Southland Ski Season Is in Need of a Lift


This is the middle of the alleged winter season, when the local ski slopes should be packed, restaurants jammed and the local cabins and condos filled with folks from down below, strutting in their new Christmas parkas.

But . . .

The owner of Big Bear Sporting Goods says he is renting more fishing poles than skis, and the Boulder Bay Marina is staying open to rent boats on a lake that normally is skimmed with ice by now.

The manager of LeRoy’s Ski Shop says business is down 70%, and the woman who runs Big Bear Reservations Service estimates that her rental business is down 75%.


At Big Bear Bikes, owner Greg Rawaka says that nobody is renting his snowshoes and cross-country skis--but that his mountain bike business is approaching summer levels. “It’s a good thing I’m diversified,” he said with a laugh. “I can handle blizzard--or drought.”

And the relatively few skiers who are flying down the local slopes--some in T-shirts and tank tops--say they’re enjoying the last laugh--because there is man-made snow on some of the ski runs up here and they’re having the time of their lives.

In stark contrast to the snowstorms that have hamstrung the Eastern seaboard, this is turning into the winter-that-wasn’t for Southern California’s local mountains.

This should be peak season up here, with jammed highways and lines for chairlifts. But day-trippers and overnighters are staying away in such numbers that some new mom-and-pop businesses that figured on the winter trade to get them through the rest of the year may not survive. Even City Hall is starting to readjust its anticipated income figures, because sales tax and overnight occupancy tax revenue is expected to drop significantly.

And no wonder. With record temperatures hitting the upper 80s last week in the lowlands of Southern California, and because there aren’t any postcard-perfect snowcapped peaks in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains, snow bunnies are trading skis for roller-blades and giving ski resorts the cold shoulder.

“If a skier looks out his window and looks up at the mountains and just sees brown, he’s not going to be in a winter mood,” conceded Cliff Sowler, owner of Big Bear Sporting Goods. “But there is snow up here.”


The caveat is that the snow is man-made--and only on the ski slopes, where the kids can’t ride snow pans and make snowmen and throw snowballs.

Only about 10 inches of snow has fallen here so far this winter--a storm that dropped about eight inches on Dec. 23 and a couple of smaller snowfalls since then. Save some sorry patches of white in the deepest shadows, that snow has melted.

As a result, and because conditions were not right in November to make man-made snow, the two ski resorts in town posted their latest openings on record--the week before Christmas--and only then by running their snow-making machines day and night.

Snow Summit officials estimate they lost $1 million in revenue they had anticipated for November, including the traditionally lucrative, four-day Thanksgiving weekend. Bear Mountain ski resort was similarly affected.

And both resorts say their January business is down between 40% and 50% of normal. Many skiers apparently are heading instead for Mammoth Mountain--where more than seven feet of snow has fallen so far.

“Some skiing aficionados are committed, are coming here and are having a great time, but we’re not seeing the casual skiers,” said Bill Jensen, general manager of Bear Mountain.


Already this month, he said, his ski resort has lost more than half a million dollars in anticipated revenue.

“When it’s 85 and clear in Southern California, people have a lot of recreational options,” he said. “But my attitude is, we’re just one storm away from good business.”

Ironically, the Santa Ana winds that brought warm temperatures to Southern California last week were good news for the ski resorts. The dry and cold night air has allowed them to make more snow, by forcing Big Bear Lake water through high-pressure nozzles so it crystallizes.

The huge drop in traditional winter business has been a boon for those skiers who have come here.

“The skiing is just great and there are no crowds. It doesn’t get any better than this,” said Jeff Kraus of Laguna Niguel, an electrical contractor who told his friends he was working on a job in Riverside last week and instead sneaked up to Snow Summit with his ski equipment.

Studio musician Gary Halopoff of Corona brought his wife and two young children to slide down the slopes--after putting their jackets back in their car. “This is why we live in Southern California,” he said. “We had the choice of going to the beach or skiing.”


But not enough people are choosing the slopes over the surf, to hear local business people tell it.

Neither City Hall nor the Chamber of Commerce has current figures on the downturn in out-of-town visitors--and the loss of their money. But one economic development report suggests that of the city’s estimated $100 million in annual retail sales, nearly half is attributable to out-of-town dollars.

Normally the town accommodates up to 11,000 overnighters in rental lodging--more even than the year-round population of 8,000--and up to 10,000 or so day-trippers.

That figure is assumed to have been cut by more than half, given the head counts provided by the two in-town ski resorts and the loss of visitors who otherwise would have come here to enjoy the snow but don’t ski.

“This time of year, we normally are booked every day of the week,” said Mary Allen, who with her husband, Mike, owns Cozy Hollow Lodge. But on Friday going into this three-day weekend, they dropped their normal three-night minimum to two nights and were counting on drive-by traffic, versus reservations, to fill the units.

“This [weather] is part of the ups and downs of the resort business, and you hang on with your teeth,” she said.


Local residents say they feel bittersweet about this year’s lack of snow. They miss the beauty of a winter wonderland, they say--but don’t miss the higher utility bills, the snow chains and the shoveling.

One sporting goods store clerk said what he missed most was the personality of his winter customers.

“I have more fun working during the ski season,” said Chris Neale. “People who rent skis are more interesting than people who buy worms.”


Big Bear Snowfall

The dry and warm fall and winter have produced the least snowfall in years at Big Bear Lake. This chart shows the amount of snow that fell there from October through December, compared to the same period in previous years.

1990: 13.1”

1991: 31.3”

1992: 36.5”

1993: 18”

1994: 29”

1995: 10”

Source: WeatherData, Inc. for 1990 through 1994, and local estimates for 1995.