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L.A. Story

It’s the secret of southern California: Less than 50 miles from downtown Los Angeles sits legitimate, steep, big-mountain skiing. It should be busy. Only Mount Waterman got on the wrong side of the Forest Service, took the life of one of its owners, changed hands, and locked out the public. Can a former surf bum rescue it?

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The wind whips the car back and forth, and it’s snowing hard, hinting at a bitter cold outside. Winding along the Angeles Crest Highway as it zigzags up the southern slope of the San Gabriel Mountains, we duck in and out of low clouds and catch glimpses of ridgelines hundreds of feet above. The road looks like it belongs in the southern Sierra or central Oregon, but then we see the 22-inch rims on the spotless white Cadillac Escalade that we’re following and remember: We’re less than 50 miles from downtown Los Angeles.

And I’m with the kind of skiers and snowboarders you can only find in Los Angeles—Rob Bruce, a TV director and ski filmer, and Kevin Zacher, a photographer who shoots big-budget auto campaigns. In the last few days, Bruce has had meetings with Hollywood execs, Zacher has shot photos of gorgeous models, and I’ve ridden set waves from a decent northwest swell. But now we’ve barely climbed above the smog and we’re about to go…skiing?

A road sign that reads ski lifts points forward, as if there were any other direction to go. The Crest Highway traverses the San Gabriels, and with the exception of two state highways and a handful of national-forest access roads, you can go neither left nor right. Just beyond mile marker 50, tucked into a steep north-facing gully, a 32-year-old double chair bearing the name mt. waterman ascends a perfectly gladed face. The roadside snowbanks tower eight feet high and are carved to accommodate a sliver of parking spaces.

The mountain isn’t quite open but we’re here for a sneak peak. Founded in 1942, Mt. Waterman was one of the first ski hills in North America. It provided the first on-snow experience for generations of families in Los Angeles. But since 1999, when the mountain’s original owner sold it, the area has fallen off the map. It has seen infrastructure crumble, controversial new owners come and go, permit trouble, closures, and death. It’s operated only intermittently since the winter of 2002 and was nearly erased from the southern California ski landscape in 2006. But with any luck, its grand reopening will happen soon.

[See pictures from Mt. Waterman]

The Cadillac eases off the Crest and Rick Metcalf, Mt. Waterman’s new owner, steps out into the gray light and blustery wind. He’s wearing ski pants and a thermal top, but his slight sunburn is more beach than mountain. Metcalf walks tall, with a broad chest thrust out from his six-foot-plus frame and the confidence of a guy not afraid to tackle a big wave or a bigger mountain. But at 44, he has the thinning hair and the midsection girth of a guy who probably doesn’t take on either as much as he used to. This is the man who represents winter in Los Angeles, the man who stands to save Mt. Waterman—provided he can actually get the place open to the public. As we’re suiting up in the storm, he walks over. “Any of you guys have a hat I could borrow?”

It should be good skiing today. Seven days ago, a three-foot dump produced the best conditions of the year. But that doesn’t guarantee anything in these mountains. That’s because the San Gabriel snowpack is best described as “yes.” As in, Do these mountains get deep, light powder? Yes. Do they also get rain, sleet, 60-mile-per-hour winds, and 72-hour melt cycles midwinter? Yes. Sometimes, they get it all in one storm. Nailing the conditions here requires an obsessive attention to the National Weather Service and a willingness to accept that your best guess will be wrong 50 percent of the time.

Chair 1 takes us 600 feet straight up from the road. A moist cloud hangs above the tops of the huge lodgepole pines lining the lift path. The place looks like a local ski area, but it doesn’t sound like one—it’s wrapped in an eerie silence broken only by a murmur of conversation that barely makes it from one chair to another. On Sam’s Alley, a steep gully that carves down the area’s northwest boundary, the tree skiing rivals the best that Mammoth has to offer. We’re standing at the top, where it’s untracked and looks promising. Zacher drops in and makes a sweeping arc across the pitch. His board makes a sound resembling a highway plow blade scraping the pavement, loud enough to echo through the trees. He comes to a stop 100 feet below us and grimaces.

Even if the poor visibility didn’t make the skiing nearly impossible, the difficult snow conditions would, so after a few runs, we call it a day. We gather back at the cars to discover a thin layer of ice across everything. As we’re getting out of our boots, Metcalf walks over again. “You guys got an ice scraper I can borrow?”

Sixty-nine years before I visited Waterman, an 18-year-old student at USC’s engineering school named Lynn Newcomb skied from the top of Waterman’s north-facing gully and thanked the convicts. Were it not for the prisoners who the California Division of Highways had mustered in 1929 to hack their way into the mountains above the town of La Canada Flintridge, the Angeles Crest Highway wouldn’t have made it this far. Newcomb’s family established a homestead, the Newcomb Ranch, six miles west of here back in 1888, but until the convicts went to work, reaching the snow above 7,000 feet was impossible.

