Our first winter hike on Mount Baldy came about a week after a huge snow dump left several feet of snow on the trail. We started around sunrise and had to use crampons from the time we left the parking lot. It was our first real winter hike, so we were definitely a bit awed by the conditions. The numerous avalanche chutes crossing the trail did nothing to calm our nerves! As the sun rose, it got quite warm, and began turning the solid, ice-crusted snow to slush. By the time we reached the ski hut, we were consistently post holing. Climbing the sun baked bowl was not even an option. Instead, we traversed under the bowl, and followed the west ridge to the summit. We were happy to have successfully summited, and even happy to have safely gotten down, on our first winter trip. But we knew we had to return and climb the Baldy Bowl.
Weeks went by, and an unusually cold and wet SoCal winter provided plenty of snow on the mountain, but we could never line up our all too infrequent off days with what looked likely to be good conditions. We nearly made a second attempt a few weeks ago, but a fresh snow dump on an icy crust, made us bail at the last minute. Finally, on a rare Monday off for Michole, the conditions looked right. A great deal of the earlier snow had melted, then a rain and several below freezing days drastically reduced avalanche danger, and promised far more solid footing than we had encountered on our first trip.
We wanted to avoid our first mistake from before, and made sure to get an earlier start. We left the house a few minutes after 4:00 am, and were on the trail by 5:45, giving us a solid hour before sunrise. We were both shocked by how different conditions were from our first trip. Before, we encountered snow before even reaching Baldy Village, a full 2,000 feet below Manker Flats. By the time we reached the trailhead, there was over two feet of snow on the ground. This time, there was no snow on the drive up the mountain. In fact, we didn’t even hit snow until just before reaching the ski hut. It was a pleasant surprise after what we had expected, and left us feeling fresh when we reached the ski hut.
The bowl had already lost a great deal of the snow that had covered it earlier in the season. Fortunately, there were still plenty of ribbons of snow to choose from multiple lines. The route we had planned, up the center of the bowl had a solid line of snow going all the way up, and there was even one climber already on it, making slow but steady progress toward the top.
Climbing the Baldy Bowl
We broke out helmets, ice axes, and crampons at the ski hut, and headed for the climb. The traverse under the bowl held no surprises, but as we turned off of the trail and headed toward the bowl itself, we came face to face with a bobcat! It appeared out of some shrubs to our left, inspected us, then continued casually across our path, disappearing into a small stand of shrubs to our right, where I believe it watched us continue on from the cover of the shrubs. It was sort of the cherry on top of an amazing day. Its small stature and beauty gave you the impression that you could just cuddle it like your beloved house cat, but I’m sure this is not the case!
After our wildlife encounter, we continued on, heading straight up the bowl. It was by far the highest risk climbing I have ever done, and a few times looking down while resting, holding onto my ice axe as an anchor, my fear of heights tried to assert itself. I was able to force down the negative thoughts though, and continue on without too much issue. It struck me during the climb how ironic it was that I was not more afraid. When sport climbing above my bolt, I am at times gripped by a near paralyzing fear. I find myself unable to trust my ability, and often have to retreat and regather myself before continuing on. I know this is completely irrational. I’ve taken lead falls, and practiced many mock falls. Still, the irrational fear persists. On the bowl however, a fall could be disastrous. You might self-arrest, or you might not. You might hit a rock, or you might not. You might be okay, or you might not. Overall, the consequences of a fall are exponentially higher than while leading a sport climb. Nonetheless, I found it far less frightening. I think this is for two reasons. First: there really was no turning back. I can’t imagine having climbed back down that chute. Second: while the consequences of a fall were far greater, what you put your trust in is your ability not to fall. Unlike leading a sport climb, where you need to push far past your comfort zone, and depend on your equipment to keep you safe in the event of a fall. Again, it’s completely irrational, but fear often is.
The snow conditions on the bowl were perfect. The first three fourths of the climb was crusted in a solid layer of ice, offering excellent purchase for our ice axes and crampons as we climbed upward. The main danger seemed to come from the occasional rock, bouncing like a mad tomahawk down the slope. The climber ahead of us had slowed considerably, and we had made up a great deal of ground on him. Putting us directly in the path of any rocks he dislodged during his ascent. The last few hundred feet, where things get increasingly steep, was a bit softer, and we struggled to gain the solid footing we had enjoyed on the lower slopes, but it was still a far cry from the slush of our first trip.
The last 100 feet seemed to get steeper by the step. This stretch is also where we were blasted by wind gusting over the top of the slope. Finally, the last 20 feet felt almost vertical, as you encounter the snow deposited by the wind, which relentlessly howls over the edge. With a final placement of my ice axe, on flat ground, I pulled myself over the lip, and felt the euphoria of completing the climb. Michole was a few minutes behind, so I added layers against the wind and the cold of the exposed, final push to the summit.
Michole’s experience was a bit different than mine. Somehow, one of her boots popped out of its crampon. Fortunately, she handled it well, and managed to keep a cool head. She was able to get onto her back, bracing herself with one crampon and her axe dug into the snow. From that position, she was able to unstrap, reposition, and restrap her crampon, using only one hand! This was definitely the most hair-raising moment of the climb, but thanks to her good head, she safely overcame the unexpected difficulty, and carried on without too much incident.
Baldy Bowl to Summit
A few minutes after I topped out, she made her way up the final, impossibly steep edge of the bowl. We had a short celebration, took in an amazing view, and headed for the summit. From the top of the bowl, it is only a few hundred yards to the summit. While a walk to the summit may seem anticlimactic after experiencing the bowl, our legs and lungs were both on fire again by the time we reached the peak.
