off the granite above. The first pitch is steep snow with possibly five feet of easy ice to reach a sheltered belay nook beneath a steep seven-foot wall protecting the entrance to the main gully. The belayers should take care to shelter here from falling ice, which is common due to the often detached nature of the climb. The gully is a narrow ice runnel, about 65 or 70 degrees, and is capped by a traverse right over a steep slab to a tree belay when the gully ends. This move is super exciting, especially if the ice on the ledge is detached. There is a useful seam on the left just begging for your picks if that's the case. The third pitch seems to be less-consistently "in" than the second; what is usually 5.0 climbing with great, narrow ledges in summer is interesting dry-tooling or very thin ice climbing in winter. The author has no experience with real mixed ratings, but he thinks the kids in Colorado and Canada would call this M4/5, AI3. From the top, either rappel the route--the ice is probably too shallow or sketchy for V-threads or bollards, but there are trees--or descend the North Gully or Friction Descent. Glissading and skiing are prime in the N Gully, though short.

Pitch 2 on the NE Face of Tahquitz

The other consistently done winter climbs are Northeast Face West and The Larks (both 5.6 in summer), but they do form less often than The Trough. At least in winter 2010, NE Face was always fatter than The Larks and featured better yet still manky protection--more on protection later. The author hasn't explored The Larks, but from three trips to NE Face he's gathered the following beta (on NE Face). The first pitch of the summer climb to the solitary, large pine tree is usually covered in very deep snow; avalanche conditions permitting, simply tromp up to the tree and start belaying there. The first pitch starts in the obvious right-facing dihedral to the left; climb 60-65 degree ice--sometimes just crunchy snow--with one steep, body-length step to a tree belay beneath a second steep step. This pitch is often soloed. The next pitch climbs improving ice until the rope runs out; make due with your belay options. Winter 2010 featured thick enough ice for an anchor consisting of two 13 cm screws, but bring your adze and be prepared to excavate for cracks. The next pitch has a memorable step by a gnarled tree; either stretch the rope (a 50m rope won't work) until a prominent horizontal crack left of the dihedral which was followed during the first three pitches, or move right and belay under the waterfall ice of the headwall. The anchor options for the latter may be abysmal depending on the ice; in the worst case, there are cracks under the snow which simply need discovery. The former belay station is just left of a narrow, very short gully which is itself left of the main flow. The fourth pitch is the highlight of the experience: bona-fide water ice climbing for nearly a whole pitch! This part goes at WI3 or 3- depending on the variation taken; in summer it's a series of overlaps/overhangs. There is a final short pitch on steep snow to the top-out, and Tahquitz summit is five minutes from the dead tree there. This route goes at AI/WI3, but in early season when the headwall is very thin, expect what looked like some M5 drytooling. Descend the North Gully.

To the author's knowledge, these are the only three routes consistently done in winter conditions at Tahquitz! In the distant past, according to Supertopo threads, people would flag the bolts at the Weeping Wall at Suicide Rock and ice climb there, excavating for bolts under the thin ice... but beyond that, it seems there is ample opportunity for exploration in Tahquitz winter.

Looking across the valley from Tahquitz

Protection is sparse on these climbs, with maybe the exception of The Trough which has fantastic protection on the second pitch. 1-2 pieces per pitch is not uncommon on NE Face. Pitons are normally frowned upon at Tahquitz, but they may be the only viable protection in winter so take at least a few knifeblades and lost arrows. Passive protection is also your friend, particularly large nuts and hexes. Cams are generally useless in the iced cracks, but there are occasionally placements so carrying a couple couldn't hurt. The ice is seldom thick enough for screws, but when it is you'll want them so do carry a few (all 13 cm or less).

Other areas

In addition to ice at Tahquitz and Suicide, there are reportedly some gems in the San Gabriels, although the author has yet to pry details from secretive mouths! He does know that there is consistent, easy water ice near Williamson Rock--watch out for access issue--and on the approach to the north face of Mount Baldy. In exceptional cold events, waterfalls such as San Antonio Falls near the Baldy fire road will freeze. If you find out more, email to let us know!