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Ski industry pioneer Richard Kun, who saved Snow Summit, dies at 76

Ski industry pioneer Richard Kun, who saved Snow Summit, dies at 76
Richard Kun at Snow Summit, his family ski resort 100 miles east of Los Angeles. (Courtesy Tim LeRoy)

When Mother Nature failed to deliver snow to the often-arid mountains above San Bernardino, Richard "Dick" Kun did. The innovative ski resort operator found ways to power water up the hill, turn it into snow and, in the end, rescue and grow an industry that always seemed to struggle against the California sun.

Kun, former chief executive officer of Snow Summit Ski Corp. and a pioneer in outdoor recreation, died Nov. 27 at his home in Big Bear Lake after a lengthy battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 76.

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His dream was to become a university history professor. But with his stepfather's death in 1964, Kun returned from his studies at the University of Colorado to help his mother, Jo, run the family ski resort 100 miles east of Los Angeles.

Realizing that the business was too reliant on natural snow, he received permission to draw water from Big Bear Lake, built his own power plant, and eventually coated the slopes in white without a flake falling from the sky.

Richard Kun, at his house in Palm Springs this summer, wanted to be a professor, but the "total intellect" ended up changing the ski industry
Richard Kun, at his house in Palm Springs this summer, wanted to be a professor, but the "total intellect" ended up changing the ski industry (Tim Cohee)

Under his stewardship, Snow Summit — once a single mile-long chair — grew and grew, taking advantage of sunny weather and proximity to Los Angeles.

"Dick just went into Southern California, in this mild and sunny climate, and created a reliable and consistent product for millions of people," said friend and former colleague Tim Cohee, who now runs China Peak Mountain Resort near Fresno. "They were way ahead of everybody."

Cohee described his friend of 37 years as a "total intellect who wanted nothing to do with the ski business," until the family tragedy in 1964 required him to step in. Kun had arrived home for a visit when he learned that his stepfather, Tommi Tyndall, had just died after the bulldozer he was driving flipped during a rainstorm.

"Dick probably would've been a Ph.D.," Cohee said.

But the ski business drew Kun in, and he ended up rebuilding an industry.

To attract young customers and expand the sport, Kun introduced industry-changing terrain parks and established lift-served summer biking operations, now standard at resorts nationwide. Advanced reservations and lift-ticket limitations were also some of his innovations.

In 2002, Snow Summit bought out its neighbor and biggest rival, Big Bear Resorts. The two resorts are 2 miles apart, overlooking Big Bear Lake.

After the merger, skiers got joint-use of the two ski hills, which offered 440 skiable acres and 23 lifts. The operation would grow to attract almost 1 million winter visitors annually, ranking it among the top 15 nationally.

The company announced in June 2013 that it had hired an international banking firm to look for buyers. In September 2014, the operators of Mammoth Mountain acquired the resorts in a $38-million deal.

Kun is survived by his wife, Jennifer, whom he met at Snow Summit; his son Alex, 31, and daughter, Dominique, 30.

A public memorial is set for 3 p.m. Dec. 17 at the Convention Center in Big Bear Lake.

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Twitter: @erskinetimes

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