Skiing Above the Grid
Exploring the Borderland of Cucamonga Peak's Southwest Face
Los Angeles, California — Cucamonga Peak's 8859-foot summit lies a mere three horizontal miles from the foothill city of Upland, California, one vertical mile below.
No other major summit in Southern California exists in such close proximity to the urban sprawl of the Los Angeles Basin. Perched alone at the southeastern edge of the San Gabriel Mountains, Cucamonga Peak comprises a wild borderland of technical alpine terrain floating over the endless grid below.
I'd sped past Cucamonga Peak on the nearby 210 freeway many times, always craning my neck to scout the mountain's imposing outline.
Cucamonga is the highest and the closest of the San Gabriel Mountains' so-called 'front range' summits. Unlike the taller summits of Mount Baldy and Baden-Powell to the north, Cucamonga is part of a ridge of summits (including Ontario Peak) that rise directly adjacent the Los Angeles basin.
This creates a unique combination of altitude, terrain, and prominence that make Cucamonga Peak a natural objective.
But Climbing Cucamonga is not an easy task. The peak is remote, relatively isolated from the rest of the San Gabriel range, and somewhat lacking when it comes to direct access. Moreover, the terrain is extremely rugged, even for the San Gabriels.
Viewed from the south, Cucamonga Peak presents a variety of steep, rocky faces, narrow gullies, and long, jagged ridges—plus a generous helping of big, crumbling cliffs. As you'd expect in a Southern California sun-exposed aspect, the slopes are nearly always snowless. Still, each time I drove past, I couldn't help admiring Cucamonga Peak's technical terrain, and dreaming of skiing it.
What would it feel like, I wondered, to fly across snowy steeps overlooking the whole of the Los Angeles Basin? The thought of carving smooth turns in such dramatic proximity to the city was positively irresistible. And so, with each passing winter, I waited, and waited, and the south face remained unskiable, and Cucamonga Peak rose steadily on my list of fantasy summits—even as I doubted if it would ever get a chance to ski it.
A La Nina winter usually means profound drought for Southern California, and an El Nino winter is often too warm to put snow on the San Gabriels' lower summits.
So how do we explain January 2008 in Southern California—officially a La Nina winter, yet one that's dropped nearly six feet of cold snow in barely a month? Worry about explaining it later; I say get out and ski it while you can. The snow will not last long on Cucamonga Peak, I know, so I hit the 210 Freeway once again—this time with skis in my car.
Cucamonga Peak is most commonly accessed via the popular Icehouse Canyon trail, gateway to the Cucamonga Wilderness.
I park at the trailhead, which offers the not entirely unreasonable starting elevation of 4950', plus excellent access to a cornucopia of nearby summits, including Telegraph peak, Bighorn Peak, Timber Mountain, and Ontario Peak.
At this elevation, the Southern California snowpack is at best unreliable, but today there is snow piled up everywhere. Despite the snow, I choose to start hiking in my boots rather than skis to travel faster up the lower canyon.
To get to Cucamonga Peak, we must first climb to Icehouse Saddle, two and a half miles and 2500 vertical feet away.
That's a long haul just to get within sight of Cucamonga Peak, so I push my pace, trying to settle into a solid, steady rhythm. Once at the saddle, I'll traverse slightly down to another saddle, this one between Cucamonga and Bighorn Peaks. From there, It'll be another half mile and 1200 feet of gain—and I'll have to climb back to the saddle after I've skied Cucamonga Peak.
It's going to be a long day. But this is Southern California—if you want a good view, you're going to have to pay for it. Meanwhile, deep within the shady confines of Icehouse Canyon, I hike the trail alongside the creek, listening to the gentle babble of water across rock.
It's easy to get caught up in the beauty of this landscape—forgetting, perhaps, that you're now traveling in wilderness, with all the usual inherent dangers. This is particularly an issue with the Cucamonga Wilderness, which sits barely fifteen minutes from the nearest freeway, yet brims with potential hazards, including avalanches, rockfall, weak snow bridges, and exposed icy snowfields.
