Artificial snow saves the day at SoCal mountain resorts

Early December conditions were disappointing at best at all of the mountain resorts in Southern California. Thanks to some natural snow and lots of manmade powder, 2013 is off to a great start at several of them. This photo at Bear Mountain was taken on Jan. 7. (Bear Mountain photo)

By Art Bentley

Back in December, a red Christmas seemed like a distinct threat to the balance sheets of Southern California ski resorts. Only Bear Mountain remained in business, and it was limping at best.

Uncooperative weather forced Snow Summit and Mountain High to halt their lifts after all three resorts had opened before mid-November, amid optimism prompted by the prospect of a profitable Thanksgiving holiday weekend clearly in sight.

Meanwhile, Snow Valley, Mount Baldy and Mount Waterman — the other Southern California ski areas — had yet to sell a lift ticket. (Waterman is the only local area that depends entirely on nature for snow. Consequently, it’s also the only area that remains closed.)

“We’d had three days of snow-making, we were open to the top at Snow Summit, and we had the beginner area open at the bottom,” said Chris Riddle, vice president for marketing for Big Bear Mountain Resorts, which operates Summit and Bear. “Then we had three weeks without one night of snow-making. It was a very strange warm spell.”

Visions of a strong start disappeared along with the Thanksgiving turkey, and the leftovers were disappointing enough to give an accountant heartburn.

Toward the middle of December, cold weather returned, bringing several small snowstorms. Far more important, however, it brought the kind of consistently frigid temperatures that play particularly to the strengths of Snow Summit and Bear Mountain, where huge snow-making systems draw unlimited quantities of water from Big Bear Lake.

Both resorts were in almost full operation by Christmas. At one stretch, Snow Summit, which returned to the lineup Dec. 15, was pumping 7,300 gallons of lake water per minute into its artillery.

“What really sets us apart is our access to that big storage unit down there,” Riddle said recently with a nod in the direction of the lake. “Wells (on which other Southern California resorts must rely for their water) don’t have the same level of recovery that we do. To go from closed to 95 percent open in two weeks without a big storm is unprecedented.”