Ski, hike and surf: It’s all in a California day

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

It was a slow Saturday shift at the office, and outside it was sunny and clear. To the north, the peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains jutted gloriously. And here I sat, bored, in my air-conditioned office building, wishing myself in those mountains or at the beach. Or maybe both.As a native Angeleno, I’ve bragged to East Coast friends that in Southern California, nature may give us fires and earthquakes, but it has also blessed us with the ability to enjoy mountains, desert and ocean all in one day.

That odd triathlon seemed to be the implied promise in KCAL nightly news anchor Jerry Dunphy’s famed opener: “From the desert to the sea to all of Southern California, a good evening.”

But I’d never tried to tackle the snow, desert and ocean in one day, nor had any of my friends. So I wondered, with millions of people crammed into the L.A. Basin and millions more expected, was it still possible?

I was determined to find out.

I planned the trip with one ground rule: I would experience each activity fully. An hour, minimum, at each.

I knew traffic would be an issue, so I left my West Hollywood home at 6 a.m.

Within seconds after I got into the car, the traffic report said the northbound Interstate 15 was closed near Victorville because of a fatal accident. Traffic was backed up to Bear Valley. Of course, the only freeway in all of L.A. County that was blocked was the one I needed.

At only 6:05 a.m., I was thumbing my Thomas Guide. Where is Bear Valley? How do I get around it?I decided to stick to my plan and hope for the best: take the 101 south to the 10 east to the 15 north, then backtrack west along the 2 to Mountain High, in the eastern San Gabriel Mountains. Mostly, I didn’t want to waste time figuring out a better route.

I got lucky. I was on the 15 by 7 a.m., only six minutes after the California Highway Patrol reopened all lanes. Traffic was smooth and flowing.

Two hours after my departure, I pulled into Mountain High, which touts itself as the closest major ski resort to Los Angeles. I parked less than 100 feet from the nearest lift. This was going to be a piece of cake.

The slopes above looked treacherous with a thin layer of icy snow worn brown in patches. The sun was rising from behind the peaks, the temperature was in the low 50s and it would only get hotter. I decided to ski in a T-shirt. I got on my first lift about 9 a.m., 30 minutes after the resort’s opening. Climbing higher on the lift, I felt the wind bite into me and regretted my cockiness

Headwall, an ultra-tough black diamond run, was not too icy, and it was empty. It was mine for the rest of the morning. A brief detour to Silver Springs, however, proved a bad idea. It was rocky, dirty, and precipitously icy.

“What are you up to?” a chair-lift operator asked.

“Skiing, hiking and surfing all in one day,” I said. “You know, living the California dream.”

“The California dream? The California dream is snowboarding, skateboarding and surfing,” he said, whooping. “I did that.” I felt reaffirmed.

Even with a snowfall of 124 inches, 100 inches more than last year, this was far from ideal skiing. But it was skiing. In March. In Southern California.

I got in 10 long runs by 11:30 a.m. And I was taking my time. At this rate, I’d be done with everything before sunset. I couldn’t understand why more people didn’t do this.

The plan was to get over to a High Desert hike next, then hit up some food during a rush-hour drive to the beach.

The two-lane Pearblossom Highway traces the southwestern end of the Mojave Desert, a landscape studded with Joshua trees and creosote bush interrupted occasionally by the blue waters of the California aqueduct. Postcard stuff, but not practical. For years it was known as Blood Alley because of the head-on collisions. I tested the name, zipping over to face oncoming cars to get past trailers and trucks ambling at desert tortoise pace.

Traffic finally picked up about 20 minutes later when I got on the Antelope Valley Freeway. I was hungry and had hoped for a Subway or In-N-Out for lunch but had no luck as I scanned the small scattering of fast-food signs along the way.

I continued on, driving about nine miles past my exit into Canyon Country. And there it was. Dependable as always. A gigantic rotated yellow check mark rose to the left of the freeway and pointed me toward the exit. In-N-Out. The apotheosis of California fast-food and car culture.

About 1 p.m. I got my food. Per tradition, I wolfed down my animal-style burger and fries in the parking lot. Next to me I saw others driving in and doing the same. Nearly 30% of Americans eat food in their cars at least once a week, according to Kelton Research, an L.A.-based market research firm. It was 1:19 p.m. when I pulled into the Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park, the smell of beef and oil wafting out of my car and clashing with the smell of fresh sage. The rock formations were the product of the California treatment: earthquakes, floods and wind. The result is a series of hogback ridges of sandstone and conglomerate that we’ve adapted to our purposes: a cool backdrop to “Star Trek,” “The Flintstones,” “Bonanza” and scores of other films and TV shows.

I was eager to get climbing but kept a polite distance from the bouquets of yellow, blue and red, recent blooms of goldenbush, blue dick, bladderpod and yucca that dotted the valley. Newly diagnosed with allergies, I’d forgotten to take my antihistamine. But going back to the car would waste at least 30 minutes. So I ignored the tightening feeling at the bottom of my throat and hiked on.

We made our way to the main rock formation, which rises a tempting 150 feet from the ground.

It’s a quick trip to the top, though not without some measure of strategy. Choose the wrong path up and you’ll be isolated on a piece of sandstone by a canal too wide to hop and a vertical climb too steep to grapple.

