In this sylvan-laced resort community shaken last year by a series of alarming earthquakes, a steady, gradual upheaval of a different sort has been taking place in recent winters.
Long the domain of family-oriented Southern California skiers, Big Bear Lake has become increasingly infiltrated by the snowboarding set, a youngish crowd of adventurous athletes who view the slopes as frozen surf and savor the ski lifts more as a lifestyle than as weekend recreation.
On the slopes at Snow Summit, 20-year skier Diane Cochran has felt the impact of snowboarders as they whoosh by, some exhibiting the grace of Nureyev but others the balance of Gerald Ford in the throes of an inner-ear infection. “It’s like an obstacle course out there,” sighed the Mission Viejo mother of two, who works as a special education teacher.
Once dismissed as a short-lived fad of rebellious surfing and skateboarding dudes, snowboarding--in which participants glide without poles over the snow on a five-foot-long board attached to their feet--has even begun to spread beyond the ranks of testosterone-crazed teen-agers.
“This is more fun and challenging,” said Burbank house painter Jim Crandall, 28, who skied for 15 years before switching to a snowboard. “Every adolescent male is dropping their skis and doing nothing but snowboarding. They zip by me laughing because I look like I’m a snowman, all covered with snow.”
With rapid technological improvement in the quality of boards, which run as much as $500, the sport’s popularity has increased exponentially in the past five years at ski resorts across North America and Western Europe. Nowhere, however, is snowboarding more popular than at Big Bear Lake.
Insiders say the proximity of snow and surf is probably the key factor in the voguishness of snowboarding in a community only a couple hours northeast of the surfing beaches of Orange County.
“Southern California has the highest concentration of snowboarders in the United States, particularly the local mountains,” said Lee Crane, managing editor of Transworld Snowboarding magazine. “People like the idea of being close to both the sea and the mountains.”
Indeed, Crane is a case in point. In a recent article in Blast! magazine, published by the same Oceanside firm, Crane wrote of a one-day adventure in which he and four friends (one of them sporting purple hair) surfed Huntington Beach, snowboarded Bear Mountain, skateboarded at a Moreno Valley park and bungee jumped in Colton.
“In Southern California it’s possible to do anything any day of the week,” wrote Crane. “Surfing, bungee jumping, drive-by shooting, snowboarding--name it and it’s yours.”
At Bear Mountain and Snow Summit, Big Bear’s two major ski resorts, about 65% of those who hit the slopes when they first open in early November are now snowboarders, also known as shredders. The figure drops to 10% to 20% by midwinter--still a sizable amount and increasing each year--when skiers arrive in droves.
“They tend to be a younger group adamant about getting on the snow as soon as we open,” said Brad Wilson, marketing director for Bear Mountain. “They’re the first on the hill and the last off in springtime.”
The Big Bear resorts also serve as the sites of several regional and national championships and the home base of some of the top names in professional snowboarding.
In late February, Bear Mountain will hold the third annual Ocean Pacific WinterSurf Pro championship, a $10,000 event featuring 32 pro snowboarders and surfers. On Feb. 20, competitors will hit the waves in Huntington Beach, and the next day they will glide down the slopes at Bear Mountain.
When snowboarders began traversing popular Big Bear ski runs in large numbers in the late ‘80s, they met with resistance from longtime skiers irked by their flamboyant moves on the slopes, rebellious clothing styles and dearth of traditional ski etiquette.
“It was kind of like the 1960s all over again,” Wilson said. “Snowboarders dress differently, they have different haircuts and they ride on this different-looking board down the hill. To skiers who mostly dress sharply and are more clean-cut, they appeared to be a (bad) element.”
Snowboarders developed an attitude of their own toward their bi-poled counterparts.
“Skiing,” Crane said, “is an old-fashioned kind of elitist sort of dead culture compared to snowboarding. Honestly, skiing is becoming more like golf now. It’s what old people do.”
Yet in a world torn asunder by feuds between competing interest groups, the conflict between skiers and snowboarders appears to have begun easing at Big Bear Lake.
Without question, scads of skiers continue to regard snowboarders as hazards on the hill, but as the sport gains strength, many skiers view the upstarts with heightened respect.
“They used to be out of control, wild and crazy, but they aren’t anymore,” said 30-year skier Jim Meyer, as he strode toward the lifts at Bear Mountain on a crisp morning recently.
“The sport is maturing with better equipment and lessons,” said Meyer, 47, a sales manager for an aerospace firm in Redondo Beach. “I’ve even thought about trying it myself.”
Others, including Meyer’s ski buddy, Terry Glover, 45, continue to give snowboarding the cold shoulder. Glover, a division manager of a South Bay aerospace firm, said he trembles at the thought of a collision with an errant snowboarder.
“I have a vision it’s like getting hit by a surfboard. And I don’t want to test it.”
Glover, a 25-year skier from Rolling Hills Estates, is among the ranks of skiers who call for a sort of apartheid in pole-land, contending that snowboarders should be confined to separate trails.
Lee Rogers, director of snowboarding at Snow Summit, said one longstanding problem between skiers and snowboarders has been in many cases unintentional. Without education, surfers who take up snowboarding are unprepared for the rules of the road on ski slopes, he said.
“At Huntington Beach, the first guy on a wave owns the wave,” he said. “Alpine skiing has a different etiquette--just because they’re the fastest going down the hill doesn’t mean they have the right of way.”
Although snowboarders are free to mingle with skiers on any trail at both Big Bear resorts, separate runs have been carved out to cater to the growing snowboard trade, which has boosted business in recent years when downhill ski receipts went flat.
The special slope at Bear Mountain is called the Outlaw Snowboard Park and features a large wall of snow known as a half-pipe, similar to those found in skateboard parks. Snow Summit has also built a half-pipe near the top of its slopes.
“We try to attract (snowboarders) but try to segregate them a little from the skiers who don’t like them,” said Greg Ralph, marketing director for Snow Summit.
Conversely, another ski area one mountain range to the west is seeking to counter the popularity of snowboarding at Big Bear with a reverse strategy--banning all snowboarders from its slopes.
“We had allowed snowboards for the last few years and we really didn’t have too many problems,” said Mark Ward, general manager of Ski Sunrise near Wrightwood. "(But) our main clientele is families.
“Since snowboarders didn’t really fit into what our target market was, we’re just trying to expand our target market.”
At Bear Mountain, the impact of snowboarding is felt on the mountains and beyond. At the resort’s ski shop, sales clerk Brian Almarez sees hooded flannel shirts and baggy black pants fly out the door faster than natty neon-colored ski wear. “You don’t see too many snowboarders out there who aren’t making a fashion statement,” Almarez, 16, said.
Downtown at Chad’s Place, bartender Wally Thompson has taken to cringing when snowboarders hit the dance floor. “They start slam dancing when others are trying to dance sedately,” he said. “When that happens, I have to eject them.”
Elsewhere in Big Bear Lake, Snow Summit officials have come up with a novel way to deal with the lingering friction between snowboarders and skiers. These days they distribute a cartoon-laden etiquette guide aimed at the snowboarding set.
Titled “Read This or Die,” the brochure, written in lingo targeted at independent-minded teen-agers, gives such advice as: “The faster skier or boarder has to avoid the skier below. This holds true until we get eyes in the back of our heads.”
Rules of the Slopes
At Snow Summit, an etiquette guide featuring cartoons and lingo geared to independent-minded teen-agers is distributed to new snowboarders. Here is an excerpt.