"Giant" OddsWhen we stepped out of the warm ski hut at 8,280 feet and confronted the conditions outside, I gave our chances of summiting Mt. Baldy (10,064’) about equal to the odds of the NY Giants beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl later on that day. We faced perhaps a more formidable adversary than a pro football team with a perfect record: Mother Nature in the dead of winter dumping snow and howling with winds strong enough to knock you over. But like the Giants, we put on our game faces and set out to score an upset. This is our Super Bowl story told by the four SP member participants, Bechtt, Taco Del Rio, Travis and Mountain Impulse.
Should We Go For It?Mountain Impulse
Being family men and all, we didn't want to do something stupid like climbing with more than minimal avalanche danger. So we evaluated carefully whether our goal of summiting Mt. Baldy on Super Bowl Sunday was just within the bounds of adventure or whether it courted being the subject of an evening news rescue story. In the end, we decided the worst it would be is a cold, wet, lung-busting 4,000 feet of hiking and climbing in wintry beauty at its best. We were not disappointed in any respect.
Here is the e-mail correspondence sent the night before the trip:
From: "Tom Becht"
To: "Travis"; "Augie Medina"
Sent: 2/2/2008 2:12 PM
Subject: Travis flurries
Sunday: Periods of snow. Areas of dense fog. High near 28. Windy, with a west wind 40 to 45 mph decreasing to between 30 and 35 mph. Winds could gust as high as 75 mph. Chance of precipitation is 100%. New snow accumulation of 9 to 13 inches possible.
--- Travis Linds wrote: ---
What do you figure?
--- Tom Becht wrote: ---
I'm planning for it -- it should be challenging. The ski hut is rather boring normally...
--- Travis Linds wrote: ---
Sounds good to me. Augie i will pick you up at 5 am and we will meet you at mills ave and mnt. Baldy road at 6 ish.
Manker Flats to Ski Hut: The Warm-UpTaco:
After meeting up at the parking area, near the base of San Antonio Road, we all geared up and prepared to hoof it up the hill.
Travis and I set out up front, talking about various things. The weather was nice and cool, so we kept cool despite moving rather quickly, and we did not sweat.
The trip to the Ski hut was a nice hike as usual. Travis and I were wearing Vasque GTX and Salomon XA Pro 3D GTX shoes, respectively, so we could move quickly, but icy portions were a bit sketchy, for me at least, as my shoes lack the rigidity to kick in a small step to move forward.
Lotsa snow completely obscured the trail, which means folks before us made a much more direct trail to the hut (a bonus), shaving some time off. Along this route, Travis, Tom, and myself split with Augie and Brandy, as Brandy wasn't feeling so great. She decided to turn back and head home along this trail, and Augie met up with us at the hut.
I was happy to see the hut open and crowded inside with BC ski folks of all ages. Everyone was friendly and we all had some brownies and mini-pancakes. The host was a great host (I forgot your name, Sir!), and we enjoyed our time there. We checked the hut's interior out, took some shots for the Summitpost page for the hut, and got ready to move out.
Augie dropped in, and we finished gearing up to head out. We stepped outside, donned crampons, and booked-it.
From Ski Hut into the Storm, up the Bowl and Holding on at the SummitBechtt:
After about an hour soaking up the warmth of the ski hut, we grudgingly decided it was time to move on. Stepping outside produced the instantaneous effect of being hammered by the wind. We proceeded to don our crampons and marched out in an orderly fashion towards the bowl. Augie pressed us to move left a ways before proceeding upwards in order to gain Mt Baldy proper. You would expect that we could see where to go but today’s adventure was to be conducted in near white-out conditions. At a certain spot along the trail (or where we thought it should be), I turned upwards and began our slow ascent of the bowl. Fairly soon we ran into a pair of climbers who were roped together and claimed to have made up to the 9000’ level. This is still 600’ below the rim of the bowl so we were uncertain of what their goal for the day was.
Upwards and onwards we proceeded, leapfrogging each other at times but generally staying fairly close. The wind gusts of up to 50 miles at hour required us to hunker down a bit and ensure that our equipment had good purchase in the snow. The blizzard continued to drop snow on us and the wind howled everywhere. We could see three people in front of us including a skier and what appeared at least one snowshoer. At about 9000’, they made the decision to traverse left around a large rock outcropping. We continued to proceed up the chute we were in and eventually angled left to gain the lip of the bowl. Here, the new snow became deeper and the angle of approach steepened to around 50 degrees. After working this steep slope for about 15 minutes, I popped out on the shallow basin about 400’ below the summit closely followed by Travis. Ryan and Augie weren’t that far behind and soon we were all standing on the rim.
Travis took the lead up the mild slope for the remaining 400’. The wind had picked up and the visibility dropped to maybe 20’. Foot by foot we plodded upwards. The closer we got to the summit, the more the wind tried to resist our exertions. Ice was being deposited on all of us as the wind blasted us with snow. The sign for the Devil’s Backbone Trail was a welcome sight but there was little more to see on an almost completely white surrounding. I wandered to where I thought the top should be only to find myself starting to walk downhill. I could see Ryan and Augie at the sign now but briefly lost track of Travis and then re-found him slightly above and to the right of me. The gust on top must have been close to the advertised 60-70 mph so we quickly decided to descend, after the obligatory summit photo. Travis got the job to lead us down safe and we could only hope that his GPS navigation had improved over the last several trips.
