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PAUL BERSEBACH, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Two snowboarders take a jump at Bear Mountain in Big Bear last February. This was shot after the resort got about 14 inches of new snow.
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Snow coming, but will it be a white winter?

Snow coming - will it be a white winter?

THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Merrie Jo Dietzman tries not to get too excited when the forecast calls for snow.

The manager at Leroy's Ski and Snowboard shop in Big Bear knows the drill. If they are put on storm watch, barely anything drops from the sky. But if they say nothing is coming – that's when they get a big dumping of snow.

"Honestly, we wait and see what happens," she said. "I want snow. It's just beautiful when it snows up here. It's white, and everything is pure."

With snow in the forecast for today at local mountains, a buzz is in the air for the potential near start for the ski and snowboard season, and with Mammoth Mountain officially opening the first ski lifts Thursday, riders are dusting off their gear to hit the slopes.

But with the anticipation of a new snow season, many people are remembering last season and wondering – will it be another bummer year, or will Mother Nature decide to cooperate with snowy storms anytime soon?

Snowboarders, skiers, resorts, retailers, and businesses are all hoping for a stronger snow season than last year, a disappointingly dry drought season that was called the worst since the early '90s.

There were 51 million skiers and snowboarders nationwide last season – the lowest resort attendance in 20 years, according to the National Ski Areas Association. Nearly every region in the United States reported a decrease in overall operation. Our area, the Pacific Southwest, was down 25.2 percent from the previous year, according to the association.

Part of the reason for the horrible year is because the year before was like a winter wonderland in Southern California, with storms hitting back to back to bring plenty of powder. There was a record 60.5 million visitors to resorts across the country in the 2010-2011 season.

Last year produced the lowest average snowfall in 20 years, with the national average plunging by 42 percent from the previous season, according to the report.

Mammoth for the 2010-11 season, for example, reported record-breaking snowfall of 600 inches. Last year's total was 263 inches – with little snow showing before January.

"The season before last, there was a new record for precipitation. We just have to get the conditions to cooperate with us," said Troy Hawks, spokesman for the association. "There's a lot of buzz in the air for the upcoming ski season. I think folks know that last season was so far off the norm, we're looking forward to this season with optimism."

While economics has an impact on attendance, it's really the snow that is the key driver for attendance, he said.

"With the economy, people cut back – but they are die-hard skiers and boarders. Maybe they'll not go to dinner, or not get that new car, but they get their powder days to get their inner stoke going," he said.

Duke Edukas, co-owner of Surfside Sports in Costa Mesa, couldn't agree more with the assessment.

"Last year was our most difficult year; we just didn't have the snow. It affects everything. In the snowboard business, snow is king," he said. "I would rather have a recession again, than no snow."

Edukas had plenty of stock left from last year, much of which they got rid of last week during their annual Snow Carnival, a big sale for snow products before this season starts.

He said there are different types of buyers who walk in the shop. First, there are the die-hard snowboarders who go 100 days a year or more. They'll look for all the new stuff right when it hits the shelves.

The second group consists of passionate snowboarders, who still enjoy other activities such as surfing or skating. They'll come out to opening days at resorts, and generally know what products they want.

But the biggest purchasing group is the buyers who come in during the Christmas shopping season – and that's when it's most important to get the snow.

"To us, if (snow) comes in January or February – we're stoked as snowboarders, but as retailers it's tough because you still have product," Edukas said.

Just like everyone else, he's banking on a stronger season than last.

"I've been in this business long enough to know it wasn't going to be as good as the previous year, and it has to be better than the last year. It's going to fall somewhere in between," he said. "Our strategy is just as it's been every year – just hope for snow."

The buzz before the season starts is a predicted El Nino this year will create a wet season that will bring bounties of snowfall.

But Alex Tardy, warning coordinator meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says it's not that simple.

El Nino is a periodic warming of the water in the tropical Pacific Ocean, battling with changes in air pressure and winds that can influence weather patterns, and the degrees of intensities for El Ninos can vary.

Tardy's best prediction is that it will be a little better than last year, but a forecast weak El Niño – as expected this year -- provides little correlation with how the amount of snowfall.

He says there have been wet and snowy years with moderate and strong El Nino years, like in 1997-98, 1994-95 and 2004-05. But there have also been dry years like 2006-07 with weak-to-moderate El Nino seasons.

"In general terms, a stronger El Niño would bring higher precipitation and more frequent storms in the winter season. However, several of the major heavy precipitation and flooding events were in neutral years, and 2010 was La Nina with top five snowfall in the Sierra Nevada and wettest December since 1933 for our area," he responded.

