I remembered I had an ice axe and hammer. They were at home. I also had crampons. They were in the car. It would've been nice to have them. I was front-pointing a 30' section on a 45-degree slope of hard-crusted, packed snow. In snowshoes.
Welcome to my world, late Saturday afternoon, on the chilled north-east face of Mt Lowe.
A Priori: The Back Story
All this was far in the future when Big Snow finally arrived in the San Gabriels this week. I pulled my straight-outta-1978 Fischer metal-edged cross country skis from their dreamless sleep. What the hell—I pulled the '89 Black Diamond Espressos too. I had hopes on getting them cleaned and waxed, but that was a long shot. And the snowshoes came out too. I wanted to have a full choice for winter fun.
CalTrans saw fit to close the Angeles Crest Highway right above the blanco-y-blanco village of La Piñata. Snow? Landslide? Accident? I wasn't about to wait for a re-opening, so I busted a U and drove east on the 210 to Pasadena, exiting and turning north on Lake Ave. Roscoe's Chicken And Waffles was gearing up up for another banner blue-flame day.
After repacking my kit, with snowshoes strapped to the pack, I began to puff and wheeze like momma's chubby poodle up the Echo Mt Trail. There is a guaranteed 3 miles of vertical fun. I had fun setting new records in the Four-Mile Hour.
Another mile later I got over myself and was on the Mt. Lowe Road: the Upward Highway To Hell, Good fortune put me squarely in the logical sights of "MC Stump-D", whom I hadn't seen in several months. He was finishing up a run, but cheerfully said WTF and we strolled up the Road and chewed the proverbial fat for a half mile. Just below the snow also ran into "Uncle" Hal Winton and Nancy Tinker, who had already been to the now-avalanched and blocked Markham Tunnel. Their cheeriness was casting dark shadows on my late-starting sloth.
Snow, Thence Mt. Lowe
Snow began with inch-deep fingerlings that soon became three, then six-inch cover. For those reading this in New England, laugh at will. Remember that all this is approximately five air-miles miles north of Pasadena, where you see the Rose Parade on TV. And agave spikes out of the snow completes the picture.
Soon enough it was time for the snowshoes. These were the New Jack duraluminum tubing and teeth under the toe and and heel—not the vintage "Kill The Wabbitt" flatfooters of yore.
I was tired of slipping in and out of everyone's foot-holes. The junction of the Mt Lowe Road and the foundations of the vanished Alpine Tavern offered the first opportunity to go into the deep. And I was on top.
Oh joy! Now the West Trail up Mt Lowe—not signed, but indicated by snow-covered cribbing up a creek drainage. The snow was 2' deep. On the west face it was sunny, hot, and the trees were shedding their considerable snow-burden in a continuous rain-fall. I was soaked, which would be much fun later.
Meantime I was getting The Message on snowshoes. I was getting spanked. The trade-off for not post-holing is picking up at least a pound of wet snow every step and carrying it with you. Until the next one. Your stance is a ruggedly wide one—your feet are now at least 12" across the beam. No runway walk for you in these.
Pausing in my labors yielded killer views of deep canyons loaded with snow, Mt Baldy far to the east completely covered, the Los Padres to the northwest also white; and knowing that every scorching summer day you've ever spent on Mt Lowe has been completely redefined.
You've Got To Live It, Or Live With It
The West Trail up Mt Lowe was discernible as a dipped line and a contour. No problem. And the west-facing slopes are forgiving. Things took a different turn on the chilled north-east face, where snow had been blown by surprise! a west wind.
The trail was completely filled in. The snow face was a nice hard crust. There were no bushes to hang on to. I was back to Rock-Climbing 101: Lessons In Friction. Looking down showed indifferent bushes that would probably delay my fall somewhat. This is where I began to front-point. It's a long way to the bottom, when you want to rock'n'roll.
Scratch-scratch-scratch. I was on my tippy-toes, finger-tips on the snow-face for balance while feets was doin' they stuff.
Scratch-scratch-scratch. Edge to the next stance, and s-l-o-w-l-y reach for the snow-melt jughandle around a rock outcrop. It holds.
Scratch-scratch-scratch. On to the next stance.
I suppose I could've turned around, but at 3pm, with 2/3 of the circuit done, I would've been looking at a post-dark finish. Some of the previous transitions had been somewhat sketchy. Onward.
I made the last move, and was now standing on stable snow. And I was freezing my ass off. I put on everything I carried, and looked forward to running, like a godzilla, whumping and thumping down the mountain.
This Is Where The Story Ends
The snow petered out to an Amherst winter sidewalk on the Upper Sam Merrill Trail, just before it turns hard to the west-facing slope. After that it was mud. And so was I. I could barely lift my legs.
The last 4 miles were varying degrees of technical, but I was in downhill slow-mode. I eventually got to the bottom at the Cobb Estate just before 5pm and darkness. After cleaning up I recongealed in my car, and began to think about driving home after a jumpstart at Starbucks, the Green & White Satan.
I'd hit the Lotto. I'd gotten to snowshoe untracked trails, and not driven 5 hours and been stuck in heinous traffic to do it. It was classic old-school SoCal.