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New Ownership Giving Mountain High a Makeover

The pre-Christmas chaos is finally over, and thus the eastward and upward migration has begun. Thousands of skiers and boarders are expected to hit the slopes this week.

For local resort operators, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is a momentous one, not merely because of the profits but for the impression they hope to make.

With this in mind, Karl Kapuscinski, general manager of Mountain High, asks only that skiers judge the Wrightwood resort on this year’s experience, not last year’s.

“It became stagnant,” Kapuscinski says of the old Mountain High. “There was a constant change in personnel and in management--all the signs of a company heading the wrong way.”

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The new Mountain High, as it is being called by the marketing staff, is under new ownership with a history of reviving distressed businesses. Kapuscinski came aboard last year to help bring about the sale in June from Terry Tognazzini to Oaktree Capital Management in New York, which has given the 33-year-old executive the run of the place in hopes that he will turn it into the biggest and most popular ski resort this side of Mammoth Mountain.

“Mountain High is closer [about 80 minutes from downtown Los Angeles, requiring very little mountain driving] and has more raw potential than any other resort in Southern California,” Kapuscinski says.

The potential is certainly there, but it is as raw as can be. For the resort to even come close to realizing its potential and having a chance at stealing the lion’s share of the Los Angeles market, which is currently claimed by the Big Bear Lakes resorts, it will have to connect Mountain High West and Mountain High East, which means developing a vast portion of U.S. Forest Service land called Sawmill Canyon.

Mountain High and Holiday Hill, a quarter-mile or so apart, became one resort under Tognazzini, but skiers still have to either walk or take a shuttle from one to the other if they want to ski both. Most settle on one or the other, which, in essence, makes Mountain High seem like two small resorts rather than one sizable one, with a combined 230 acres of skiable terrain.

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Kapuscinski says he hopes to break ground on the project to connect the two in 1999 and that when the Mountain High East and West are connected, it will increase the skiable acreage by about 50%.

But it will take some doing, what with environmental impact studies and public hearings to determine the amount of support for and opposition to such an endeavor.

“It’s all part of what we call a master development plan,” says Shawn Lawler, a recreation officer who specializes in special-use issues with the Forest Service’s Valyermo District. “So far, all we’ve received is a letter of intent from them indicating that hey’d like to start the process.”

Still, Kapuscinski is so optimistic that he has already hired an engineering firm to design trails and lifts linking the East and West facilities.

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“That would make us the largest resort, with no argument, until you get to Mammoth,” he says.

Asked about the limited hotel and motel space in Wrightwood--about 500 beds compared to more than twice that in the Big Bear area--Kapuscinski says he is counting on growth within the town as the ski resort grows, and on Mountain High’s close proximity to make it the skier’s choice in the years to come.

Meanwhile, nearly $2 million has been spent on improvements since the sale, foremost among which has been enhancing the snow-making capabilities, which helped Mountain High become the first Southern California resort to open this season. Buildings have been renovated, parking lots have been repaved and food service has been upgraded.

“First, there are no more microwaves,” says John McColly, marketing manager at the resort. “Before you could only get a cold sandwich or a microwaved burrito. Now you can get lasagna, hot pastrami sandwiches and pizza.... We have seven different venues, including the upscale Grand View Bistro, which is opening Christmas Day.”

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Great stuff, Kapuscinski acknowledges, but equally important are the intangibles.

“We have daily guest-service training meetings,” he says. “When I got here, we had two full-time employees. We now have 800 and between 50-100 a day are going through some kind of training on different subjects. We’re trying to take the hassle out of skiing.”

FOR OPENERS . . . Big Air Green Valley, a 40-acre facility near Lake Arrowhead and the Southland’s sole snowboard-only facility, will open today on a 12- to 18-inch base of all natural snow.

General Manager Dave Wilson said there isn’t enough snow yet to build all the jumps, banks and rails that make up a snowboard park, “but we have all this wonderful snow on our slopes and we didn’t want it to go to waste.”

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Details: (909) 867-2338.


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