The rain came in early January. El Nino raged across Southern California. Streets flooded. Waves swallowed entire beaches, dragging the sand back into the depths of the ocean and leaving beaches up and down the coast bare with rocks. Cigarette butts, trash, dead plants, and pollution washed down the city drainage systems and into the Pacific. Seaweed covered parts of the coastal roads. But in the mountains of Los Angeles, the storms were a blessing, bringing snow to slopes that had been sitting abandoned for years.
(Yes, there are ski areas in Southern California.)
The San Gabriel Mountains, connecting L.A. to the Mojave Desert with a string of peaks that reach as high as 10,000 feet, are home to four ski areas, each within an hour's drive from downtown Los Angeles: Mountain High, Mount Baldy, Snowcrest, and Mount Waterman. They are old ski areas; their lifts started spinning in the '30s, '40s, and '50s. But lately, with the record-breaking drought in California, their lifts haven't spun at all. Mount Waterman, in particular, hadn't opened since the 2010-11 season, that is, until last Saturday. To skiers across the region like myself, there was no question. It was our duty to show up for first chair.
(Yes, there are skiers in Southern California.)
I woke up in North County, San Diego, at 5:15 a.m. The echo from waves crashing against the beach drifted into my window. The surf was big this weekend. But I was focused on skiing. I brushed my teeth, made a cup of coffee, walked out to my car, opened the trunk, shoved my surfboard straps aside, loaded my skis, boots, and poles, and drove off into the darkness.
I met two more skiers in a parking lot near the freeway. We condensed to one car and merged onto I-5. All the lanes were empty, an occurrence in Southern California that only happens in the dead of night. We flew up the main artery, and when we arrived in L.A., dawn brightened the sky. The further north we drove, the smaller the roads became: a six-lane interstate, a four-lane highway, a two-lane thoroughfare, and finally, a single-lane mountain road that wound its way up switchbacks and climbed from sea level to 7,000 feet in less than 40 miles. Eventually, we rounded the bend to arrive at Waterman Ski Area, or a pullout on the road, a hut/ticket office, and a single chairlift. If you were driving too fast, you'd miss it.
The parking lot met capacity by 9 a.m. with about 30 cars. We pulled into the last spot, traded sandals for ski boots, and joined the line at the ticket office, which was manned by Beth Metcalf, who owns and operates Mount Waterman Ski Area with her two brothers. For every transaction, she took a green Sharpie, crossed out "Winter 2008" on the lift tickets, wrote the current date, and passed the customer a wicket through the window.
The minutes ticked down to 9 a.m. and the lift line grew longer. The skiers were young and old. Their gear was of the skinnier, shorter, and rear-entry variety, maybe something picked up second-hand at ski swap or garage sale. The line didn't see much Gore-Tex, nor many bright colors. One woman wore a faux fur jacket (or maybe it was real). Another wrapped herself up in a fleece scarf. And another wore a light blue onesie, without irony.
Just before loading time, the liftie yelled a few words over the chairlift's loud diesel engine to welcome everyone back to Mount Waterman. And the first skier pulled up to the loading zone to cheers from the crowd. Later that day, I met an older man in a brown knit beanie who spent the last few years wondering if he'd ever ski here again.
"I'm good. I'm skiing Waterman," he said before pushing himself downhill.
Skiing in Southern California feels like time travel to a bygone era, as if the clock stopped in 1941, the year the first chair was installed at Mount Waterman. The ski area consists of three lifts—all two-person, slow, and vintage—and a warming hut on top of the ridge. The front side held surprisingly steep shots down gullies and ravines, through the trees, with plenty of boulders and stumps to pop off of. The back side had two more lifts accessing rolling, low-angle terrain.
The skiing was just as slow-paced as the chairlifts. The three-foot base had been sitting for a few days since the storm passed, and it didn't freeze the night before, which meant sticky conditions. The key maneuver was to keep your weight centered, stick to the steeper shots, point it straight, and not dump any speed. We got the hang of it after a few turns and spent the rest of the day exploring. Without any crowds, we farmed fresh turns all day up and down the ridge without any rush. Each run, we crested the next bump to discover another virgin shot of snow. At the bottom, we popped out on the road, and skied along the pavement, around the hairpin corners, surprising a little girl with dark, curly pigtails and her father who had driven up from the city to build a snowman.
If the snow had been colder, the day would have been all time. My compatriots and I promised to come back on the next powder day. By mid-afternoon, the light grew warmer and hotter and the snow stickier. It was a good time to call it, just as soon as we drank a beer at the warming hut and skied one more lap down the front side. In the parking lot, we reversed the trade, this time ski boots for sandals, and got back in the car to drive down the hill and back to the beach.