A perfect day for snow sports turns into a traffic nightmare

The breathtaking sight of those snowcapped mountains beckoned rain-weary Californians to pack up the sleds, the skis, the snowboards and the inner tubes and hit the high road.

But what looked alluring from the lowlands was menacing closer to the slopes. So many snow-hungry travelers inundated the mountain roads Saturday that the California Highway Patrol was forced to close routes to Big Bear, Wrightwood and Mt. Baldy.

“There is just nowhere to put them,” CHP Officer Francisco Villalobos said of the multitudes of cars.

Parking lots at mountain resorts were crammed like shopping mall lots on Dec. 24. Some motorists spun out on icy patches or got stuck in snow drifts. Others wrestled with chains. And in parts of Big Bear, power and phone lines were out, gas stations were running out of fuel and grocery stores were being emptied.


So if you are contemplating a drive to winter wonderland today, the CHP has this advice: Don’t.

“At this point, it’s gridlock. I would recommend they don’t even attempt it,” said Officer D. Hunt.

He urged patience and said the snowy scene will be around for a while.

Forecasters also provided some comfort for those itching for fresh powder: More precipitation is expected on Tuesday, and there’s a chance of a second weather system by Saturday. In Big Bear, residents were digging out from 5 feet of snow. A shelter was set up at Big Bear Middle School for anyone seeking a warm and dry place. A convoy of trucks was en route late Saturday to deliver food and fuel, the first supply run since the storms began seven days ago. Motels were almost full. At Big Bear Lake’s Black Diamond Lodge, a towering pile of snow made it impossible for two guests to enter their room.


“I’ve been here for 30 years and I have not seen this much snow,” said Ken Markling, operations and planning manager for Bear Valley Electric Service. Heavy snow on tree limbs and power lines caused scattered power outages, and service was expected to be out for two or three more days.

Die-hard snowboarders spoke of six-hour journeys up the mountain, only to be turned back a few miles short of the resorts.

Teresa Tong, 29, and her friend loaded up her car with snowboards and left Mount Washington at 5:30 a.m. At 10 a.m., they were just seven miles shy of Snow Summit Mountain Resort in the Big Bear Lake area when they came across a roadblock where a vehicle that had skidded out of control on an icy road.

Undeterred, they headed toward Mountain High Ski Resort near Wrightwood, covered in 4 feet of snow. But traffic was backed up for five miles and the resort had sold out in the morning.

At noon, they decided to head home.

“It was horrendous,” Tong said. “I would never go on a weekend right after a snow dump ever again.”

Avid snowboarders and skiers commiserated about the closed roads on Facebook and Twitter, looking sadly at photos of gleeful people shredding down the slopes against bluebird skies.

“I’m waiting at home for an update. . . . This is sad. Open up already,” Chris Carpenter wrote on Bear Mountain’s Facebook page.


On the same page, Adam Blauer said he had just put chains on his tires when a Caltrans worker told him a rollover had closed down California 18.

“6.5 hours, wasted,” Blauer wrote.

On Angeles Crest Highway east of Mountain High, CHP officers forced cars to turn back because the parking lots were full. On the other side of the mountains, at the La Cañada Flintridge border, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy stood guard in front of a metal gate across the highway, waving off hundreds of snow-goers -- mainly families with kids.

A disappointed James Gregory arrived at the barricade with members of his South Los Angeles church group. The 14-year-old and his friends were bundled up in sweaters. They had taken the wheels off their skateboards to use as makeshift snowboards.

Some drivers decided to simply pull over and park on the mountain roads, ignoring warnings that they could be towed. They hoofed up the last few miles of the mountain with their gear.

Mt. Baldy Ski Resort, which was blanketed with 7 feet of powder, filled up by mid-morning. Soon after, employees were counting available parking spaces to let the CHP know how many cars they could allow up the road.

Because access to the Big Bear area was so difficult, those who did make it up to Snow Summit enjoyed a day with lighter crowds than expected. By mid-afternoon, about 3,500 snowboarders and skiers -- half the usual sellout Saturday crowd -- enjoyed quick-moving lines amid 5 feet of fresh powder.

“The people who are here are experiencing perfect conditions,” said Chris Riddle, Snow Summit’s marketing director.


Some of the traffic headaches were caused by drivers unaccustomed to icy roads. On California 18, a driver in a new Mercedes-Benz attempted to head up without chains, and got stuck.

If motorists do decide to make the trip today, the CHP urges common-sense precautions: Bring a full gas tank, a shovel, blankets, water and food. Some roads are so icy that chains are required even on vehicles with four-wheel drive and snow tires.

Despite the traffic, some remained hopeful they would get through.

A UC Riverside student who tweets under the name gage909 was battling traffic and hoping to reach Mountain High. By mid-morning he wrote, “doesn’t matter though, today’s gonna be epic.”

Two hours later, he tweeted, “No parking on the mountain!? . . . what now?”

By the afternoon, he had made it: “On the mountain with noah. time to conquer.”

Times staff writers Ruben Vives and Richard Winton and photographer Irfan Khan contributed to this report.