It's been more than two years since Mount Waterman was last open.
The small, three-chair ski resort in the San Gabriel Mountains, roughly an hour from La Cañada Flintridge, hasn't had enough snow coverage for two winters in a row. Other SoCal resorts, like Mountain High or Bear Mountain, fire up snowmaking machines to offset their lack of the natural stuff, but Mount Waterman's co-owners, brothers Rick and Brien Metcalf, are still working on acquiring snowmakers. That leaves their family business wholly dependent on the often fickle Southern California winter.
Yet every December since 2006, the Metcalfs make weekend treks from San Diego to Los Angeles to prepare their resort for a ski season that may never come.
On a recent Friday evening, the owners' sister, Beth Metcalf, 45, works alone at the Mount Waterman booth at Ski Dazzle, an annual ski and snowboard consumer event at the Los Angeles Convention Center. She passes out lift maps, fliers and assurances to more than a few people that the mountain will finally be open this year.
"This is all professional, corporate money," she says with a wry smile, gesturing at the other resort booths around hers. Snow Summit's booth is modeled to look like the interior of a cabin -- complete with a fireplace and a flat-screen TV. The massive Mammoth Lakes Pavilion (nope, not a booth -- it's a "pavilion" of booths) boasts stubby pine trees sprinkled with fake snow, and a lone chairlift with a mountain backdrop set up for photos -- "#MammothStories" is printed on the backdrop in a large, snowy font.
In contrast, "This is family-run and oh-my-God-how-fun-is-this," she says, pointing to the compact Waterman booth. Its backdrop proclaims that Waterman is "L.A.'s Closest Ski Area." This year the Metcalfs brought in a strip of artificial grass for mini-golf; they're also holding a raffle. The winners receive lift tickets, cups and pens featuring the Waterman logo -- a cartoon skier, which Beth calls "cocktail napkin art," doodled years ago by one of the Newcombs, the family that originally opened Mount Waterman to the public back in the late 1930s.
Beth works the ticket booth at Waterman and helps manage the employees when it's open. "The last two years we've heard, 'It's not going to be a good year,' but this year we'll be good to go," she says confidently.
The Metcalf siblings all live in San Diego (all three work in real estate), but they grew up in La Cañada Flintridge, and often went to Waterman on junior high school field trips -- though Rick Metcalf was the only dedicated skier of the three.
Even at that point, the mountain was already a long-standing La Cañada winter hangout. Lynn Newcomb Sr. opened the first rope tow on Waterman in 1939. His son, Lynn Newcomb Jr., helped build the first chairlift, which some believe is the first in California, in 1942. On opening day, the lift broke, and skiers had to jump from their chairs.
Craig Stewart, an investor and longtime Waterman skier, shows up to help Beth with the booth. He says, "The story is that Lynn was working on the chair when they bombed Pearl Harbor." Newcomb Jr. went on to join the Army Air Forces during World War II. "That man did not have soft hands," Stewart says.
Rick Metcalf, 50, arrives fashionably late, a boulder of a man with thinning gray hair, sporting a dark black Mount Waterman shirt. He says he'd been playing golf with people from Caltrans, trying to woo them into ensuring that Waterman's lifeline, the winding Angeles Crest Highway, stays open for the winter.
"The first time I ever put on skis was at Mount Waterman, and I was 13 years old," he says. From the 1950s to the '80s, the mountain underwent only gradual change: Two chairs were added -- all three chairs still run on diesel -- and the runs rounded out to roughly 24, more depending on the coverage. (Sixty percent of those runs are for advanced skiers.)
But by the '90s, Newcomb Jr. was ready to move on. The mountain changed hands several times, until a group of businessmen acquired it. All the turnover left the resort floundering. It has long operated on a special-use permit to run a ski lift on U.S. Forest Service land, but from 2001 to 2008 it failed to meet Forest Service operating requirements, and remained closed.
In 2006, the Forest Service began preparations to return the mountain to its natural state, which meant removing all traces of the resort. Rick, along with his brother, Brien, and a group of La Cañada skiers, moved quickly to buy the mountain.
"I didn't want to see the place taken down. I didn't know much about the ski industry when I got into it," Rick says, chuckling, "but I know a lot now."
Waterman opened to the public once again in February 2008, and hundreds attended opening day. But the recent dry winters have proved challenging: During the 2010 season, Rick says, "We were only open for 35, 40 days." They haven't received enough snow to open since.
Snowmaking is the industry standard now for ski resorts, says Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Association. "Climate change is a reality for our industry," he says. Shorter seasons and less consistent snowfall throughout California make snowmaking a necessity, not a luxury.
The Metcalfs know that -- and they plan to make it happen. But, Rick cautions, "It's an expensive and complicated process and we want to do it right." Complicating matters is that Waterman is an upside-down hill: The lodge, kitchen and gear storage are all at the top. Tickets are bought at the parking lot, and then visitors have to ride the first chair just to make it to the lodge. That means heavy equipment, like snow machines, will have to be trucked up to the lodge.
A good snow this winter would help things pencil out. So would a good summer -- this year, they're planning to open up the slopes to mountain bikers.
For all their difficulties, they don't regret the purchase, says Brien Metcalf, 51. For one, the mountain brought the siblings together in a way that they hadn't experienced in years, and the local support has been momentous. Skiers from throughout L.A. and Ventura counties often share stories with the Metcalfs about their grandparents, parents and children first skiing the mountain. The parking lot on good days, he says, is akin to a tailgate scene, with generations of local skiers enjoying cookouts and beer aplenty. "In fact," Brien says, "some of our season-pass holders have been holding passes for longer than I've been alive."
The Metcalfs are, as always, praying for snow. But Brien has faith that Newcomb Jr., who died in 2011, is looking out for them.
"Lynn Newcomb's gonna bring some snow for us," he says. "He's up there going, 'All right, it's been two years, let's get that place back to running.' "
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