"Chapter 13--The Southern California Scene

Chapter 13

After our marriage and while living in San Francisco there were a couple of trips back to Utah for Mary to visit family and show off the new son. We generally made these trips in early December which was a slow time for me business wise and still offer a chance for some skiing.

One year I stopped off at Reno since the Slide Mountain area at Mt. Rose had just been developed with two chair lifts. And Sverre Engen, who I knew well from Alta days, was the ski director. The snow pack was still on the scanty side but Sverre showed me the whole mountain and we had a good visit.

The thing I remember most about those winter trips was how hard they were for traveling. It was always storming as we crossed Donner summit and I recall one trip when we had about 300 miles of snow covered road crossing Nevada with the temperature hovering below zero. All this of course on two lane Highway 40 in a 1948 Ford coupe with a small child.

For the skiing I always managed to find some old friends to ski with. One time I skied with Jack White, a good skier and photographer for the Salt Lake Tribune and also a member of the Wasatch Mountain Club. It was a new powder day at Alta and we skied the whole mountain. And being a weekday we had it almost completely to ourselves.

I could almost always talk Earl Miller to take some time off from his business for some slope time. He now had a very good skiing and sporting goods business in Orem.

My Introduction to Southern California skiing came about when the publications I worked for transferred me to Los Angeles as manager in the winter of 1954-55. The new house we purchased in the San Fernando Valley was still under construction so I spent some months living in hotels till I could bring the family down from San Francisco. This generally left my weekends free for skiing.

I quickly learned the good and bad of skiing in Southern California. The good was that the ski areas, particularly in the San Gabriel Range, were close and one day ski trips were the norm much as they were in Utah. The bad was snow conditions were almost always marginal. One soon got used to bare spots on the slopes or often icy conditions. One of my first trips was to Mt. Baldy which had been developed a few years before. Emile Allais who I had met and skied with at Squaw Valley became the ski director the year Baldy opened but only stayed that opening year which turned out to be a poor snow year.

Anyway I set off on a Friday evening for Mt. Baldy, not being aware just how close to L.A. it was. Once there I had little option but to pull out my sleeping bag and spend the night under a limber pine tree. Overnight accommodations only existed down the canyon.

As usual the snow conditions were not the best but I was impressed with the ski terrain which offer challenges for even the best skiers. Runs like Bentleys, Nightmare, Emile’s and the South Bowl have always been a test through the 44 years I have skied them. Sometimes in the Spring they are pure ice and present interesting tests of both skill and nerve.

I also spent a weekend or two that year at Tommy Tyndall’s Snow Summit above Big Bear Lake. Here the slopes were much more in the intermediate range and Tommy, when he was alive, cared for his slopes like a mother tending her child.

Unfortunately he was killed a few years later while working on the hill. I still remember that first weekend with Tommy playing his accordion on the veranda of the Lodge after the lifts had shut down.

Being located in West L.A. and the San Fernando Valley the San Gabriel resorts have been closer and more to my way of skiing. I soon discovered Lynn Newcombe’s Mount Waterman and loved l. its oldtime skiing informality and 2. its challenging runs. At that time it was a single chair lift. This lift offered access to all challenging terrain so he had a rope tow on top for beginners and intermediate skiers.

It was a favorite after a snowfall since there was much terrain away from the main runs which have always been simply #1, #2, #21/2 and #3. As often as not in those first Southern California years I would be waiting for the Highway Patrol to open Angeles Crest Highway after a storm so I could make first tracks on runs through the trees both to the far right and left of the established runs.

Being so close to L.A., often I would take a morning off from business to get those first runs. I would take a suit and tie along so I could then carry on my usual duties in the afternoon and evening.

A few miles from Mt. Waterman is Kraka Ridge which in recent years was renamed Snow Crest and now is back to Kraka. Here again was steep challenging terrain serviced by a single chair lift. Over the years I got to know it well and enjoyed many excellent days of skiing there especially in the Spring. With steep, perfectly faced north slopes it often retained snow long after some of the other areas.

That summer of 1955 Mary was pregnant again but that did not keep us from planning a Memorial Weekend trip to Mammoth Lakes. I had heard about the splendid skiing terrain Mammoth Mountain offered although at that point in time Dave McCoy had only three rope tows in tandem going up what is now the lower part of Chair #1.

