Escape From L.A.

It seems like only yesterday that my boy from Hollywood was trying to convince me there was a story to be told in the foothills of Los Angeles. I was skeptical and decided to go on a solo reconnaissance mission-if it showed promise, we’d bring some riders and a photographer at a later date. This decision would prove a costly mistake.

I hastily packed my gear that evening and hit the I-5 corridor north toward Los Angeles. The next morning my friend Eric and I worked his Subaru through the sooty, commuter traffic-a sad-clown parade of nine-to-fivers with tightly drawn faces. Starbucks in hand, we mused, “A bad day snowboarding is certainly better than a good day at the office.”

Twenty miles later we made the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, and all skepticism transitioned to surprise. The li’l Subi fought for traction through thick slush and then snow, as the winding road led us steadily higher in elevation. Upon arrival at a super-secret spot, I was granted an unexpected powder day filled with knee-deep blower turns and bluebird skies at the most unlikely location.

Chuckling in disbelief, we hiked backcountry lines, hopped boulders, and dropped untracked chutes. We were making powder tracks less than an hour from the Standard Hotel! By afternoon, our powder began to set up, and the clouds moved in. I regretfully admitted that my window of opportunity had blown past.

Not to worry, Eric assured me. The next time it dumped we’d be ready. As it turned out, there was plenty of time to prepare-I’d be waiting for another three years.

Baldy Or Bust

This story stayed with me-I’d pitch the feature every year at our editorial planning meetings, only to be met with passive nods of approval. Sure, why not? As the winter of ’04/05 approached, it started raining. This wasn’t your typical So Cal beach drizzle that merely lubes up our freeway system, sending German sedans crashing like drunks on ice skates-no, the skies wept Oregon-style. Sheets of rain blanketed Southern California for days, then weeks. Records were broken as reservoirs maxed out and spilled over. There were mudslides. Homeless fled their shanties along the San Luis Rey River, just a stone’s throw from the TransWorld office. Amidst this chaos, Mountain High and Bear Mountain were reaping the benefits-erecting perfect snow sculptures at a frantic pace. But something even more unique was happening closer to home. The San Gabriel Mountain range was awash in snow-deep snow-shrouded in a white veil of anonymity.

Over the course of the ’04/05 winter, Senior Photographer Kevin Zacher and I tag-teamed the San Gabriel’s-from the highest peak of Mount San Antonio across the Angeles National Forest. We traveled separately, together, and flew in riders and scouted in packs. And we found what we were looking for-the powder was plentiful with acres of deep, virgin snow to be had.

In the end, one of our greatest discoveries was the antiquated resort, Mt Baldy-charming as all hell, complete with rickety double chairs and a rustic lodge filled with vintage ski photography. It’s as steep and challenging as Snowbird or Squaw Valley, and the closest resort to San Diego, the O.C., or Los Angeles. The frozen, powder-caked trees drew frequent comparisons to such big-mountain destinations as Montana.

And of course, there was the local population and its eccentricities. On the outskirts of L.A. lurks an underground subculture of mountain men and powder junkies. We encountered shady characters holed up in abandoned lodges without electricity-it’s a good place to run if you’re trying to hide and a great place to hide if you’re on the run. An 80 year old with 60 years’ experience skiing Baldy paused to share stories with us. Tight-knit crews of good old boys guarded their secret spots with localism unheard of since So Cal’s early surf history. Kids shredded in motocross outfits. We saw vintage gear, weird beards, leg gaiters, and encountered restaurant owners who opeen for business when a table of five arrives. We met a DJ who’s fled the city, well-to-dos from Pasadena and Malibu, and other self-made success stories. Surprisingly enough, the story of our search for deep snow in So Cal during the winter of 2004/05 became more about the people, not the powder.

Quotes

“We were making powder tracks less than an hour from the Standard Hotel!”

“It’s a good place to run if you’re trying to hide and a great place to hide if you’re on the run.”