In 1939, Newcomb bought skis out of a mining-equipment catalog and earned the ridge the hard way—climbing straight up the gully. For two winters, he explored Waterman’s terrain entirely on his own. Then one day his father, a contractor who made his fortune building the first generation of mansions in Bel Air, came to him with schematics for something called a chairlift. “I said, ‘Where are you going to put it?’” Newcomb, now 88, recalls. “And he said, ‘I’m not going to put it anywhere. You are.’”

On January 1, 1942, Mt. Waterman opened for business. After a few years in the Army Air Corps training pilots to fly P-39s, Newcomb got to work developing the place in the same manner he skied it: learning as he went. He struck a deal with the region’s first forest-fire squad. It needed practice hacking down trees, and Newcomb had trees to hack. Newcomb also knew the Division of Highways required lumber for a tunnel it was planning to build nearby. So he offered the felled trees in exchange for the convicts’ dragging them off the hill. Hence the perfect glades that to this day greet skiers on their way up Chair 1.

Newcomb operated Mt. Waterman nearly continuously until 1999, helping to install all three of Mt. Waterman’s double chairlifts. During that time, the Crest Highway was completed and new ski areas like Mountain High and Big Bear popped up farther east in the San Gabriels and the San Bernardinos. Eventually, these areas became full-fledged resorts with detachable quads and—more important in a region that’s as likely to carry a two-foot base as a 10-foot base in any given season— snowmaking. “I wanted to have snowmaking,” Newcomb says, “but I didn’t have that kind of money and I didn’t want to beg for it. I didn’t want a corporation—fuck those guys.”

With modern lifts and ever-expanding terrain parks, the other nearby resorts capitalized on the snowboard boom of the mid-’90s in a way Waterman couldn’t. “The parents had to go where the kids wanted to go, and that was the park,” says Tom Moriarty, a lifetime Waterman local.

Newcomb would likely never have gotten rid of the ski area if his wife of 57 years had not gotten cancer. In 1999, Newcomb sold to a group of four investors called the Angeles Crest Resorts. Mt. Waterman became a corporation, and things went sideways from the get-go. ACR had massive expansion plans and little patience for bureaucracy.

Two years later, a chairlift at the Kratka Ridge ski area—a second, even smaller ski area a few miles down the highway from Waterman that ACR also purchased—was damaged by an avalanche and sat unrepaired for months. In the summer of 2001, ACR was cited for operating without proper permits. Then, in December, the still-unrepaired lift went up in flames. Thus began a downward spiral of disputed charges and suspended permits that kept Mt. Waterman from opening for all but a handful of days over the next four winters.

Characterizations of what went on at the area during the ACR years run the gamut. Still mired in disputes with the Forest Service and state agencies, ACR didn’t have the permits to legally operate. But it had a key to the gate in order to let what it could liberally call “maintenance crews” ride the lifts.

Selected locals would get invited to help dig out Chair 1 in exchange for a day of skiing in all-time good conditions. On a morning in December 2004, Zacher found himself at the base of then-closed Waterman with 15 other people, amping up as the latest storm dumped around them. By early January, more than eight feet would fall across southern California, shattering early-season records in the San Gabriels and the San Bernardinos. Zacher was there because he knew a guy who knew a guy.

While hardcore SoCal skiers struggled through waist-deep snow on the comparatively flat runs of resorts like Big Bear and Mountain High, a few friends (and friends of friends) of ACR were treated to laps of steep untracked tree skiing an hour from Sunset Boulevard. “It was as good as it gets,” Zacher says. “You might see someone on the lift, but otherwise it was just my friends and me taking high-speed laps through nice, cold, blower pow. It was like heli-skiing.”

Those out of the loop called it a private ski club that was willfully kept closed by a group of wealthy investors using the place as an ice-cold tax shelter; others believed the group was sincere in trying to bring the area into the modern era but had fallen victim to antagonistic agencies that didn’t want to see further development in the Angeles National Forest. The reality is probably somewhere in between.

In January 2005, an epic storm cycle turned nasty as temperatures shot upward and 15 inches of rain fell at higher elevations. A subsequent cold snap deposited a layer of bulletproof ice. On January 22, Barry Stubblefield, the most active of ACR’s investors, slipped at the top of Waterman’s signature front-face run, Robyn’s. Stubblefield slid the length of the run out of control. The first thing he hit was the tree that killed him.

Stubblefield is described by those who knew him as one of the motivating forces behind ACR. Without him, the corporation effectively shut down, and Waterman entered two winters of hibernation.

Stubblefield’s death transferred ownership to his brother, an executive vice president of Enterprise Rent-A-Car who had neither the time nor the inclination to deal with the project he had bankrolled for his brother. By the spring of 2006, Mt. Waterman was officially in noncompliance with the Forest Service. All that stood between the mountain and the wrecking ball was a few months of bureaucracy.

