An hour after the snow began to fall, Doris Leung and Harrison Choi were still wandering through the Crystal Lake campground in disbelief. "I can't imagine words to describe it," said Leung, scooping up some snow and poking at it with one finger, as if it had been delivered to her from a distant planet.
The two Hong Kong-born college students from Monterey Park, neither of whom had seen snow before, tussled on the ground, pitching armfuls of it at each other, then traipsed into the woods in San Gabriel Canyon, north of Azusa. What would they do now? "Everything," said Choi triumphantly. "Build a snowman."
Rangers Kept Busy
The moist air that on Tuesday brought drizzle and low clouds to Los Angeles transformed the upper reaches of the San Gabriel Mountains into a traditional Christmas-card scene. Great billowing curtains of snow blew across the higher elevations of the Angeles National Forest, including San Gabriel Canyon, dusting the bristly chaparral vegetation with white and turning craggy hillsides into seemingly gentle slopes.
By 3 p.m., about six inches had fallen on the Crystal Lake Recreation Area, and snow was still coming down hard.
But as snowy vistas, many of them barely an hour's drive from downtown Los Angeles, were introducing scores of newcomers to traditional winter scenes, U.S. Forest Service authorities were girding up for the difficulties that arise when neophytes confront potentially hazardous conditions.
"We've got quite a history of people not recognizing the dangers of icy snow up there and losing their footing," said Don Stikkers, supervising ranger of the national forest's Mt. Baldy District.
Most recently, on Dec. 20, 19-year-old Michael Macumber lost his footing in snow near the Mt. Wilson Observatory, pitching 1,000 feet down an ice chute. The Pasadena City College student came fortuitously to rest against a tree, with nothing but a bruised knee, according to Sheriff's Deputy William Linnemeyer.
It could have been a lot worse, authorities say. Falling down an ice chute is one of the leading causes of death in the forest, said Stikkers, who estimated that 30 to 40 snow-related or ice-related accidents occur there every year.
The problem is that snow, particularly on the northern slopes, acquires an icy sheen after it partially melts and then refreezes. "There's nothing you can do about it," Stikkers said. "Anything short of having an ice ax and crampons (metal spikes that mountain climbers affix to the soles of their shoes), and you won't stop until you hit something at the bottom."
He advised forest visitors to avoid steep, snow-covered areas and to heed signs warning of possible avalanches. "When there are accumulations of heavy snow, the slope can only hold so much before it releases it," Stikkers said.
One such area is in Manker Flat, near the Mt. Baldy ski area.
A spokesman for the Walnut sheriff's substation said there were no records of the total numbers of winter rescues in the forest. He said the sheriff's rescue team was most frequently called in after ice-chute incidents, automobile accidents in which cars left the road and plunged into the canyon, or situations where visitors became lost in the forest or succumbed to exposure.
Underestimate the Chill
Forest Service officials say that visitors from urban areas often arrive above the snow line inadequately dressed, sometimes wearing nothing but T-shirts and shorts. "People don't realize that when they climb to those elevations, temperatures are a lot lower," Stikkers said. "Also, there are winds that you don't get in the valleys. All kinds of clothes that are appropriate for down here (in the San Gabriel Valley) aren't appropriate up there."
Snow showers seemed to prompt a sense of adolescent high spirits among most visitors to the forest Tuesday. They threw snowballs at each other, slid down slopes on cardboard sheets, and shoveled snow onto the roofs of their cars. Why? "So when we go back down, everybody will see the snow," said Alex Lugo of Monrovia, who used a garden spade to pile snow onto the roof of his 4-by-4 pick-up truck.
Many said that they were there pursuing the myth of a white Christmas. "It's not really Christmas unless you have snow," said Ralph Napoleon, a UCLA computer programmer, who brought his wife and two children to the Crystal Lake campground.
Though it was his first experience with snow, Guatemalan-born Eddie del Aguila came prepared. He was wearing two jackets and three pairs of pants, he said, standing in a turnoff next to Highway 39. "I've been waiting for this," he said, letting the snow accumulate on his head and shoulders and spreading his arms luxuriously. "It makes me feel happy."
For some, the snow was a new experience even though they lived close to the forest. "I've lived in Azusa all my life," said Jean Sepulveda, who had brought her two children up the canyon. "But this is the first time I've ever been in snow while it was falling."
The snow also brings traffic jams and rowdies, said Dave Denis, manager of the Crystal Lake campground. "On the weekend, you'll get maybe 10,000 cars coming up the canyon, trying to cram into maybe 200 parking spots," said Denis, a private concessionaire who leases the campground from the U. S. government.
Forest Service officials say that 4,000 cars going into San Gabriel Canyon in a day is enough to bring traffic to a halt.
Denis said that visitors with four-wheel-drive vehicles were often inspired by the snow to leave the roads and plow through the campground. "If you allow one to do it, they're all going to want to do it," he said. "Some of these people are just oblivious to all the children around here."