My Lady Mt. Waterman: So-Cal’s Queen of Big Mountain Terrain

Posted By: Zeke Piestrup on February 24, 2009 2:02 pm

Mt. Waterman is a majestic place of living history.  Originally christened "Lady Waterman’s Peak" for Liz Waterman, the first non-Native American to cross the San Gabriels back in 1889.  A bit of patriarchal insecurity ensued and the "Lady" descriptor was lopped off.  Liz’s husband Robert was hip before his time, attempting numerous times to have the proper sex restored to Waterman, and the proper respect restored to his trailblazing wife.

Today, instinct involuntarily agrees with the disregarded historical record, as first views of Mt. Waterman inspire thoughts of "she", as in "She’s a beauty!"

Mt. Waterman is also the site of California’s first chairlift, opening on January 1, 1942.  The lift broke down that same day and riders had to jump off.  Had the age of the lawyer yet to dawn in America?

Relevant to the story of Waterman is that of Berthoud Pass, Colorado’s first ski area and site of the first ever constructed double-chair.  Berthoud Pass Ski Area was unceremoniously torn down by the Forest Service in 2003.  Waterman’s history nearly duplicated the tragedy of Berthoud Pass.  In the summer of 2004, the Forest Service was set to remove all equipment, once again relegating priceless ski history to photographs and memories.  A big thank-you goes out to Rick Metcalf, his brother Brien, Craig Steward, Robin Hoffner, and Roberto Martinez.  All had spent much of their youth parading down the hills of Mt. Waterman, and all are the only reason why this absolute hidden gem survives to this day.  When prompted, Waterman regulars unanimously gushed about the noted improvements to the ski area since Mr. Metcalf’s group purchased the resort.  The ski community is greatly indebted to these fine gentlemen.

Everything about Mt. Waterman is accessible, a scant 33 miles from Kevin Costner’s La Canada residence.  Parking is much the same as coming over to my place.  Just park out front, no need to knock, just come on in!  Chair 1, the face lift, is 50 feet off the highway!

Among California mountain ranges, the San Gabriels have always been subservient to the much larger and more heralded Sierras to the north.  Mammoth Mountain, Squaw Valley, Tahoe — the big-mountain terrain of the Sierras is legendary.  But, all is not absolute, and exceptions in the San Gabriels exist.  A bit of local advice spilled onto the Internet for So-Cal skiers and boarders looking for real, big mountain terrain.  When the monster storms hit, the So-Cal two-step is Mt. Baldy during the week and off to Mt. Waterman for the weekend.  Waterman is open only on weekends, so the mid-week storms are left untouched in their virgin, powder state.  That is until Saturday morning, when Waterman’s endless options result in an inexhaustible supply of fresh tracks.

The scene at Waterman is still a well-kept secret, but the the cult is growing.  The only line, albeit a substantial one, was for lift tickets.    I met a couple of snowboarders in line, struck up a conversation.  As an uninitiated Waterman explorer, my two new friends offered to show me what they knew of Lady Waterman’s Peak.  Morning runs through the trees, just off of Bros Alley were simply epic.  A storm from the previous Monday had dropped two feet of snow, and here it was Saturday and I was bombing fresh lines down the mountain, floating like a ski spaceman down steep mountains that defy preconceptions of the San Gabriels.  When it comes to the biggest, most challenging terrain in So-Cal, Mt. Waterman and Mt. Baldy rule the class.

After a couple of laps of steep and deep, Antonio and I headed over to Chair 2 to make the short hike over to Avalanche Canyon.  I had not planned for all possibilities, and I was not carrying the 10 Essentials, required items for responsible back-country skiing.  Avalanche Canyon is definitely out-of-bounds, and with a name like Avalanche Canyon, I was hesitant to succumb to irresponsible desires.  Especially considering in-bounds at Waterman deserves an All Time classification, as Lady Waterman is the San Gabriel’s Queen of Big Mountain Terrain.  There’s no need to head off-piste.  With the sun beating down on a perfect bluebird day, combined with what I know about avalanches, I surmised that the conditions were ripe with danger.  But, as happens on days blessed by the Ski Gods, we happened upon two avalanche forecasters, conducting their study of the snowpack.  I threw out avalanche terms like "temperature gradient" and "faceted snow" to bond with my snow scientist friends.  After a few minutes, the results were in: the snowpack was super stable!

The hike along the rim of Avalanche Canyon offers endless options, all big and all steep.  Avalanche Canyon empties out a few miles down Angeles Crest Highway from the base of Waterman.  Make sure to obtain a forest service use permit when parking your car at the base of Avalanche Canyon, as parking tickets are freely given in this area.  Sorry, Antonio…

The rest of the day was spent in and around Chair 1.  A short respite at the Waterman Village Lodge, I recharged in front of a roaring fire, snacking on the best homemade cookies found at any resort, anywhere!  When the final bell rang on a perfect ski day, I had yet to exhaust my excitement for Lady Waterman.  As my familiarity grew with her features, my admiration and desire found no crescendo.  If trapped on a desert island and allowed one item, I’d take my Lady’s Chair 1.   Mt. Waterman is now a permanent part of my ski resort rotation.  She‘s a hidden gem resort.

Zeke Piestrup ( More Posts)

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