Ah, where to begin? In the immortal words of Tech and Talk's Chad, 'A bad snake charmer always blames his snake.' So I guess I can't blame the snake. I knew, going in, that a ski traverse linking Mount Baldy and Iron Mountain via San Antonio Ridge was definitely pushing the limits. But still, something about staying close to home always makes me more inclined to be ambitious.
Funny thing: when I first started skiing locally, I viewed the San Gabriel Mountains as a training ground for the Sierra. Now I find myself wondering if I got that backwards. The San Gabriel Mountains are a hard, hard, ill-tempered range. I keep telling myself over and over again to never underestimate their badness, and yet I do, and trips like these are the inevitable result.
The sticky part of the traverse was obvious from the beginning. We'd read reports of others being blocked by a 'sharktooth' section of the ridge (about 3/4 mile east of Iron Mountain) which involves technical climbing. I was hoping that our stunning local snow coverage would turn dicey class 4 rock into an easy snow climb.
Instead, we found mostly bare rock at the sharktooth, with just enough snow to make things worse. The smart choice would have been to turn around and gut out the long, painful climb back up to Mt. Baldy's summit to get home. But, several miles and thousands of vertical feet down, we were feeling pot-committed at that point. We had dropped a car at Heaton Flats, near the East Fork of the San Gabriel River, and we thought we saw an alternate route that would get us there, so we left the ridge and headed into the great unknown.
Going off-route in the interior San Gabriels is like dousing yourself in gasoline and looking for a match. We wandered endless steep ground for hours in search of an exit, trying to connect to what appeared to be a road on our photocopied topo map. With dusk approaching I battled a rising sense of panic, as I knew that finding the road—if it existed—still put us well over 8 miles from the car.
When we did finally find the road, at 'Widman Ranch', we also found a great many NO TRESPASSING signs plus a very agitated man who apparently likes to live a long, long way from civilization. He was kind enough to allow us passage across his land, and he even let us call our wives so SAR wouldn't show up asking pesky questions. As we left, he also gave us invaluable directions, and told us to 'enjoy' the 47 creek crossings ahead. Whoever you are sir—thanks for helping us get home. And thanks for not shooting us.
It turns out there really were around 47 crossings (I counted to kill the time). Most of them were knee-deep through fast rushing water. We made the car around 9 p.m., after beginning the day at 2 a.m. A quick run of the numbers shows that from Manker Flat, elevation 6165, to the top of Mount Baldy, elevation 10,064, to the car at Heaton Flat, elevation 2028, we traveled approximately 17 miles and 15,000 total vertical feet. Good Times!
While San Antonio Ridge offers stunning terrain deep in the heart of the San Gabriels, it is also a merciless and all but inaccessible part of the range. In case it's not obvious, please don't try to repeat this one yourself!