First came the early weather reports, the predictions of historic rain and snow on the way to Los Angeles. Then came the storm itself and by then Andy Lewicky was too excited to sleep.
Checking the National Weather Service every few hours didn’t help. Lewicky continued to scan meteorologists’ Twitter feeds, hungry for every bit of information he could uncover.
“That way you can read the buzz about how excited they are,” he said. “It’s hard not to get obsessed.”
The 55-year-old writer dedicates himself to a quirky hobby: discovering hidden backcountry skiing spots in the mountains of drought-stricken Southern California. Could an epic cold front offer something truly extraordinary, a chance to hurtle down the slopes with a view of downtown in the distance?
Sunday morning, when the sun finally broke through, Lewicky gathered a group of like-minded friends at a McDonald’s in Tujunga for Egg McMuffins and eager banter. Soon they hit the road to nearby Mt. Lukens.
It was the first time any of the men, aged between 40 and 50, could remember seeing Lukens, a 5,000-foot mountain on the city’s northeast border, covered in so much white. Strapping skis, boots and poles to their backs, they set out on a four-hour hike to the top.
“All the pressure, traffic and smog… LA is not an easy place to live,” Lewicky said. “Experiencing skiing and snow in this desert home I’ve chosen is something special.”
Backcountry is a niche subset of the ski world. It exists apart from expensive resorts, high-speed lifts and groomed runs, and attracts a kind of skiers hungry for a natural environment of rocks and trees with no one else in sight.
That could mean pulling all day just to run through an insulated couloir or bowl once. It can mean braving avalanches and other hazards lurking above and below the surface of unattended terrain.
A small but dedicated cadre of local skiers is dedicated to finding such opportunities in areas such as the San Bernardinos, San Gabriels and San Jacintos. Lewicky, whose blog at SierraDescents.com describes this passion, calls it “living with one foot in two different worlds.”
He memorizes statistics and says few people realize that Southern California has an impressive “peak radiance,” the combined distance from base to summit along the various ranges. But those places rarely get enough snow for skiing.
“Stirring sparse spawns,” says Preston Lear, a West Hollywood therapist who skis with Lewicky. “When there is snow, there are people who want to walk for it.”
No one in Sunday’s group of five had attempted Lukens, which is part of the Angeles National Forest and ranks as the tallest mountain within the LA city limits. During the trip there, Matt Dixon, a civil engineer, said he “almost drove off the 2 Freeway” while staring at all that white.
While Lukens is fairly tame and accessible compared to other places they’ve ventured, Lewicky and his crew brought a range of safety equipment, including shovels and avalanche transceivers.
Backcountry skiing requires crossing narrow ridges with skis clattering over ice and snow. Every descent is a minefield of jutting rocks. Even in the absence of avalanches, skiers can be swallowed up by “tree pits” — deep pockets of loose snow around evergreens — and die of suffocation.
Al Preston picked up a collapsible metal pole used to sound out fellow skiers if they were going to be buried. “I’ve never used it,” the South Pasadena engineer said. “My goal is never to have to.”
Tracking is part of the thrill for backcountry skiers who live in a Mediterranean climate that leans toward semi-arid. Summer hikes double as research as they scan the mountains for topographical features that might be skiable with enough snow.
The uninitiated may scoff at the effort required for a relatively short run.
“Going up is actually fun,” Lewicky said. “You have the mountain to yourself, very rhythmic and peaceful.” Each step closer to the top, he added, “clearly builds a lot of anticipation.”
It helps to have alpine touring gear light to carry. Bindings can be switched from downhill to cross-country mode with the heels loosened. Temporary “skins” made of mohair and nylon can be attached to the underside of skis to push along flats and slopes on the way up.
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Sunday’s climb started under a blazing sun that softened the morning chill. The snow soon became several feet deep, slowing progress.
“It weighed on the brush,” Dixon said. “We had to crawl through in some places.”
The situation worsened along a curved ridge at a higher elevation. Another front moved into the region, the first clouds piled up against the west side of Luken. That sought-after view of downtown was now obscured in a grayish haze.
“We kind of shook our fists at the sky,” Lewicky said.
The group waited at the top for a while, eating snacks, hoping the weather would clear. They skied west hundreds of feet vertically to a crossing fire road, then decided to climb back up and weigh their options.
“You have to see what the mountain gives you on any given day,” Dixon said. “It’s more about the adventure than necessarily just the skiing.”
A long fire road led east from the top. Maybe it can lead them out of the clouds.
Lewicky’s benchmark for great adventures dates back to 2008, when while hiking through the San Gabriels, he spotted an unfamiliar couloir in the distance—a sheer chute bordered by rocks on either side. Narrow and dangerous, it piqued his curiosity.
Maybe skiablehe thought. Maybe not.
Topographical maps indicated the spot 7,000 feet above Iron Mountain’s north face, but there was a problem. The San Gabriel River, which borders that side of the mountain, blocked any direct ascent. Lewicky went to work looking for another option.
An approach from the back would require climbing 8,000 feet to the top, partially descending, skiing, and then taking the same route back. The round trip of 18,000 vertical feet was daunting.
Over the next two years, Lewicky and some friends attempted to climb and cross an adjacent peak, but the connecting ridge proved too risky. When they turned around, they encountered another skier with the same idea.
David Braun is a JPL engineer known for exploring some of the region’s most remote spots. So remote that he once let a golden eagle swoop down on him.
“We looked into each other’s eyes,” he recalls. “Then he thought I wasn’t something to eat.”
It made sense for Braun to join forces with Lewicky to conquer Iron Mountain. Their search would result in a short film called ‘The Couloir to Nowhere’.
Left to take the long road, they set out in the spring of 2010, climbed the mountain from the south, spent the night there, then summited and reached their destination the next morning.
Streams and rocks made the couloir treacherous. Backcountry skiers are best going one at a time; the others stay behind in case something catastrophic happens.
Slowly they made their way down, making quick jumps into the narrow walled enclosure, stopping to survey the edge of a slight rise ahead. Braun asked, “Is that a cliff or a mirage?”
After about 1,500 vertical feet, the couloir narrowed and turned sharply. The men stopped and, breathing heavily, decided that they had gone as far as they could go. Lewicky thanked Braun.
“I wouldn’t do it alone,” Lewicky said. “And no one else would do it to me.”
Choosing the eastern fire road on Mt. Lukens quickly paid off.
Within minutes it led to a side of the mountain that was protected from the weather. The view cleared to reveal the San Fernando Valley below. Downtown skyscrapers glistened in the sun, and beyond them the ocean looked golden.
“It was great,” said Dixon. “You could see several of the Channel Islands.”
The group stuck around to take pictures and fool around, building a mound of snow for jumps. But they couldn’t linger too long, not with late afternoon approaching and their planned half-day trip stretching out to 10 p.m.
The fire road ran for seven miles with flat spots and sleet making it slow. It led them astray, ending up at a US Forestry Service station along the 2 Freeway, where an Uber could only transport two of them.
When Lewicky returned to their starting point in the dark, he took off his ski boots and jacket and hurried to get in his car and collect the others. He looked exhausted as he explained everything that had gone wrong, but he smiled anyway.
“It was a spectacular day,” he said.
A historic storm. An opportunity to explore new territory. A new place to ski in the wilderness, in a city where it seems unlikely.