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Robby Ellingson, General Manager of Mt. Baldy, California
May 8, 2023
About Mt. Baldy
Click here for a mountain stats overview
Owned by: Mt. Baldy Ski Lifts, which is majority owned by Ron Ellingson
Located in: Mt. Baldy, California
Year founded: 1952
Pass affiliations: None
Closest neighboring ski areas: Mountain High (1 hour, 12 minutes), Snow Valley (1 hour, 19 minutes), Snow Summit (1 hour, 52 minutes), Bear Mountain (1 hour, 56 minutes) – travel times vary considerably pending time of day and weather conditions
Base elevation: 6,500 feet
Summit elevation: 8,600 feet
Vertical drop: 2,100 feet
Skiable Acres: 800-plus
Average annual snowfall: 170 inches
Trail count: 26 (54% advanced/expert, 31% intermediate, 15% beginner)
Lift count: 4 double chairs – view Lift Blog’s inventory of Mt. Baldy’s lift fleet
Why I interviewed him
If you have children under the age of 15 or so, you have likely seen Zootopia. If not, imagine this: anthropomorphic animals (it’s Disney), traumatized by eons of predator-eat-prey brutalism, build a city in which they can all coexist after the lions and wolves are given the equivalent of cartoon Beyond burgers or something. This city is divided into realms: desert, jungle, arctic, water, etc. Which is about as believable as thousands of species of walking, talking animals living in non-murderous harmony until you realize, oh yeah, that’s basically Los Angeles.
The monster, pulsing city, its various terras stacked skyward like realms in Tolkein: ocean then beach then jungle then mountain then desert beyond. Most American cities sprawl outward in concentric rings of Wal-Marts and Applebee’s and Autozones. LA gives you whole different worlds every five freeway exits.
It’s still incongruous, to drive up into the sky and find Mt. Baldy. Not just to find a ski area, because there are plenty of those perched along the city walls, but to find this ski area, pinched in a deep ravine at the end of a narrow highway switchbacking up from the flats. Foot-loading the lattice-towered double chair is like boarding a slow-motion time machine into the sky. And indeed you may think you have. At the top, cellphone service blinks out. The chairlifts are museum pieces from the pre-digital era of industrial design. The trailmap un-scrolled across the baselodge wall teases the Stockton Flats expansion, which will be new… in 1991 (it’s still not there).
Los Angeles, with its vast wealth and enormous population, could support almost any kind of ski area. Knit the entirety of the mountains above the city together with high-speed lifts, and you would have no issue filling them with skiers. And yet, the closest ski area to Fancy Town is this throwback. Soaring, glorious, gorgeous, but a relic, as though someone turned the lights on in 1952 and forgot about it. There’s some grooming but not a lot. Some snowmaking but not a lot. Some services but just enough. A few other skiers but basically none. Meaning not enough for liftlines, at least once you get up Lift 1. It’s just you and endless inventive lines through the trees.
If I found Baldy staked out in the remote Sierras, a token of another time, I’d be awestruck and amazed. If I found it tucked off some pass in Idaho or Wyoming, I’d understand its end-of-civilization vibe. But so positioned, directly and conspicuously over America’s West Coast glitter, the place is puzzling and fascinating. I had to know more.
