Ski area stays high and dry

A year after “snowmageddon” struck across the country, the owners of the Mt. Waterman are stuck praying for snow.

Rick Metcalf, who co-owns the small resort located just an hour up Angeles Crest Highway from La Cañada Flintridge, said that while he hopes to be able to open the slopes this year, so far it’s not looking good, with only inches on the mountain so far.

Metcalf said this is the first winter since he and his three partners acquired the resort that it was possible that the hill wouldn’t open at all. Mt. Waterman relies on natural elements, not snow-making equipment, he said.

“We don’t open, just pray for snow and hope that it comes,” he said. “I could use some storms rolling in, but it doesn’t seem like there’s anything and it’s just killing us.”

A La Cañada High School graduate who now resides in San Diego, Metcalf purchased Mt. Waterman in 2006 with his brother, Brien, and fellow LCHS grads Roberto Martinez and Craig Stewart. He said that while the dry winter was unfortunate, he wasn’t totally unprepared.

“I knew it was possible, it happens once every 10 years or so,” he said. “The good news is, we’re well financed, we’re free and clear, so if it doesn’t run, it doesn’t cost us a tremendous amount to keep it.”

Mt. Waterman dealt with an abbreviated ski season just a couple years ago, when the Station fire burned up to the area’s perimeter and difficult access meant the mountain was open for just 17 days of the 2009-10 season.

During the 2010-11 season, Mt. Waterman was able to open in October, and there was as much as 2 to 4 feet of snow on the ground, once January hit.

JPL oceanographer Bill Patzert said that while like last year, this is a La Niña season, the current winter is different, thanks to a stronger positive arctic oscillation, the shifting pressure difference between the arctic and lower latitudes.

In a La Niña season, water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific are cooler than normal, influencing climate, especially during winter.

“It’s the tale of two winters, both La Niñas, but this one has the Arctic Oscillation,” he said. “It’s all of California and across the U.S. It’s been warm and dry, in contrast with last winter, where it was snowmaggedon.”

Because the Arctic Oscillation traps arctic winds and confines snow-bringing storms to Alaska and other far-north locations inside its effect, Patzert said that this season’s rainfall dropped to half of last year’s levels in both downtown L.A. and at JPL.

Unfortunately for Mt. Waterman devotees, Patzert said, based on the current conditions, the chances of late snow dump in the Southwest, or “March miracle,” were not looking so hot.

“We’re more than halfway through the winter at this point and not to sound trite, but … I’d call the chances of that a snowball in hell,” he said.

Metcalf said that no matter the odds, he and his co-owners are hoping for a late winter snowfall so they can open the slopes this year.

“They say that there’s supposed to be some good storms coming down in March, and we certainly have had it before,” he said. “So we’re hoping for a March miracle, and it could dump, and we could be open through March [and] April. We’ve skied there even in May, so it could just be a late-but-great season.”

Still, Patzert said that chances are that skiers in the area will be driving farther afield if they want to get on the slopes this season.

“We did have a March miracle, the first in 1991, where had almost 6 inches of rain here locally and the local mountains finally got [snow] in March; but that was not during a La Niña,” he said. “Anything’s possible in life … but anybody that would bet on a March miracle would be delusional.”

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