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Poles apart? Jump the gap

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Wrightwood, Calif. — THE sun sparkled off a 4-inch layer of fresh powder as I lugged my skis and poles to the lifts at Mountain High Ski Resort. The mountain buzzed with snowboarders who launched off boxes and rails, like stones skipping off the surface of a lake.

Just as I stepped from the crowded sun deck and felt the fresh snow crunch under my boots, a voice from behind called, "Look honey, a skier!"

It was a grinning, thirtysomething snowboarder and, yes, he was talking about me, the two-planker who had yet to jump on the snowboarding bandwagon. I — and many like me — am part of a vanishing breed, and we don't need to be reminded that we're at the bottom of the food chain. The signs are clear.

Even in a season with sub-par snow levels, you can look at Mountain High's slopes and see that snowboarders outnumber skiers 4 to 1. In 20 years, the sport has become a juggernaut, not only capturing the slopes but also establishing a style all its own, a style that reflects life both off and on the mountain.

And that's why I came here. Spring is just around the corner, but thanks to late-season snow, the white stuff's still here, and the question remains: Can a two-planker find happiness among the jibs and the rails?

Flailing but no yellingFLYING over a sharp drop on the last 25 yards of the Cruiser run at Mountain High, I had lost control. I crested over the top of a knoll too fast, lost my balance and careened toward a group of unsuspecting snowboarders sitting at the bottom of the hill.

I came to Mountain High half-expecting to be ridiculed and treated like an uptight parent at an underground rave. Despite easy access to millions of snow-loving customers, resorts like Mountain High struggled in the 1990s as baby boomers wrote off skiing in favor of more sedate pastimes, such as hiking and bird-watching.

Lift lines shrank, parking lots emptied and ski instructors sat idle, recalling better days. Between 1990 and 2005, the number of skiers dropped nationally from a little more than 11 million to slightly fewer than 7 million.

But just as skiing cooled off, snowboarding began to sizzle, propelled by the Winter X Games and hip, fearless boarders like Shaun White, the rail-thin redhead known as the Flying Tomato. It is the prospect of flying — and being part of a sport more renegade and radical in its dress, attitude and posture than skiing — that today brings more than 7-million rail-skipping enthusiasts to the slopes with their boards.

Only one problem for resorts: Snowboarders tend to be teenagers with little loose change. But they do hit the slopes more often than skiers and are less particular about the conditions. What started as a meager season turned white last week with a hefty dollop of powder.

So all resort owners have to do is keep snowboarders coming back. They do this by improving snow-making capacity, opening the slopes at night, hosting snowboarding contests and sponsoring after-hours parties and concerts at the lodges. All of which has transformed life on the mountain.

At the end of the sun deck at Mountain High, near the Blue Ridge Express chairlift, stands a 20-foot-high outdoor screen, a white sheet of plywood, bolted to a couple of columns, that at night comes alive with skiing and skateboarding flicks. At the base of that lift, management installed a laser projector for an outdoor light show.

But what about the downhill skier, I asked resort spokesman John McColly. What do you have for me?

What he has is a separate resort less than a mile away. The East Resort, as it's called, has long runs and moguls, ideal for downhill skiers, McColly says. (Mountain High also operates a North Resort with 70 acres of tubing and beginner terrain for families.)

So the idea is to segregate skiers from snowboarders into separate but equal facilities, right? Not quite. Last year, Mountain High spent $2 million on improvements but mostly to benefit snowboarders at the West Resort. The improvements included new Internet access at the lodge, an expanded sun deck, a new patio bar, barbecue, fire pit, a stage for outdoor concerts and an expanded snow-making system.

The sun deck at Mountain High looks out on a snowboarding park called the Playground, nearly half the size of a football field, festooned with steel rails, jumps and boxes. Inside the lodge, a single-story stucco building with Formica folding tables, the food was classic teenage fare: burgers, burritos and steak sandwiches. A high school cafeteria — with ski resort prices.

On the Playground, snowboarders exploded off rails and jumps under a bright, midday sun. Gracefully executed jumps and spins brought the same raucous reaction from the crowd as a painful face plant. A DJ under a portable shelter blasted a bone-rattling backbeat that reverberated throughout the slopes.

After lunch, I skied in and around the jumps, boxes and rails that adorned the runs, expecting any minute to be ridiculed and driven off as a heretic in snowboarding's holy land. But it never happened. No one cut me off. No one cursed me. No one flipped me off. I skied unmolested for several hours, zipping in and out among the snowboarders, and then I took my final descent too fast and cartwheeled into a pair of unsuspecting snowboarders. Here it comes, I thought.

"Sorry, my fault," I said after the ugly collision. I struggled to untangle my skis from my poles.

"No problem, bro," said one of the snowboarders as his friend gently lifted me and aimed me toward the lift.

