It might only happen once every decade, and I’m happy to say that I was lucky enough toexperience it. “It,” of course, is Mt. Baldy-a steep, wild, uncrowded, ungroomed old-fashioned antithesis ofthe man-made huckfest, snowboard-park bro-down, photographer-at-every-hit scene that’s developed atsome of Southern California’s other resorts. While they have their high-speed quads cramming the crowdson the slopes, Baldy has four slow, wooden double chairs keeping the runs sparse. While they have theirlift-ticket price wars and catchy radio spots aimed at the 23-million inhabitants of Southern California, Baldyhas 40-dollar tickets (twenty if you get a coupon at Burger King) and no radio advertising.
It almost seems like the management at Mt. Baldy doesn’t want people to know about it, which is ironic since it sits justabove L.A. and is probably the easiest local mountain to reach from most of Southern California. It alsofeatures the steepest terrain and longest vertical drop (2,100 feet) of any So Cal resort. But Mt. Baldydoesn’t offer luxurious amenities-you know, the pretentious base lodge replete with animal heads mounted onthe walls, snowboard academies that guarantee to your have mini-riders trained to shred by week’s end,condo drunkfests with hot-tub parties strung along the mountain’s base, bands on the deck for aprés,acclaimed sushi chefs, Artesian-spring health spas … Mt. Baldy is old school, where the mountain is king andyou’re at your own risk; it lives in a different time. Rope tows were first installed at Baldy in 1944 and thearea slowly grew up the hill, from a base elevation of 6,500 to just over 8,600 feet at the top. It’s never beenoverdeveloped, though. In fact, other than a small lift-ticket office and separate bathroom building at thebottom, there’s almost nothing to the place.
But just above the lift-ticket shack is a double chair heading up to the notch, through a steep-but-ridable stream gully. The real fun at Baldy is linking one of the top two sections that split east and west from the notch back down to the parking lot. The untamed terrain consists ofcountless unmarked rocks, cliff bands, gullies, and chutes through perfectly spaced pine trees, avalanchechutes, bowls, and natural clearings. Trails are limited and signs are sparse-it’s up to you to get where youwant to go. But there’s more to Baldy than what’s on the trail map-a whole lot more. Off eitherpeak-Thunder Mountain to the east and the top of Chair 4 to the west-look closely and you’ll find a bootpack leading out the different ridge lines away from the resort. Telegraph Peak (8,985 feet) to the east is theshorter of the two hikes. It has some good open tree runs, similar to the resort’s, and a lot of steep, tightterrain. Dropping north takes you down the back side of the resort. The south empties into Cedar Canyon,which hooks up with Ice House Canyon and eventually dumps you out on the road some five miles from theresort. The goods are definitely to the west, however. Mount San Antonio-the highest peak in the SanGabriels, topping out at 10,064 feet-is a one-and-a-half-mile hike out the Devil’s Backbone. Despite itsname, this ridge line is quite passable and not too steep, but can get icy and is susceptible to frequentweather changes.
Along the way you’ll pass the summit of Mount Hardwood at 9,552 feet, which offers some beautiful bowls to the north, and trees and chutes to the south. The north drops down to Stockton Flats and a long, steep hike out. The southern drop empties back to the bottom of the resort. But the realreason to hike out to Mount San Antonio is the famed Baldy Bowl-a 2,000-foot vertical drop that consistsof either a steep, wide bowl perfect for straight-down wide-open turns, or a series of varying chutes that willleave you laughing uncontrollably because you’ve never had it so good. And there won’t be anyone to hearyou (except your friends, because you should never go in the backcountry alone). With so much terraiin andserious bragging rights, it’s surprising that Baldy hasn’t been overdeveloped and exploited in the fine fashionof today’s ever-encroaching material world. The catch is snow. Mt. Baldy has almost no snowmaking, and in typical years manages only sparse coverage for most of the season.But when it snows, especially during a once-every-seven-years El Niño season, the mountain gets smothered. Avalanche dangers are serious. Aformer snowboard-company owner and the company’s art director were out-of-bounds and got caught in aslide in 1993. The executive survived by hitting a tree and suffered numerous broken bones. The artdirector’s body wasn’t found for several weeks. During those post-El Niño drought years, though, you’ll belucky to find a decent line through the rock-littered slopes. That’s why I was so glad to actually experience”it” this past season. My first Baldy lift ticket was dated April 2.
We began going two or three times a week after that, and scored one of the best powder days of the year with more than a foot of fresh, light snow onMay 14! They kept the lifts running into June, and even opened up the fabled back side, which isn’t really arun, but rather a series of chutes and bowls that empty out in the area called Stockton Flats (a sign erected in’89 shows a proposed lift servicing the back side, but so far it hasn’t happened). There’s a dirt road thatleads back up to the resort from Stockton Flats, and late in the season the resort lets some locals drive theirtrucks up and down the road, shuttling riders. Yeah, we were riding into June in Southern California. Itprobably won’t happen for another seven years or so, and by that time you’ll have forgotten about this article,and hopefully about Mt. Baldy, too. But you can bet that a small pack of ‘core So Cal riders will bedropping cliffs and taking lines they’ve been dreaming about for years. And the wait will be worth it. -JohnStouffer