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Snow brings a shiver of joy for skiers

Resorts sell out quickly as Southern Californians head for the mountains and fresh snow. But it's cold!

December 31, 2010|By Sam Allen and Alan Zarembo, Los Angeles Times
  • With snowy peaks in the background, Chris Martin of Aliso Viejo jogs the trails of Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park.
With snowy peaks in the background, Chris Martin of Aliso Viejo jogs the… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

A blast of cold air from the North Pole has been a late Christmas gift for Southern California skiers and snowboarders — at least for those hardy enough to brave it.

At the 8,200- foot peak of Snow Summit late Thursday morning, it was 9 degrees. In Big Bear Lake, temperatures were expected to plummet to 6 degrees overnight.

In case there is any confusion, that's Fahrenheit, not centigrade — or 26 degrees less than the freezing point.

Oren Barkan, a real estate agent from Woodland Hills, hadn't factored in the cold when he decided it was the perfect day to teach his 9-year-old son to ski.

"His feet were screaming in pain," said Barkan, who bought his son, Noah, a pair of toe warmers from the ski shop at the Mountain High Resort.

For many Southern Californians, the cold spell is a welcome relief from two weeks of being battered by rain and all that it brings. Rain on its own equals bad traffic. But add cold to the equation and rain turns to snow, which equals bad traffic on the way to the mountains.

Snow levels fell to 2,500 feet and by Thursday morning, sunny blue skies and the prospect of crisp packed powder were calling. Traffic crawled along mountain passes at less than 8 mph in places. Ski resorts were at capacity. The lots filled quickly at Mountain High, forcing many to park along the road and trudge up to the lodge with their skis and boards.

Experts attributed the weather conditions to a massive rush of cold air from the Arctic.

"We could call it the Yukon Express," said William Patzert, a climatologist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.

He said the cold snap is expected to continue through New Years Day and the Tournament of Roses festivities, and into next week. Los Angeles temperatures will dip into the high 30s, with the potential for frost in the San Fernando Valley.

"This is a thermal underwear Rose Parade," Patzert said.

The extreme winds that hit Southern California overnight — with gusts up to 90 mph in the Angeles National Forest — were expected to lose much of their fury throughout the day, according to the National Weather Service.

The Rose Parade and Rose Bowl game, which have a long history of skirting rain, may not be so lucky this year. There is a 20% chance of rain Saturday afternoon, rising to 40% in the evening.

In the mountains, though, that would be snow — more good news for the ski areas.

On Thursday, some people endured the drive into the mountains only to find disappointment: Several ski areas limit the number of people they allow on the slopes and were sold out of lift tickets.

The Mountain High resort sold out of lift tickets at 9 a.m., 30 minutes after the chairlifts opened.

Kim Hermon, the marketing manager, estimated that more than 8,000 skiers and snowboarders were on the resort's three mountains on Thursday. Lift tickets also sold out Monday and Tuesday.

The resort received 6 to 8 inches of snow Wednesday morning.

"This is a perfect day," said Joseph Yo, who drove up with friends from Los Angeles' Koreatown. "The weather is amazing. There's just too many people."

Yo's party was fortunate to have season passes, so he got on to the slopes even though lift tickets were sold out.

Dan Akers said he and friends thought they would have no problem with traffic after they left his Santa Monica home at 6:30 a.m. But they ended up waiting more then an hour on California 2, the road leading to the resort, and weren't able to purchase tickets.

"That was our downfall," he said.

It's all part of the Southern California skier's paradox: Great snow conditions are often accompanied by long lines, treacherous driving and temperatures that are a little less Southern Californian than usual.

Robert Fitch, a teacher from San Bernardino, said that at one point he and a friend were stuck on a chairlift for 15 minutes.

"We were frozen," Fitch said. "It gets so windy up there."

All of it adds up to a little less skiing and a little more time in the lodges warming up.

"A lot for people are down in the shops buying hats and extra jackets," said Chris Riddle, a spokesman for Bear Mountain Resorts.

The resorts welcomed the cold spell.

Although precipitation levels set new December records across southern California, the bulk of it came in the form of rain, not snow. By the middle of the month, there were worries about some slopes going bare.

The recent storms finally delivered.

And the cold has allowed the resorts to produce their own snow at record rates. Snowmaking machines spray water into the air; the droplets must freeze before hitting the ground.

Snow Summit and Bear Mountain each pumped more than 7,000 gallons of water a minute for several hours Thursday morning — the highest rate they have ever achieved, according to Riddle.

The snow is now 18 to 28 inches deep, still a little less than average for late December, he said.

"We're catching up," he said.

sam.allen@latimes.com

alan.zarembo@latimes.com

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