Mt. Waterman gets a lift

Lynn Newcomb would have been proud — or jealous.

Seventy-two years after its founder installed the first rope tow, Mt. Waterman resort was buzzing this weekend with hundreds of visitors who strapped on their bindings and hit the slopes to kick off the winter ski season.

"The conditions are amazing," said Dino Palmieri, 31, of Pasadena. "No wind, no clouds. It is perfect. It is as good as it gets."

Located about 34 miles north of La Cañada Flintridge on Angeles Crest Highway, Mt. Waterman is the oldest ski resort in Southern California. It was operated for decades by Newcomb and his children, before being sold in 1999 and changing hands several times.

In June 2006, four La Cañada High School graduates — Roberto Martinez, Craig Stewart and brothers Rick and Brien Metcalf — assumed the lease for the 200-plus-acre property owned by the U.S. Forest Service.

It is a passion project for the childhood friends, who grew up frequenting the resort.

"Angeles National Forest was our backyard," said Stewart, 48. "And part of the backyard included a ski resort, in fact two of them at one time. It wound not be uncommon when you were a senior in high school to blow off your class — lunch would get out at 11:45 a.m. — and blitz out of school and be here by 1 p.m. and ski until 4 p.m."

The partners have invested more than $1 million on facilities and maintenance, including bringing the mountain's three ski lifts up to code. But there have been setbacks, most recently the 2009 Station fire that burned up to the perimeter of the site.

Subsequent debris flows washed out large portions of Angeles Crest Highway, forcing ongoing closures, making access circuitous and deflecting patrons.

During the 2009-10 season, Mt. Waterman was open for 17 days, leaving balance sheets in the red. But with 2 to 4 feet of snow on the ground, the investors and their staff said they are looking forward to a long, busy season.

"After the fire we were just biting our teeth; we were on the edge," said Beth Metcalf, 42, the resort's ticket sales manager and the youngest of the three Metcalf siblings. "We are super excited to be open in January this year, and hoping for a great year because last year we had just lost so much. We opened March 12 last year."

While it can't brag about four-person lifts or behemoth snowboard jumps, Mt. Waterman enjoys a cult following among ski enthusiasts who say its proximity to Los Angeles, reasonably priced lift tickets and nonexistent lines make it a favorite destination.

"Mammoth is six hours, and Mountain High is packed all the time," said 15-year-old La Crescenta resident Nathaniel Fernandez.

There is no man-made snow at Mt. Waterman. The resort is open every Saturday and Sunday, and occasionally during the week, conditions permitting.

On Saturday, a tailgate sprung up in the parking lot on Angeles Crest Highway, a tradition among regulars. They pulled out folding chairs and coolers, and reconnected with acquaintances.

"A lot of these people I have been seeing up here for years," said Frank Loth, 49, of Santa Clarita.

Cindy Ginter, 55, started skiing at Mt. Waterman as a teenager and served a member of the Mt. Waterman Ski Patrol from 1989 to 1999. The South Pasadena resident often brought her children to ski at the resort, and she is looking forward to an outing with her grandson.

Looking around the rustic warming hut at the top of ski lift No. 1, Ginter said it looked much the same as it did on her first visit decades earlier.

"I like that nothing has changed," Cindy Ginter said.

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