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Ski Resort Life

A SoCal Culture Club

Part Vegas, part skatepark, the most diverse ski destination in North America just might hold the secret to skiing’s future. Welcome to California’s Big Bear Mountain Resorts.

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A tall transgender woman wearing hot-pink ski togs perches on a bench at the foot of a snowy Southern California ski slope, adjusting her boot buckles and striking a pose.

But she’s not Caitlyn Jenner. And this is a Saturday morning in Big Bear Lake, the least famous yet most demographically varied of America’s top ski destinations. The 10,000 skiers and boarders sauntering in their laid-back SoCal style from parking lots to lifts are so wide-ranging, colorful, and accustomed to diversity that the towering, chisel-chinned white woman in pink merits barely a second glance.

They are Latino, Chinese, Korean, Persian, Filipino, black, and white. They are rail thin but also waddling obese. Some are clumsy from breakfast beer, others are jacked on Red Bull. Notably younger than today’s average North American ski-resort customer, they are alternately tattooed, clean-cut, tragically hip, boob-augmented, shaggy, silly, saggy, swaggering, quirky, muscle-pumped, and superstar beautiful in roughly equal measure. Many have kids in tow, but many others do not. They are, in other words, a cross-section of southern California itself, mashed up with urban skateboard style and a Vegas poolside party, set in a classic alpine backdrop. Yes, they are here to ski and snowboard, but mainly they are here to have a good time.

Could this be the future of skiing?

Largely unknown outside southern California’s sprawling megalopolis of 24 million, Big Bear, a piney, high-altitude aerie just two hours from downtown Los Angeles, is a fixture in regional life. A dam built 100-plus years ago to provide steady water for lowland orange growers created a lovely lake. Summer tourism took hold, boosted periodically by Hollywood and its stars: Gone with the Wind filmed here, as did Bonanza and Lassie. The first permanent ski area opened 1949, and others soon followed.

Big Bear Mountain Resorts’ two side-by-side ski hills—Snow Summit and Bear Mountain—used to be independent, each initially developed in the traditional style of America’s post–World War II ski boom, with European ski schools, post-and-beam day lodges, and big hearths with crackling fires. Over time, they became seedbeds for snowsports innovations, from the installation of extensive permanent snowmaking equipment in the late 1950s to the first Winter X Games in 1997. The two hills came under combined ownership in 2002.

Throughout, Angelenos kept coming (among them a ginger-headed six-year-old named Shaun White, who credits his Snow Summit years as key to his success). Southern California’s thriving action-sports culture—its skateboarding, surfing, wakeboarding, motocross riding, BMXing, and mountain biking—added a natural feedback loop. For many, hitting the slopes at Big Bear for a few hours became just another way to take part in the southern California good life.

Today more people glide on snow at Big Bear Mountain Resorts each winter than they do at Park City Mountain Resort (before the Vail buyout), or at Killington, or at Snowmass, all of which rank in America’s most-visited top 15. Together BBMR’s Snow Summit and Bear Mountain dish just 438 developed skiable acres (with an additional 550 acres open during rare extensive natural snowfall), but they reach heights of 8,805 feet, with a vertical drop of 1,665 feet. In other words, this is real skiing and boarding. Add 160 to 200 freestyle features in the terrain parks, expansive beginner zones, and unusual water arrangements that enable 100 percent of both mountains to operate on purely manmade snow, even in the recent drought. Another bonus: BBMR’s sun-kissed, beach-inspired bars go off, sometimes because a major music act buzzes up from Hollywood to play a free show, other times just because it’s, well, Saturday. “Are we going to get a drink first,” one young woman in ski boots asks her friend at 10 a.m., “or go for a run on the mountain?”

“It is a crowd that likes to have fun,” says Rusty Gregory, CEO of Mammoth Mountain Resort. In this case, fun is profitable business. BBMR guests rent gear, take ski lessons, and (despite signs posted around the mountains that read, “Friends don’t let friends ride and ski drunk”) apparently also buy beer at notably higher rates than skiers at areas with comparable visitor volume. So when the resort’s longtime owners decided to sell, suitors formed a queue. In February 2014, Mammoth won the bidding, purchasing BBMR for $38 million.

