8 Places To Train For California's Snowy, Treacherous Mountains

There's a saying that goes something like this: in Southern California, you can surf in the morning and ski at night. And it's true—with the right kind of weather. This winter has proved the notion so far and people are enthusiastically flocking to our local mountains to hike in the snow. Which is truly great! But it has come with some really sad news: deaths, devastating injuries, and too many rescues in a short span of time, often around Mount Baldy.

While Mother Nature will never guarantee our survival, we can each do things to make our ambitions in the mountains much, much safer, and thus a heck of a lot more fun! Learn from the pros by taking their classes to gain skills, understand how to use equipment properly, and be humbled enough to make good judgement calls. Here are eight recommendations:

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Gabriel Lacktman, a Wilderness Travel Course graduate-turned-instructor, climbing Mount Baldy, the tallest peak in Los Angeles County, in January 2016. (Photo courtesy Gabriel Lacktman/Forever Outside)

WILDERNESS TRAVEL COURSE (WTC)

"Not even in the Sierra have I ever made the acquaintance of mountains more rigidly inaccessible," famed naturalist John Muir wrote of our San Gabriel Mountains in 1877. "The slopes are exceptionally steep and insecure to the foot of the explorer, however great his strength or skill may be..." Muir went on to found the Sierra Club 15 years later. Today it has more than 60 chapters around the country, but the Angeles Chapter is quite special. Not only was it the first chapter, founded in 1911, but no other chapter offers something like the Wilderness Travel Course. It's a 10-week classroom and four-weekend experience taught by some of the most dedicated and knowledgeable volunteers you'll ever meet and befriend. There's also two summer trips of your choosing from a large calendar and a graduation ceremony in Joshua Tree in the fall. And you can't beat the price, which is under $400 (not including any gear).

I'll be honest. WTC was life changing. I always loved the outdoors, but the course helped me become more confident, allowing me to go into the wilderness stronger, smarter, and safer than ever before. It goes over what to wear (I don't wear cotton on the trail anymore), map and compass navigation (maps like this are no longer a mystery), snow travel (maybe even some snowshoe racing), and snow camping (wake up to this), among many other critical skills. Classes start each January in the San Gabriel Valley, West L.A., South Bay, and Orange County. And they can fill up fast! Registration opens in July for the 2017 course. It's a big time commitment, but was way worth the investment.

Many of the students go on to become WTC teachers themselves, enduring years of more advanced training. Some of them include names you may recognize, such as Shawnté Salabert, who wrote this great winter hiking piece for Modern Hiker, and L.A. Times reporter Geoffrey Mohan whose recent story on climbing Baldy in the snow delivered this imperative nugget of wisdom: "Summits are optional; coming home is mandatory."

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An REI winter skills class hikes up Mount Baldy in February 2015. (Photo courtesy Jeff Hester/SoCal Hiker)

REI

REI is a mainstay of the outdoor community and its many stores in Southern California often hold classes on a variety of skills, including the winter kind. As it happens, Jeff Hester of SoCal Hiker was taking REI's winter skills class on Mount Baldy the same day a dozen rescues took place there. "[A] sobering reality check" for he and his classmates, Hester noted on Instagram. Keep an eye on this page for snowsports opportunities.

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Snow climbing in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. (Photo courtesy Sierra Mountain Guides)

HEAD NORTH TO THE SIERRA NEVADA

The remaining recommendations on this list are not just northward in geography but can also be in price. The Sierra Nevada is a tried and true training ground for garnering winter skills with a community of outfitters of an exceptional level. It may take more resources to attend their classes, but the experience is like none other. And unlike Southern California, winter in parts of the Sierra lasts much longer, meaning an early summer trip for snow skills is possible.

The companies listed below all essentially offer the same foundational skills, with differences in length, location, and itinerary. The more advanced you get, the wider the differences grow (backcountry skiing, ice climbing, etc). When trying to decide who to go with, there's no harm in asking lots of questions, making sure classes are right for your needs, as well as skill and comfort level. Many offer private training, too.

  • Sierra Mountain Guides: Founded by two internationally certified mountaineers, this outfitter based in Bishop, four hours north of L.A., offers classes in avalanche safety, winter camping, and winter skills. Its most basic one-day course, offered through the spring, goes over ice axe and crampon use. From there, classes get more advanced. Bishop, CA
  • SWS Mountain Guides: Co-owner and -founder Tim Keating got his start as a kid in our very own San Gabriel Mountains. Now he and his team lead trips around the world and teach a litany of skills in the Sierra Nevada, from avalanche to ski mountaineering to the basics. The more basic snow skills classes are taught at Mount Whitney, about three hours north of L.A., and at Mount Shasta in Northern California, where they're based. Mount Shasta, CA
  • International Alpine Guides: Based in June Lake, some five hours north of L.A., Dave Miller and his crew take his winter mountaineering students into some of my favorite parts of the Eastern Sierra, on the backside of Yosemite's high country. Its basic three-day class takes you to Matterhorn Peak and goes over, like other outfitters on this list, winter camping, avalanche, crampon use, and more. June Lake, CA
  • Sierra Mountain Center: It makes sense that Bishop, with its easy access to many Eastern Sierra sites, has three outfitters in town. SMC is is the second on this list and also offers, at the most basic level, a one-day snow travel class. Crampons, ice axe, self-arrest, and more. Beyond that, there are plenty of more advanced opportunities. Bishop, CA
  • American Alpine Institute: This outfitter is based in the Pacific Northwest, but offers classes all the way down the coast as far as Joshua Tree for rock climbing skills. For the cold stuff, they have operations in the Eastern Sierra, including a five-day winter mountaineering course up Mount Whitney and day trips for ice climbing near June Lake. Bellingham, WA
  • Sierra Mountaineering International: The last on this list based in Bishop, SMI offers courses in basic snow travel, snow anchors and crevasse rescue, and a four-day winter/spring adventure up the mountaineer's route of Mount Whitney. Bishop, CA

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Snow hiking on the Windy Gap Trail in the San Gabriel Mountains. (Photo by Zach Behrens)

FURTHER EDUCATION AND READING

Lastly, this list is only a start. Companies like NOLS and Outward Bound offer much longer training opportunities (sometimes six months long). And continually being curious about safe travel in the mountains, asking teachers, rangers, and mountaineers about safety, conditions, recommendations, and more, is always a good habit.

The amount information on mountain safety feels interminable at times. Those of us who live and breathe this stuff are often reading accident reports. As morbid as that sounds, these teachable moments increase the safety of the sport over time. In fact, an edition of the book Accidents in North American Mountaineering has been published annually for decades. Browse its archives and you'll learn accidents around Mount Baldy are unfortunately nothing new.

For something more narrative, The Last Season, about the disappearance of a legendary National Park Service backcountry ranger, is a page-turner with important lessons for us who love the outdoors. And Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzalez is a fascinating, analytical read from start to finish. It's a book that kept me busy highlighting all aphorisms about surviving while enjoying the wilderness. As a parting thought, I'll leave one that I liked: "Fear is good; too much fear is not."

Zach Behrens is a freelance outdoors writer based in Los Angeles. Follow his adventures on Instagram.