Southern California residents reveled in a late taste of winter Saturday as an Arctic storm brought sporadic hail and snow to the foothills, prompting spontaneous snowball-flinging, driveway-sledding and snowman-building.
In many areas, snow munchkins was more like it, as sculptors could muster only enough of the white stuff to fashion creatures a few inches tall.
The storm defied National Weather Service expectations that the snow level could dip as low as 1,000 feet in the Southland. But foothill residents at just above 2,000 feet watched as snow piled up on roofs and decks.
As predicted, rain was modest, with downtown Los Angeles recording only a trace by evening. Temperatures, though nippy, were in no danger of breaking records.
“That’s the story of this winter,” said William Patzert, a meteorologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge. “In contrast with last winter, when rainfall exceeded expectations, this winter these storms have been a big disappointment in terms of rainfall.”
Blustery winds kicked up throughout the day. Hail, some of it the size of hazelnuts, bounced on roads and sidewalks across wide swaths of the region. It turned to snow in La Crescenta and La Canada Flintridge. Snow showered Tujunga too, providing enough material to craft snow dogs (as opposed to snowmen) but not to obscure lawns.
Throughout the day, the sun popped out often from behind puffy gray clouds, quickly changing the meteorological mood.
By midafternoon, Patzert said, the storm appeared to have passed through much of the region, having deposited 1.3 inches into his Sierra Madre rain gauge. Some areas, he said, could expect a few lingering showers overnight, with lows of about 39 degrees. He predicted sunshine and “fantastic clouds” today.
Patzert, who reported late-afternoon hail at 1,500 feet in the foothills where he lives, summarized the storm this way: “City slickers shiver, skiers stoked, storm quietly slips out of town.”
Before it did, however, Southern California residents exulted in the effects of La Nina, a condition caused by lower-than-normal ocean surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific. Rendered frisky by the bracing conditions, residents raided closets for seldom-used winter gear, donning parkas, hooded sweatshirts, beanies and gloves.
On Canyonside Road in La Crescenta, Andrew Huitink, 19, and Agustin Ogando, 18, looked up from their video game to see snow falling steadily outside the window. They raced outside in T-shirts, still holding the steaming egg burritos that Huitink’s mother, Trina Escartin, had made for them.
“Dude, this is snow. Look how it melts in your hand,” Ogando said. “This is some bodacious snow.”
Nearby, Matt Bracht, 10, sat on a garbage-can lid to sled down his steep driveway on Manzanita Street. The 1/4 -inch dusting allowed him to build up a moderate head of steam before he plowed into the snow on the road below.
“We’ve never had this much snow,” said his mother, Mary, dodging snowballs fired by family members as she videotaped her son.
After a hailstorm interrupted her sons’ morning archery practice in Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco, Kuumba Recasner headed them up the Chaney Trail to hunt for snow.
“My hands are freezing,” the younger boy, Noihn Nichols Recasner, 7, complained, hugging his mother for warmth.
At Big Bear, skiers who had braved difficult driving conditions were treated to 2 1/2 feet of fresh powder, with another foot expected by this morning, said Marty Ward, a spokesman for Big Bear Mountain Resorts.
“This is really an unusual storm,” he said. “So much and so cold. It’s really dry, light snow, which is really unusual for Southern California.”
Ward said crowds appeared to be average at Big Bear for a winter Saturday, but he expected business at the resorts to pick up next week as road conditions improve and people rush to take advantage of ideal ski conditions.
The storm dodged Mammoth Mountain. “We woke up to blue skies this morning,” said spokeswoman Joani Lynch.
No matter. Two weeks ago, the mountain surpassed its 400-inch season average, and the resort was busy with a typical crowd of about 17,500 skiers and snowboarders.
Conditions proved treacherous elsewhere in the state. In Northern California, an unusual late-night snowfall caused a 31-vehicle chain-reaction pileup on icy northbound U.S. 101, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Two people died and many more suffered injuries in the pileup, which closed the highway in both directions for nearly 12 hours, said Carrie White, a dispatcher for the California Highway Patrol.
In the coastal mountains between Los Gatos and Santa Cruz, a couple of inches of snow on Highway 17 contributed to several accidents, but no major injuries were reported.
Early Saturday morning, snow forced a brief shutdown of Interstate 5.
“It was so quick,” said CHP Officer Patrick Kimball. By the time a command post was activated, he said, “it was deactivated.”
A 21-mile stretch of the highway over the Grapevine was closed again just before 7 p.m. Saturday, as well as part of Angeles Crest Highway, beginning 14 miles east of La Canada.
In the late morning, the slushy remains of a hailstorm melted on the side of Angeles Crest Highway at about 2,000 feet, and clusters of families threw icy snowballs fashioned from disappearing patches of white.
Farther on, before the U.S. Forest Service roadside outpost, a CHP officer turned back motorists who weren’t carrying tire chains.
“It gets pretty bad up around 3,000 feet,” said the officer, who wouldn’t give his name.
That created the perfect opportunity for Moses Valdez, a property manager from Hollywood who moonlights as a tire-chain entrepreneur on those rare occasions when it snows in the Southland.
“This is the luckiest I’ve been in three years,” he said, working a turnout within sight of the checkpoint and shouting range of the backed-up cars.
“How much?” the drivers wanted to know. “Fifty for a pair,” Valdez shouted back. He had lined up a few dozen specimens -- garage-sale treasures snapped up for about $10 each, stuffed into boxes and bags.
Valdez said he got the idea about 10 years ago, after a day of playing in the snow with his family. When he stopped to remove the chains from his tires, people desperate to go up the hill offered cash for them.
“That’s when I thought, this might make a good business,” he said.
Customers, all men, crowded around him, wondering what would work for their Toyota Camry or Plymouth Voyager.
“I need the tire number,” said Valdez, who insisted that customers try the chains for size before heading up the mountain.
Peter Alcan, whose wife and 8-year-old twins waited in the van, plaintively asked for help.
“I won’t put them on, but I’ll show you how to do it,” Valdez told him.
A light rain started falling on his sweatshirt. Then suddenly, close to noon, the skies opened up with a hailstorm that sent children scrambling back to their cars.
Alcan, from nearby Montrose, ignored the pelting and laid out the chains, only to find that they were too small. He vowed to try again.
“We’re determined,” his wife, Luanna, said as she stamped her cold feet.
A carload of construction workers pulled up to survey the assortment of chains. Behind the wheel was Aroldo Retana, originally from Guatemala, who now lives in San Pedro. He said he’d never seen snow before.
“It’s beautiful,” he said, and his three passengers nodded enthusiastically. Retana said they planned to drive as far as they could go, to where the snow was deep.
Suddenly, the hail softened into snowflakes, falling heavily onto an awestruck crowd.
“Unbelievable,” Luanna Alcan said.
The children reappeared, running through a scene that seemed to belong more to the Rockies than the foothills of Mt. Wilson.
By 1 p.m., the snow lightened again. After having tried four sets of chains, none of which fit, the Alcan family decided to give up and return home, about 15 minutes away.
“At this point, I think we got the snow experience,” Peter Alcan said.
Valdez had already sold more than 30 sets of chains and was out of the largest sizes.
Times staff writer Mitchell Landsberg contributed to this report.