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Poles apart? Jump the gap

Skiers and snowboarders are divided by vibe, decibels and attitude. But even a diehard ski bum is welcome among the single-plank crowd.

March 04, 2007|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

Wrightwood, Calif. — THE sun sparkled off a 4-inch layer of fresh powder as I lugged my skis and poles to the lifts at Mountain High Ski Resort. The mountain buzzed with snowboarders who launched off boxes and rails, like stones skipping off the surface of a lake.

Just as I stepped from the crowded sun deck and felt the fresh snow crunch under my boots, a voice from behind called, "Look honey, a skier!"

It was a grinning, thirtysomething snowboarder and, yes, he was talking about me, the two-planker who had yet to jump on the snowboarding bandwagon. I -- and many like me -- am part of a vanishing breed, and we don't need to be reminded that we're at the bottom of the food chain. The signs are clear.

Even in a season with sub-par snow levels, you can look at Mountain High's slopes and see that snowboarders outnumber skiers 4 to 1. In 20 years, the sport has become a juggernaut, not only capturing the slopes but also establishing a style all its own, a style that reflects life both off and on the mountain.

And that's why I came here. Spring is just around the corner, but thanks to late-season snow, the white stuff's still here, and the question remains: Can a two-planker find happiness among the jibs and the rails?

Flailing but no yelling

FLYING over a sharp drop on the last 25 yards of the Cruiser run at Mountain High, I had lost control. I crested over the top of a knoll too fast, lost my balance and careened toward a group of unsuspecting snowboarders sitting at the bottom of the hill.

I came to Mountain High half-expecting to be ridiculed and treated like an uptight parent at an underground rave. Despite easy access to millions of snow-loving customers, resorts like Mountain High struggled in the 1990s as baby boomers wrote off skiing in favor of more sedate pastimes, such as hiking and bird-watching.

Lift lines shrank, parking lots emptied and ski instructors sat idle, recalling better days. Between 1990 and 2005, the number of skiers dropped nationally from a little more than 11 million to slightly fewer than 7 million.

But just as skiing cooled off, snowboarding began to sizzle, propelled by the Winter X Games and hip, fearless boarders like Shaun White, the rail-thin redhead known as the Flying Tomato. It is the prospect of flying -- and being part of a sport more renegade and radical in its dress, attitude and posture than skiing -- that today brings more than 7-million rail-skipping enthusiasts to the slopes with their boards.

Only one problem for resorts: Snowboarders tend to be teenagers with little loose change. But they do hit the slopes more often than skiers and are less particular about the conditions. What started as a meager season turned white last week with a hefty dollop of powder.

So all resort owners have to do is keep snowboarders coming back. They do this by improving snow-making capacity, opening the slopes at night, hosting snowboarding contests and sponsoring after-hours parties and concerts at the lodges. All of which has transformed life on the mountain.

At the end of the sun deck at Mountain High, near the Blue Ridge Express chairlift, stands a 20-foot-high outdoor screen, a white sheet of plywood, bolted to a couple of columns, that at night comes alive with skiing and skateboarding flicks. At the base of that lift, management installed a laser projector for an outdoor light show.

But what about the downhill skier, I asked resort spokesman John McColly. What do you have for me?

What he has is a separate resort less than a mile away. The East Resort, as it's called, has long runs and moguls, ideal for downhill skiers, McColly says. (Mountain High also operates a North Resort with 70 acres of tubing and beginner terrain for families.)

So the idea is to segregate skiers from snowboarders into separate but equal facilities, right? Not quite. Last year, Mountain High spent $2 million on improvements but mostly to benefit snowboarders at the West Resort. The improvements included new Internet access at the lodge, an expanded sun deck, a new patio bar, barbecue, fire pit, a stage for outdoor concerts and an expanded snow-making system.

The sun deck at Mountain High looks out on a snowboarding park called the Playground, nearly half the size of a football field, festooned with steel rails, jumps and boxes. Inside the lodge, a single-story stucco building with Formica folding tables, the food was classic teenage fare: burgers, burritos and steak sandwiches. A high school cafeteria -- with ski resort prices.

On the Playground, snowboarders exploded off rails and jumps under a bright, midday sun. Gracefully executed jumps and spins brought the same raucous reaction from the crowd as a painful face plant. A DJ under a portable shelter blasted a bone-rattling backbeat that reverberated throughout the slopes.

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