It is 8:05 AM, and I can feel the razor-sharp edges of my crampons cut through the fragile, top layer of snow like a child cracking crème brulée. I shove the spike of my ice axe a couple of feet above me and, shoes turned out like a clumsy ballet dancer, I hoist myself another few steps up the dizzying, 2000 foot climb. I turn over my right shoulder and exhale, taking in the panoramic view, as a breeze carries tiny ice crystals into my hair. I am exactly where I want to be.
Ascending a 45 degree slope in the quickly thawing snow as violent, pink morning light descends all around you can be a tricky business. After my mountaineering class, I felt ready to push my comfort zone and go for an actual winter summit at altitude. For those of us lucky enough to live in Southern California, there’s a gem of a mountain just outside Los Angeles that provides easy access to sledding, winter hikes, and, of course, mountaineering. Mt. San Antonio, colloquially referred to as Mt. Baldy, features a famous snow climb: The Baldy Bowl. My target was set.
For safety, I assembled a rag-tag crew of friends who are far more experienced than I am at winter mountaineering. Snow ascents are infinitely less scary in a team, so I was stoked to have my own band of misfits. We met at 5:45am at the Manker Flats trailhead to run over a gear checklist – crampons, ice axe, shell, gloves… The boys were going to backcountry ski down the entire face of the peak, so they strapped alpine touring gear and helmets onto their backs before slamming the car trunk shut.
We set off into the steadily brightening morning, iridescent frost lining the tips of pine trees. Determined to make it to the Sierra Club’s Ski Hut without strapping knives to my feet, I skid up the last 100 feet of trail, boulder hopping through a frozen stream to reach our first resting spot. I shoved a Clif Bar down my throat and hurriedly tied my new foot spikes to my boots. The view was already dizzying in its scope, with fragrant Jeffrey pines dotting the ridgeline, and I couldn’t wait to reach the technical part of the ascent.
Just then, a tiny, 75 year old woman suddenly came bounding up the trail, dressed in full Mexican village attire and donning a simple pair of sandals and bare feet. She was in better shape than literally everyone in my crew and ascending the snow with practically zero gear. As she passed us to push for the Baldy summit with her two sons, I couldn’t help but burst into a huge smile as I felt my determination rise.
A quick traverse across the bottom part of the bowl had us face to face with an incredibly steep snow climb. I dug my metal into the slope and began kicking in steps, the blades of my soles grinding into the icy crust as I walked. I reminded myself to steady my breathing, having learned the hard way that pacing is everything at altitude.
After cresting the upper edge of the bowl, I began to pick up speed, though I could see my friends were right behind me. I made a b-line for the summit, thrilled that my first big winter ascent would be successful. As I waltzed up the more gradual, rounded slope of the mountain’s crown, the wind began to pick up, and I found myself yanking the tips of my beanie down to keep it from whizzing off. I looked around as the crackling of small pieces of ice whirled around me, stinging my face, and I realized suddenly that I couldn’t see my crew.
With the summit in sight and my gang somewhere down the ridge, I took the kind of steadying deep breath that moves through you like molten gravity from the very core of the earth and plunged forward. Gusts of 40-50mph winds were biting into my eyelashes as I cleared the last bit of the slope and looked around, breathless. I struggled to snap a few photos, bleary eyed and wind sore, then turned back the way I had come.
Less than half a mile down, my friends had a cold beer waiting for me and a Jetboil full of chili. “We saw you way up there, man, so we decided to just let you go for it!” exclaimed Brandon, my dude-bro partner in crime. I chuckled, relieved and hugely grateful for the opportunity to check my perceived fears against any real danger I was in.
Summiting alone in heavy winds was one of the best things that could have happened to me. I felt accomplished. Strong. Like I had walked into the very arteries of the monster and come out smiling. Mt. Baldy, consider yourself vanquished.