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December in Southern California
The San Gabriels are actually mostly too steep for conventional skiing. There's one successful conventional ski slope on the north side, Mountain High, but the other ski slopes are scratch affairs. Back at the turn of the century, a guy who was on my high school debate team bought one, Mt. Waterman, scraped through some dry years, and then in the big snow year of 2005, he was happily skiing down his mountain while getting it ready to open, when he hit a tree and was killed.
Mt. Baldy is remarkably close to L.A. You take the 210 freeway to about 20 miles east of Pasadena, get off at the Claremont Colleges, then it's about 15 miles straight up into the mountains. Well, not exactly straight up. What's less straight than a hairpin curve? A bobbypin curve? There's a tiny ski resort 6,500 feet up Mt. Baldy that makes the dilapidated one in Hot Tub Time Machine look like Aspen, with a 39-year-old chairlift up to 7800' elevation, where there's a restaurant.
I first rode up it in June 1977. I recall that the restaurant back then made a big deal about having a live rock band weekend nights. A dude who worked there explained it was a good deal because at that altitude you got wasted faster, which made a lot of sense in 1977. How that was good for driving later back down to the city was not a topic that came up, because it was 1977.
We then hiked to the top of Mt. Baldy up the Devil's Backbone trail (above, in Michael Gordon's winter photo). We came down the face of the Baldy Bowl, a vast 35 degree slope of ping-pong ball sized pebbles. You basically ran down in this kind of moon-walking style, flying about 15 feet with each step, then skidding for about 10 feet in a mini-avalanche before another big step.
Nobody seems to run down anymore. As far as I can tell from the Internet, these days people either stick to the trail in summer, which seems boring, or ski down the couloirs in winter (such as Girlyman), which seems like a manifestation of mental illness.
Thirty-five years later, in October, my wife bought a $29 Groupon deal for two to ride up plus $20 off lunch, expiring Saturday, December 15, 2012. (Groupon is basically a sort of legal loanshark serving small businesses. Groupon keeps half the $29, but pays out fast. If you are a ski hill that was barely open last year due to a lack of snow, you could really use that $14.50 in October.)
Being terrified of chairlift rides since I fell off getting onto one when I was 7 and had to ride down alone, I of course procrastinated. But she prudently didn't tell me she'd only spent $29, so, me being a true believer in the Sunk Cost Fallacy, off we finally went.
The guy working at the lift looked kind of like the guy I had talked to 35 years ago, and the music in the restaurant hadn't changed -- heavy on Foreigner. (Maybe they were his 8-tracks?) There was about a foot of new snow, covering all the trees, very Winter Wonderlandy. The hamburgers at the restaurant were surprisingly delicious and $20 bucks covered the majority of the cost. The chairlift ride down, however, turned out to be exactly as terrifying as I'd assumed it would be.