A change of seasons at Mt. Waterman

In 2006, when La Cañada natives Brien and Rick Metcalf purchased the defunct Mt. Waterman ski resort with friends, they had big dreams of reviving the place they had all come to love as children growing up in the shadows of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Back then, decades after Lynn Newcomb Sr. first opened shop in 1941, snow was plentiful and skiing opportunities were ripe for La Cañada kids seeking winter thrills, Rick Metcalf recalls.

“We’d been up that mountain our whole lives skiing,” says the 1982 La Cañada High School graduate and ski enthusiast. “We just grew up there loving the place. This place is magic.”

Together the brothers worked with business partners and former Spartans Craig Stewart (LCHS class of ’80) and Tico Martinez (’84), as well as friend Robin Offner, to buy the facilities and keep the U.S. Forest Service from tearing down their childhood wonderland.

But sometimes fate, or Mother Nature, seems to conspire against even the purest of dreams. In the six years since Mt. Waterman reopened for business, the owners have had a bit of a bad run, dealing with everything from permitting delays to impassable roads to an unprecedented three seasons of little or no snowfall.

“We didn’t really realize what we were getting into,” Brien Metcalf recalls.

Today, undaunted and ready to embrace the possibility of a new climatic reality, the team has retooled the mountainside yet again. Last weekend, Mt. Waterman celebrated a grand reopening, revealing a new summertime makeover that could continue to serve visitors through another season without snow.

Hikers took advantage of the cooler temperatures afforded by an 8,000-foot altitude, while BMX and mountain bikers hooked front tires to chair lifts to access Waterman’s steep slopes and trail system.

On Sunday, a disc golf tournament showcased the facility’s new 18-hole course, an homage to the world’s first course, opened in La Cañada’s Oak Grove Park (now named Hahamongna Watershed Park) in 1976.

“We’ve been playing disc golf since we were little kids. Now it’s become a huge thing,” Rick Metcalf says of the recreational sport, played like traditional golf but with Frisbees and baskets. “We’re making this a really neat course for people to enjoy.”

The recent renovation is the second overhaul the owners have undertaken since they purchased the property.

It was in that same spirit the team undertook renovating and restoring the facilities after the 2006 purchase. At that time, the area hadn’t been operational for five years and had been neglected by a string of previous owners. Everything — the warming hut, restaurant and three chair lifts — had to be rebuilt, Martinez explains.

“The old owners had let the mountain go completely,” he remembers. “The permits were not updated, and the structure of the mountain was not updated. Everything was done from the ground up.”

After two busy summer seasons, the resort opened for business on Feb. 16, 2008. More than 200 nostalgic locals and fellow powder hounds turned out to ski the slopes and celebrate the mountain’s rebirth during the remaining snowy months.

Business continued through the 2008-09 winter season, with the resort closing just a few weeks early in March due to a decline in snowfall. The owners were looking forward to a strong ski season in 2009, an official end to the challenge and struggle they’d faced.

Life, however, had other plans. In September 2009, the Station fire threatened Mt. Waterman. Crews bulldozed a firebreak to keep the flames away from vulnerable structures.

“(It) almost brought the mountain down completely,” Rick Metcalf says of the fire. “It was literally all around us.”

Although the ski resort was miraculously spared from the Station fire, the business suffered during the winter of 2009-10 as heavy rains streamed down now-denuded hillsides and washed out portions of the Angeles Crest Highway, Waterman’s main access point.

Snowfall in the winter of 2009-10 was robust, but with no way to get to the mountain, ski crowds headed for other destinations. A back route to the resort, by way of Tujunga, opened in March 2010 leaving fewer than 20 operational days in the season.

The owners would get one more snowy winter in 2010-11, before their meteorological luck ran out. With insufficient snowfall, business at Mt. Waterman hit the skids.

“For over 70 years, there had never been more than one bad snow year in a 10-year period, and we had three years — in a row,” Brien Metcalf says of the area’s prolonged snow drought.

“We’ve been closed for so long, it’s kind of out of sight, out of mind.”

Today, the Waterman team is hopeful they’ve found a formula that will keep the magic going throughout summer and beyond, no matter what plans fate, or nature, may have in store.

“For us, it’s going to be really good,” Metcalf says, envisioning a new era. “It’s going to get big, maybe bigger than the winter season. We’re hoping for a good summer going into a good ski season — then let’s put the past behind us.”

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