Mountain Bloodline: The San Gabriels

by Bryn Barabas Potter

This past fall, the National Forest Foundation sponsored a blog contest to celebrate local community connections the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument outside of Los Angeles. Special thanks to REI, Southwest Airlines and Grand Trunk for helping to sponsor the contest and providing prizes for the winning entries. Read Bryn’s winning entry here.

The San Gabriels are my mountains, and I have my father to thank for this.

The Adirondacks were my dad’s mountains. He grew up skiing in upstate New York, skied in WWII in the 10th Mountain Division, then he met my mother and came west. They settled in a valley below the mighty San Gabriels. My childhood memories are riddled with San Gabriel Mountain explorations – picnicking at Jackson Lake, hiking around San Dimas Canyon, learning about the universe at Mount Wilson Observatory, viewing fall colors close to home. But mainly skiing.

We skied everywhere in the San Gabriels, from Mount Baldy, Kratka Ridge, and Mount Waterman on the southern slopes to Blue Ridge, Holiday Hill and Table Mountain/Ski Sunrise overlooking the Mojave Desert. So many fond and vivid memories! Our yellow 1967 Ford station wagon crunching uphill with tire chains, expertly handled by an easterner who knew icy roads. The feel of the rope tow zipping between gloved hands. Tired feet clomping in ski boots back to the car for ham sandwiches, apples, and thermoses filled with hot chocolate. The whiff of chocolate offsetting the distinctive smell of damp wool clothes. Squinting at brilliant sunsets splashing over our mountains on the westward drives home.

There’s nothing like the stillness of snow falling and the soft creak of a ski lift as it gently sways over the earth. And the feeling of flying down a favorite run with perfect snow. I got ski fever whenever I saw fresh snow across the San Gabriels. Patient Dad, the teacher, made sure I was ready. As a teenager, he taught me how to put chains on the car and drive in snow. As my skiing skills increased, his encouragement let me tackle black diamond runs with him and my brothers. Later, armed with mountain knowledge and his confidence in me, he let me borrow the car for ski trips with friends.

When I was in my 20s, new experiences made the San Gabriels mine. As an archaeological intern with the U.S. Forest Service, I surveyed areas like Chilao Flats and portions of the Pacific Crest Trail, plus recorded CCC structures at Crystal Lake. A geology trip across Big Tujunga Canyon let me find marble, graphite, and earthquake faults while heading toward the Palmdale Bulge. On a backpacking journey through Azusa Canyon to Upper Bear Creek, I woke early one magical morning to cracking sounds. Looking up the rocky slope across the creek, my gaze was met by that of a bighorn sheep. Despite gentle hoof-steps, the passing herd dislodged occasional pebbles that tumbled down, softly tinkling in the quiet dawn.

Years passed, and in turn, my husband and I took our sons to the mountains. By then, Blue Ridge, Holiday Hill and Ski Sunrise had been swallowed up by a single entity and morphed into Mountain High. It was a struggle getting the boys ready for the snow and teaching them to ski. I wonder how in the world my mother was able to get four kids prepped and in the car before daybreak, plus fill the thermoses with hot chocolate?

As when my dad brought his kids to the mountains, it’s not all about skiing. We have snow play days: bending bodies into balls to fit onto downhill-racing plastic disks; freezing fingers as gloves become soaked while building snowmen; flinging wet snow during loud and lively snowball fights. We also visit Grassy Hollow, see Smokey Bear, and hike on Lightning Ridge, climbing on stumps and downed logs. Walking on autumn days, we hear crisp leaves crackling underfoot, and appreciate the bright palette of luminous trees and the fragrant green pines. We spend evenings reading books fireside while wrapped in cozy quilts in a knotty pine-shrouded cabin. Camping at Table Mountain provides new memories and inside jokes. Giving back to the mountains during a Boy Scout service project at Haramokngna Indian Cultural Center provides us with a chance to learn about native plants used by the area’s first inhabitants.

This year, two significant events will stay with me always. First, a December drive up the Angeles Crest Highway with my dad, which was to be his last visit to the mountains. Second, with my youngest son and his friend, watching the solar eclipse from the hallowed grounds of the Mount Wilson Observatory. Now the mountains are all of ours – three generations of the mountain bloodline. I’ve passed the torch, successfully instilling the love of the San Gabriel Mountains that my father gave to me on to my children.

About the author

Bryn Barabas Potter is a museum consultant, anthropologist, writer and skier who still lives within view of the San Gabriel Mountains.