Thursday, January 16, 2014

FROM THE VAULT - 2010: A Magic Year of Great Ski Mountaineering From LA to Alaska - Part I

2010 was a magic year of skiing for me. It had been 3 years since I traded my Mammoth Mountain season pass for a set of AT gear.  I had been getting a ton of ski-mountaineering days each season, and was finally starting to feel somewhat confident in my ability to assess ski conditions, get up challenging routes, and then ski back down those same challenging routes.

As 2009 drew to a close I was very excited to see what the new year would bring, and what it brought to Southern California was snow.  In fact, the winter of 2010 brought A LOT of snow!
Week after week, the mountains outside of Los Angeles (yes there are mountains outside of Los Angeles!) got hammered with feet upon feet of fluffy white snow.  Towards the end of January 2010, one of these big storms dropped so much snow, all the way down to the 2000 ft elevation marker, that the popular mountain resort town of Big Bear was inaccessible, causing the groceries and gas stations there to run out of supplies.  All the roads into the San Bernadino Mountains were completely blocked for several days.

I had been skiing quite a bit with my friend Alvin. Alvin was a San Diego native who had been quietly snagging all the best first descents in the Southern California area for close to 4 decades.
Me and Alvin - August 2010

To be fair, there wasn't much competition.  Despite having close to 10 million people in Los Angeles county (and that doesn't include the adjacent Riverside or Orange Counties), I think I could count the number of serious ski mountaineers in the area on my fingers, and I'm not aware of any shops in the area that are well stocked with alpine touring gear.  With the exception of a few people getting some laps after hiking the ever-popular Baldy Bowl, it is rare to see other people, or even evidence of other people such as tracks, in the SoCal backcountry during winter.  

For Alvin, skiing isn't about how many laps he can do, or how deep the powder is (although who doesn't like powder . . .).  For Alvin, skiing is about adventure.  He doesn't seem to care much for repeating things he's already skied.  He wants to go where he hasn't skied before.  In fact, his favorite thing is to go where nobody has skied before!

Every Friday after work, Alvin would make the two hour drive up from San Diego to the mountains outside of LA.  He woke early, and skied well past dark on both Saturday and Sunday.  He didn't miss a weekend, and sometimes seemed annoyed that he needed to take a break to sleep for the night before starting again the next day.  He did this every weekend starting with the first snows in November, and didn't stop until sometime in June.  Never have I seen anyone so amped up and stoked as Alvin during the winter of 2010.
Hiding in plain sight: Alvin lays down a turn in one of his
"secret" couloirs
That year, I could not convince Alvin to "waste" even one day skiing anything high up.  He'd already skied all the high elevation stuff.  With the copious amounts of snow at freakishly low elevations, Alvin was spending every moment he could skiing lower elevation lines that he had been looking at and dreaming about for decades.  
My friend Patrik, higher up in the same couloir

In one particular valley in the San Bernadino Mountains, Alvin was able to pioneer first descents down numerous steep, north-facing couloirs that drop from a 9000 ft ridge.  I skied a few of the lines with him.  They are all steep, aesthetic, and easy to access.  In a good snow year, Alvin claims this area has the best skiing in Southern California, and I don't think anyone but Alvin and his friends have skied these lines.  I won't tell you exactly where this is, but with the description here, and a map, you should be able to figure it out.  

Blue skies and powder
On the weekend of the storm that shut down Big Bear, Alvin and I had plans to go ski a new line in his secret valley, but alas, the roads were all closed.  We ended up skiing shin/knee deep powder on a bluebird day in the San Jacinto Mountains instead.

Blue skies, powder skiing, no people, and no tracks. All less than 40 minutes
from one of the post populated cities in the nation.

Alvin, following the tracks I left; the only tracks around!
As usual, Alvin was traveling with his wife, Ellen.  They would camp out of their pickup truck wherever they went.  When Alvin and I headed up looking for steep lines to ski, Ellen stayed lower on flatter terrain and enjoyed just touring around on her skis in the beautiful scenery.  

On this particular day, Alvin and I broke trail through deep snow toward the summit of Jean Peak.  We had started from a point to the south, and had traversed way around onto the west side of the mountain.  We were heading for the summit, but with the late start (having first driven to the San Bernadinos only to discover the closed roads), and the slow trail breaking, we realized we wouldn't make it.  

With about an hour of daylight left we had a decision to make.  We could follow our tracks out the way we had come, but we had done a lot of traversing that didn't sound fun to repeat.  OR, we could charge in to the unknown directly below us and ski the west side of the mountain.  From the map, we knew the second option would eventually lead to the road, but going out a different way then you came in is always risky because you could arrive at an obstacle such as a cliff or impassible stream and have to re-climb the descent.  There is also the logistical challenge of not finishing where you start, but Alvin had an ace up his sleeve for that . . . his awesome wife Ellen!

We said "what the hell," and decided to ski the good stuff straight down.  When would conditions be this good again?  So Alvin radioed Ellen, and told her the plan.  She agreed to drive the truck down the highway and find us wherever we popped out.

After Alvin stowed the radio, we pointed our tips downhill and let em rip!  The race between us and the sun was on!  

Turn after turn, the snow was phenomenal!  It was so good that neither of us thought to stop and take any pictures!  We blasted way down into the trees, continuing turn after turn through ever thickening vegetation.  

Eventually, the bushes started to get thick, and the sky started to get dark.  We were moving as fast as we could to get as far as possible before we were forced to break out the headlamps, but I couldn't help but stop for one photo of the beautiful sunset.

Once the lights went out I put on the headlamp, and prepared for a very familiar activity.  Finishing a day of skiing with Alvin.

Alvin is always trying to get back into the middle of nowhere to ski things that were probable first descents.  This particular day in the San Jacinto Mountains was probably NOT a first descent, but it still followed the same pattern.  We could go ski this easy access line over here, or we could blast onto the road less traveled over there.  Alvin ALWAYS chooses the road less traveled.

Me, trying to link together as many snow patches as I can
before giving up and walking.  SoCal backcountry skiing
typically involves good skiing up high, followed by
patchy skiing and bushwhacking at lower elevations.
Unfortunately, this means that he has trouble keeping ski partners.  One day (and often night) with Alvin, bushwhacking out of some remote mountain drainage by headlamp with skis on your feet or pack, often soaking wet from sweat (and once from falling in a river), is usually enough for most people.  There is a long list of people who have skied with Alvin once or twice, but a very short list of his repeat customers.  I think this is why we get along well.  After a disappointingly icy descent followed by a brutal bushwhack over snow covered logs that you are sure you're going to break a leg on when you punch 3 feet through the hollow crust as you walk, I'll strike a grin and ask him, "what's next?"

On this particular day, after making it out onto the mountain highway, and waiting for Ellen to pick us up, Alvin had an answer to my question.  He mentioned that he'd really been wanting to break up the summer with an August ski trip into the Wrangle St. Elias Range of Alaska . . .

[To be continued in part II]

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