Dinosaurs on the slopesIT was another blue-sky December morning, and I was again tumbling out of control down the slopes, this time strapped to a snowboard at Bear Mountain on the outskirts of Big Bear Lake.

It was my first time on a snowboard, but I was not the only newbie on the mountain. I was one of a handful of dinosaurs, skiers older than 40, enrolled in a snowboarding class. The prospect of flying like a tomato must be gaining appeal among bird watchers and hikers.

The night before my crash course, I checked into the Block at Big Bear, a 52-room inn in downtown Big Bear Lake promoted as "the world's first snowboarding hotel." It opened in 2005, just after the Block at Lake Tahoe celebrated its grand opening.

The hotels are the brainchild of professional snowboarder Marc Frank Montoya and his brother-in-law, Las Vegas hotelier Liko Smith. Before it became the Block at Big Bear, the building was a modest, family-run inn, resembling a Travelodge. The transition wasn't difficult. Montoya and Smith threw black paint on the outside, put PlayStation 2 game systems in each room, added high-speed Internet, installed a pool table in the front lobby and decorated the rooms with loud colors and snowboarding designs.

In the parking lot, outdoor speakers blared uncensored rap music. Guests of legal drinking age are offered free beer (two cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon per guest), popcorn and DVD movies, including a selection of porn flicks.

No continental breakfast here. You wake up to free energy drinks and power bars.

The most expensive rooms at the hotel, Signature Suites, from $149 and $169 a night, are decorated to promote corporate sponsors, such as a wireless phone provider and a sunglasses manufacturer.

The extra cost gets you a bigger room, but it means you have to sleep under a giant "Boost Mobile" insignia.

I checked into the suite sponsored by DVS, the San Francisco sneaker company. I opened the door to a bright red, white and black room, a 56-inch, flat-screen television, a DVD player, a glove and boot drier, a California king bed and small metal locker. The room was sparse and cold. No drawers, no desk, no hair dryer, no mini fridge and no coffee maker.

I took comfort in my free beer.

That chilly breeze I felt came from an inch-wide gap under the room's front door. The manager told me a new door was recently installed but was not fitted properly. Why a new door was needed, I didn't ask, but the next morning I met two guests who said the door to their room looked as though it had been kicked in. (Must have something to do with the Pabst.)

A few days later, I called Smith, who said he and Montoya wanted the Block to be loud and edgy to appeal to young, fun-loving snowboarders. That's why they offer one of the cheapest beers on the market, Smith said. It all goes to that rebellious vibe.

When I suggested that even the Flying Tomato would appreciate a few traditional hotel comforts, like a hot cup of coffee and a muffin in the morning, Smith was ready for me. "When you offer power bars and energy drinks, what you are saying to the hard-core rider is, 'This is for you,' " he said.

Smith is so sure his formula will work that he plans to open five more snowboarding hotels near ski resorts such as Mammoth, Breckenridge, Colo., and Rossland, Canada.

With a rocking Black Eyed Peas tune blaring from Bear Mountain's outdoor speakers, I reported the next morning to the Learning Zone, a wide, gradual slope, for my snowboarding lessons.

Once you learn to descend the hill in an upright position, Bear Mountain offers lessons, called Introduction to Park, that teach you how to fly off the jumps and rails. But I was not ready for jumps and rails. Nor were the other students. Each time I tumbled to the snow, wondering what I did wrong to end up flat on my back again, I turned to see another first-time snowboarder — a graying skier like myself — come crashing down in a snow-churning heap.

After hours of executing flawless face plants under the supervision of an instructor, I hurt from neck to tailbone. What I really needed now was another can of Pabst.


hugo.martin@latimes.com*

(INFOBOX BELOW)

Planning this trip

MOUNTAIN HIGHCost: $49 to $59, all-day adult lift tickets

Where: 24510 California 2, Wrightwood; (888) 754-7878, http://www.mthigh.com

Eats: Avoid the $7 lodge burgers and stop by nearby Cinnamon's Bakery & Sandwich Shoppe, 1350 State Highway 2. Sandwich and drink, $6.

Where to stay: Mountain View Motel & Cabins, 1054 California 2, Wrightwood. $69 per person, with lift ticket. (760) 249-3553, http://www.mtviewcabin.com

BEAR MOUNTAIN Cost: $49 to $62, all-day adult lift tickets

Where: 43101 Goldmine Drive, Big Bear Lake; (909) 866-5766, http://www.bearmountain.com

Eats: Log Cabin Restaurant, 39976 Big Bear Blvd., Big Bear Lake.

Where to stay: The Block at Big Bear, 39471 Big Bear Blvd., Big Bear Lake. $169 per night. (909) 866-6570, http://www.theblockatbigbear.com

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