Then Rick Metcalf showed up. Metcalf is the embodiment of the California Dream—circa 1982. Growing up in La Canada Flintridge, he spent his summers surfing and his winters ripping the steep moguls beneath Waterman’s Chair 1. It’s not hard to envision him playing hooky, strapping longboards to the roof of a Chevy Camaro, and stopping by the mall to pick up a few Valley Girls on his way to the beach. Even at 44, Metcalf boasts of an annual “quad-fecta,” when he and the boys will ski, ride motocross, waterski, and surf between a single sunrise and sunset.

The savvy guy from around here grew up and traded the tank top for a broker’s license. After a good start in commercial real estate, Metcalf moved into the mortgage business and rode that wave right up to the peak of the state’s unprecedented real-estate explosion. “I foresaw the market coming to where it is now,” he says, referring to the recent tsunami of foreclosures. “I got out of that, and then I was looking for something to do.”

Metcalf had been in the bidding before ACR purchased Waterman in 1999, so when he heard the Forest Service was on the verge of tearing out the existing infrastructure in the spring of 2006, he got back in touch with Newcomb. For his part, the old man was trying to convince the Forest Service he could find someone to buy the place back from ACR. Since ACR was looking to sell for a song, Metcalf, along with his brother and two other investors, very quickly became the proud owners of his childhood ski hill.

“I dove in headfirst without thinking it all through,” he admits. He composes a list of things he didn’t expect when he purchased a ski area: “Mountain people with quirky personalities; everything that goes into the chairlifts, from the bullwheels to the whisker switches; all the brakes and the emergency things, load testing…the kitchen…”

ACR’s fatal flaw was thinking that Mt. Waterman could ever be more than what Lynn Newcomb intended it to be: a local ski hill. But it’s a rare character in this day who looks up a lift line and doesn’t see a resort in the making. In the ski-resort business, if you’re not growing, you’re shrinking. But in the local-ski-hill business, if you’re not growing, it’s probably because you have everything you need.

Rick Metcalf thinks Mt. Waterman is just fine the way it is. Now all he needs are customers.

On February 16, 2008, for the first time in four seasons, Mt. Waterman opens to the public. By 10:30, cars line both sides of the Crest Highway beneath Chair 1 and 106 tickets have sold at $45 a pop. The snow is corning up in the sun, remains rock-solid in the shade, and can be charitably described as variable.

The place is clearly a work in progress. Chair 3 is inoperable because it’s encased in ice. The kitchen in the Warming Hut at the top of Chair 1 has been completely gutted and is several thousand dollars away from functioning, so Metcalf has hired caterers to work beneath a tent to appease the Forest Service, which requires him to provide food and drinks. There are no experienced groomers to tackle the area’s steep terrain. Chairs 1 and 2 operate at a fraction of their full speed for fear that overworking them could cause a malfunction that would be difficult to fix.

And trail signage borders on nonexistent. In search of some terrain that doesn’t require a New England ski tune, I follow a cat track that crosses beneath Chair 1 toward the mountain’s east flank. The infamous Robyn’s is still in the shade, but it looks like there’s sun around the corner. I putter along the track as it slowly loses elevation, and suddenly a ridge springs up between me and Waterman’s north face, barring my access back to Chair 1. A dead end.

Coming to a stop, I strain to hear the sounds of other skiers, but instead I’m greeted with only the sounds of the mountains. This, I think, must be what Mt. Waterman sounded like when Lynn Newcomb discovered it—before he put up things like chairlifts and trail signs. It takes me about 15 minutes to sidestep up the ridge and make my way through the thin trees back to the area’s unmarked boundary.

At the picnic tables outside the Warming Hut, Newcomb sits in blue jeans, Sorels, and an ancient ski jacket. His slate-gray eyes are set deep and the lines in his face are like the canyon walls that serrate the ski area he founded. He receives hugs and handshakes from an endless line of people who thank him for building the place where they all learned to ski. The crusty old guy is so overcome by the outpouring that he damn-near tears up.

Meanwhile, Metcalf bounces between the base of Chair 1 and the Warming Hut, greeting customers and huddling with ski patrol over where to erect fences and the status of the still-dormant Chair 3.

“It’s kind of a soft opening,” he admits. “So far, there haven’t been any ‘Oh my God! We need that!’ moments.” I think about mentioning the cat track to nowhere, but Metcalf is distracted by a few well-wishers of his own and I decide against it.

After all, the vibe is celebratory. Longtime locals reconnect in the parking lot before crossing the highway and settling in for the long lift ride up the short pitch. Cheers and laughter echo through the trees, as if the volume on a long-forgotten soundtrack has suddenly been cranked. Under the midwinter sun, with a small swarm of families and friends enjoying the place just as it is, Mt. Waterman looks like any number of mom-and-pop ski hills in the Midwest or the Northwest interior.

Then I see the Japanese tourists on Chair 1 wearing Nikes and carrying cameras around their necks and remember: We’re less than 50 miles from downtown Los Angeles.

Epilogue: Mt. Waterman operated for another four weekends after its opening day in February 2008. During the 2008–2009 winter, the lifts ran another 15 weekends. Ticket sales doubled, up to nearly 300 a day. Metcalf hopes to move to a Thursday-through-Sunday schedule for 2010.