Skiing The Waterman Backcountry

I admit I was at best marginally interested in heading to the San Gabriels this past weekend. There were any number of things that sounded like they'd be more fun.

Riding my bicycle. Watching football. Cleaning my bathroom.

But my friend Matt talked me into it, and out of a sense of duty I decided to give it a try. Things have been nasty out there—you've probably heard.

Even by the standards of Southern California, backcountry conditions have been particularly horrific, including a number of fatalities. To those unfamiliar with SoCal snowpack, it's just hard to communicate how nasty the ice can be. And how deceptive.

The ice doesn't always look like ice. Sometimes it just looks like snow, as in the opening shot of this video. Snow—with a suspicious lack of ski tracks.

I like this video because it shows so much of how our day went. We were very choosy about our route, and we talked constantly about the conditions, and how to manage them.

In the end, we decided against skiing Waterman's face (the steep north-facing runs served by Chair 1), prefering instead to take the safe option and descend to the car via the Waterman fire road.

I think the snow on the face was probably edgeable, given our equipment (Zero G 95's, which have good torsional stiffness), but any mistake by either of us would have immediately led to a slide-for-life scenario, outcome unknown.

It was noisy!

The scraping of our edges on the snow was actually loud enough that it hurt my ears. That was a new one, for me. And yes, there were indeed a pair of SAR helicopters flying around Mount Baldy as Matt was descending that gleaming slope on the upper mountain.

Looking forward, the big north faces are probably going to be a no-no for a good long time, but watch those south aspects, which may start to corn up and even offer good skiing if you get the timing right. Be safe out there!

— January 24, 2023

Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents

Brad Brown January 24, 2023 at 10:45 pm

Yeah when you see a couple of skiers with bc cred carrying ice axes, ski crampons, and skiing with a whippet…. in bounds, ummmm…YIKES…yeah just sayin’. Appreciate the prudence. I did a 200+ yard slide at Shasta off the old Green Butte chair* back in the 70’s in similar conditions so it gets real, real quick. Actuality lost a guide + 2 climbers in similar conditions not long ago up there so, again, hat tip to your prudence.

*this chair, now lost to an avie, had something like 1800’ in 6.000’ with access to above tree line side country you dream about. One of those “mother ship” lifts like Wagon Wheel at Kwood or 23 at MM. the new lower lifts seem to be a relative snooze fest…

(the mother ship of or-Cal

Bill January 25, 2023 at 5:54 am

I need a friend like your friend Matt. I've been really lazy this season, not helped by the slow start (here in the French Alps, it stayed warm until mid-January this year). Also, a summer of knee-healing makes me want to play it safe. Finally, we got some snow at the mid and lower altitudes - my preferred rando alts. Always great seeing my beloved San Gabs and San Berns and their unique landscape.

Bill January 25, 2023 at 6:05 am

PS, as to Brad's Point, Mt. Waterman has had a number of skiing accident deaths "in the family" including a ski patroller in 2016, Barry Stubblefield in 2005 or 2006. If I recall correctly, both were the result of icy conditions and uncontrolled slides.

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