Majestic Mt. Baldy’s Treachery Betrayed With Two Deaths In Four Days

By Mark Gutglueck
Icy windswept Mt. Baldy claimed two lives in less than a week early this month, adding to the mountain’s reputation as one of the most treacherous recreational areas in Southern California.
On February 2, Daniel Nguyen, 23, was walking along the Devil’s Backbone Trail around 7 a.m. with a friend when his companion slipped. Nguyen tried pulling his friend to safety but as he did so, he himself slipped off the trail and down the mountainside, with fatal consequences.
Four days later, Dong Xing Liu, 47 of Temple City, was hiking with his wife at a level much further down the mountain in the Icehouse Saddle area when both slipped on the icy terrain below their feet. Liu’s wife suffered a broken arm but Liu succumbed to his injuries, which included severe head trauma.
The U.S. Forest Service shut down the Icehouse Saddle hiking trail following Liu’s death.
Liu and his wife were not the only ones to have underestimated the risk and unforgiving nature of Mr. San Antonio, which is the official name for the mountain colloquially referred to as Mt. Baldy. On both February 5 and February 6, 23 people were flown out of the mountain area around Mt. Baldy by the sheriff’s department’s helicopter, with twelve of those – either injured or stranded hikers – being airlifted from situations in which they faced possible death.
Scaling to the top of 10,064 Mt. Baldy is a rite of passage for dedicated hikers in Southern California. And for two-thirds of the year, doing so presents no special problems to those in shape to make the trek. But during the winter and the first month of spring, conditions on the mountain become extremely trying. When snow falls it will lay on the ground and harden or crunchify at night when the temperatures typically drop to 14 degrees or so. But as is common with most Southern California Mountains, during sunny days, the temperature will zoom to somewhere around 66 degrees, causing the surface snow and ice to melt, only to freeze again at night. This makes for extremely slippery footing in many areas of the mountain.
Mt. Baldy’s terrain, or portions thereof, presents further complications. During warmer months this lay of the land makes for an inherently engaging trek. In the winter months, the icy conditions, the unsure footing, the dramatic drop-offs along the trail and atmospheric conditions can prove a deadly combination.
The crown of Mt. San Antonio – its peak – is pyramid shaped, with a steep south face known as the Baldy Bowl and a shallower north face. The summit is accessible via a number of connecting ridges along hiking trails from the north, east, south and southwest.
Some more spirited sorts don’t utilize man-made trails but rather storm up the south-facing side of the mountain by blazing a path of their own or climbing along the trails of the indigenous big horn sheep that inhabit the area. Others with less sheer climbing and staying power opt to take a more circuitous or longer route up either the Ice House Trail or along the fire service road that will eventually lead to the Notch, where the ski lodge is located. Others less energetic still will take the ski lift from the parking lot right up to the lodge and begin their hike from that point.
The route from the notch to the peak includes taking a trail that at first parallels some of the ski runs and which. after the farthest extremes of the ski runs are exceeded, includes crossing what is referred to as the Devil’s Backbone or the Devil’s Backbone Ridge, which begins some 1.3 miles from the Mt Baldy Notch.
Easily the most remarkable element of the Mt. Baldy trail, the Devil’s Backbone consists of a rocky ridge that runs seven-tenths of a mile in a westerly direction from the Notch. A portion of that ridge lies atop a gradually descending slope on one or both sides. Along one stretch of Devil’s Backbone, the drop-off on one or both sides is very precipitous. Under dry conditions in the late spring, summer and fall, a hiker who fell from that portion of the trial would most likely be able arrest his descent after a few yards and, with some effort, climb back up. In the winter, however, with both the top of the ridge and its sides coated with ice, even the strongest or the most skilled of climbers would be hard pressed stop his downward slide and, having done so, climb the steep icy grade back to the top of the ridge. It was at one of these spots where last week Nguyen lost his life.
To make matters worse, the winds are very strong in that area, gusting at times to 100 miles per hour. Indeed, the life expectancy of a hiker traversing the devil’s backbone in the winter, with the ground below his feet iced over and the howling wind buffeting him from unpredictable angles, is a fraction – and a minute fraction at that – of the life expectancy of the general population.
