By John Brice
The XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi Russia will spike interest in skiing and snowboarding globally, including in San Diego, where enthusiasm for snowsports has a deep base.
In 1935, the San Diego Ski Club formed. By 1939, the club had a portable rope tow operating in East County's Cuyamaca Mountains. In 1941, Club member Dorothy McClung Wullich was named America's first woman ski patroller - she even got badge Numero Uno. Fast-forward to 2006, and San Diego native Shaun "Flying Tomato" White wins his first Olympic gold in snowboarding.
White, like many San Diegans, got his first taste of snowsports in Southern California's San Bernardino Mountains (east of I-15) and San Gabriel Mountains (west of I-15). The region boasts 22 mountains topping out above 10,000 feet, and several ski areas that operate two to three hours north of San Diego.
Ski and snowboarding trips to Lake Tahoe, Park City and Aspen don't happen often enough for most San Diegans due to a combination lack of time and a private jet.
I am here to tell you, however, to get the skis and snowboards out of the garage and into the car. Plenty of good mountains are closer (and more likely to fit your schedule and finances) than you might think.
"You can have a real mountain experience close to home, with terrain and lessons to suit every member of the family," says longtime Mountain High marketing guru and Coronado High grad, John McColly. "It doesn't have to take a long time or be expensive."
Another keen observer of San Diego's snowsports scene is Sport Chalet's Darin Mekkers. "Shorter trips are increasingly common," he says. "Skiing or snowboarding in the morning and retuning to San Diego for afternoon surfing or standup paddleboarding is no urban legend. It happens all the time."
"We have seen a resurgence in skiing after years of snowboard domination," he says. "Snowboarding is still very popular, but we are definitely seeing a growing interest in skiing."
It's all only a gas tank away: terrain parks, real bowls, steep chutes and beginner programs at the most popular Southern California ski areas - Bear Mountain, Mt. Baldy, Mountain High, Snow Summit and Snow Valley.
Weather permitting, all of these ski areas are open every day and often at night, too (no nights at Bear Mountain). Each has a matrix of prices for lift tickets, lessons and equipment rentals. Rentals require either a valid credit card or cash deposit of about $350.
All five resorts detailed here offer free passes to skiers/riders on their birthdays (ID required for proof); and during January 2014, most are participating in National Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month by offering screaming deals on lessons, including rental equipment.
Snow Valley is best known as being perfect for newbies because of its slow pace and bevy of beginner, green runs off Chairlift 6. But when snow is plentiful, the ski area offers big bowls and steep, expert, double-black-diamond runs off Chairlifts 10 and 11 (try Show Me and Snake Run), and The Ladder off Chairlift 2. Intermediates will be at home on western Slide Peak's Nord Valley and West Slide blue runs, also off Chairlift 11.
Located in the San Bernardino Mountains (east of I-15) between the towns of Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear, Snow Valley has a 1,041-foot vertical drop, 240 skiable acres and 12 lifts feeding three terrain parks and 35 trails (14 percent beginner, 46 percent intermediate, 32 percent advanced, 7 percent expert).
New this year is the Learn & Earn Program, wherein participants can earn a free 2013-2014 Snow Valley season pass by taking a total of four full lesson packages or private lessons. Some restrictions apply, and participants must register for programs. Find details at Snow-Valley.com.
Mt. Baldy, in the San Gabriel Mountains (west of I-15, off the I-210), might be the poor cousin of Southern California skiing, but it's got the goods. "A serious skiers' hill," says the Los Angeles Times. Multiple slopes have a 40-plus-degree pitch, accounting for the steepest runs this side of Mammoth. (For a local comparison, check out the 22-degree slope on Ash Street between Sixth and Seventh Aves. in downtown San Diego.) Still want to ski it? If you do, and you're the real deal, then ditch any newbie tag-alongs at Beginners' Gulch off Chairlift 1. Then head downhill to the steepest runs, Nightmare and Bentley's Dream, also off Chairlift 1.
"There are no friends on a powder day," as the saying goes.
After a wicked storm, in-the-know, advanced-level skiers and snowboarders descend on old school Baldy for a gravity-activated workout on steep runs like Skyline and Robins. Thanks to Baldy's 50-percent increase in making the white stuff in 2009, both are now covered top-to-bottom by snowmaking. Word is, $2 million gets you a nine-million-gallon water reservoir and lots of snow guns.