What we talked about
That amazing 2022-23 California ski season; why it’s almost impossible to get accurate snow measurements at Baldy; why Baldy isn’t reliant on CalTrans like the other SoCal ski areas; avy mitigation in SoCal; why Baldy pushes the season so deep into spring; embracing social media; growing up in the mountains above LA; the Ellingson family legacy on the mountain; why bombing the mountain as a kid doesn’t prepare you to run it as an adult; loving the mountain and the rush of it all; who owns Mt. Baldy Ski Lifts; building Baldy above Los Angeles starting in 1952; thoughts on the consolidation of Southern California skiing; competing with the Ikon Pass; what happened when Baldy introduced a $49 season pass, and why that product eventually went away; whether Vail has ever driven up from the 210 with an open checkbook; why Baldy never became the “Disneyland of the mountains”; Baldy’s Holy Grail expansion and whether it will ever happen; Baldy’s throwback vibe; updating the masterplan (from 1993!); priorities for new lifts, including one that could change the texture of the entire resort; the incredible journey of the used lift that will replace Chair 2; upgrades happening to Chair 3 this summer; Baldy’s unique follow-the-sun lift operations; how Mt. Baldy’s snowmaking system exists in an area facing chronic water shortages; snowmaking priorities; Club Baldy; whether Baldy could ever join the Indy Pass; and Baldy’s parking restrictions and whether they could ever build more parking spots.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
I’ve been aware of Mt. Baldy for decades, in the way that I’ve been aware of every mid-sized-for-its-region ski area, but I never thought much about the place until April 2020.
As we all remember, the entire North American ski industry had shut down over the course of a week that March. As most of us have forgotten, a handful re-opened starting in late April. The first of those was Mt. Baldy. On April 22, operating under a tee-time social-distancing structure that permitted small groups of skiers up the mountain in intervals, Baldy turned the lifts back on for the first time in weeks. I lobbed an email into the ether and, much to my surprise, connected with Ellingson for a short podcast conversation.
The clever operating scheme that Ellingson patched together told a far larger story than one ski area hacking the Covid shutdowns. It was that, of course, but it also distilled the rowdy spirit of independent ski areas into one tangible act: a simple, creative, rapidly conceived and executed set of operating procedures that flexed to both the complexities of a global pandemic and the nuances of a single ski area. Vail and Alterra can do a lot of things, but that sort of nimble adaptation is harder for them (though Crystal, Washington was one of the half-dozen or so ski areas to re-open that spring). Baldy’s scheme was brash without being reckless - Ellingson did not ask the local or state authorities’ permission to re-open the bump, but he did so with 10 percent capacity restrictions that seem conservative in hindsight. The plan showcased the vitality of independent ski areas, and also their necessity. Remember that, in those first weeks after the Covid shutdowns, there was some doubt as to whether the 2020-21 ski season would happen at all (and, indeed, in many European nations, it basically didn’t), but Baldy showed, early and decisively, that some version of skiing could co-exist with Covid, and the industry’s focus quickly swiveled from “if” to “how.”
That sense of quirky, raw independence animates everything about Mt. Baldy. There is nothing else like it in America. And not in the way that there’s nothing else like Alta or Vail Mountain or Killington or Whiteface, which each have unique terrain and snowfall patterns and cultures, but similar ways of being. Baldy just feels like a different way of being a ski area, like when you go to Europe and all of the cars and buildings look different and you’re like, OK, this is a different way of being a civilization. Or I guess like skiing in Europe, which really feels nothing at all like America.
It’s hard to understand without experiencing it for yourself. In March, I finally stopped in and skied the place. And I had to ask what in the world I’d just experienced.
What I got wrong
For some reason, I’d thought that the Mueller lift company had gone the way of the Riblet (meaning, out of business). I said so during our interview, when Ellingson noted that he had ordered new chairs for Chair 3, a 1978 Mueller double. He pointed out that the company is still in business, in Canada.
Why you should ski Mt. Baldy
In the podcast, I ask Ellingson if Vail Resorts has ever brought its big fat checkbook up the access road. He said they haven’t, which is both surprising and not surprising. Surprising because Vail has purchased a ski area within the orbit of pretty much every cold-weather or mountain-adjacent city in the United States, with the exception of Los Angeles. Not surprising because Vail tends to buy renovated houses, rather than repair jobs. Not that there’s anything broken about Baldy, but four double chairlifts is not exactly Vail’s brand.
