An Inconvenient Slope

Big Bears ski resorts are covered in snow despite a chronic lack of natural snowfall. So where are the crowds? Dont blame global warmingblame the media

It's shaping up as another warm winter day in the San Bernardino Mountains, but that's not what's bothering the people who run Big Bear Mountain Resorts. They've summoned reporters to a dining room in Little Bear Lodge at Snow Summit for a morning of hot coffee, cold eggs and corporate spiel—and the promise of a day of free skiing—to point out that 98 percent of their mountain is covered with man-made snow. All their skiing and snowboarding runs are open, despite the lack of natural white stuff falling this warm winter.

What? You didn't know that?

See, that's what's bothering the people at Big Bear Mountain Resorts. They're frustrated that these reporters—dutifully enduring a presentation of slides, speeches, handouts and interview opportunities while they eagerly wait to hit the slopes—have not been getting their message to the public. And they really don't want anybody straying from that message.

But as much as I love to ski, especially for free, and as impressed as I am by the technology that makes possible the laying of icy white carpet on otherwise brown and barren mountainsides, something about winters without much snowfall bothers me.

You'd think it would bother Richard Kun, too. The snowy-haired gent is president of Big Bear Mountain Resorts, and his lineage in these mountains goes back generations, to when his family founded its business during the Truman Administration. You can call him the Mogul of the Moguls . . . if you like that kind of humor, anyway.

But when I ask Kun whether he has followed natural snowfall trends over the years, and whether he may have noticed anything strange—anything that might tie the lack of natural snow in the San Bernardino Mountains to the issue of global climate change—he has a rather startling response.

"NO!" Kun responds, so quickly and sharply that I swear the windows rattle. Startling? You would have thought I was linking his interest in man-made snow to man-boy love. His dismissive tone indicates he will not be elaborating. Well, that and the long, uncomfortable silence hanging in the air.

My mouth agape and my eyes scanning the room for sympathy, I finally meet the gaze of Kun's marketing director, Chris Riddle, who shrugs and then offers his own, brief elaboration on the topic of no natural snow: "It's a Southern California thing."

Kun fixes his piercing eyes on the rest of the room, obviously ignoring my little corner of damnation.

"The time to be concerned with warmer winters has long since passed," he says, calmer now, but just as firm.

In retrospect, I really shouldn't have been surprised.

Five winters back at the same media event, I skied with—and fell down in front of . . . very embarrassing—Kun after a presentation in which he had trumpeted Snow Summit's 50th anniversary and acquisition of Bear Mountain, which for years had been a competing ski area known as Goldmine. The two resorts are very close to one another. Since the sorta-merger, a patron who purchases a lift ticket at either resort can ski both mountains; there are even free shuttle rides back and forth.

So while Kun and I were riding a chairlift, I asked him whether he had considered creating a ski run or trail between Snow Summit and Bear Mountain, like the narrow one that connects the California and Nevada sides of the Heavenly resort that towers over Lake Tahoe.

It was if I'd lit a fuse. Squinting my way, he launched into a colorful tirade against federal protections of the California spotted owl. No spotted owls had ever been seen at Snow Summit, Kun fumed, but because their nests have been found in the same San Bernardino National Forest that holds his lease, he's prevented from removing the necessary trees to carve out such a run.

"Environmentalists!" Kun muttered dismissively into his parka.

He went on to concede that even if Summit were permitted to chop down trees (and potential owl nests) it would be problematic to directly link with Bear Mountain because the areas are separated by a valley. Lifts would be needed to take skiers from the top of either mountain down to the flats, where they'd switch places for a ride back up to the other mountain.

The memory of that day, and the experience of this one, confirms that Kun is, above all, a pragmatic businessman. He's invested so much money into making snow to cover the runs at Big Bear Mountain Resorts that it's pretty much a waste of time for him to worry about where all the natural snow has gone.

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In its most definitive report yet, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change revealed on Feb. 2 that global warming is "unequivocal," will "continue for centuries" and there is at least a 90 percent chance it is caused by humans.

A lack of natural snowfall across the U.S. and Europe may be a symptom. Europe is enduring one of its warmest winters on record. Ski-related businesses are suffering from Austria to Spain. World Cup races in Chamonix, France, and Wengen, Switzerland, and elsewhere have been canceled due to lack of snow.

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