Modern day, serious, experienced and seasoned hikers who brave the climb to the peak of Mt. Baldy in the winter come outfitted properly with warm – i.e., woolen – clothes; broken-in hiking boots onto the bottoms of which are affixed crampons, traction devices with metal teeth that dig into the iced surface to prevent slippage; and an ice pick; not to mention communication devices such as a cell phone that can be used to summon help in an emergency. Nevertheless, no laws prohibit inexperienced individuals from foolishly braving the mountain in an unequipped state.
The mountain can be unforgiving to even the most experienced of adventurers.
In early December 2010, two weeks before the onset of winter, Michelle Yu, 49 of Venice, described by those who knew her as an experienced mountaineer who trained and hiked regularly on Mt. Baldy, perished when she fell during a hike and tumbled down a steep precipice into the rugged, ice-covered area known as the Fish Fork drainage northwest of Mt. Baldy summit. Her exposure to the elements over the course of the night, when temperatures dropped to below 20 degrees, contributed to her death.
Other hikers met their fate on Mt. Baldy as well.
60-year-old Dominic Belletti of Long Beach was hiking alone in the Mt. Baldy Bowl area in January 2013 when he fell to his death.
The mountain has proven fatal to dozens of hikers over the years. It is no kinder to skiers and snowboarders. Mt. Baldy is known as a challenging ski resort. Though it does have one “baby run,” novices are discouraged from skiing there.
And it is no typical skiing venue, but is rather considered a backcountry locale., which bills itself as a backcountry skiing blog, provides a ski descent rating system for the world’s most challenging skiing settings, rating the runs they have for both difficulty and risk.
Three of Mt. Baldy’s runs are listed high up on those rating schemes.
Zeke’s Chute at Mt. Baldy rates a D9 on the rating card, with this notation: “Slopes probably around 45 degrees. Crux sections are short.”
Dostie’s Dare at Mt. Baldy is pegged at D11 on the difficulty scale. “Slopes probably around 45 degrees, moderate amount of complicating terrain features,” the website states.
The site also references the ironically-named “Girly Man Chute at Mt. Baldy with this notation: “Steepest section probably around 50 degrees, moderate or no terrain obstacles.”
While those are difficulty ratings which are ostensibly unrelated to risk ratings, Mt. Baldy ski runs are notoriously risky. The proximity of the runs to trees, rocks and boulders along with the steepness of their grades give skiers little margin for error. Additionally, because there is oftentimes sparse snowfall at Mt. Baldy and Mt. Baldy does not have a water reserve for snowmaking, skiers are from time to time presented with a rock patch they must jump. Any miscalculations or failures to execute can result in very untoward consequences.
Precise numbers are not available but anecdotal accounts are that there have been more than 20 deaths of skiers on and off the slopes at Mt. Baldy since 1975.
Upland resident Todd McDonagh is a long time snowboarder who is intimately familiar with Mt. Baldy, having practically lived there when he was a very young man. “I worked in the rental shop there in the 1980s, so that was like home base to us,” he said.
McDonagh acknowledged there is danger up on the mountain.
“The road you take to get there is itself dangerous,” McDonagh said. “There are switchbacks in the area leading up to what they call Pinball Alley, the last part of the road before you get to the parking lot. It snows and the road gets icy. It’s a steep road. The lifts are old. When you get to the notch, it’s usually windy. When the winds kick in, it will blow the loose snow right off the side of the mountain. That right there will ruffle your feathers if you don’t have thick skin and aren’t use to it. You have pretty steep runs there and that is obviously dangerous.”
McDonagh continued, “Chair Four is primarily known as a run for snow boarders. There is a natural half pipe on that run. Usually, it is open only on the weekends. Chair Three is the main run. I can tell you it is a wonderful run. Every run on Baldy is excellent.”
McDonagh called the atmospheric conditions that created the fatal danger for the hikers on February 2 and February 6 “magical.” He said the snow that was in place following the weather system that came into the local area at the tail end of January created ideal conditions at the Gold Ridge, Twilight, Big Butch and Robbins runs. “The thing about Mt. Baldy is it is a little more backwoods than other places,” McDonagh said. “If you want to ride a mountain that is mostly flat with a lot more people on the lifts, then go to Mt. High. The bottom line is Mt. Baldy is the steepest mountain in Southern California.”
McDonagh said he is personally aware of people having died there “going back all the way to 1986, but I’m sure that happens on every mountain. There is no mountain better than Mt. Baldy. The terrain gives you an opportunity for it to be more dangerous, but you don’t have to go down a run if you don’t want to.”

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