I asked about Vail’s interest for this reason: as a fully permitted ski area with secure water rights standing above the nation’s second-most-populous city, Baldy is an irreplaceable asset. There are only a handful of ski areas in the National Forests above Los Angeles. Alterra owns three of them: Bear Mountain, Snow Summit, and Snow Valley. Mountain High is itself in acquisition mode, purchasing Dodge Ridge in 2021 and China Peak last year. Mt. Waterman has no snowmaking and has not turned the lifts on for public skiing in more than three years. A few other Forest Service permits remain active, though the ski areas have long closed: Cedar Pass, Green Valley, Kratka Ridge. That makes Baldy the only viable LA-area independent ski area that would make sense as a megapass acquisition.
It's unlikely, but not impossible. It would cost tens of millions to upgrade the resort’s lift and snowmaking infrastructure to handle Epic Pass volumes. Eventually, however, Vail may conclude that their only way to compete with Alterra for LA is to buy their way in. And, as Ellingson says in the podcast, “everything is for sale” - for the right price.
My point here is this: if you want to experience the funky, idiosyncratic Mt. Baldy that I’m describing here, don’t wait to do it. This is not Mad River Glen, shielded from over-development by co-op bylaws. This is a locally owned and operated ski area that has done what they could with what they’ve had for decades. That it’s quaint and wild is a function of circumstance rather than destiny. Someone could buy this. Someone could change this. Someone could make this Big Bear 2. I’m not going to tell you whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing, but I will tell you that it would be a different thing. And that different thing could happen tomorrow or it could happen 30 years from now or it could happen never. Don’t bet against it. Go ski Baldy the next chance you get.
On SoCal summit elevations
We briefly discussed the top altitude of the various SoCal ski areas. Bear Mountain checks in with the highest, topping out at 8,805 feet at the top of Bear Peak. Baldy is right behind, at 8,600 at the tops of both lifts 3 and 4. Baldy is the king of SoCal vert, however – when you can ski all the way to the bottom of Lift 1. Some seasons, this doesn’t happen at all, but this year, Ellingson said one of his employees skied to the base more than 50 days.
Just for fun, here’s an inventory of all California ski areas’ headline stats, with SoCal ski areas highlighted in blue:
On reading recommendations
Ellingson mentions a book by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard: Let My People Surf. Here’s a link if you want to check it out.
On the bells clanging in the background
You may notice bells clanging in the background during a good portion of the podcast. While you may conclude that I recorded this episode in a Christmas village, this was just our family’s eight-week-old kittens batting their cat toys around in the background. Eventually I called in reinforcements to shut this illicit operation down, but in the meantime, chaos reigned.
On Mt. Waterman not being a real ski area
Mt. Waterman is, technically, still a functioning ski area. Their Forest Service permit is active. Someone regularly updates their Facebook page and website. However. The lifts haven’t actually spun for the public since early 2020, pre-Covid shutdowns. There is always some excuse: not enough workers, no power, no snow, the road is closed. The place has no snowmaking, which, in Southern California in 2023, is as absurd as it sounds. But they failed to open even after this year’s massive storm, which brought as much as 10 feet to the other ski areas in the region.
It’s fair to suspect something shady is going on here. I’m not making any accusations, but the Forest Service ought to investigate (if they’re even equipped to do that) why the ski area so infrequently opens. I am usually allergic to online mob violence, but the ruthless shaming by disappointed would-be Waterman skiers to the ski area’s every Facebook post is consistent, disgusted, and hilarious:
The whole “you’re just running the lifts for your friends and family” accusation is fairly common. I have no idea if it’s true. If so, this place needs to be liberated for the people.
On Stockton Flats
Ski straight off Chair 4 and angle slightly right, sidestep a few feet up, and you’ll see a vast kingdom stretching off into the wilderness. Straight down, marvelous untracked pow. This is Stockton Flats, the long-teased but never actualized expansion off Baldy’s backside. This circa 2006 trailmap shows up to six lifts spread over 2,200 vertical feet on the expansion:
The potential expansion is so built into Baldy’s lore that the large trailmap stretched across the baselodge still teases it:
So, why hasn’t the expansion happened? Will it ever? We discuss that extensively in the podcast.