Ethics and Safety in the Mountains
Being in the mountains is truly an amazing experience, and something that Michole and I both love. With that said, the mountains can be a dangerous, uncaring, and unforgiving place. Two people have died on mount Baldy this year, and three died last year. As Joe Simpson put it, “Gravity is a wonderfully democratic thing. It doesn’t know how good a climber you are once you start falling.” Nonetheless, there are many things you can do to minimize your risk, and the risk of those around you, while in the mountains. Namely, NEVER venture into the mountains unprepared. Always have the proper equipment, knowledge, and skill set for the task at hand. And if at any point you feel that one of those three things is not up to the task at hand, turn back. The mountain will always be there. Make sure you are too.
This brings me to the second thing you can do to keep people safe in the mountains: Speak up, and be honest. I know, it’s far easier to remain silent. I am guilty of it. On our first winter summit of Baldy, Michole and I ran into a guy at the ski hut. He was suffering, visibly beaten down from the first two miles of post holing his way up the mountain. And no wonder, he was in low cut trail walking shoes. Not only was he lacking crampons and an axe, he didn’t even have micro spikes, and I’m not even sure that he had trekking poles. He asked us how far to the summit and we dutifully informed him. He was probably old enough to be our father, what place did we have to tell him what he should or shouldn’t do?
The fact is: if you see someone who has no place doing what they are doing in the mountains, it is your responsibility to tell them. You might be the person who saves a life. How many people would still be alive, if experienced mountaineers had told that person in running shoes and spandex that they should turn back? People may not listen. And that’s okay. Someone may think you are an asshole for trying to tell them what risk they should or shouldn’t take. That’s okay too. I can live the rest of my life knowing that someone thinks I’m an asshole. But I can’t imagine living the rest of my life knowing that I had not expressed the danger someone was putting themself in, and that they had died because that knowledge came to them too late. And if they continue on, talking under their breath about you, you will know that whatever happens to them, you did what you could to keep them safe.
So PLEASE! Journey out into the wilds! Experience all of the wonder that this earth has to offer. And that includes the risks, but minimize those risks the best you can, and make sure those around you do the same.
Winter Mountaineering Necessities
Mandatory gear for heading into the mountains in winter are: ice axe, crampons, and helmet. Below are links to models of these items that we have personally used and endorse. If you purchase these products through this page, we will get a commission, but that is not why we show them here. Whether you buy these products through our page, at a local store, or just rent them, we hope that you adventure responsibly.
Mount Baldy Trailhead Parking Just Past Manker Flats Campground:
Parking Just Past Manker Flats Campground
Gear We Used on This Trail
Men’s Salomon Quest 4D 2 GTX
Like the Altras, these boots have an exceptionally wide toe box. As someone with wide feet, this is an absolute must for me. The give me plenty of room in the tow, but the awesome lace locker keeps my foot secure so I don’t bang my toe when kicking steps in crampons. The “4D chassis” keeps my foot from twisting even over the most rocky terrain, and the gore tex lining has kept my feet dry after a full day in the snow without gaiters.
Salomon Women’s Quest 4D 2 GTX
Men’s Leki Micro Vario Ti Cor-Tec
Another pair of lightweight, adjustable, folding poles. I use these and feel that they are the perfect pole for me. I am confident that if/when these poles are retired, I will replace them with another pair of the same. If you would like to read my full review of these poles, you can find it here.
Black Diamond Distance FLZ Women’s Poles
A great, lightweight, adjustable, folding set of poles. Michole uses these poles and loves them. In fact, she wrote a full length review on them. If you would like more info on these poles, you can read it here.
Osprey Stratos 36
This is a great daypack, and will likely serve you on overnight trips, depending on how lightweight and compact your gear is. It features Osprey’s “Anti Gravity” suspension system. This lets more air flow to your back and, more importantly, shifts the weight of the pack from your shoulders and back to your hips. I love the “Anti Gravity” suspension so much, it’s hard for me to imagine ever buying a pack without it. I wrote a full review for this pack, you can find it here.
Osprey Manta AG 28
A great women’s daypack, the Manta is a dedicated hydration pack that comes with a 2.5 litre reservoir. This has been an extremely solid day pack. Like the Stratos, it features Osprey’s patented “Anti Gravity” suspension. The external mesh storage compartment, as well as several divided compartments with easy access make this a great pack for storing snacks, gloves, hats, or anything else you might want on the go.
Black Diamond Vector
Whether you are climbing at the crag or mountaineering, the Black Diamond Vector is a great choice. It is well ventilated, lightweight, very easy to adjust, and features very functional headlamp clips. We chose this helmet over some of its competitors mostly due to the fact that it offers a bit more coverage on the sides. This is extremely important for climbing, because you will likely turn your face away if you hit the wall, exposing the side of your head.
CAMP USA Stalker Universal
The Stalker by CAMP USA is a great crampon for general mountaineering. The universal, strap on bindings means that they can be used with almost any mountaineering, backpacking, or hiking boots. This makes them an excellent choice for anyone who wants/needs a solid set of legitimate crampons, but does not want to spring for a pair of mountaineering boots. They have served us well on several hikes in ice and snow, including our climb up the iconic Baldy Bowl.
The Petzl Glacier is a lightweight ice axe with a straight shaft and a hot forged, positive clearance pick. Michole uses this ice axe and has been extremely satisfied with its performance. The same hot forged pick as the more expensive Petzl Summit and its light weight both set this ice axe apart from others near its price point.