Weekend at Mountain High


The fantasy of living in Southern California is that you can surf in the morning and ski in the afternoon. To test this out, I walk the three blocks from my apartment to Venice Beach to dip my toes into the ocean. (I don't actually surf.)

As I watch joggers in shorts and skaters in bikinis speed by on the boardwalk, I struggle to grasp the idea that I will spend the rest of the day skiing. I look up at the mountains-no snow in sight. And yet, 90 minutes later, after driving through the desert, I stand at the top of Mountain High Resort amid snowy pine trees under crystal skies. Cruising down the perfect warm-up run, Catch Ya Later, it's easy to forget that just 80 miles away lies the ocean and a concrete jungle of 10 million or so people. I think, "Los Angeles, I'll catch you later."

Located 6,000 feet up the north side of the surprisingly vertical San Gabriel Mountains, Mountain High is an easy escape from Los Angeles. It requires no mountain driving, and its north-facing slopes traditionally help it hold more snow than Big Bear-area resorts, although 2001-02 was a particularly lackluster year for all of Southern California. At 180 inches of snowfall in an average year, powder days are numbered, but the resort makes snow on 95 percent of its terrain to keep conditions even. With 220 skiable acres, this is not big-mountain skiing, but for a backyard playground, it's tough to beat.

Mountain High is actually two mountains connected by a convenient shuttle bus. East Resort, affectionately known as "The Beast," features the 1.5-mile thigh-burner Goldrush and the powder-collecting Canyon run. In the past, The Beast was somewhat neglected due to poor lift location and base facilities. No longer. During summer 2001, East Resort underwent a $1.5 million face-lift, including remodeled base facilities, a new learning center and a longer (top-to-bottom) terrain park. Most important, the 1,600-vertical-foot Mountain High Express chair was moved to the center of the mountain. The result is improved access to all of the runs, including the best mogul run on the mountain, double-black Olympic Bowl. West Resort still attracts the majority of the snowboard crowd, so East Resort is a haven for skiers.

East Resort is also the best point of access for Sawmill Canyon-the formerly out-of-bounds area between the two mountains that locals have been skiing for years. It would have officially opened last season, but it didn't receive enough snow. After a storm hits, access it from the top of East Resort for a great fall line and excellent tree-skiing.

Back at West Resort, I head to the Conquest triple chair. It's a little slow, but it accesses most of the resort's black-diamonds, which are comparatively empty. Cruising along Inferno Ridge, you have a nice choice of steeps. To get away from groomers, I like the perfectly spaced trees of The Reef. Hugging the area boundary, you'll find untouched stashes and have the hill to yourself-a welcome respite on what can be a crowded mountain.

What Mountain High lacks in size, it makes up for with five terrain parks, two halfpipes, a snowskate park and a full calendar of events, such as Singles Nights and the Chevy $10,000 Pro/Am Triple Air. Riding up West Resort's Blue Ridge Express, you have a bird's-eye view of predominantly young male snowboarders flying through the Borderline terrain park's tabletops, rollers, waves and rails. It's like watching the X Games from the chairlift. In fact, Mountain High has a long history of big air-the resort was built in 1929 to attract the 1932 Olympic Games to what was then the world's largest ski jump. (Poor snow conditions moved the competition to Lake Placid, N.Y.) While some locals complain that the snowboard crowd lacks mountain etiquette, I experience no such thing. I even find a young rider willing to lead me through the park and give me pointers on catching my own version of big air. Though not X Games material, it's challenging, exhilarating and adds ahole new dimension to my day-and a few new bruises to my body.

Battered but certainly not defeated, I hang around for night-skiing, which takes place on 80 percent of West Resort, seven days a week. The wind kicks up and the snow gets a bit icy, but it's still enjoyable. You'll find the best night-skiing during mid-season when even temperatures prevent the thaw/freeze cycle that makes even intermediate runs ski as fast as a giant slalom course.

While night-skiing will always take a back seat to day-skiing in my book, I calculate that one could work a nine-to-five job in L.A. and still make it up for plenty of runs by the 10 p.m. closing time. The resort has options to match any schedule, offering four-hour ($39), eight-hour ($43) and point-per-run tickets. (Skiers receive 200 points for $43. Runs range from 10-20 points each.)

Mountain High gets crowded on weekends and traffic can be a problem, but the resort limits ticket sales and allows skiers to pre-activate tickets to ensure spots and avoid sales lines. The hands-free turnstiles are a little impersonal, but they keep guests moving about the mountain efficiently.Crowd control is increasingly important, because even with poor snow conditions last season, Mountain High managed to pull in more than half a million skier visits.

To keep up with its rising popularity, Mountain High Holdings LLC, whichacquired the resort in 1997, plans to make significant capital improvements during the next couple of years. By next season, the owners intend to build a new 40,000-square-foot base lodge at West Resort that will improve access and eliminate hiking to the beginner lifts. Compared to the current makeshift, 10,000-square-foot lodge, the proposed three-story glass building will provide a much-needed centerpiece and gathering place. The resort also plans to install a Magic Carpet lift for the kids ski school, level and combine the parking lots, and upgrade rental, retail and dining facilities. In the long term, Mountain High hopes to connect the two mountains by developing Sawmill Canyon-a plan that would almost double the resort's size and vastly improve its terrain.

That growth will likely spill over into the tiny town of Wrightwood, just five minutes down the road.

Because Mountain High is primarily a day destination, most skiers skip the one-horse town altogether. But staying overnight makes for a refreshing getaway that feels a million miles from L.A.

Don't expect anything too fancy-Wrightwood is blissfully undeveloped, with no fast food, one gas station and no stoplights. Lodging options are limited. The best bet is the new Crystal Inn Motel, just off the town square. Its six large rooms are nicely furnished and sparkly clean. More upscale lodging options are private cabin rentals through Wrightwood Rentals or cozy bed-and-breakfasts. Hummingbird Haven is a nicely appointed B&B with antiques and quilts, while the Pine View House has calming views through its floor-to-ceiling windows. Norma Rasmussen, who owns Pine View with her husband, John, welcomes guests with homemade chocolates and also hosts chocolate-tasting parties on request.

In fact, Wrightwood abounds with opportunities to satisfy your sweet tooth. The giant, freshly baked cinnamon rolls at Cinnamon's Bakery are not to be missed. On the town square, Apple Street Treats has incredible homemade chocolates such as cashew turtles, truffles and tiger butter, and Apple Ann's has rich homemade fudge. For the main course, head to the Yodeler, a pub with giant Ortega chile cheeseburgers and good pizzas. The upscale Blue Ridge Inn serves excellent steaks and fish and has a dark, cozy bar, perfect for fireside chats. For nightlife, try the Yodeler or the Wrightwood Inn, a lively spot with pool tables and a dance floor for the favorite local evening sport: karaoke.

After three days of skiing, chocolate and karaoke, it's time to head home. As traffic slows to a crawl on the 405 freeway (thanks to my ill-timed rush-hour departure), I feel an odd sense of calm. Knowing I can escape to Mountain High and Wrightwood so easily makes the urban madness more palatable. Back in Venice, I dip my toes into the Pacific, my mission of living the Southern California dream complete. d rush-hour departure), I feel an odd sense of calm. Knowing I can escape to Mountain High and Wrightwood so easily makes the urban madness more palatable. Back in Venice, I dip my toes into the Pacific, my mission of living the Southern California dream complete.