For Brian, Renny, and Jordan, three friends in their early 20s from the San Fernando Valley, the Mammoth acquisition is nothing but great. The pals are self-taught snowboarders, bound more by style (floppy sun hats, camouflage bandanas, NBA logo shirts, roomy snowboard pants) than by ethnic origin (which ranges across the full southern California spectrum). A high school trip to the snow gave them their initial inspiration. Now the guys frequently pile into a small, fuel-efficient car together (“Twenty bucks fills up the tank!”) to head to BBMR.

When rumors of a Mammoth acquisition first emerged in fall 2013, they each scraped together enough money from their jobs (managing a Jamba Juice, valeting cars at an upscale mall, and working at a hair salon) to buy the new Cali4nia Pass for unlimited season access at both Mammoth and Big Bear, plus perks like 50 percent off lift tickets for friends. “The pass is the biggest helpful thing,” they explain, talking all at once and finishing each other’s sentences. “It saves us so much money.” By late February, they had tallied four visits to Big Bear—“We like the jumps and rails”—and one three-day trip to Mammoth—“We like off-roading in the trees.” Eats? Think Carl’s Jr. Sleeps? Equally value priced. The grins on these guys’ faces? Ear to ear.

For the ski industry as a whole, customers like Brian, Renny, and Jordan are a score. Not only are they Millennials, but they hail from demographic segments the snowsports industry traditionally has had little success with: non-Caucasians whose parents didn’t grow up skiing or even around snow.

“Baby Boomers are starting to age out of the sport,” notes Chris Gunnarson, 42, president of Snow Park Technologies, the world’s leading consultancy on the design and building of terrain features and on snow events that attract the youth market. To survive post-Boomer, the ski industry must find a way to become part of a new generation’s lives—an adaptation that’s about much more than just marketing. “When you start talking about Millennials, Generation Y, Generation Z, those kids think differently and consume differently. How the product-experience on the mountain is geared to that audience will be the success or failure of the ski industry.”

“We are on the cutting edge,” says Dave Likins, 47, BBMR’s new COO. In an industry that must evolve if it is to survive, he views Big Bear as the “best example” of how to attract multi-ethnic Millennials from diverse economic circumstances as guests. “This is what the future of the ski industry is going to be,” Likins says. “If this is the most important demographic, and this is the breeding ground for that demographic, then by definition it almost makes us the most important resort in the country.”

Important? Maybe. Fun? For sure.

From the 8,560-foot summit of Bear’s Silver Mountain, a broad, steep boulevard undulates down the pine-forested mountainside with a lake glistening at its base. That the lake is ice-free, the sky is blue, and nothing but the runs themselves are touched by snow doesn’t detract from the bliss. Four skiers tip into the slope with no one else around, the wind soft and dry, the snow a perfect texture for rocketing like fantasy super-G stars.

Lower down, the run merges into one of BBMR’s many freestyle zones, where the vibe is more like a busy urban skateboard park than a classic ski run. People of all colors and sizes, some clad in snow gear, others in Starter jackets and track pants, some dressed like rappers, others like Brooklyn hipsters, snake onto little terrain features, pop off them with a tiny bit of air, laugh out loud, take pictures of each other, and call out to their friends. In truth, the skill level is lower than the enthusiasm: Snow-level boxes and easy rails get far more attention than the mega-hits and jump-over police car being finessed by a handful of filming ski and snowboard pros. “Our job,” says Clayton Shoemaker, BBMR’s director of youth marketing and park development, “is to make sure everyone has something to ride that makes them feel like a rock star.”

At the base, the Tiki Bar and Beach Bar are ramping up. Motorcycle leathers mix with dreadlocks. Tiny blondes with big diamonds bask alongside biker babes with tattoos and serious piercings. Nearby, hundreds of instructors (BBMR employs 450) are still busy teaching a sea of kids to ski. An elegant Pakistani-American matriarch, wearing a flowing sari with Sorels on her feet, stands on the edge of the gentle slope, waving at four of her grandsons as they glide. The fifth, still a toddler, sits at her feet. Is he Patient Zero for the future of snow sports? Only time will tell. For now he just claws snow from the ground, gazes at it like a scientist making a groundbreaking discovery, and presses it into his mouth.