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Rebirth of a pioneer gives skiers a lift

The Mt. Waterman Ski Patrol never really went away. Although the lifts stopped running five years ago, its members stayed in touch and trained together. With the passion that unites this mountain's skiers, they kept updating their website with new photos, ready to post the news that it was reopening to skiing.

Grand plans came and went. Thirty miles above La Cañada Flintridge in the Angeles National Forest, the chairlifts remained frozen in place.

"There were times when it was an act of faith to believe it would come back," said long-time ski patrol member Saul Traiger, 53, of Los Angeles.

But come back, it did.

The Mt. Waterman Ski Resort, a vintage throwback to the early days of California skiing, reopened under sunny skies Saturday.

More than 200 slope veterans and curious newcomers flocked to this small, 115-acre ski area known for engendering loyalty bordering on cult status among those who skied its slopes. One of California's oldest ski resorts, it was founded in 1939 by the Newcomb family and run by Lynn Newcomb until 1999, when it was sold to new owners, who closed it and then resold it again.

The new owners, a group of La Cañada natives and longtime Mt. Waterman skiers, rushed to get it open in time for Presidents Day weekend, a peak time for ski areas.

The news traveled largely by word of mouth, bringing tanned, T-shirted young snowboarders, veteran downhillers and families to test the snow.

"It's a big deal for us. It's the local mountain," said Mike Galvin, 32, as he stood in the tiny parking lot off Highway 2. A native of nearby Pasadena, he said he prepared for opening day by checking out slopes the last two weekends, carrying his snowboard as he hiked a mile uphill on snowshoes.

"This place is sort of spiritual for all of us," Galvin said. "To be in the city of Los Angeles and then come up here and be away from all of that -- your forget about everything you do back at home."

The ski patrol came back as well.

With a certain incredulity mixed with boisterousness, red-jacketed patrol members stood watch at the patrol's old wooden "Bump Shack" at the top of Chair 2, two emergency toboggans at the ready, as skiers and snowboarders slid down the ramp and sped for the slopes.

What kept the ski patrol going, they said, was their love of the mountain. Next to Mammoth Mountain and Tahoe resorts, it is minuscule -- just three chair lifts, all run by diesel power.

Trails wind through tall pines that muffle the sound. The noisy hubbub of larger, more crowded ski areas is missing here.

"It's still a very natural alpine mountain. It's not a freeway," said veteran patrol member Keith Tatsukawa, 47.

Some details remain unfinished.

Most trails still lack the traditional blue, green and black signs indicating the difficulty of the slopes, although a staff member said the signs should be added next week.

Only two of the three chairlifts were running Saturday, and the kitchen at the top of Chair 1 was not yet open.

So the area hired caterers who grilled the obligatory burgers and chili cheese dogs for a lineup of hungry skiers who washed down the food with Gatorade.

"It's kind of a grass-roots opening," said Tom Moriarty, a longtime Mt. Waterman employee who helped with the planning.

"We will not have ski or snowboard rentals at this time. The focus has been to get the lifts up to code."

That required months of work and negotiating a labyrinth of paperwork, the owners said. A spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land where the ski area operates, said Friday that it has the necessary permits.

Mt. Waterman lacks the snow-making equipment that has become a staple of its competitors in the mild Southern California climate. The mountain does have an advantage, however; it faces north, allowing it to largely avoid the melting rays of direct sun.

The new ownership is spearheaded by Rick Metcalf, 43, of Del Mar, who grew up in La Cañada and later became a real estate developer in San Diego.

"The first place I ever skied was Mt. Waterman," Metcalf said. When the owners who bought the ski facility from Newcomb decided to get out of the business, Metcalf decided to get into it, with his brother, Brian and three other La Cañada friends.

"The best part is, this mountain is not going to get torn down. Newcomb's vision is going to stay alive. It's a beautiful mountain," Metcalf said.

His sister, Beth Metcalf, 39, of San Diego, said she heard kudos from numerous skiers when she staffed the lift-ticket sales booth on Saturday.

"A lot of people said, 'I'm so glad you're back; we're so glad you're open.' It was fantastic," she said.

Some old patrons have been monitoring the blogs, waiting for news that the mountain was back ("See you on the hill!" read the bulletin on the ski patrol's website, www.mtwatermanpatrol.org.

Among those who came to ride the chairlift Saturday was Lynn Newcomb, now 87. At lunchtime, he was holding court at a picnic table outside the warming hut, telling stories to a writer for a national magazine while old friends came by to congratulate him.

Amid well-heeled skiers in gleaming orange and yellow plastic footwear, he wore jeans, a windbreaker and old-time dark brown Sorel boots.

He recalled how he and his father built what reportedly was California's first chairlift in 1942.

When he rode another chairlift with Metcalf on Saturday, he said, he didn't pay attention to the panoramic scenery. Instead, he studied the lift.

"I looked at every piece of it. All the wheels, all the towers," he said. "It looked good. They've been working on it. It was in bad shape when they took it over."

Small, family-run ski areas like Mt. Waterman are becoming a rarity, as corporate ownership becomes more common, said Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Assn. in San Francisco.

He believes there remains a place for small, more intimate ski areas, but added that Mt. Waterman's lack of snow-making equipment could pose a challenge.

Those on the slopes on Saturday said they would be back.

John Lisiewicz, 36, of West Los Angeles, tried out the trails Saturday on snowshoes with his wife, Kathy, 30 years after he learned to ski there.

"I certainly think they deserve to be successful. I would hope they'll be able to market it," he said.

Darius Jatulis, 43, of Oak Park, helped his 6-year-old son, Romas, build snowmen near the catering area.

He said his family skis so frequently at far-off Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, more than five hours north of Los Angeles, that when they left for Mt. Waterman Saturday morning, Romas presumed they would be staying overnight.

"It took us 1 1/2 hours. It felt bizarre," said Jatulis. "But my cellphone and Blackberry don't work here. This feels like wilderness, like it's off the grid."

deborah.schoch@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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