More on this last concern in just a moment...
For now, I make quick work of the slog up to the saddle, choosing to keep my skis on my back, following a well-established boot trail through hard, crusty snow. I keep a lookout for icy conditions, thanks to a friend's warning, but for now I don't see anything unusual—just lots of hard snow, frozen overnight. A slip here or there could be nasty, but that's just a typical day at the office.
I reach Icehouse Saddle in good time, where I'm treated to impressive views of Victorville and the High Desert, and of course Cucamonga Peak's northwest flank.
As you'd expect in the San Gabriel Mountains, the terrain looks daunting—steep and rugged. In particular, the traverse to Cucamonga Peak looks a bit more challenging than I was expecting. I can see I'll have to cross a number of steep gullies along Bighorn Peak's northeast face to reach Cucamonga's west ridge.
An alternate (and wiser) plan would be to simply climb higher, up Bighorn Peak's north ridge, until the traverse looks more feasible. But I'm of no particular mind to add extra vertical to today's endeavor.
So, on go the skis, sans skins, and I begin traversing through the semi-dense forest toward Cucamonga Peak.
Trying to decide whether to climb or traverse in the mountains never seems to have a clear answer.
Without skis and without a trail, hikers will find traversing nearly always a bad idea—it's just too hard to angle across steep ground.
But when you do have skis (sorry, a snowboard won't do), it's often possible to cross large distances quite quickly, even without losing altitude.
That assumes you've got the right mix of snow (hard but not too hard) and terrain (the fewer cross-gullies the better). Neither condition seems to hold today.
The snow at first is quite soft and mushy, making for a slow traverse that forces me to constantly burn elevation.
That changes abruptly when I cross a deep gully and swoosh up a shaded northeast aspect. Suddenly, I'm skating on ice—literally.
What follows is an inarguably desperate skitter-skate—a managed slide—toward relatively softer drifted snow.
Even here, my ski edges just barely bite, finding smooth, clear ice lurking just beneath the surface. I do my best to belay myself with my poles and delicately snap off my skis without tumbling down the icy gully toward who knows what. Repeated kicking with my boots barely puts a divot into the ice, meaning I'm still in imminent danger of a big fall.
And I have to say: this is something new. I've seen ice in the mountains before, but this potentially dire sheen of ice, blended oh-so-invisibly with spring corn, is a hazard I haven't seen before. Replaying the winter in my mind, it's easy enough to deduce what I'm seeing: the rain crust from several weeks ago, now revealed by surface melt.
I inch sideways until I'm standing against a small pine tree. Thus anchored, I pull off my pack and make a tricky transition to crampons and ice axe which—Thank Goodness!—I've brought along today. In the process, I wrench my back and slice open my ski pants with a crampon blade. It's ugly, but it works: I'm able to cross the ice patches in relative safety now, but this is hardly a good start on a long day.
The West Ridge
When I finally reach the notch between Bighorn Peak and Cucamonga Peak, repeated encounters with ice and my worsening back have left me thoroughly demoralized.
The ice appears to be everywhere, glittering in the distance on Cucamonga Peak's northwest face, glittering behind me along the majority of the traverse to Icehouse Saddle. I've unwittingly discovered that conditions across north aspects in the San Gabriel Mountains are treacherous today. To add to my woes, my strained back feels absolutely wrecked.
As I contemplate the long way ahead to Cucamonga's summit, it occurs to me that the most prudent course of action is to turn around, climb up Bighorn Peak, and do my best to get home in one piece.
I'm reluctant to give up. Scouting the west ridge, I see hard snow but not true ice all the way up.
Ascending on crampons, it should be possible to keep to the ridge and avoid the ice.
And I can likely ski down the same way safely if the south slopes look bad.
