Mt. Waterman Crowded Out

The sky was a mixture of gray and blue, the snow was a little soft but there was plenty of it, and that was enough for Kevin Sheehan, whose only concern was the crowd.

"You sort of have to pick your spots and work your way around all the people," he said after taking a run down the back side of Chair 3.

Then he chuckled, looked around and said, "This is weird."

Weird? It was almost eerie to gaze up the slopes at Mt. Waterman and see that there is no crowd. Sheehan, a longtime Waterman regular, was joking. The ski runs, covered nicely enough with four to six feet of snow, were almost deserted.

There were only 10 others sharing the mountain with Sheehan on Monday morning, and by day's end only 30 people had bought lift tickets. It has been that way most of the season at this historic little ski area on Angeles Crest Highway above La Canada-Flintridge. And business hasn't been much better on weekends.

What's weird about all this is that Mt. Waterman, a 150-acre facility with 21 trails, offers some pretty good skiing, arguably better than nearby Snowcrest--which is also struggling--and even better than Ski Sunrise, which is enjoying a decent year, in large part because of its proximity to Mountain High, the closest thing in the area to an actual resort.

The glistening white face at Mt. Waterman is both inviting--it's clearly visible to passersby on the highway--and challenging, one of several black-diamond runs on a mountain with 60% of its terrain for advanced skiers.

Above Chair 1, there is a sprawling plateau flanked by a snowy amphitheater, with Chair 2 running up one side, servicing beginner and intermediate trails, and Chair 3, topping out at 8,030 feet, running up the other, taking skiers to mostly intermediate runs.

And while mountain officials prefer not to talk about it, there are a series of double, perhaps triple, black-diamond chutes dropping from Mt. Waterman's boundary, eventually dumping skiers onto the highway, where they hitch a ride back to the ski area.

The staff cannot and does not endorse this type of activity, of course, but the practice does go on and, in fact, without these skiers the lifts at Mt. Waterman would be even more deserted.

At this rate, one cannot help but wonder how long Mt. Waterman--and the handful of other small-scale resorts scattered throughout the San Gabriels and San Bernardinos, for that matter--will be able to stay in business.

One of the oldest ski resorts in Southern California--it opened in 1939 and offered the Southland's first chairlift in 1942-- Mt. Waterman used to get by quite nicely with only a little help from Mother Nature and a faithful following of skiers who needed only a ride up the mountain and a few basic amenities to keep them coming back.

"I remember the days when we used to get about 1,000 skiers a day," recalled Tom Moriarty, general manager at the facility.

Sheehan, 31, who lives and works in the small community of Chilao just below the resort and skis there almost every day, remains one of a loyal few.

"I grew up here, and I've been skiing here for almost 23 years," he said. "I've only been to [nearby] Mountain High once, night skiing. I've been to Big Bear twice and Mammoth. . . . Mammoth is the big trip. But this is where my heart is."

Others aren't as faithful. They want high-speed quads to get them up the slopes faster. They want spacious lodges in which to rest their weary bones, and quality service and fancy food in those lodges. They want full-scale snowboard parks and runs that are groomed on a nightly basis.

Realizing this, Mountain High upgraded its Wrightwood facilities significantly before the start of this season and skiers responded accordingly: The mountain recently surpassed the 300,000 skier-visit mark.

Mt. Waterman has no creature comforts, only a small warming hut and rental facility. Its skier-visit tally is closer to 3,000 than 300,000, which is a lot better than the previous two seasons, when the mountain--because of a lack of snow and no snow-making capability--was open a total of 10 days.

"Our busiest day this year was about 450 people right after the big storm [last month]," he said. "It's been pretty consistent at about 400 on weekends since then, but we're getting nobody on weekdays."

It comes as no surprise, then, that Mt. Waterman, owned by Lynn Newcomb, who helped his father build the ski area 60 years ago, is for sale.

Meanwhile, Moriarty is trying to salvage what remains of the El Nino season of 1997-98. First, he lowered lift-ticket prices from $32 to $25. Then he started a $10 Wednesday promotion. More recently, he built a miniature snowboard park.

"The snowboarders are starting to show, and that's helping a lot," Moriarty said.

Perhaps not enough.

This week, Moriarty said he was going to lower prices to $10 for students during spring break.

"For college students or all students?" he was asked.

"Any student," he said. "I don't care. All they have to do is show a student ID of some kind."

"From when to when," he was asked.

"I don't know, all of April I guess," he said. "We've got nothing to lose at this point. We'd just like to see some people up here."

Apparently so. Moriarty thought about it a little longer and said why wait till April and why limit it to students. "The $10 Wednesdays are working, so we're going to offer $10 lift tickets to anyone all of next week [Monday through Friday]," he said.

With prices like these, Sheehan might find himself dealing with an actual crowd.

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