Spring skiing in Southern California usually means sliding over something roughly the consistency of a cherry Slurpee, waiting in line for the lone operating chairlift and getting your skis dinged by patches of bare, rocky ground.
But this year is different: There's snow.
In the month of February alone, more snow piled up on this mountain than in the past three seasons combined. Barring snow-melting rains or snowstorms with the poor timing to close roads on weekends, resort operators and local officials say Big Bear is looking at a banner season.
Ski resort owners plan on staying open well into April, maybe May. Hotels and cabins are requiring two-night stays on weekends. Last weekend, Snow Summit Mountain Resort, which restricts ticket sales to keep chairlift lines manageable, opened every run and sold all 15,000 tickets.
For local merchants, it might as well have been money that fell from the sky.
While cooking for a capacity lunch crowd on a recent afternoon, Jayme Nordine, owner of Grizzly Manor restaurant, said the snow will mean his family gets a vacation.
"Last year was terrible. There wasn't much snow," Nordine said. "But snow means we get to take a break. Snow like this means we're going to Europe next year."
But there is one group (other than those shoveling their own driveways) that suffered this season.
"The snow-makers were laid off early and didn't work as much," said Genevieve Paquet, communications director for Snow Summit.
Nature took care of the snow-making duties, so far dumping 14 feet of snow this season--12 of them during February.
Paquet and other Summit employees were among the first on their slopes after the latest storms.
"We were playing all over the mountain, and this has nothing to do with public relations--I just couldn't believe how awesome it was," she said. "One of our phone operators, a non-skier, was asking why the phone lines were so crazy and I told her, 'You have to understand, we just don't see this kind of snow here.' "
Freeze-dried by unusually cold temperatures, the snowflakes came down with the lightness of champagne bubbles. Thus, in the lexicon of skiers, champagne powder--the kind of snow that acts as a featherbed for falls, punctuates a showy turn with a white plume, and at the suggestion of a breeze, billows from pine trees as if someone shook a snow-scene globe.
"It's like driving through Colorado. This isn't
anything like you usually see in Southern California," said Bruce Lella, organizer for an American Snowboard Tour event and a Mammoth native.
The last time Big Bear saw this much snow was in 1991, the year of what locals call the "March miracle," when four feet of snow fell in a 24-hour period, saving mountain resorts teetering on the edge of early closures.
And many residents say it has been two decades since they saw this quality of snow.
"Pretty much everyone is just stoked," said Paul Smith, who has lived in Lake Arrowhead for most of his 21 years. "People keep saying, 'I can't believe I'm in Southern California.' "
Still, the scene at Bear Mountain Ski Resort last weekend looked like the set of a California beach movie--with flocking.
Hundreds of snowboards were propped near the outdoor patio like surfboards in the sand. Bartenders in Hawaiian print shirts buried beer bottles in ice. The sun reflecting off the snow had plenty of people stripping down to short-sleeved T-shirts and passing the SPF-15 suntan lotion.
Daniel West, 47, was among the throng sipping cold beers under clear blue skies. A construction supervisor and first-time skier, West had headed to Big Bear with his family because the ground in the Mission Valley area of San Diego County was still so saturated that his crew couldn't work.
"Water falling from the sky frozen sure leaves something easier to deal with," he said, toasting the glistening mountain in front of him. The outdoor deck where West sat was level with the start of the ski slope--an eight-step stairway buried under a huge snowdrift. A nearby snowboard bore the homemade sticker "Peter Rabbitt's Gonna Ski Powder '98."
Although it felt warm in the sun, temperatures in the low 50s did not threaten to melt the snow.
"Sun takes a while to damage the snow. We should be fine for at least a month, as long as it doesn't rain," said Cherie Scott, marketing coordinator for Big Bear Lake Resort Assn. "Just, please, no rain."
The same Feb. 23 storm that sent flood waters swirling and muddy hillsides sliding along the coast brought Big Bear the biggest windfall of snow, dropping more than two feet overnight. A high, cold front of air carried by the storm guaranteed snow instead of rain when it hit the mountains.
The storm closed the main road to Big Bear for three days because of rockslides and "because so much snow was coming down that the plows just couldn't keep up," said Roger LaVoire, a California Highway Patrol officer in Lake Arrowhead.
There are three roads to Big Bear. More than half of all visitors use California 330 from San Bernardino, according to the CHP. Highway 38 through Redlands, which comes up the other side of the mountain, sees less traffic, but is more prone to icy conditions. The easiest driving is California 18 through the High Desert, with only seven miles of mountain driving, but the last stretch is almost straight up. The ski report hotlines at local resorts offer daily updates of road conditions.
Distance has little to do with driving time when you're dealing with mountain roads, said LaVoire, noting that although California 330 is the most direct route, a Sunday commute down the mountain after a busy weekend can take two hours. The delays and dangers are more often caused by drivers unfamiliar with mountain driving than by road conditions, he said.
"Southern Californians can't drive in rain, and now you're putting them on snow. Sometimes we have them backed up for two to three miles," LaVoire said. "And we're strict about chains. Even if you're coming up on a beautiful Saturday, carry chains because a storm is liable to surprise you on Sunday."
The majority of accidents, LaVoire said, involve motorists in sport utility vehicles because drivers mistakenly believe that if they have four-wheel drive they don't need snow chains. He suggested that visitors buy snow chains before coming to the mountain--$39 chains cost $78 in Big Bear.
LaVoire predicted heavy traffic in the coming weeks, using what he said was an infallible indicator: Snow-capped mountains visible across Southern California.
"If it's a clear weekend down there and people can see the snow on the mountains, we know they're coming. No question about it," he said.