I chew some ibuprofen tablets, drink water, and then begin climbing.
Whatever today's outcome, the views from the saddle are simply stunning.
To the north, Cucamonga's steep slopes drop into a deep drainage that winds all the way to Interstate 15.
To the south, the terrain is even more severe, from the rocky front of Ontario Peak to the plunging gullies of Cucamonga's southwest face. I can even see Mount Baldy Road in the distance and of course the vast and ever-present L.A. Basin. My back eases a bit as I climb, and my confidence returns as I steadily gain altitude.
This, I've found, is one of the odd pleasures of ski mountaineering: things always go wrong. The plan goes awry, conditions aren't what you expect, you or your gear stop working. Count on at least one of the above happening if you're lucky, much more if you're not.
All with all due respect for prudence, there's a lot to be said for tenacity—for pressing on in the face of adversity and wrestling out a measure of success. From my earlier struggles on the ice traverse, when my morale sank as success looked impossible, I now know that I'll soon be standing atop Cucamonga Peak and skiing down that fantasy south face.
I can't say for sure, but I'm guessing if it had been easy, it wouldn't be nearly as sweet.
I have dreamt of the view from atop Cucamonga Peak, and reality does not disappoint. The sense of sheer proximity is overwhelming. It looks like I'm flying above the Los Angeles Basin.
It looks like I could take one step off the edge of the summit ridge and plummet all the way to Orange County. The city grid runs right up to the snowy horizon, vanishing beneath as if we're hanging above it. It's a brain-teasing illusion made all the more potent by the preposterous notion that I'll soon be skiing over that edge.
And what lies beyond, you wonder?
Surely some of the most inspiring ski terrain in the entire San Gabriel Range.
But first things first...I scramble up the last bit of ridge until I'm standing atop Cucamonga Peak.
Looking east, I can now see the impressive summits of Mount San Gorgonio and Mount San Jacinto, sister ranges to the San Gabriels.
I creep right up to the edge of Cucamonga's east face, not sure what to expect.
The view is startlingly vertical: the slope plunges downward, rolling immediately out of sight, maybe skiable, maybe not.
Down, down, the east face goes, dropping thousands of feet through jagged cliff bands to the Day Canyon drainage 6000 vertical feet below.
I'm momentarily tempted to try skiing right into that void, but this time caution does indeed triumph—though there's no question I'll be back again some day. In any case, the view to the south—which I am going to ski today—isn't too shabby, either. I see such an abundance of great skiing, in fact, I feel a little overwhelmed by it all.
Great, sweeping ridges drop thousands of feet, creating massive snowy gullies and cliff bands—a backcountry skier's delight. Despite the southern aspect, the snow extends well down the mountainside, easily three thousand vertical feet or more. That's quite a bit farther than I'm willing to descend, since I have to climb right back up again to go home.
Maybe I could just keep on skiing until I hit the city, and hitch a ride back to my car? Well, perhaps we'll save that notion for the next ice age. Let's be disciplined today. My plan is to ski conservatively, wrapping slowly around the mountain, managing my elevation so that I end up back at the saddle to Bighorn Peak. In this way, I'll at least get to sample a wide range of Cucamonga's offerings—and hopefully avoid getting trapped in the deep wilderness below.
Smooth velvety snow coats Cucamonga Peak's southern face, baked to perfection by the Southern California sun. The sky overhead is a piercing blue, smog-free.
Skiers speak reverently of the joys of perfect, untracked powder in the backcountry, but carving effortless arcs across flawless spring corn can be every bit as thrilling. The sensation of ski and snow underfoot cannot easily be put to words: simultaneously carving and sliding, flexing and dancing, working complex equations of truth and beauty.
This is the poetry of gravity and freedom, and it is glorious. As tempting as it is to simply point the skis down and ride this line wherever it takes me, I am careful not to loose too much elevation.
