Return To Baldy
Apparently I had blocked the memory of just how hard it is to tour in the San Gabriel Mountains. No longer. Dave, Al, and I returned to The Devil's Backbone, Baldy Bowl, and the Ski Hut Trail after a five year hiatus, and all I can say is: this is one crazy sport you people are into!
More than once, as we slogged alongside Baldy Ski Area's chair 4 (which of course was not running), just to get to the start of the hiking, I recalled my wife's words of wisdom, spoken more than once during those furious early hours of trip preparations, or then afterward, as I spent the next few days after my weekend-warrioring hobbling about the house: "You guys know you could just go out for some beers, right?"
Every aspect (both figurative and literal) of Southern California's San Gabriels seems built to test one's mettle. The ice (the ice—good Lord, how could I forget about the ice?), the exposed spine, the manky snow, the test-to-destruction hike-and-ski (but mostly hike) back out.
I puzzled over all of this, in the midst of my early-season-lungs-gasping and what-my-legs-are-twitching-already? cramping, as we worked our way along and then up the notorious Devil's Backbone, and I think I actually achieved some sort of state of enlightenment...
First: there is snow. I'm guessing you already know this. That early January storm hit put thin but let's call it adjusted-good (grading on a curve) coverage on the San Gabriels down to the Baldy Ski parking lot, which as you all know, is my litmus test for whether or not the backcountry is firing.
As usual, things are melting out rapidly. A few more big storms, and pronto, are needed to raise this up to what I'd call a solid winter, but given we've been contending with this for the past four years, I'm still willing to say Hallelujah.
There is snow. It feels like a miracle. I cannot describe what a joy it is to exit the freeway at Baseline Road instead of driving two hours or more to the San Bernardinos or the San Jacintos. Or places beyond. Snow in the San Gabriels makes Los Angeles feel like a ski town.
To understand skiing in the San Gabriels, you must also understand what it means to be a skier who lives in Los Angeles. Lack of options is not a problem here. We've got three big ranges surrounding the basin—not "big" ranges but BIG ranges, each rising over ten thousand feet from base to top, each potentially snowy.
We've got Mammoth—the incomparable Mammoth—and heck even San Diego, if you like to get freaky every now and then. And of course we've got girls, and guys, (millions, in fact) and even jobs to go with them. Good jobs; not just busing tables. And while we're on the subject, good in fact excellent and reasonably-priced restaurants, where you can take one of the many millions of eligible SoCal singles and spend your I've-got-a-real-job paycheck.
We've got everything, it seems, except...Skiing. When I step out my door, I am separated from the mountains not just by physical but also mental distance. And of course the gauntlet that is the Southern California freeway system, which is a whole 'nuther topic of discussion.
I never awaken to see a fresh blanket of snow outside my window. Each and every trip to the mountains is necessarily a long-distance affair, and wherever I do go, I'm a tourist, not a local. Wherever I go, there is always the ache of knowing the car awaits, the drive back down to the valley.
So we survive the Backbone and then the awkward traverse around Mount Harwood, and then it's the final slog up the notch between Harwood's summit and the top of San Antonio aka Mount Baldy. Southern California's equivalent of Misery Hill.
The altitude always kicks in here. I stop and gasp, press on. It's windy. The wind howls and grabs at my skis, strapped to pack, making me stagger now and then. The snow on the summit is rock-hard. The north face has been scoured clean by the wind.
The south aspects are icy in the trees, courtesy of the wind, crusty-slushy-manky in the sun. We divert to the west summit, find little better, then traverse-and-ski back toward the Bowl, trying to hold elevation so we can drop in around the chutes.
The skiing is tough—light touch on the edges to avoid grabbing and lots of hopping to break loose of the crusts. A lot of work to get here for such meager fare. An insane amount of work, really.
The chutes: Girly Man looks nasty. Not nearly enough snow to fill in the middle. The next chute not much better. All the chutes are dark and shady, questionable. I'm not feeling it.
Dave dives in, because of course that's what he does, and so does Al, and then so do I because, well, they've already ferreted out the icy spots. Good steep skiing, a little too rocky for comfort but remember where we are.
We emerge from the chute into the wide-open and sunny expanse of the bowl, and here's where the miracle happens.
It happens quickly, and if you're not paying attention, you might miss it. But it's there, right beneath the rock band: that pitch of perfect turns on clean snow, that sudden, most unexpected of rhythms, serendipity and sublimity, all rolled together in a bundle that includes freezing wind, crust, ice, are-you-kidding-me? exposure, a lung-busting hike, a smog-filled basin, a daily existential what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here? crisis.
Perfection. The sky is bright, piercing blue. Dashes of pure while cloud streak the horizon. Bright white snow beneath menacing spines of jet-black rock. We ski this short pitch and in this moment we are skiers. That's what we are. That's who we are, no matter the home zip code.
We regroup at the bottom of the bowl, all smiles and euphoria. It's good to be back. Then the traverse to the ski hut, the snow already gone back to crap, the legs now wrecked and only just starting what will be the hard, hard two thousand vertical back to the car. Tough day. Great day.
Catch these moments if you can. Could we not just go out for beers instead? Of course we could, but we choose different. We walk—and ski—a different path. And when those perfect turns come, is there anyone better than us to truly appreciate them? We've gone the distance to get here. We've gone the distance for love.
Or maybe we're just crazy. After all, this is California.
Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents
Greg R January 21, 2016 at 4:35 pm
Hey Andy, you guys made that look good! You hit the nail on the head describing the angst we Southern California skiers do through. Thanks for the first of what we hope are many ski touring reports this year.
Nate V January 21, 2016 at 8:04 pm
Can't wait for El Nino to actually do something down here!!! Way to get out there. Baden Powell had pretty good conditions (1.5-2 ft) on 1/16 up the summer trail face. Don't know about the bowls. Need more snow!
John Trollmann January 23, 2016 at 5:15 am
Beautifully written. Love the video, too. Thanks!
Jim B January 24, 2016 at 5:35 am
Hit baldy right after the big New Years storm and it was several feet of light and fluffy goodness. Magically transported to the Rockies for a day. Rare treat in these parts. Now back to the waiting game you've so perfectly described.
Jeff Steele February 18, 2016 at 9:17 pm
Love the way you tell stories, Andy! Keep skiing and writing. You've been a huge inspiration to me!