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Peak Performance

Mt. Baldy Not High-Tech, Just High Country

January 16, 1998|PETE THOMAS

MOUNT BALDY — A.J. Gonzales was on top of the world. . . .

Well, actually, he was not even on top of the highest mountain in the San Gabriels.

But from the snowy slope on which he stood, atop Mt. Baldy Ski Lifts' highest run at 8,600 feet, a few peaks away from this little town's 10,064-foot namesake, the view of the world below was spectacular.

With barely a squint, the Wilmington firefighter could make out the hills of Santa Catalina Island rising through the haze, the large tankers his company inspects, the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the downtown Los Angeles skyline.

"This is great," he told his skiing companion, Scott Melanson of La Verne. "It's a beautiful day, you can see forever, there are no crowds, no wind . . . but we could sure use a little more fluff on the ground."

To that Nick Davey, 38, operations director at the ski area, pointed to the thin, gray clouds above, shook his head and flatly told the two skiers to "Put your order in."

Davey places his order every day, because a stunning view of the Pacific is not the reason skiers come to Mt. Baldy. They come for the fluff, and Davey is the first to admit that without an abundance of snow, Mt. Baldy is an average ski area at best.

But when the snow level drops to about 5,000 feet and the white stuff falls for a few days in a row, and all of Baldy is open, skiers have 2,100 vertical feet--nearly double that of most local ski areas--of some of the most varied and challenging terrain in Southern California, and Baldy becomes something special.

"I've had some of the best snow here than I've had in all my life, and I've skied in Europe, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah . . . all over the place," Davey said. "I remember skiing here once after a big March dump, with five to six feet of powder up to my neck. It was really cold and you could ski all the way down to the village."

Baldy's 400 acres are nearly double that at major Southland resorts such as Snow Summit (230 acres), Snow Valley (235) and Mountain High (235). This acreage is serviceable by only four chairs, but there are 26 runs, half of which are steep faces and chutes for advanced skiers and half of those are double black-diamond runs for experts only. When the powder is fresh, the tree-skiing is unsurpassed locally.

"A big attraction is the trees," Davey explained, pointing to a large section of sparsely forested slopes while riding Chair 3. "You see how separated the trees are? It's like that in a lot of places, so skiers have a lot of room, and that's what makes this area unique. Skiing in there is some of the best skiing on the mountain."

Not on this day, but Davey carries a positive attitude to the mountain seven days a week, regardless of the weather. He seems to know everyone on the mountain, skiers and employees alike.

"Most of the skiers we have here are people who have come here all their lives," he said. "They always come back, they're always here."

Mt. Baldy Ski Lifts opened with one rope tow in 1944 as Mt. Baldy Ski Tows. Its location--only 50 miles from downtown Los Angeles on the city side of the San Gabriel Mountains and only 16 miles off Interstate 10--gives it a tremendous advantage over the resorts in the Big Bear area.

But it has limited snow-making capabilities and has to rely on natural snow. When it does have fresh powder, the crowds tend to be on the large side--the mountain can accommodate about 2,000 skiers--and with only four chairs, the lines can be longer than what many skiers are used to.

Baldy has no high-speed quad chairs, no fancy terrain park, no upscale on-mountain eateries . . . virtually none of the marketing tools used by the larger resorts.

What it does have is a small-town charm that many seem to appreciate.

"We don't have the budget for a fancy marketing campaign or anything," said Pete Olson, president of Mt. Baldy Ski Lifts, Inc. "We once made up brochures calling Mt. Baldy 'L.A.'s Closest Ski Area,' but the brochures came out 'L.A.'s Closet Ski Area.' We got a kick out of it so we just left it like that."

Olson, however, says Baldy is on the verge of going big-time.

The U.S. Forest Service is reviewing an expansion plan, financed by an investment group, that would mean seven new chairlifts, a new base lodge and parking lot (the current lot is too small for weekend crowds) and an additional 300-plus acres of skiing. There also would be increased emphasis on beginner slopes, which would make Baldy more attractive for families (only four of the 26 existing runs are geared for beginners).

A decision on the plan is expected soon, and Olson, optimistic that it'll be approved, hopes to have the added terrain--including a high-speed quad--available to skiers sometime around the turn of the century.

"That will put this area on the map," he said.

Until then, he will relax and enjoy the view.

VERY COOL LITTLE HILL . . .

Such is the title of a story by Dave Levia that appears on the Mount Baldy Un-Official web site (www.angelfire.com/ca/mtbaldy). Levia has a strong allegiance to Baldy.

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