After every hundred yards or so, I work my way westward, gradually traversing around Cucamonga's broad south face until I can see my exit route.
The terrain remains rugged throughout.
Deep, rock-banded gullies cut winding paths to the L.A. Basin, far below. Traversing across requires a little care: in many places, cliffs block the route.
As I move westward, the snow gradually hardens.
The pitch remains quite steep. Now I have to watch out for those icy patches, though here on the West Face the sun has at least softened the snow to a manageable level.
Crossing the west face's gullies proves to be one of the day's more technical challenges. Here again, the pitch is very steep, and rocky ribs create a network of narrow chutes that must either be skied or bypassed.
Now, I'm skiing deep into the jagged confines of Cucamonga Canyon, between Cucamonga Peak and Bighorn Peak. Despite my proximity to the city, this area feels utterly remote: a giant amphitheater of snow and sharp rock surrounded by wilderness. These city-bound canyons just beg to be skied in their entirety. I make a mental note to start scouting routes up Cucamonga from Upland.
For now, I continue my traverse and ski, and the saddle between Bighorn Peak and Cucamonga comes into view.I'm right where I want to be: no climbing needed to reach the saddle. For once, things are going according to plan—and I'm positively exhilarated by what I've just accomplished. In fact, it's hard to leave.
I expected the views atop Cucamonga to be magnificent, but the skiing has been a complete surprise. Once again, the San Gabriel Mountains have challenged my assumptions. Cucamonga Peak's city-side skiing may well rank among the finest in the entire range.
When I reach the notch between Cucamonga Peak and Bighorn Peak, I decide what the heck I'll climb the extra five hundred or so vertical feet to Bighorn's summit.
I've no desire to attempt to retrace my traverse across Bighorn Peak's icy northeast face. Summiting Bighorn should allow me to avoid the worst of the ice—as well as offering a fine ski descent in and of itself. Now, I put on my climbing skins and begin a slow ascent of Bighorn Peak's east ridge.
I'm not normally a big fan of extra climbing, but the ridge's soft snow makes for good skinning, and my soaring spirit puts an extra kick in my steps despite my fatigue.
All together, I'll have climbed and skied roughly 11,000 total vertical feet by the time I reach my car.
That's certainly a big day in my book.
Such endless effort might sound like drudgery, but there is a certain charm to putting one foot in front of the other time and time again.
The mind gradually quiets, and the body settles into a peaceful rhythm, content in the task in a way rarely found in the lowlands.
When we climb, we discover we are not nearly so frail as seems the case when we're sitting on the sofa.
There is work to be done here, to be sure, and effort to be given, but what great satisfaction it brings when I crest the last of the ridge, and top Bighorn Peak's fine summit.
Atop Bighorn Peak, I pop off my skis, find a nice sunny log to lounge upon, and take an extended lunch break.
Mount Baldy, at 10,064' the highest point in the San Gabriel Mountains, and Baldy Bowl now dominate the westward view. We might seem to be done here, but there remains a hefty 3500 vertical feet of skiing between me and my car.
I've skied Bighorn Peak previously, when I did my Ontario Peak Traverse, so I know from firsthand experience that the terrain will be lively. The lurking presence of ice scattered throughout the shady slopes below will demand extra caution, and the banzai-run through the clogged lower gullies of Icehouse Canyon will surely cause my tired legs grief.
But let us not forget where we are. This is Southern California Backcountry skiing. It's a bit of a miracle, isn't it, to find mountains and snow here at all? When I first drove to Los Angeles, a fish-out-of-water country boy speeding down the 10 freeway, the Mountain Avenue Exit in the San Gabriel Valley caught my attention.
Looking at a featureless (and presumed flat) horizon of battleship-grey smog in all directions, I remember pitying the city's millions of poor lost valley souls, thinking, Mountains? Yeah, you wish! And now I am a resident of this great and vexing place. Thank goodness that distant wish, at least, turned out to have been granted!