With 800 skiable acres and a 2,100-foot vertical drop, Baldy is the region's largest single ski area. Four lifts serve 26 trails (15 percent beginner, 31 percent intermediate, 31 percent advanced, 23 percent expert). There are glades, tree runs, moguls, groomers, cornices and a terrain park with jumps, rails and boxes.
Adjacent to Wrightwood, Calif., in the San Gabriel Mountains (west of I-15), Mountain High is among North America's top 25 most frequently visited ski areas. Maybe that's because, for 16 years running, it's been Southern California's first ski area open each season. And as often as weather permits, it's open seven days a week until 10 p.m.
Mountain High consists of three separate areas - East, West and North - all served by a single lift ticket. Shuttles run between areas, frequently stopping at the ticket windows. Each area has its own equipment rentals, shops and dining facilities. The ski area offers 290 skiable acres; a vertical drop of 1,600 feet; and 29 runs (25 percent beginner, 40 percent intermediate, 35 percent advanced) served by 14 lifts, including two high-speed detachable quads.
The West area tends to open first and includes the Children's Learning Center and a variety of terrain from beginner to black-diamond runs, tree skiing, beginner jumps and competitive features on the Conquest run. It's also home to night skiing, with more than 85 percent of the area lit after dark, including three of the terrain parks and one halfpipe.
The East area offers 1,600 vertical feet of uninterrupted corduroy (groomed runs; the grooming machines leave grooves), plus exciting steeps like the Olympic Bowl, one of Southern California's steepest, longest bump runs. The North area operates only on peak weekends and holidays, and caters to families and newbies with 70 acres of beginner terrain.
The biggest news this season at Mountain High is that the VIP Adult Season Pass gets you on the mountain anytime and delivers three free days of skiing and riding at 11 other western resorts, including Colorado's Crested Butte, Utah's Snowbasin, Lake Tahoe's Sierra-at-Tahoe and the Arizona Snowbowl. There are some restrictions; it's all detailed at powderalliance.com. The VIP pass is $399 until they're sold out; or until December 13, when they go up to $749.
Bear Mountain, Snow Summit
Despite having the same owner and one all-access lift ticket for both ski areas, Bear Mountain and Snow Summit deliver two distinct experiences. Located two miles apart in the San Bernardino Mountains (east of I-15), the two are connected by a free shuttle and offer a combined 438 skiable acres.
Bear Mountain boasts a youthful environment for skiers and snowboarders and is ranked No. 3 among the Top 10 parks in the country by Carlsbad-based TransWorld SNOWBoarding magazine (the snowboarding bible). Its terrain parks offer an average of more than 165 jibs and four pipes, including Southern California's only Superpipe. New in the popular Red Bull Plaza is The Ride Through; resembling a large shipping container, it has wall rides (on each side) and closeout rails.
Bear is home to Southern California's highest lift-served peak, at 8,805 feet. It offers a vertical drop of 1,665 feet, and 29 runs (30 percent beginner, 40 percent intermediate, 30 percent advanced) served by 12 chairlifts, including two highspeed detachable quads. The high-speed lifts are important, as they get skiers and snowboarders up the mountain much faster than old slowpoke lifts. This allows for more runs per day. Beginners, take Chairlift 7. Bear Mountain is not open at night.
Snow Summit, where the Winter X Games were born in 1997, has a 1,200- foot vertical drop and 31 trails (35 percent beginner, 40 percent intermediate, 25 percent advanced) served by 14 lifts, including two high-speed detachable quads. It's known for a variety of beginner and intermediate runs, mainstream cruising and a traditional alpine atmosphere that attracts skiing and snowboarding families (who enjoy the Family Fun Park and Westridge Run). Beginners, head to Chairlifts 4 and 8. Snow Summit is also popular for night skiing and riding on most Friday, Saturday and holiday evenings from 3:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Late-December to-do list:
1. Drink more Red Bull
2. Get ready to watch Winter Olympics on February 7
3. Find skis and/or snowboard in garage mess
4. Find rest of snow gear, including tire chains
5. Wash or at least air-out base layers (aka long johns)
6. Call in sick
7. Go skiing or snowboarding (or learn how), multiple trips recommended
8. Surf and ski on the same day
What A Trip
Time and distance to the mountains from the Gaslamp, according to Google Maps:
Mt. Baldy: 137 miles, 2 hours 25 minutes
Snow Valley: 134 miles, 2 hours 15 minutes
Mountain High: 142 miles, 2 hours 18 minutes
Bear Mountain: 149 miles, 2 hours 44 minutes
Snow Summit: 147 miles, 2 hours 40 minutes