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Rail against boredom

November 25, 2003|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Big Bear Lake — Chris CASTANEDA plunges swiftly toward the rail, pops an ollie, pivots 90 degrees as he smacks the thin steel ledge and slides 25 feet -- kkssccchhhh -- before landing -- thwop -- on a velvety layer of packed powder. An aspiring pro from Lake Arrowhead, Castaneda, 24, carves gracefully away, disappearing among dozens of young "park rats" at play on a bright weekday morning.

"This is pretty good, but it'd be nice if they brought in, like, some actual sets of stairs," says one, a lanky 16-year-old named Bret Nolfo, wearing all black. "Maybe just a section or two."

These days, the demand for hardware is splitting the snow business. Within a couple of hours' drive from Los Angeles, you have terrain parks littered with "hits," or obstacles, on which to launch snowboarding tricks; nearby, you have refuges from the terrain park racket -- places where skiers and snowboarders can cruise without too many raised metal pipes or hard-plastic platforms getting in their way.

Bear Mountain, once one of the Southland's top alpine skiing destinations, is now one big terrain park, while its sister area, Snow Summit, largely caters to cruisers. A mountain range away in the San Gabriels, Mountain High packs its West Resort with airbrushed rainbow rails and fun boxes, leaving its adjacent East Resort relatively organic.

Five hours north of L.A., up U.S. 395, sprawling Mammoth Mountain in the Eastern Sierra remains integrated, but in the past five years has doubled its acreage -- from 30 to 60 -- devoted to terrain features. The park there now encompasses about 100 obstacles: a half pipe, super pipe, jumps and hits.

Nationally, the total terrain park count is about 230, and many areas once exclusively "ski" have pumped up not only the number and scale of their boarding attractions but also the volume of the rock and rap wafting through the pines. The number of ski-only resorts left? Four. The number of people who dare to admit they miss the days when fresh air trumped big air? No one can say.

To some the noise is annoying. "I'd always be looking over my shoulder," reacting to the edge-scraping sound of uphill snowboarders, says Joanne Blum, who lives in Boston and works for the Massachusetts Teachers Assn. Now she vacations in ski-only Alta in Utah whenever she can. "Part of it is," she says, "there are no terrain parks."

To others, the expansion, including the clutter on the slopes, is just another sign of what they see as a far-ranging government sellout to resort conglomerates that lease public land from the U.S. Forest Service in more than a dozen states. "I call it a mountain arms race," says Hal Clifford, executive editor of Orion magazine and author of "Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry Is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns and the Environment." "[Expansion] trains skiers to expect something new every year."

Snowboarders expect fun every time they strap on a stick. And that's OK, says Sally Miller, a Wilderness Society conservation representative whose district includes Mammoth Mountain. The 60-acre terrain park there isn't oversized, she says, in a place with 3,500 skiable acres. Marlene Finley, U.S. Forest Service deputy director for recreation, wilderness and heritage in California, agrees and points to an overall attitude shift in the past five years toward snowboarding: "Now it's a family activity."

But the U.S. Forest Service draws a line when it comes to the visual impacts of doing business amid nature. It tells resorts within its jurisdiction what color to paint their permanent fixtures, such as chairlift support poles. But as long as hits and half pipes don't display product advertising and disappear into storage with the melting of spring snow, they're cool with the landlords.

The bottom line

Unlike many so-called destination resorts -- Mammoth, Vail, Park City, Jackson Hole, Squaw Valley and dozens of others -- the ski areas within an easy drive of Los Angeles can't depend on either deep powder or a vast range of natural gifts -- bowls, chutes, etc. -- to attract return customers.

"We have only 220 acres to work with," explains John McColly, marketing director for Mountain High in Wrightwood. "[Man-made] terrain features take an otherwise boring run and make it something you'll want to come back for again and again." Fed by its proximity to millions of restless kids -- more than 70% of resort visitors are boarders -- Mountain High ranked third among state ski areas in 2001-2002 ticket sales.

As it turns out, snowboarders are more reliable. They come regardless of conditions and average more days on the slopes -- nearly 23 a season, compared with fewer than 17 for skiers. "The only true area of growth right now is through snowboarder visits," says Day Franzen, who runs the terrain park at Heavenly Valley resort in South Lake Tahoe. "You bring the snowboarders in, you also bring mom and dad."

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