Ski, snowboard season ramps up

By Art Bentley

The 2012-13 ski and snowboard season has begun in Southern California. Barely.

Snow Summit and Bear Mountain, which share ownership at Big Bear Lake, and Mountain High West near Wrightwood are selling lift tickets at sharp discounts, reflecting operations that are severely limited by mild temperatures after the cold snap two weeks ago that enabled them to make enough snow to open a couple of runs apiece.

The result is not extensive, but diehard skiers and snowboarders have long displayed a readiness often bordering on masochism to drive heroic distances at the drop of a man-made snowflake in the local hills to relieve the long withdrawal between spring and late fall.

They don’t demand a lot, just enough space on a surface of reasonable slickness to permit the fast turns that restore meaning to life.

In a perfect world, rocks would be buried sufficiently to prevent damage to expensive equipment — but, hey, we’re sliding again, right? Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Of course, such insouciance is far more prevalent in the snowboarding fraternity, many of whose members, judging by the frequency with which they venture off trail when snow is sparse, appear to be convinced that rocks rock. Skiers, on the other hand, are far more likely to suffer deep psychic wounds at the grinding sounds and sensations that occur when steel edges encounter boulders concealed by a veneer of white.

So is the product worth the drive, the fuel and the reduced ticket prices? The answer depends, of course, on the degree of one’s desperation to get back on skis or snowboard. If you choose to go and don’t mind a lack of variety, you’ll have fun.

Yes, temperatures are forecast to flirt with the 60-degree mark over the weekend and into next week. At this time of year, however, the snow holds up surprisingly well on warm days because the angle of sunlight is low. Be prepared for a firm surface early that will soften as the day progresses.

Yet to work their way into the lineup are Snow Valley near Running Springs, Mount Baldy above Upland, and Mount Waterman on the Angeles Crest Highway some 35 miles from La Canada, the only local ski area that depends entirely on nature for snow. When all the resorts are in full operation, Southern California is blessed with an assortment of choices exceeded in convenience only by Salt Lake City among large urban areas in ski country.

Many Southern Californians can drive from their homes to snowy slopes in appreciably less than an hour. Denver denizens can’t do that. Nor can San Francisco Bay area bombers. Yet an astounding number of skiers continue to snub the resorts they can almost reach out and touch. “Too crowded” is the most frequent baseless complaint. Consequently, they miss days like April 14, a Saturday, when only Snow Summit, the Southern California market leader, remained open.

A storm that day and the night before had dumped about 20 inches of February-quality powder. Yet the road to Big Bear Lake was almost deserted. Powder hounds who chose not to bay — and they were obviously legion — missed the best day of the season.

The first run that day was down the Wall, which tilts about 35 degrees at the top before easing to 30 or so. The snow was light and untracked, the turns were effortless, and the flotation brought to mind a morning with similar conditions at Snowbird, Utah, a few years before.

Each of the local resorts has its own distinguishing traits. Snow Summit offers the greatest variety. Bear Mountain is deservedly the favorite of snowboarders. Mountain High East, with a consistent pitch for its entire vertical drop of 1,600 feet, is the cruising capital of the Southland.

Snow Valley has the best beginner terrain and a parking lot big enough to accommodate Delaware. Baldy, with several descents in the 40-degree range, shines in powder. The face of Mount Waterman is pitted with enough acne, known less clinically as moguls, to please the most jaded bump maniac.

All in all, the local choices, even when limited as they are now, never fail to beat not skiing by a wide margin.

Art Bentley can be reached via email.