On the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act
Ellingson refers to the “Summertime Enhancement Act” that Congress passed several years ago. This was a 2010 law that allowed ski areas operating on Forest Service land to expand operations into the summer. Thus: all the mountain coasters, ziplines, disc golf, mountain biking, and other stuff you see happening around ski areas in the offseason. In other words, this law allowed ski areas to evolve into year-round businesses, as their non-Forest Service counterparts had been doing for decades. It was, by all accounts, a huge boost to the viability of the nation’s ski industry.
On our last Mt. Baldy podcast
Ellingson and I recorded a podcast episode previously, on April 22, 2020. Heads up: the energy here is way different than what you’re accustomed to from The Storm. In summary, when Covid hit, no one cared about anything else but Covid for like three months. So I halted my regular podcast series (which at the time consisted of just 14 episodes), and pivoted to a “Covid-19 & Skiing” series. These were short – generally about 30 minutes – and explored the impact of Covid on skiing in the most sober possible terms. There is no music and no sponsors, and barely an introduction. Plus I hope I’ve gotten better at this. Anyway just setting expectations here.
On “Disneyland of the Mountains”
I referenced this 1987 Los Angeles Times article that envisioned a future Mt. Baldy that looked a lot like, well, Big Bear. That never happened, obviously, and Ellingson and I discuss why not at length. But it’s fascinating to put yourself back in the late ‘80s and see a whole different world than the one that actually happened.
Ellingson talked a bit about his experience as reluctant owner of the Mt. Baldy Instagram account. Frankly I think he does an awesome job. The feed is interesting, raw, quirky, and fun. Give them a follow.
On the Mt. Baldy ski experience
In my recent article recapping the highlights of my 2022-23 ski season, I laid out a day at Mt. Baldy in detail:
There is a basic acceptance and understanding among New York City-based skiers that any hill within a three-hour orbit of Manhattan will be maximally oversold and intolerable at all peak times. Unless you go to Plattekill – a family-owned 1,100-footer tucked deep into the Catskills, with a double and a triple and ferocious double-blacks stacked along the frontside. Maybe because it lacks high-speed lifts, maybe because it sits down a tangle of poorly marked backroads, maybe because people just go where the buses go, maybe because parking is limited and that controls liftlines – but the place is never overwhelmed, even during peak season with peak snow.
LA’s version of Plattekill is Mt. Baldy. The crowds swarm Big Bear and Mountain High. But not Baldy, even though it’s right. Freaking. There. Fourteen miles and half an hour off the 210 freeway. An hour from downtown LA. And what a surreal, unbelievable, indescribable experience this place is.
The arrival likely puts the masses off. You foot-load a double chair that looks as though it was assembled from repurposed Noah’s Ark scrap and ride 20 minutes to where the ski area, essentially, begins (though in deep years you can ski all the way back to the parking lot – this was a deep year).
Here, more double chairs. Your choices, in the morning, are Chair 2 – for beginners, or southeast-facing Chair 4, looker’s left. This is all marked as blue terrain, but if the trees are live, it is a mad bazaar of gladed lines, nicely pitched for fast, wild turns through the widely spaced SoCal forest. There are no lift lines, even on a bluebird Saturday.
At around 1 or 1:30 – whenever the sun softens the northwest-facing terrain, or whenever they feel like it – Baldy Patrol shuts down Chair 4 and opens Chair 3. Here, vastly more vert, vastly more terrain, and vastly steeper pitch. This is big-mountain stuff, steep, wild, exposed, scary. Again, there are no liftlines. Fastlaps on this caliber of terrain – especially in California – are rare. But here you go. Feast.
And at the end of the day, venture onto The Face, the enormous steeps leading back to the bottom of Chair 1.
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