We planned to tent camp at Shady Rest Campground and I would ski a day or two. Jeff was three and Mary would get him on some skis that Gordon Brown had given him his first Christmas.

Unfortunately a good many other Southern California skiers had the same plan for the weekend and Dave’s rope tows and tiny lodge were sadly overtaxed. Also we discovered that Jeff was allergic to our down sleeping bags and developed a nasty asthma attack. So we packed up for home and the long three hundred miles trip back to Canoga Park. Then our Ford acted cranky and need a few new sparkplugs in Long Pine. All of this with a pregnant wife left it as a trip one would like to forget.

That summer Dave McCoy installed his first chair lift which until very recently was called simply #1. Unfortunately with new owners and some misguided marketing genius all the chairs now have ‘peppy’ names. But in this chronicle they will always be referred to simply by their numbers which were all that was needed for identification the first forty years.

Number one chair followed the line of his original rope tows but continued up past what has always been called the Gravy Chute. Planned opening was Thanksgiving Day 1955. I was home for Thanksgiving Day but the following day Jim Wegner, a resident Doctor at his hospital, and I took off for Mammoth.

This was rather cheeky on my part and viewed with real alarm by some of our neighbors since Mary was eight months pregnant. We found long lift lines at the new chair lift but great snow conditions for so early in the season. For accommodations we had to stay at Lee Vining at an ancient motel that had the smallest rooms I have ever seen. To get around the beds you had to move sideways.

The adjoining bar and restaurant were an unforgettable experience. At the bar I ordered a martini and the bartender, who looked to be in his seventies, at least, made it using besides gin and dry vermouth, and orange flower water. Once past this episode we moved to the restaurant for dinner. It looked dreadful and when we were told the only thing on the menu was hamburger steak in brown gravy my worse fears were realized. I asked for ham and eggs, a reasonable safe alternative, but was told it was not possible since “the grill was dirty”.

Both Jim and Doc succumbed to the hamburger and a horrid gravy. I just skipped dinner, returned to the bar and told the bartender to hold the orange flower water in the next martini. This was wisdom on my part since both Jim and Doc were ill in the night. I am sorry to report I was not very sympathetic. After that horrid brown gravy I said they were lucky to still be alive.,

Except for the long lines the skiing was excellent that weekend. It was very cold for the Sierra and I recall great runs on Gravy Chute and Bowling Alley. It was all brand new at the time. We did luck out in one aspect. The lift had a two hour stoppage one day which we missed by just arriving at the top. It was late afternoon and bitter cold and by the time all were off the chairs some were in a bad way from the cold and exposure.

And I lucked out at home as well since Number two son did not arrive till late in December.

With two small children the next few years kept us close to home and for me day trips to local resorts. I believe one of our first weekend trips with both boys was to Badger Pass in Yosemite. Jeff played some on his skis and Brian is caught on film chewing on a ski pole.

Locally Holiday Hill, now Mountain High East, and Blue Ridge, now Mt. High West were favorites for us as a family since they offered good terrain for Mary to teach the boys their first skiing turns. Mary would always find a unused hill, side step it to pack the snow and teach the nippers their first snow plow turns. And when we did make the weekend trip to Mammoth there was always plenty of terrain for their ‘private lessons.’

In those early years ski schools would not take children till they were age 5. By the time Jeffrey and Brian were in that age group they were doing well on beginner slopes thanks to their mother. Only later when they could handle steeper slopes did their Father take over as instructor. This often meant a teary small person following an adult on long side hill traverses and such. With accusations to their mother later that ‘Dad wouldn’t wait for me.’

My time working for Earl Miller and hanging around his ski shop paid off for me as the boys because skiers. I always mounted bindings and did whatever maintenance work, now called ‘tune-ups’ myself which made for considerable savings moneywise. And Mary always great at the sewing machine, made their skiing attire for several seasons or till they were old enough to object.

Back to Table of Contents..

Last Update:3/10/00

© 2000 Joe Hilbers All Rights Reserved.
Graphic Design by Impact Graphics