It's all about character

PERCHED on the edge of the metropolis, between desert and sea, the old Mt. Baldy ski resort looks as if it just tumbled out of a time machine.

The main lift manages to be old, creaky and borderline scary. The trail map nailed to the side of the lodge shows a terrain expansion slated for 1991 that still hasn't happened.

Along another snowless trail sits a pile of junk. In the heap, there are lifts from chairs, lift wires and grooming equipment of prehistoric vintage.

Baldy is not just a ski resort. It's a ski museum.

But fans like Craig Welch, who has been skiing the mountain north of Claremont since 1970, say Baldy has some of the best tree-skiing and expert terrain in the area. And then there are the views. The Rancho Cucamonga resident has clambered to the top of the lift shack on Thunder Mountain for vistas stretching from Victorville to Catalina Island. "You can practically count the boats out there," he says.

Asking skiers or ski hill owners what makes mom-and-pop resorts so special is like asking hard-core environmentalists why a bug or plant should be saved. Snow is snow; a lift is a lift. So often the answer comes down to aesthetics — a diverse world is more interesting than a vanilla one.

Founded in 1944 by a couple of aircraft workers who wanted to ski close to home, Baldy is the last mom-and-pop resort in operation in Southern California. That is, its owners aren't well capitalized, snowmaking is paltry and the skiing doesn't always take place on well-coiffed slopes. "We try to groom some of the major runs on weekends if equipment and personnel cooperate," says Gil Estrada, the director of the Mt. Baldy Ski Patrol.

Most skiers in the region gravitate to three big operations that used to be small but have now joined the network of big resorts: Mountain High in Wrightwood and the sister resorts of Snow Summit and Bear Mountain in Big Bear.

In the meantime, the mom-and-pops have pretty much pooped out (with the exception, perhaps, of Ski Green Valley, in the San Bernardino Mountains, which recently sold and expects to open soon, snowfall willing).

Mt. Waterman, along Angeles Crest Highway in the San Gabriels, probably won't open this year. Its sister resort, Snowcrest, has been damaged by the elements and vandals.

That has left Baldy as the lone relic that is still skiable. It has the most terrain of any of the local resorts, 800 acres, and the most vertical feet, 2,200, which is the equivalent of skiing from the top of Mammoth Mountain to the main lodge. But Baldy has little in the way of snowmaking compared with bigger resorts, though its system has been expanded for this year. In some seasons, more hikers buy lift tickets in the summer than do skiers in the winter.

"People want more and more snow," laments Pete Olson, one of Mt. Baldy's owners, referring to his competitors' prolific snowmaking. "In the old days they didn't expect snow all the time."

Of course, you have to be optimistic to own a ski resort in Southern California, and Olson sees great days ahead.

He just needs $20 million to $30 million to make it happen.


Vying for clients

SINCE 1985 the number of ski resorts in the United States has dropped from 727 to 494, according to the National Ski Areas Assn. That drop has coincided with another phenomenon: the number of people who ski or board in the U.S. has been stagnant for the past two decades, hovering at about 12.5 million.

That means the resorts that have survived are wrestling for the same pool of skiers. In Southern California, the winners have been the resorts that make serious snow.

Last year, Mt. Baldy had about 60,000 visitors, says its owner. Mountain High had more than 500,000.

It's tempting to attribute the decline of the mom-and-pops to the standardization and wussification of America. But the tale is a little more complicated than that. Consider the plight of Baldy's neighbors, Mt. Waterman and Snowcrest.

Like Baldy, Mt. Waterman in the San Gabriels also looks as if it's stuck in the 1950s. It too has some say-your-prayers terrain. In days of old, skiers often picked a line through the trees and schussed down to Angeles Crest Highway, where they would hitch a ride back to the main lift.

Waterman was purchased from its longtime owner by a group of businessmen in 1999. They also plunked down money for the smaller Snowcrest, three miles down the road.

In December 2001, Snowcrest's lodge and some of its lift equipment burned down. The resort was then heavily vandalized. Today the wires are frayed on the old single-seat chairlift. The ticket booth has been scorched by flames. A bird has built a nest in a garbage-filled lift booth. The resort is like a mining ruin in the Sierra. The place is history.

Waterman was limping along until January 2003, when the Santa Ana winds blew into the region and melted what had been a good snowpack. It hasn't been open to the public since. Last winter, Waterman's primary owner died when he skied into a tree while trying to dig out the resort after a storm.

Chuck Ojala, one of the other owners, says the money isn't there to assure that the resort will open this year, and he adds that Waterman is going to need the assurance of snowmaking to survive over the long term.

"Without snowmaking it's a very difficult way to do business, and the sad part of it is that L.A. is not getting any smaller and they're not making any more ski areas," Ojala says.

He still imagines a day when it all comes back together, when skiers can escape the masses on the other hills and test themselves on Waterman's steeps.

"Everyone else advertises no mountain driving," says Ojala, a reference to Mountain High's ad campaign. "I think our slogan should be: 'Real mountain roads, real mountain skiing.' "


Frozen in time

SO the torch falls to Baldy to carry on the rustic tradition.

How out of the ordinary is Baldy?

Visitors must schlep up a steep ramp from the upper parking lot to the ticket booth. In a sign of the times, perhaps, skiers at Beaver Creek in Colorado take an escalator to the lifts, avoiding an uphill slog.

Make no mistake, Olson doesn't want Baldy to remain frozen in time.

The resort's problem is that it's south facing, so it gets the brunt of the winter sun or ices up. The snow it gets sometimes doesn't stick around long. Olson for years has been planning to expand the resort from four lifts to 17 and to open terrain on Baldy's shadier north slope. That would allow skiers to drop 2,000 feet to another base area in the Lytle Creek drainage. He also wants to install a 12-million-gallon reservoir that would allow for the kind of serious snowmaking that his competitors employ.

Where is the money going to come from? He doesn't know.

And all the forest service permits? He's working on it.

The fact that Baldy is going to change — to survive, it must change — is tough for some to swallow.

Welch, the skier from Rancho Cucamonga, comes closest to explaining whatever mystique Baldy still has. "It's not like a resort where there's the employees and the customers," he says. "Everyone at Baldy is family."


Steve Hymon can be reached at