Thursday, May 15, 2008

Skiing at Mount Baldy

Two Years at the Best and Weirdest Southern California Resort

Let's face it, I have lived in Los Angeles for pretty much all of my life. Like other Los Angelinians, my quest to find close, decent skiing is no small task. For this quest, many people head to more well-known resorts like Snow Summit or Mountain High. Which, after driving 3 hours (or more, when stacked behind lines of people driving with winter tire chains for the first time) each way (!) to reach said resorts makes one seriously consider other options.

This was what first motivated me to ski at Mount Baldy. And after two years of experiencing Baldy, I feel I should say a few words about it before I move away from LA. After all, I tried to do my research on Baldy before purchasing my first ticket. What was the terrain like? How was the snow? How popular and crowded was the resort as a whole? And despite the seeming validity of the questions, all I could figure out was that lift tickets were $45 and the rest was a badly-encoded image and a mystery.

I think many people in Los Angeles seem to pick weekends to ski by finding weekends that they are free and then going skiing. It seems that everywhere else in the country, people actually wait until the snow is good, and then they find the time to make skiing happen. Los Angelinians should take note and learn from this: waiting until the snow is good in Southern California is exceptionally more important here than in a place like Colorado where most times, you really can't go wrong.

In that way, I feel like Mount Baldy is terribly misunderstood. Baldy is like really dark beer: if it's the right time, and you're in the right mood, it can be the best thing ever. If not, well....

First off, Baldy is hands-down the weirdest place I've ever skied. First of all, the decor: The old unpadded wooden chairs that they probably purchased at the ski resort equivalent of a garage sale, the outdated paint-peeling cross-iron girded lift towers (marked with only orange flagging tape at their bases), the fact that after a storm you can count all the vehicles around the resort (on the runs) that they forgot to move before the dump and are now buried in place, and the list goes on.

Then, the culture. I can't possibly think of a more terrifying resort to ski as a beginner: their one beginner run is in a valley: icy until mid-morning and then almost instantaneously slush, and full of jumps, rails, and advanced skiers racing back down to Chair 3. They only have two beers on tap and serve soup in tiny Styrofoam bowls. They've had the same 'Pending Expansion!' billboard proudly displayed (now peeling) on the side of the lodge since 1996, with no expansion to show for it. You might notice that some maps show runs as blue squares, and some show the same runs as black diamonds. Or that, quite commonly, grooming only extends halfway up the runs...perhaps they got bored and stopped?

At this point, you're probably thinking: "This sounds terrible, why would I ever ski there?" Well, simple. Because on a good snow day (or even a decent snow day, actually), Baldy is hands-down the most awesome ski resort down here.

Imagine: a Southern California resort that doesn't groom its powder. Or its corn. Or anything, for that matter: You get what the chef cooks you. The laissez-faire attitude of the mountain basically makes the resort into lift-served backcountry.

And the fact is - it works. The old wooden chairs work. The towers hold you up just fine. Who needs a backside expansion when the run conditions are new every time you ski? (Or who needs grooming for that matter - I've seen moguls the size of short minivans form on the lower slopes of Thunder Mountain.)

This means that when the other resorts get chopped out and groomed into submission before midday, Baldy keeps ticking. I've found powder in the trees on Thunder Mountain a week after a dump. Beautiful, soft, techy, steep. Nowhere else in Los Angeles can give you that.

There are many reasons why I thoroughly enjoy Baldy. Not the least of which is that they have an awesome Club Card - a not-quite-a-season-pass card where you can get tickets for $15 all season and $20 tickets for any/all of your friends. I paid $100 for the card early season, which means that if you and one friend ski three powder days (c'mon, even LA gets more than three days) then you come out ahead.

But I think the biggest reason why I like Baldy comes from its terrain. No other mountain can kick my butt so thoroughly in 2000 vertical feet. The quick transitions from ice to moguls to powder. Trees, cliffs, tall bushes, even irrigation pipes add spicy-yet-manageable 'flair' to every run. And the snow, ahh, the snow. If there is a face shot to be found in Southern California, it will be found at Baldy. I definitely find myself going back to other, 'easier' resorts when I need a mental break and just want to cruise, but somehow...I always came back.

Am I alone in these perceptions? Am I revealing myself as the lone twisted soul in Los Angeles who loves and hates and is terrified of Baldy all at the same time? Maybe, but I don't think so.
I've seen the ski patrol at work more often on Baldy than any other resort I've been to, and they know their stuff - they have to. A license plate frame on an old beat-up Subaru in the parking lot proclaimed "Ski Baldy....If you can!" I've often been the only telemark skier at many of the other So Cal resorts, but on a powder day at Baldy, folks come out of the woodwork and rip it hard. Impressively hard. They know it too: there's something irresistibly tantalizing and adventurous in never quite knowing what you're going to get. And, unlike its beer selection, Baldy serves adventure up in spades.

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