Travel

Why is Mount Baldy so dangerous for hikers?

What Makes Mount Baldy So Dangerous to Hikers?

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Up to 2023, 15 people had been rescued from Mount San Antonio (also called Mount Baldy), and two more have died. Actor Julian Sands is still missing. Baldy is dangerous.

If you are a resident of southern California and enjoy being outdoors, you will likely spend your weekends hiking. From Runyon Canyon in the middle of Hollywood to any of the 264 named peaks in Los Angeles County, trails abound, the usually mild weather suits, and the region’s obsession with fit physiques compels. And, if you’ve ever lived in or traveled to the area, you’re probably familiar with Mount Baldy. The 10,064-foot peak rises high above Los Angeles, and the bowl-shaped, southern-facing area that gave it its name is clearly visible.

Baldy, and other San Gabriel mountain peaks, were two of my most frequent hikes during my eight years in LA. Baldy is not much different than any other popular hike in SoCal. It’s a little taller than most, sure, and the most popular 11.3-mile loop through about 4,000 feet of elevation takes a bit longer than most other day hikes. But otherwise it’s the same mix of loose sand covering loose rock spread across steep slopes that you’ll find anywhere else in the area—you’ll just be rewarded with better views once you reach the top.

A topographic map of Mount San Antonio, to which I’ve added slope angle shading. The steeper colors are the darker. Note the trailhead at Manker Flats (center), the ski area at Baldy Notch (bottom right), Devil’s Backbone ridge (top right), and the summit (top left). (Photo: CalTopo)

Baldy is unique because of two things. Baldy’s elevation is the first. You lose 3.3° Fahrenheit per thousand feet of elevation. This is the general rule. So, not withstanding any other weather conditions, Baldy’s summit will be 33 degrees colder than the beach.

For most of the year, that’s actually refreshing. If it’s 90 degrees in Hollywood, it’ll be 57 on top of Baldy. It’s a good idea to spend an hour sitting in traffic during the peak of summer so that you can get to Manker Flats trailhead. But right now, near the tail end of January, it’s not 90 degrees in Hollywood, it’s reaching the low forties at night. Many Angelenos would consider this bone chilling. They’ve never experienced anything similar to the wind chill of minus four degrees Mount Baldy will feel on Thursday morning.

Baldy’s winds also make it unique. According to the National Weather Service, Thursday’s speeds will reach 60 MPH. Mount Baldy is the highest peak in the San Gabriels. The east-west range also acts as a barrier between the Great Basin of California and the coast of southern California. The dense, heavy air it generates, which is pushed downhill by the northeast each winter as high pressure systems form across Nevada, flows towards Los Angeles every year from the northeast. It speeds up and compresses when it reaches San Gabriels. These winds, also known as the Santa Anas are well-known for igniting the worst wildfires. Crossing the Devil’s Backbone, a narrow east-west ridge that you must brave to reach Baldy summit along its most popular route, hikers will be exposed to these winds at the absolute peak of their force.

Baldy’s narrow ridge isn’t the only thing that makes it unique. Runyon Canyon attracts 2 million hikers each year. Many take a tumble down its loose, steep terrain. I can count on my hands that I have taken a tumble there dozens of time. While the underlying backbone of these mountains might be granite, it’s mixed with sandstone and shale, and the patchy chaparral that struggles to cling to it does little to hold the soil in place. Sharp rocks poke through a loose, sandy cover, crumbling as they’re exposed to the elements. It doesn’t matter if you wear knobby trail runners or lugged hiking boots, nothing grips this stuff with anything approaching sure footedness.

And that gets even worse in the winter, because there’s one last thing that makes Baldy unique: skiing. That’s right, there are actually 26 ski runs and four lifts located on the mountain’s eastern side. According to the resort’s Instagram page, they opened the fourth lift last weekend, an event that’s happened rarely in the last decade, as extreme drought conditions have plagued California.

Put all that together—cold temperatures, high winds, steep, exposed, slippery terrain, and the potential for snow—and make it proximate and easy to access to all 24 million people who live across the SoCal urban conurbation, and you can see why rescues, injuries, and deaths are inevitable. If you put enough people in situations that pose even the slightest risk, it becomes a lot more dangerous.

Of course, another factor is exacerbating Baldy’s danger this winter. In just three weeks, 32 trillion gallons water were dropped by a string of atmospheric rivers on California. Baldy was also a victim of this phenomenon, reporting that the area saw snowfall of as much as two feet. That snow has variously mixed with rain, and gone through freeze-thaw cycles, producing what the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department (one of multiple entities responsible for search and rescue missions in the area) is calling, “extreme alpine conditions.”

Rescuers searching for Sands—an experienced mountaineer—have reported multiple avalanches on the mountain, and have variously been prevented from traveling by foot, helicopter, or both, due to ice, avalanche risk, and high winds.

Baldy may be part of the Los Angeles skyline, but that doesn’t mean it’s a not a real mountain, complete with all the risks and draw any mountain holds. The reason Mount Baldy kills is simply that it’s popular.

What Makes Mount Baldy So Dangerous to Hikers?

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