“I never show up before lunch,” said Christopher James, a Northern Californian recently relocated to Los Angeles by way of a decade in New York, as well as a back-country skier and a dedicated mountaineer. He is also a Mount Baldy devotee, and organizes afternoon expeditions there whenever there’s snow. The fact that it was nearing 1 p.m. as we wound our way up the mountain-road switchbacks didn’t trouble him at all. “It’s perfect for a half-day ski.”
Mount Baldy is a marine mountain, so the fact that there was fresh snow, dry and light, even, was a bit unusual on this late-March day, even more so since it was the fluffy residue of the first real storm of the season. The snow line reached all the way down below Baldy’s inconspicuous little town, and the area around the bottom lift was well covered.
But chaos reigned at the ticket hut. The mountain’s Web site suggested that all runs were open, yet we discovered that half the mountain hadn’t opened all year, and the single lift that accesses the western slope had just stopped running. “Some kind of electrical thing,” announced a woman who stepped out of the hut. “We don’t know when it will come back on.”
Less than an hour from Pasadena, Mount Baldy is Los Angeles’ closest skiing. It is also the most derelict skiing, with ancient equipment and an unpolished, carefree approach to winter sports befitting a mountain rising over the Inland Empire. Yet among a small cohort, Baldy is beloved for its steep, ungroomed terrain. With real resorts like Big Bear and Mountain High another hour and a half away, Baldy is a holdout, a rough and somewhat guarded secret, the skiing equivalent of a locals-only surf break.
Just then, the hut attendant walked over to the freestanding dry-erase sandwich board that is Baldy’s sole on-site information system for operating conditions. Next to the words “CHAIR THREE,” she crossed out “RUNNING!” and scribbled “BROKEN!” Effectively, this meant no skiing: The only working lift would take us as far as the Notch, where the ski rentals and the building that passes for a lodge are located.
“But for a half-day ticket you can get a nice ride up the hill, and maybe we’ll get number three started up again,” she said. The prices were handwritten on paper tacked to the eaves of the hut: “HALF DAY: $25.”
Seemed like a risk, but when Christopher managed to talk the price down to $15, we went for it. “Try bargaining at Mammoth,” he said.
Rising up into the dense fog, the lift itself was a two-man, wood-slatted operation hanging on rickety-looking towers you could touch from the chairs. The angles of the slopes were feeling particularly sharp as I noted that the place seemed a bit down and out. To which Christopher replied: “I prefer to say Baldy’s facilities are ‘vintage.’ ”
Vintage was also the operative term for the rentals. At the Notch we learned that “number three is cranking again!” so I got set up with skis, boots and poles — all for $12. The boot exchange was like a roller-skating rink: When you give them your shoes, they stick them on a rack and hand you boots with the size written in marker or Wite-Out on the heel. It took several tries to locate my size; the pair that turned up had an unidentifiable, and somewhat painful, lump in the left toe. A dog roamed among the skis as the guy adjusting my bindings sang “Under the Bridge” at full, soulful volume. It was then that I developed my theory that Baldy sits empty all summer and the first Inlanders who show up in winter get to run the place. We’d already heard my man sing much of Blood Sugar Sex Magik during the wait. He was covered in jail tattoos, but was full of good vibes.
“How does that feel, brother?” he asked, then turned up the volume on the radio with his screwdriver. “Now get out there and kick that mountain’s ass.”
As it turned out, the mountain kicked my ass. Christopher, who navigates pristine backcountry chutes in the Sierras, immediately set out for off-trail adventuring. He pointed out a vertiginous peak across the valley he’d hiked up once, discussed both its downhill merits and avalanche potential. “There’s a nice, easier bowl out back, though,” he said, “probably still untracked.”
I stuck to the trails. Navigation was difficult nevertheless — there were no maps and no run markers other than the truly vintage wood-burned arrows that stand only at the summit. Often, I was alone on the runs, which always seemed a bit more difficult descending than they appeared from the lift. Ice lurked in the shadows, and strategically placed rocks made every corner slightly dangerous. I traversed a few black diamonds rutted with irregular moguls before settling on a couple intermediate areas with nice jumps.
Along the way, I heard several Baldy regulars extolling the day’s skiing. At the top of chair three, one guy was proselytizing to some wealthy Santa Barbarans he’d just met.
“Forget Big Bear,” he said. “Where else do you get views like this?”
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It was quite a sight. Baldy is a 10,000-foot mountain, and we were well above the weather. The tree shadows were getting long, and the snowy San Bernardinos rising from deep cloud cover looked surprisingly alpine. Suddenly, the serenity was broken by a P-51 Mustang flyer that buzzed the mountain, missing the lift cabin by maybe 50 feet and then barrel-rolling off into the sunset.
“That guy comes by every year,” the lift operator yelled excitedly, trying to take pictures.
I missed the shot too, because my camera had no juice. Down at the lodge, where the après ski highlights were chili dogs and powdered Swiss Miss, the equipment counter was almost empty except for one pack of the AA batteries I needed. “Just take ’em,” the pudgy girl behind the counter said when I realized they don’t take credit cards. She furtively slipped the batteries into my hand. “No one’s watching.” I wandered out of the lodge to find Christopher coming in. We compared notes: backcountry action versus some patchy jump skiing, a World War II aircraft and my score with the batteries. “See what I told you?” he said. “Only at Baldy.”
PS: Baldy just closed for the season, but its Web site is already selling season passes for next year.