The Couloir to Nowhere — Page 2

Iron Mountain and Heaton Flat

Iron Mountain

When I first moved to L.A., I viewed the San Gabriel Mountains as a training ground for the Sierra. Nowadays I often wonder if I got that backward.

The first step in attempting to ski that unknown couloir I'd seen from Baden-Powell was discovering the name of the peak it started from. I took several photos of the area, and using them as a reference identified the peak as Iron Mountain.

Iron Mountain The Bridge to Nowhere Mount Baldy Baden-Powell from Mt. Baldy

It didn't take too much more research to learn that Iron Mountain has a name that suits it perfectly: it is one serious bastard of a hill.

In fact, baring use of a helicopter, it soon became obvious that trying to ski Iron via any aspect was laughable.

Iron Mountain, elevation 8007', is widely considered the most remote and strenuous summit in the entire San Gabriel range.

Iron's north face—the part I wanted to ski—feeds into the headwaters of the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. There is no direct way to access the base of that side of the mountain.

In winter, in fact, the area becomes utterly impassible as the river floods its narrow, winding gorge.

How rough is the terrain?

In 1936 the State of California attempted to build a road from Azusa to Wrightwood through the heart of the San Gabriel Mountains. The East Fork Road project was abandoned two years later when flood waters destroyed the road.

Today, all that remains of that doomed effort is the aptly-named Bridge to Nowhere.

A winter approach from the north was not a possibility.

As for the south approach, to get to Iron Mountain one must begin at Heaton Flat, elevation 2000 feet. Including unavoidable ups and downs, summiting Iron via the Heaton Flat Trail entails a hefty 7200 combined total vertical feet of climbing—one-way. To further complicate the effort, Heaton Flat Trail only goes up to 4800'.

The rest of the way involves finding unmaintained use trails that claw their way through thickets of brush. And if that's not enough to get you cackling like a madman, Iron's entire south face can be expected to be utterly bare of snow even in the dead of winter, meaning you'll be carrying skis, boots, and overnight gear (and water—there is no water on the route!) on your back all the way up to the summit.

Should you survive that ordeal with some small measure of stamina and sanity left, you've still only reached the top of a ski route that may or may not exist. And if the couloir isn't skiable—or otherwise accessible—well, at least you'll have a heck of a story to tell if and when you finally finish carrying yourself and your skis all the way back down the hill.

If the line does go, remember that however far down the north side you ski you'll need to climb back up. There is no north exit. Once you re-summit, you must then redo the entire south ridge route in reverse—daunting, to say the least. As my skiing partner Bill and I contemplated the rigors of such a hellish endeavor, we quickly decided to look for more viable options.

next: San Antonio Ridge

About SierraDescents

When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

Pray for snow.