Many of the resorts are banking on a big season.

Bear Mountain has expanded its Red Bull Plaza to make a bigger urban snow park with everything from Dumpsters to parking structures as jibs, and Summit has expanded and remodeled its Slopeside Pub and Bear Bottom Lodge. Mountain High has put in more than $1 million in improvements, including a new family learning center and upgraded snow blowing machines.

Dietzman said their shop is prepping by stocking up with rental boards, putting out the winter gear, and staffing local students for the holidays. She said Big Bear Resorts shoot to open by Thanksgiving or earlier, "providing Mother Nature gives us snow."

Mountain High operators are hoping the snow season will get in gear – or at least for the weather to drop in temperature enough to make snow.

The Wrightwood resort last year opened by Nov. 5 and by this time already had several feet of natural snow, despite it ending up being a poor snow season. Mountain High is hoping to be open by Thanksgiving, and is usually the first local resort to run lifts.

"We'll make snow, but if Mother Nature brings it, that's even better," said Kim Harmon, spokeswoman for Mountain High.

But even making snow is dependant on the weather. The temperature needs to drop, but the air also needs to have the right dryness, which usually comes with Santa Ana winds.

Harmon – just as everyone else – is hoping for better snow this year.

"We went through a lot of ups and downs, and the snowfall wasn't consistent. We made it through the season, but it definitely wasn't a great season. We're looking for a good snow season this year...were' thinking positive."

Information:  

Mammoth Mountain has 28 lifts to access 3,500 skiable acres of 11,000 feet in elevation – the highest ski resort in California. The mountain is typically one of the first in the nation to open and one of the last to close – sometimes staying open until the Fourth of July. It opened Thursday. (nov. 8)

Those who enjoy quieter runs at Mammoth’s sister resort June Mountain will be disappointed this year. The lower-cost alternative to Mammoth shut down after last season resulting from a deficit since Mammoth purchased it in 1986. The operators hope to re-open for the 2013-2014 season.

Getting there:

Round-trip flights by United Airlines were introduced last year out of John Wayne Airport, and this year offers a better departure time. Flights depart JWA at 9:30 a.m. to arrive at 10:45 a.m. - just in time to check in and get a half day on the slopes. Prices start at about $110 each way.

Driving takes about six hours, depending on traffic. Take 91 Freeway toward Riverside to 15 north, get on 395 north to State Route 203.

Ticket price: 1-day lift ticket: adult (19-64): $87, youth (13-18): $64, child (7-12) and seniors (65 -79): $43.

Information: mammothmountain.com

Bear and Snow Summit Mountains

These two resorts are owned by the same management company – Big Bear Mountain Resorts – but they couldn’t be more different.

Snow Summit is a family-friendly establishment with about 240 skiable acres with 31 trails. There’s 14 lifts, and the elevation hits 8,200 feet.

Bear Mountain is the smaller, grittier place to ride. It’s known for its scene with riders wearing the latest gear, and boasts a park like no other. There are 165 beginner-to-advanced jibs including rails, boxes, and walls. There are also four pipes, including Southern California’s only Superpipe.

Getting there: Driving requires stomaching a windy and congested road up the main route, and it usually takes about 2.5 hours. Take State Route 330 / Highway 18 through Running Springs, but check road closures and beware of weekends and holidays. Highway 38 through Redlands is a bit longer, but the roads are more tolerable and usually have less traffic.

Tickets can be used at both resorts.

One-day lift ticket: adult ($59), seniors ($49), young adults 13- 21 ($49), children 7 – 12 ($25) and children under 6 are free.

Information: bigbearmountainresorts.com

Mountain High

The smaller resorts in Wrightwood is closer to Orange County, and takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes to get to – perfect for a quick fix or half day of riding.

There are three mountains that make up Mountain High. The West Resort is the most popular and can get pretty crowded, and just about every weekend there’s some kind of contest or concert happening. The East Resort – about a mile away from the West resort – is known for its moguls and tree skiing areas. The North Resort is new and offers 70 acres of beginner terrain perfect for families and introductory skiers. It also has the largest tubing area in Southern California, called the North Pole Tubing Park.

Getting there: Take the 91 Freeway to Interstate 15 North. Exit Highway 138 West and make a left on Highway 2. Mountain High is three miles past Wrightwood.

Tickets: adults ($59), adult half-day ($54), adult night ($30), child ($25 7 -12), 70 and older or 6 and under (free with paying adult).

Information: mthigh.com

Contact the writer: lconnelly@ocregister.com


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