I chose carefully. I hopped over small crevasses, leaning a hand down here and there for balance, and forced myself to go slowly along the edges. At the top was a rounded knob of rock that provided a good makeshift seat. As I leaned back, the wind pushed me forward and I got a dizzying view of the 945-acre park surrounded by a scattering of houses, strategically positioned along its perimeter. Below, a red car, which appeared smaller than my pinkie, circled around the main rock. I felt on top of the world.By the time I made my crab-like descent and got back to my car, it was 3:26 p.m. I had about 3 1/2 hours to sunset. I was ready to hit the road. The plan was the usual jumble of numbers: the southbound 14 to the 5, to the 405 to the 10 west before merging onto the 1 north. I knew I had plenty of time on paper, but I also knew I would be hitting L.A. right at rush hour. The 405, also called the parking lot, had been so named for a reason.

This next stretch was the real test.

Traffic was good until about 3:45 p.m., when I hit the 405 as it snakes through the Sepulveda Pass. Northbound traffic was worse. Shortly before 4 p.m. I heard reports on the radio that there was an explosion near LAX. All traffic was getting rerouted from La Tijera and Sepulveda boulevards. (Later I found out that an exploded manhole cover had killed an L.A. firefighter).

Before me was a river of red tail lights. Short bursts of 20 mph moments were elating, and I just prayed traffic would let up soon. I constantly maneuvered around in my seat craning my neck around SUVs, to see what the hold up was. It was sweltering.

But I stuck it out again. The 10 west was smooth sailing and I was way ahead of schedule. I had only Pacific Coast Highway to travel before I was at my final destination. And that was usually not too crammed during the week. Or so I thought.

As I merged onto PCH traveling north, I caught my first glance of the ocean. Fog wisped off the water’s surface; above, clouds moved like fingers.Traffic went from 40 mph to 20 to 5 mph to a dead stop about 4:32 p.m. at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and PCH. The speed radar sign mocked me as I inched by.

At 5:27 p.m. I finally saw the culprit. It was not regular rush hour but an overturned big rig that was blocking the first lane of the northbound PCH, pushing traffic into a single lane.

It had taken an hour to go less than eight miles. I could have run it faster.

At 5:31 p.m., I pulled into the parking lot of Malibu Surf Shack, 30 minutes ahead of schedule and about an hour and a half before sunset. Surfing? All I had to do was get on a board and ride it back to shore.

Late confession: I don’t know how to get on a board and ride it back to shore. That’s where Bobby Rivero and Nick Roberts come in.

My two surf instructors were stereotypical dudes. Rivero is an attentive and helpful guy who has surfed for about five years, and Roberts is a gangly and silly surfer guy who has been riding waves for about 16 years.

They issued me a wetsuit and showed me to a small dressing room. The wetsuit was damp and difficult to put on. I gripped the clammy neoprene and pulled hard, starting to break a sweat as the suit slipped between my fingers time and again. I didn’t have the energy for this. After much effort, I had it on, but something felt wrong. The zipper was nearly choking me as I yanked it upward.

“Um,” I said falteringly, “Is the zipper supposed to be in front?”

I had put it on backward.

At about 6:15 p.m. I finally got out onto the beach for my lesson.

I learned quickly that I should have surfed first. I was fatigued. Paddling around the water, I looked up toward the darkening horizon and begged the sun to set.

I maneuvered myself in front of a wave and with what little effort I could muster, caught the wave, improvised a push up-to-standing stance, wobbled around for a few seconds and then flopped off the board like a New England flounder. Five times I did this. And in between, wave after wave, I was dunked, I was rolled, I lost hold of my board.

But the last thing I was going to do was leave the beach without a full ride out. I was committed to dying there on that board, on that beach. I wasn’t about to foul up on a technicality.

I paddled hard, focused beach-ward and told myself I’d catch this wave. Up I went, positioning myself fast. I was shaky but standing, swaying toward the beach. Behind me the dudes whooped their congratulations.

At 7 p.m. on the sandbar of Malibu’s famed Surfrider Beach, I had surfed my first full California wave as the sun dipped over the horizon. Hmm. . . . Wasn’t it, like, 30 degrees in New York right now? Losers.

By 7:35 p.m. I was done. My feet were blanched and numb. My left leg had cramped multiple times and was still convulsing. By the time I packed up and drove home, rotating my toes over the heating vents, it was about 9 p.m.

I had done it. But had I enjoyed it? I had a sore left calf and an odd contusion on my upper left shoulder blade, probably from banging into a rock one of the times I had fallen off the board.

I burned about three-quarters of my 14.5-gallon gas tank: At about $3.65 per gallon it had cost me about $40 to drive roughly 235 miles. I had spent five hours, or a third of my day, driving.

But when I got home and thought back on my day, what I remembered most was that perfect first run down the slope with the sun on my back, the thrill of standing atop the main rock and the joy of riding out my first SoCal wave at sunset. Most important, I knew that if I wanted to, I could do it all again tomorrow.

For most of us living in Southern California, these archetypal images -- that sunny Rose Bowl in winter, those powder-filled mountains in March -- anesthetize us to the horrors of driving in an L.A. drizzle and allow us to rationalize the devilish bargain we have each made to enjoy life here.

So, it’s true, sort of. You can ski, hike and surf in one day. But you will suffer. And you’ll find it’s the madness in between that really defines our lives here.