May 9, 2009

Baldy Freak Show (aka: Skiing the North Face)

Baldy Freak Show (aka: Skiing the North Face)

Coming off my Tyndall adventure, I thought it would be nice to do an easy tour this weekend...so I decided to ski Mount Baldy's north face. Okay, maybe my difficulty scale got thrown a little out of whack on Shepherd Pass, but the advantage of doing something hard right after doing something really, really hard is, the hard thing seems a lot easier.

That's the theory, at least.

Complicating matters today was the fact that I really didn't know how much snow was left on Mount Baldy. Basically, all aspects of the mountain except north are bare now—bone dry, no skiing allowed. That meant I'd be climbing all 3850' to Mount Baldy's summit (from the Manker Flat trailhead) with skis and boots on my back. And doing the same to get back down...not including climbing back up the north face.

West Baldy - Summit

West Baldy - Summit

Skis and Summit

Skis on Summit

Snow

Snow Appears

West Baldy - North Face

Looking Up

Mount San Antonio - Skiing the North Face

Climbing back Up

Author - tired

Back at the Car

Okay, maybe this one qualifies as really hard, too.

I was in the mood to push today despite the heat, so I made Mount Baldy's summit around 10:20 a.m., having drawn many curious stares and comments from all the other hikers. Oddly enough, I was apparently the only one with skis on the mountain today. Go figure.

Atop Baldy, my first glance down the north face looked pretty bleak. The best snow—the only snow, really—was a finger stretching down West Baldy's north face. So, I kept on hiking to West Baldy, and geared up for a ski descent.

When I got up West Baldy, I saw that the snow finger from the summit connected to a fine snow field in a gully leading a long way down. Huzzah! Off I went. Snow up top was alarmingly mushy-soft, making me think I'd need to abort, but hardened up nicely in the gully, making for real-live good skiing.

Skiing Baldy's north face, it must be said, is like playing a high stakes game of chicken. How far down do you dare go? There's no way out except to climb back to the summit, so whatever elevation you give, you're gonna have to fight to get it back.

Apparently the thought of solo-post holing while getting cooked by the sun wasn't enough to discourage me today. I rode the snow all the way down, dropping at least 1500 vertical feet.

Let me just say if I wasn't tuned up from Tyndall this would have been suicide. But, I felt strong on the climb back up. Took me an hour and a half to get back to the summit ridge.

I was briefly tempted by all that smooth corn snow to try another lap, but luckily sanity prevailed—especially since I had that 3850' back to the car still on the agenda.

Back up top I took my ski boots off, switched back to hiking boots, and loaded up the backpack. After a snack and some water, it was time to close out the trip.

I buzzed down the trail, passing many, many more curious onlookers.

What was I, the trail freak show today? I did my best to be polite, though I did secretly try to come up with a variety of snappy comebacks.

By now, the work and the heat was really getting to be a grind. Skis and boots are heavy on the back, any way you look at it. That helped motivate me to keep pushing the pace, even though the heat was just insufferable.

Special note to San Gabriel Mountains hikers in summer: get a very early start.

As worked as I felt when I finally got back to the car, I have to say I really enjoyed this one. I skied about as far down Baldy's north face as I've ever dared to go, and I made it back out in one piece, more or less. Snow quality and texture was way better than I had any right to expect. Still, I think this was pretty close to the bitter end as far a skiing in the Southland goes.

Forecast temps today were for highs on the summit in the 70's, with lows only dropping into the 50's. Not nearly cold enough to keep the snow going for long. Curiously, I never felt worried about wet slides, despite the lack of a hard overnight freeze. The snow was almost perfectly consolidated, and of good firmness. Never saw any significant rollers or even mini-sluffs.

This was sure a strange season in the local mountains, but I have to say, it had its moments. And for me, it definitely ends on a high note.

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Andy Lewicky

ANDY LEWICKY is a Los Angeles-based writer and photographer who enjoys good books, jasmine tea, long walks in the rain, and climbing and skiing the big peaks of the California Sierra. email | follow



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