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All white? Only the snow is

In a sport short on ethnic diversity, Mountain High stands tall. Ski demographics are changing.

March 09, 2007|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

Decked out in a sleek, black jumpsuit, black helmet and white wraparound sunglasses, Ramon Baguio looks every inch the hotshot skier. And yet, in a sport where the participants are typically as white as the powder they carve, Baguio has always stood out.

His was the only brown face on the Vermont mountain where he learned to ski as a boy. He can't recall ever meeting another Filipino ski patrolman. Today, the 42-year-old ski area manager is an anomaly in a business run largely by white men.

At Mountain High Resort near Wrightwood, however, Baguio fits right in.

"A lot of resorts talk about diversity," said Baguio, who oversees the ski patrol, grooming and facilities at the resort 80 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. "Here, we embrace it wholeheartedly."

In a business that has unsuccessfully searched for ways to lure minorities to combat stagnant growth, tiny Mountain High has earned an outsized reputation as the Ellis Island of ski areas.

Roughly half its customers are nonwhite, compared with about 11% nationwide. Among its patrol members and ski and snowboard instructors are a number who speak Spanish and others versed in Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Farsi. Along with Baguio, several top managers are minorities -- another industry rarity.

"I think Mountain High is doing absolutely the right thing," said Jim Spring, president of the Leisure Trends Group, a Colorado-based outdoor sports research and marketing firm, which tracks skier demographics. While the industry "gives lip service to the idea of having more minority customers, they don't do a hell of a lot."

For the ski industry, the stakes are high. After decades of rapid growth, sales of lift tickets have, on average, remained relatively flat in the last decade.

While snowboarding has helped fill slopes in recent years, the fear is that white male baby-boomers -- skiing's core demographic -- are dying faster than shredders can replace them. It's estimated that 5.4 million skiers and snowboarders took to the slopes last year, down from about 6 million a decade ago.

Not surprisingly, the most homogeneous of sports descends from one of the most homogeneous of places. Norway begat modern skiing in the 19th century, and for decades the pursuit was largely the province of European aristocrats. After World War II, returning veterans -- in particular those who fought in the Alps for the Army's famed 10th Mountain Division -- built the American ski industry.

Southern Californians have been skiing the Big Pines area in the San Gabriel Mountains since the 1930s, when a huge ski jump was built in an attempt to lure the Winter Olympics. The Blue Ridge and Holiday Hill ski areas, the precursors to Mountain High, oozed a faux European flavor.

"Runs can be punctuated with refreshing interludes at the attractive little Swiss-style restaurant-warming hut," The Times wrote of Holiday Hill in the 1950s. "The ski school teaches the French method."

When Karl Kapuscinski became general manager of Mountain High after it was sold in 1997, the resort was like an aging skier with two bad knees, far past its prime and teetering on the edge of failure.

"I had an opportunity to build from the ground up," Kapuscinski said. "We are a different animal than your average winter resort. When you come here, you can throw out everything you know about the ski industry."

Kapuscinski grew up skiing in Vermont and ran a resort in Minnesota -- two of the least diverse states in the nation. But looking down on Southern California from his mountain perch, he saw untapped multicultural markets that could be lured through a relentless focus on youth and snowboarding. Today, 80% of Mountain High's customers are boarders.

"Boarding is the sport of youth," said Kapuscinski, a blond, hyperkinetic 43-year-old who gives his age as 39. "And youth doesn't see color the way old people see color."

Mountain High eschews new groomed runs for half-pipes and rails, and promotes itself at skateboard and surfing contests. It advertises on ethnic radio and provides free video footage that's shown on Asian- and Spanish-language TV weather segments. It hands out season passes to hip-hop disc jockeys in hopes of an on-air plug and word-of-mouth momentum.

"You can't buy that sort of thing," said marketing director John McColly, who at 37 is among Mountain High's older managers.

The effort has paid off: Mountain High expects to sell 500,000 lift tickets this winter, nearly three times as many as a decade ago.

Those extra tickets are being bought by people such as Charlie Perdomo and Ben Tam, both young snowboarders.

"I have friends who, when I say, 'I going snowboarding,' they say, 'What are you doing that for? That's for whites,' " said Perdomo, 25, of Panorama City. "That's a stereotype. Snowboarding is for everyone."

He has tried other resorts and found them "dominated by white people." He prefers Mountain High because of its city-transplanted-to-the-woods atmosphere.

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