Snow Summit is where Southern California's beach mentality meets the slopes. But families also groove on this L.A. resort's appeal.
The first thought that comes to mind when driving through the sunbaked, concrete sprawl of L.A. is not "Let's go skiing." The air is often so milky with haze that you can't even see the monumental mountains that encircle the greater L.A. basin until you are quite literally in them. But during an enchanting period in winter and early spring, when Los Angeles is lush, clear and magnificent, the massive San Gorgonio and San Bernardino ranges spring into view like something magical that blossomed overnight, reaching more than 8,000 feet high. Whether you're surfing in South Bay, shopping in Beverly Hills or crawling through traffic on a four-level freeway stack, the hulking, snow-capped peaks look close enough to touch. That is when Snow Summit goes off.
Set along the crest of the San Bernardino Mountains in the town of Big Bear Lake, 110 miles east of the heart of L.A., Snow Summit is the sell-out powerhouse of Southern California snow sports, with nearly 500,000 skier visits a season. Its regional competitors don't even come close to its volume. Imagine a multi-ethnic mix of Baywatch, the X-Games and classic, old-school skiing, and you'll begin to get a sense of what "going off" Snow Summit-style means.
The parking lot is a scene in itself, throbbing with subwoofers thumping from the open tailgates of souped-up SUVs. Shirtless, muscled Latino dudes with tattoos kick back in deck chairs in the back of a pickup truck, bagging rays and working through a case of Bud. Tan, athletic girls saunter past wearing bikini tops, snowboard pants, wool hats and goggles. A balding white guy sporting a long ponytail, cotton turtleneck and rainbow-colored suspenders attached to bell-bottom stretch pants locks his faded Firebird, throws his skinny skis over his shoulder and clomps across the pavement toward the slopes. A clean-cut dad carrying a snowboard walks alongside a gangly kid carrying brand-new twin-tip skis.
The mountain itself features four equally distinct zones: a beginner area; a classic ski area with six lifts that service scenic pine-flanked runs; the Family Park, a half dozen runs where slow skiing and boarding are the rule; and the Freestyle Park, which includes two halfpipes, including a SuperPipe, a jib park and three terrain parks for a total of about 150 unique manmade features. The Freestyle Parks are considered by pros to be one of the world's top spots for jibbing. In fact, when the mountain sells out tickets-which it does regularly on weekends and holidays, turning hundreds away-the only significant line is at Chair 2, the high-speed quad that serves the jib zone. The mountain's east side-the classic area, where skiers carve big, fast turns in the forested quiet of Timber Ridge or bump it up on The Wall while Led Zeppelin's "Misty Mountain Hop" plays-is another story. "Over here it's never crowded," says Steve, a forensic chemist, who skis Summit often enough that he bought a nearby weekend home. "I used to go to Mammoth, but getting here is quick and easy. There's enough variety. The skiing is a lot of fun." Not too shabby for a hill with a mere 230 skiable acres and winters that sometimes bring as little as 75 inches of natural snow.
What makes Snow Summit special is not just the fact that the mountain is laced with enough snowmaking to open the entire ski area on manmade. Its seasoned management team, from President and General Manager Dick Kun on down, has focused on innovation and on enhancing the resort's natural gifts to perfection. "The mountain is incredibly well laid out," says Snow Summit fan and former staffer Tim Cohee, now president and general manager of Lake Tahoe's Kirkwood Mountain Resort. "All the lifts are where they sdouble fall-lines. Electronic reader boards let customers know where to find the shortest liftlines. The ticket reservation system is great. The list goes on. I have a hard time believing anyone could find something at Snow Summit they could do better."
Except maybe Dick Kun. He's been managing the independently owned and operated ski area since the mid-Sixties and seems to find something new to do better every year. Kun's stepfather, Tommi Tyndall, founded Snow Summit in 1952. By 1964, when Tyndall was killed in a tractor accident, the mountain had a base lodge, one chairlift and partial snowmaking. Kun and his mother, Jo Tyndall, took over.
By the late-Seventies, survival had turned into big business. On weekends, lines at the ticket window stretched several hundred feet long; Snow Summit responded by developing a telephone reservation system-a whole new concept in skiing. The next season, 1978-79, the mountain's five chairlifts carried a record half-million skier visits. The following summer, the resort built its own power plant to sustain future growth.
Kun says such departures from the norm have not come from "any great vision or foresight. It's problem solving. One of the keys is having talent who know what they're doing. We have a long-tenured staff. That continuity has been a key element of our success."
Snow Summit's recent innovations have focused on safety and service. Last year it debuted the SuperPark, a zone of mega-hits for expert tricksters; access to the SuperPark requires a photo ID that can be obtained only after signing a special liability release. (Kids under 18 must have a notarized authorization form signed by their legal guardians.) At the same time, the primary terrain park was "detuned," explains Kun, making it more compatible for mainstream riders and skiers. The result: Fast, aggressive riders were no longer competing with moderate weekenders for pace and space. And inexperienced riders were steered clear of the big hits. In the process, Snow Summit kept its reputation as the world's best place to get air while reducing both its injury rate and its exposure to risk. "What we have shown is that we can have a mix," Kun says. "The youth market, the family market, the ski market and the snowboard market can co-exist."
The average Southern California weekend skiers, though, aren't thinking about Dick Kun's innovations. They're thinking about Big Bear Lake's 339 days of sunshine or the big vista of 11,502-foot Mt. San Gorgonio they can see while eating barbecue on the deck of the View Haus. They're thinking about how stunning the lake looks as they cruise with their kids down the open, easy boulevard of Miracle Mile. Maybe they're smiling because it's their birthday and they got a free ticket. Maybe some ski instructor they had five years ago just recognized them and greeted them with a hug. Or maybe, like the thirtysomething Schroeder siblings, they simply get a kick out of surfing and skiing in the same day. "We do it all the time," laughs athletic Kurt Schroeder. Then he and his brothers and sisters point 'em toward The Wall for some serious skiing. After all, it's winter in L.A. And Snow Summit, as usual, is going off.