Descent: Total Reliance on GPSTravis_:
After a brief stay on top of the blustery summit of Mount Baldy (and after searching aimlessly for the summit plaque without luck) we headed down. It was so windy on the top that I would not walk into the wind; I had to angle back and forth. Partially due to the force and partially since I had no goggles or glasses on and the snow stung my eyes and face. I tried recording a summit video, but it turned out to just be a white scene with wind in the background, plus my camera lens was iced up. Tom took 2 photos of us looking goofy and cold then we discussed our plans for the descent.
Since I had the GPS I would lead and we would stay close together. Staying close together is easier said then done; turning my head around to check on the people behind me caused a bunch of snow to blow into my hood and with the wind you could not hear anything. I tried to maintain the appropriate pace, but being cold and eager to get out of the wind I found it hard. I find it hard in general to hike at a slower pace (ask my wife, that is why she hates hiking with me). A very short distance after leaving the summit my GPS batteries died and one of Taco’s crampons came loose (or as Taco described, it "exploded"). Taco stopped to fix his crampon and I tried to communicate to him that I was going about 10 yards further to gain shelter from a tree (knowing that I would need it to change the batteries in my GPS). At the time I assumed that Taco saw me at the tree and I gestured for him to come over out of the wind, but I realized afterwards that everyone else had goggles on that had iced up and could not see as far as me without them (Taco thought I had abandoned him - sorry Taco, I should have come over and told you what I was doing). I saw Augie and Tom had reached Taco and were helping him with his crampon so I started to work to change my GPS batteries. I took off one of my gloves and struggled with the GPS, the outer cover was totally covered with ice as was my pack. It took some time to change the batteries and by the time I was done my hand was numb. I stuck it under my armpit until I regained feeling and then got my glove back on. Taco’s had suffered the same problem with his hand going numb working on his crampon and I had to help him put on his glove when he came over to the shelter of the tree. A little further down I saw a natural shelter at the base of a tree and asked Taco how his hand was, suggesting he could get out of the wind and warm it up under his armpit if it was still numb, but thankfully he indicated he was fine.
From the summit down I basically followed the GPS track religiously (even though I am not religious). I had previously downloaded the track for the ski hut trail around the west side of the bowl to the summit, and I was thankful. It would have been real easy to get lost or walk out over a ledge in these whiteout conditions. Once we got out of the wind the descent was less eventful. I tried my best to not get too far ahead and always kept everyone in sight. We checked out some of the chutes leading up from the west side of the bowl and they looked steeper than what we had ascended (initially I had thought about descending one of these until I saw how steep it was). So we continued to follow the regular trail around to the bottom of the bowl. We left the trail for a section and cut tight around the west side of the bowl and met up with the trail again on the way to the ski hut. These slopes went through some trees and offered lots of powder; I figured this would be an ideal spot to practice snowboarding. There has been some discussion about snowboarding next weekend down the bowl, but after ascending the bowl I know I am not at all good enough to snowboard down terrain this steep.
Soon we had reached the ski hut. We had hoped that we could go inside and warm up, but the group was just getting ready to leave and lockup, so it was not worth it to go inside for a few minutes and just get wetter as the ice melts. We had a snack out front, chatted with some of the others (mainly explaining why we were all covered in ice) and headed off. We didn’t bother to remove the crampons as they would help gain traction for the descent. It was still cold and windy at the ski hut, but it warmed quickly as we descended, getting wetter and slushier as we went. When we reached Manker Flats we felt like we had entered a circus, cars were parked every which way, kids sliding all over in plastic sleds, screaming, crying babies, and getting strange looks as we walked by (mainly looking at our crampons). I walked by one car parked next to the garbage cans and was appalled to see that they had been throwing their garbage out of their window into the snow, total disregard for their environment (perhaps they were planning on picking it up, but I doubt it). We made our way through the circus, tried to knock off as much ice as we could, got into Tom’s Element and headed home. We all had the feeling of accomplishment having completed a challenging hike in very adverse conditions and I am sure we all slept well.
Note to self - get better boots for this stuff. My light hikers were completely soaked by the time I got back and not very rigid for use with crampons.
Some may think of winter ascents of Southern California mountains as mountaineering with a lower case "m". And indeed our mountains do not present the elevations and conditions of other ranges in California, other parts of the U.S. or other parts of the world. But mountains like Mt. Baldy, Mt. San Gorgonio and Mt. San Jacinto can give you a good winter experience nevertheless. And they can't ever be taken lightly or confronted in winter without proper assessment of conditions and preparation for those conditions. Headlines of 3 back country skiers perishing in avalanches at nearby Wrightwood and numberous rescues in local mountains (including a rescue of some Marines attempting Mt. San Jacinto) within the past few weeks, were constant reminders to us to carry and use our common sense and judgment along with the rest of our equipment.
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