Snow Valley, once a haven for experts, now caters to a different crowd

While not the resort it once was, Snow Valley still has much to offer – especially if you’re a beginner or intermediate skier. (Snow Valley photo)

By Art Bentley

The slogan on the cover of the trail map at the Snow Valley ski area near Running Springs reads, “More than you realize.” Management, which runs the resort for an absentee owner who lives in Wisconsin, could have added, “Though less than you may recall.”

A skier with a good memory who last visited the resort in the early to mid-1990s would have good reason today to be a bit perplexed. Back then, the resort operated 13 chairlifts, including two, a triple and a double, that scaled its signature expert hill, Slide Peak, where snowmaking equipment was installed at about the same time.

Slide, the incline of which ranges from 30 to 35 degrees on about 400 to 500 vertical feet, is the feature that makes Snow Valley entertaining for skiers and snowboarders who like steep, bumpy terrain. When it’s closed, as it has been for most of this season, Snow Valley appeals primarily to those of marginal to limited ability or who enjoy the obstacles of the freestyle park.

Two decades ago, an equally precipitate run on the western flank of the area plunged beneath chair 5 to a parking lot that seems big enough to swallow Rhode Island. Chair 7 climbed a slope that has since been incorporated into the freestyle area. Chairs 4 and 10 were thriving.

Today, chairs 4 and 10 (one of the two Slide Peak lifts), though still on the trailmap, have been idle for years. Chair 7 was yanked out of the ground and sold.

Worst of all, the snowmaking equipment on Slide Peak has been out of service for so long that resuscitation would require major investment, which the current volume of business cannot justify. And the bottom-most tower supporting the cable of the chair 5 lift was removed years ago in a hare-brained scheme to create an area for snow play, which was subsequently transplanted a few hundred yards east.

Although missing from the trail map, the remains of the lift can be seen just south of the parking lot.Frames of seat-less chairs still dangle from the cable. Today, the contraption, like chairs 10 and 4, serves as a source of spare parts. Were chair 5 ever to run again – and it might when snowshoe hares fly – it would need a new tower as well as a drive motor.

The pity is that chair 5 served an area as enjoyable as Slide Peak, especially in deep snow. The territory is remote and back-country-like. But because Snow Valley over the past two decades has also shrunk the amount of terrain it’s willing to maintain and patrol, this zone, although technically within the ski-area boundaries shown on the trail map, is considered out of bounds.

The steep run beneath chair 5 is especially conspicuous after a big storm because of all the tracks left by powder hounds, who don’t bother about technicalities in such circumstances. They know they won’t lose their lift tickets for skiing it, as they assuredly will if caught beyond the eastern boundary, which is considered absolute and is flanked by a deep canyon. Reaching that steep run, however, requires a hike.

So today, a resort that once catered far more to expert skiers, operates primarily and unabashedly as a haven for the novice to low-intermediate set, profitably exploiting the most extensive real estate in Southern California for teaching beginners how to slide with as little risk as possible to life and limb on slopes tilted just enough to induce motion. In this mission, it’s a substantial success, which, after all, is the foremost objective of any business.

Therefore, do not malign it if you remember it as it was. Instead, pick a powder day – taking care, of course, to ascertain in advance that Slide Peak is open – and come prepared to spend a few hours in the steep and deep. You’ll be rewarded, especially if you’re 70 or older. A day ticket, even a season pass, is yours free of charge if you can prove your claim of having observed (or ignored, your choice) that many birthdays.