Deep in snow, nostalgia

Special to The Times

The reopening last weekend of the Mt. Waterman ski area five years after chairlifts ceased operation gave locals a chance to get reacquainted with an old friend too long absent.

"I've been coming up here since I was 13," said 46-year-old George Glaab, who came with his family from Thousand Oaks to the resort, which depends on a good snowfall because it has no snowmaking facilities.

His son Nicholas, 10, grinned, although the sheer drop hovering over the base area did not inspire him. "I'm not skiing that," he said as he prepared to ride Chair 1, one of three at the 115-acre resort.

Waterman's impressive face and gladed runs will delight advanced skiers, but it may scare off beginners. They'll find less frightening terrain only after they unload at the mid-mountain warming hut.

"Mt. Waterman is known for the steepest slopes in Southern California," said snowboard instructor Mark Ramirez before identifying Wallbanger, Gene's Gulch and Sam's Alley as some of his favorite runs.

It takes an adventurous spirit to ski this mountain. I could find black-diamond Wallbanger only on the trail map. On the slopes, no directional signs pointed to it nor any of the other steep, bumpy and sometimes narrow passages that plunge to the base.

At its opening, the ski area reported a 5- to 6-foot snow depth that was hard packed in the morning hours, perfect for groomed runs but perilously frozen in the trees and moguls.

Three slow double chairs reach a top elevation of 8,000 feet with a modest 1,000-foot vertical drop. But ski patroller Mike Gunning said one lift was not operating because it was still partly buried under drifting snow and ice. Midwinter storms encased Mt. Waterman in a deep snow that also buried California Highway 2, its sole access road, until the resort's reopening Feb. 16. Chair 2, the other lift option, accesses gentle slopes just below the ridgeline.

Carl Kruegerman, who came up from Los Feliz for half a day, said he had been skiing at Mt. Baldy in the last few years but was thrilled to be back "home," where, like many on the hill, he learned to ski.

"If you took anyone from the U.S. and plopped them here, nobody would believe that the urban sprawl of L.A. is just miles away," he said.

I repeatedly encountered people for whom Mt. Waterman struck an emotional chord because they found a ski area little changed from their youth.

Everything cries nostalgia, including the two-person chairs and the basic facilities. Here, it's about snow from the sky, not propelled from a snow gun. Snow that you drive to for the day (with skis rented in the flatlands because you can't rent them here), not snow that you glide to from your slope-side condo.

For younger visitors, proximity, price and a certain personal touch are the draw.

At the end of their first ski day ever, Sebastian Durelli, 17, rode Chair 1 with sister Sofia, 9, down to the base. It was the end of an eventful day that started off wrong when Sebastian's binding malfunctioned on his rental skis. "My right foot kept popping off," he said. "I couldn't balance myself."

To exchange skis, they had to drive back with their father, Paul, to the ski shop in La Canada Flintridge, 34 miles away, because Mt. Waterman does not stock rentals.

"They are a stellar operation," said Paul Durelli when Mt. Waterman management offered his family free lift tickets for the disruption. "They care about people having a positive experience on their mountain."

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travel@latimes.com

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On the mountain

LIFT TICKETS

Adults $29 to $49; teens (13 to 17 years old) $19 to $39; children (6 to 12 years old) $11 to $25; seniors (65 and older) $15 to $29.

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TO LEARN MORE

Go to www.skiwaterman.com.

The ski resort is open Saturdays and Sundays.

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