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March 13, 2017

Go West, Young Man

You have seen it, have you not? Of course you have—it is the great White Whale of Southern California Skiing. Indeed, people across the world have seen it, via iconic photographs of that impossible juxtaposition, snow and skyscrapers, the skyline of downtown Los Angeles and Mount San Antonio's glorious West Face looming beyond.

How many years have I gazed at that magnificent white beacon, gleaming high above the city, and dreamt of skiing it?

How many times have I tried to ski it, only to find myself thinking wrong time, wrong place. The best I'd caught it, and even then it was surely not great, was when I ran into noted Yale economist and man bun-wearer Florian Ederer, who was no doubt drawn, as I was, by absurdist fantasies of skiing into the very soul of the Los Angeles Basin.

It was skiable then, but more often than not it wasn't just bad, it was deadly. With Bill Henry years ago, I traversed in high across the west face, and skittered desperately across rock-hard ice just barely to safety.

West faces are notoriously difficult to catch in good condition. And west facing aspects in Southern California?

DO NOT traverse into Baldy's west face if you are unsure about the snow quality. When it is icy, which is often, Baldy's west face is a death slide. It is steep, and it is massive. You will fall, and you will not be able to arrest a fall.

If by some quirk of fortune the west face is skiable, remember you must climb back up your ascent route and exit via Baldy Bowl.

This makes for a very big day no matter how you get to the summit. And if the snow is mushy, climbing back up could easily break you. Remember, what goes down may not necessarily be able to make it back up. If you do find yourself tempted to try to escape westward...

DO NOT DO NOT DO NOT attempt to exit the west face via Coldwater Canyon.

That way involves many hard miles and thousands of vertical feet of climbing, massive routefinding and terrain issues, an insane number of hazardous fast water crossings, and trespassing. If you do go that way, expect your loved ones to be placing an S&R call that night.

***

Can one run change your life?

I find myself pondering that question, here in the afterglow of yesterday's descent of the west face. We finally caught it, the west face, in perfect condition. The snow was so impeccably smooth, firm underneath, baked to soft velvety perfection on top. It was as if God Himself had groomed it.

The plan was to ski a little way down and then rendezvous with Stefan, by far the best dressed (and most photographic) of us in bright yellow, who was traversing to ski the fertile expanse of Baldy's southeast bowl.

But Al kept going.

Al kept going, and going, and at first I got nervous and found myself thinking hey what are you doing dude, we've got to climb back up, you know...

And then the mountain opened up for us, and the snow gleamed as if it had been polished, and the drainage dove off into infinity and downtown, and all rational thought ceased. Where before there was me, there was now only the purest, most delirious joy. I skied and skied and skied, whooping and hollering, praying to the snow gods that Al keep going keep going keep going, down, down, down, don't you ever dare stop!

The snow was exquisite.

When we got to the bottom, and our euphoria settled, and we contemplated the long, long climb back up (we stopped around 7800'), even in my exhaustion I wanted to turn around and keep skiing it, over and over. If we hadn't had to rush out to convince Stefan we were still alive, I think I'd still be up there, lapping that face and then crawling back up on my hands and knees and cackling like a madman.

How wonderful is it, after all these years, that Mount Baldy can still surprise me?

They made that mountain for me, I tell you. They made that mountain for all of us. Those are our tracks up there, right now. You may not be able to see them, but they're there. And part of me is up there, too. And if you look really, really close...I bet there's a part of you up there, too.

Also: my legs are very sore.

Also: damn it's good to be back.

Also: offered in memory of those who didn't come home this weekend.

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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.