Going downhill

Art Bentley

Nothing in the mountains is as enchanting as the first snowfall. Fat

flakes drift in steady sibilance from a sky the color of lead to ground

rapidly whitening. When the depth of the coating is sufficient, the

simple mountain folk break out the sleds and the runners. The romantic

scene cries out for a Grandma Moses to immortalize it on canvas.

The romance may have been lacking Nov. 12 in the local hills but the

simple mountain folk on their sleds and runners, known more familiarly as

snowboards and skis, could not have cared less.

They were enjoying the finest conditions technology has provided in

recent memory during the early part of the month of November.

Unfortunately, technology continues to be absent from Mt. Waterman, 33

miles up the Angeles Crest Highway from La Canada Flintridge. The small

ski hill, which changed ownership in 1999, hopes to install a snowmaking

system eventually.

For the present, however, Mt. Waterman will depend on nature, which so

far has favored it with about a foot of snow. If more follows in

sufficient quantity, at least one lift could run by mid-December.

The storm raged all day Nov. 12 in a deafening roar of snowmaking

machinery under a cobalt sky. Not even the hint of a cloud was apparent

in the bone-dry air wrung virtually free of moisture by Santa Ana winds

that had held sway for several days.

When the Santa Anas howl this time of year, savvy skiers and

snowboarders grab their boards and head for the hills. They know that the

drier and colder the air, the more snow the guns can make. Consequently,

the snow on the slopes of Mountain High at Wrightwood, Snow Valley at

Running Springs and Bear Mountain and Snow Summit at Big Bear is

difficult to fault.

Snow Summit, with the biggest snowmaking system in the local

mountains, abetted by the unlimited water supply known as Big Bear Lake,

was pumping about 4,000 gallons of water per minute throughout the night

of Nov. 11 and early the following morning. Four thousand gallons of

water per minute adds up to a lot of snow in a hurry.

"That's as good as it gets," marketing director Chris Riddle said. "We

can do a little more but the quality suffers."

The number of open trails at the four resorts will remain limited for

some time yet unless a two-foot storm should suddenly appear. Besides Mt.

Waterman, Mt. Baldy, above Upland, will operate when nature permits.

Baldy's small system supplements natural snow.

Thanksgiving weekend promoted considerable thanksgiving in Wrightwood,

Running Springs and Big Bear. The season last year was limping at best in

late November locally. Terrain was extremely limited if it was open at

all. This year conditions were good enough to attract crowds.

So how good is it?

Better than I remember since early November 1985 when a three-foot

storm launched a season that then turned uncharacteristically warm

through December.

In other years when I've skied as early locally, the snow has been

slushy, sticky and inconsistent. Mountain bikers in shorts have plied

bare trails next to somewhat snowy ones negotiated by skiers and

snowboarders. I've used rock skis. The snow guns have run only at

night.

But several days since mid-November have been cold enough and dry

enough to permit the guns to fire at will all day, a phenomenon I've

never witnessed so early in the month in the Southland. The product is

wide enough to cover trails from side to side, deep enough to allow the

use of new equipment without concern and soft enough so the edges bite

consistently all the way through most turns.

To be sure, hard-packed slippery patches develop as the day wears on

but most of them can be avoided by sticking to the sides of the runs.

Artificial snow packs much more densely than the natural variety, hence

the slick spots.

Would I prefer they were not present? Absolutely. Would I choose not

to ski this time of year because of them? Absolutely not.

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