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

Three electric-generating plants on Kun's mountain supply the power needed for the snow-making guns, some of which look like jet engines on wheels and others that resemble large faucets pointed heavenward and connected to fire hoses. Summit uses a million gallons of diesel fuel a year to run those generators, and Kun says his resort could generate enough power to fulfill the needs of the city of Big Bear Lake—if only the infrastructure were present to make that possible (it isn't). Thanks to technological advances, Kun says, emissions from snow making have been reduced 85 percent.

"We're making more snow for less cost, less usage and less emissions," he says, while I wonder if he disgustedly mutters "environmentalists" at the folks who pushed for the regulations that necessitated the technological improvements that are now saving him money.

Huge fans blow white stuff out over large swaths of slope. In 48 hours, Summit's crews can completely cover the two longest runs—which extend from the top of the mountain down to the base area—in one to two feet of snow. And the latest guns have computer sensors attached that measure the amount of cold and water in the air and automatically calibrate themselves. The guns shoot out snow any time the conditions are ripe for it.

"The advances have been amazing," says Riddle, the marketing director. "It's better snow, the texture is better, it's more fun to ski on."

"It can get sloppy," Kun admits, "but so can snow from nature. You can't tell the difference between man-made or natural after it's been skied on."

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Skiing's growing popularity created the need to carve more runs into the mountains, install more ski lifts and, beginning in the 1980s, create ramps, rails, mounds, half pipes and terrain parks for snowboarders. Covering the expanding acreage in sunny Southern California necessitated expanded snow making over the years.

It's been expensive.

Each of the big, jet-engine-looking contraptions costs $33,000. Summit has 33 of them. Bear Mountain has 45. "We need many more of them," says Kun, patting one of them lovingly. Then he sheepishly concedes the machines have not yet made enough snow to cover their initial investment.

During another casual moment, on a shuttle bus taking us back to Summit from Bear, Kun tells me global warming concerns are mostly being aired by other resorts, particularly in Colorado, because they have always counted on heavy natural snowfall and are not as advanced as Big Bear when it comes to snow making.

Neither is Summit's most-formidable competitor for Southern California skiers, Mammoth Mountain, which may explain why Lisa Isaacs, that resort's "environmental director," is quoted in the Schwarzenegger-commissioned report as saying snow making is no panacea for the industry. "The problem is that if you're not cold enough, you can't make snow," she said.

But Kun argues that while snow making used to be deemed impossible unless freezing temperatures were present, today's machines actually work best when it is slightly warmer than freezing and the air is dry. Those conditions allow the air to hold more snow.

"The recent dry, cold winds have been ideal for snow making," Kun says. "We made more in the last month than ever in our history."

What frustrates the folks at Big Bear Mountain Resorts is that, while they can count on endless streams of skiers and snowboarders during Christmas vacation, holidays and weekends, it can be like a ghost town on typical weekdays.

"Natural snow pops the market," said Brent Tregaskis, Bear Mountain's general manager. "People see snow on the mountain, and everyone comes up at once. This is one of our biggest frustrations. I don't think people know that snow is up here. There are thousands of people down there waiting for snow to fall. It's the toughest message to get out, that there is snow in Big Bear all winter long."

But doesn't that just prove that a lack of natural snowfall—the resorts' most proven marketing tool—is keeping away crowds, that global climate change may indeed be negatively effecting Big Bear Mountain Resorts' bottom line?

Listen to Nourok, the local environmental activist, who uses the same language as Tregaskis to argue global warming is hurting Big Bear, which is economically dependent on the ski resorts.

"The challenge for these ski areas is that more and more people look up in the mountains and they don't see snow. There is definitely a relationship between when natural snow falls, people see snow in the mountains and they come up. I snowboard five days a week and even though there is man-made snow on all the runs, during the week the place is empty."

If warming trends continue, Nourok believes this will become an Orange County issue as well.

"If there's an economic downturn in California caused by global warming, and that makes people struggle with their mortgages in Orange County, how long are they going to hold onto those second homes in Big Bear?"


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