Ski Mountaineering

San Bernardino Ridge

Mar 13-15, 1998

Leaders: Reiner Stenzel, Tom Marsh

This year the El Nino storms brought abundant snow to our local mountains. Thus, within one to two hours driving distance from Los Angeles there was excellent backcountry skiing. The San Bernardino Ridge in the San Gorgonio Wilderness is one of the best ridge routes. It is vast, rugged, and remote.

We planned to ski the 30 mi route from Angelus Oaks to South Fork and here is how it went: On Fri morning, five participants met at the Mill Creek Ranger Station (Tom Marsh, Mike Rector, Doug Wilson, Eric Ginder, R.S.). We drove to South Fork, parked two cars, returned to Angelus Oaks (5,900'), and started our trip by 10am. After half an hour of walking on the trail the snow coverage became continuous and we switched to skinning up on skis. Signs of the trail vanished soon and from now on it became XC skiing with ample bushwhacking experience.

As the hours of climbing proceeded the weather gradually deteriorated. The weather forecast called for the tail end of another El Nino storm to pass through Southern California on Thursday and Friday. But since it was just overcast we thought it was a benign one. However, this was going to change soon. In the afternoon the visibility deteriorated and it gradually started to snow. Our progress of climbing slowed down as Eric got more and more exhausted. We made camp on an avalanche-safe ridge near Limber Pine Bench. That evening, on Fri the 13'th, Doug discovered that his old Asolo boots began to delaminate. We fixed them with skin glue and wire which, due to his skiing skills, held up throughout the trip. He did the tour on skinny double-cambered Fisher Crowns! Eric had randonnee gear, the rest of us beefy telemark skis and plastic boots.

We shared 2 tents, among them a good VE 24. Dinner was cooked outside in a snow kitchen but the steady snowfall soon drove us into the tents. Later, there were some moments of clear sky, giving the impression that the storm was soon going to break up and we might have a sunny morning. This was wishful thinking. It snowed most of the night and next morning the sky was still uniformly grey and gloomy.

We packed and got off to another late start (9:30am). Packing time is inversely proportional to experience. Instead of following the switchbacks of the trail we ascended straight up a creek drainage to Limber Pine Springs. It was an arduous task for Eric since his pack was too heavy, his skins slipped, the ascent was steep, and it was now snowing heavily. By midday we reached the 10,000' ridge. I was glad to get out of the gully since there was now a foot of new snow which developed uphill cracks from our tracks. Up on the exposed ridge we were greeted by gusts and poor visibility. But as long as one followed the ridge, there was no route finding problem.

Skiing became tricky since there were large windslabs and abundant cornices some of which showed cracks three feet from the edge. Depth perception became a problem and one could easily run into a snowbank or fall down from it. The alternative of skiing below the ridge on the steep slopes was worse; on the wind side the snow was hard and a fall would sooner or later happen, on the lee side the cornices would loom above us. So we stayed in the wind on the ridge and continued from peak to peak, first San Bernardino Pk (10, 649'), then East San Bernardino Pk (10, 691'), Anderson Pk (10, 840'), and Shields Pk (10,680'). It was a seemingly endless roller coaster ridge line. Without visibility it was hard to know on which peak we were. The altimeter, calibrated at the trail head, read far too high since a low pressure front had moved in. The brunt of the storm must have moved through on Sat afternoon just when we were on the high part of the ridge, proving Murphy's law.

It was a classic picture of winter ski mountaineering as five people, mummified in goggles and face masks, skied in a blizzard along an exposed ridge. Wind gusts of 30-50mph called for careful balancing. The snow-seeded wind blew over the corniced ridge formed streamlines like those over an airplane wing. The cornices were growing and we found signs of a fresh avalanche triggered by a cornice breakoff. It must have been Eric's first experience of this kind since he began to inquire about the chances of his survival. We assured him of that with the reminder that "every step counts" and there was "no return". By 5pm we all had enough and picked a campsite somewhere off the ridge in a forest with moderate slope. But even in the forest the cold wind was blowing and kicking up spindrifts. So we cooked in the tent vestibules and spent the next 12 hours indoors, nature calls excepted.

Sunday morning the sky cleared up. It was wonderful to see the sun again. We dried our gear, eat outside, and had an 8:30 am start. Almost a foot of fresh snow had accumulated and it was a real workout to break trail, a job for the one with the fattest skis. After getting back on the ridge we had a most spectacular view. In the distance we saw Big Bear Lake, San Jacinto, and the San Gabriels. Ahead of us, along the ridge were Charleton, Jepson, and San Gorgonio.

Now we realized that our progress had been slower than planned. We proceeded over a few more peaklets and traverses around gullies and made it to Dollar Lake Saddle (9,960') by lunchtime. There we had a soulsearching discussion. Eric was at the end of his strength since this tour was not a good match for his conditioning and skiing skills. Most of us wanted to ski San Gorgonio (11,490') which was right in front of us, although another 1,500' higher. I was very concerned about possible accidents of a weak skier coming down the Draws, and also declined splitting up a small group in a remote terrain. So we had no choice but to shorten the tour and to ski out via Dollar Lake.

As a consolation, this started with a wonderful 2,000' ski run down into Dry Lake and the South Fork Meadows. The snow was fresh and deep and ideal for my fat powder skis (Dynastar BIGs). Doug did a superb job on his skinny skis. Eric got another workout with many ups and downs, but kept his good spirit up. Tom and Mike enjoyed making figure eights out of my tracks. When we looked back, our tracks on this long slope were visible for miles.

A strange effect occurred in some locations near Dollar Lake: We heard pop music in the wilderness, probably carried by the wind from the Bear Mtn ski area some 10 miles away. Down in the forest, we followed the South Fork Trail and reached Poopout Hill by mid afternoon. There we left the obvious trail and traversed XC toward South Fork Campground. Till about Camp Osceola the snow was continuous. Then it was postholing through sometimes deep-knee mush. Off and on there were stretches of confusing trails, but mostly we worked our way down through forest and brush. The last surprise of the day was a 45 degree dropoff to the road which we slid down by near darkness. After 1/4 mi on the road we were back at our cars by 6:30pm. It was another long day of skiing, but in spring weather rather than in a blizzard.

Although the trip was short of our goal, we had three days of adventurous backcountry skiing. Eric did survive the trip, and we will come back to ski the old Greyback another time. Thanks to everyone for staying together, for Tom's patience in assisting, Mike's help with Eric, and Doug's good spirits. I won't forget the scenery of this group skiing in a blizzard along the corniced SB ridge.

Reiner Stenzel

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