Podcast #89: Mountain High & Dodge Ridge President and CEO Karl Kapuscinski
"I'd had my eye on Dodge Ridge for quite some time."
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June 6, 2022
About Mountain High
Click here for a mountain stats overview
Owned by: Invision Capital and Karl Kapuscinski
Located in: Wrightwood, California
Closest neighboring ski areas: Mt. Waterman (45 minutes), Mt. Baldy (1 hour, 15 minutes – they’re only 8.4 miles apart as the crow flies, but 57.4 miles apart via road!), Snow Valley (1 hour, 25 minutes), Big Bear/Snow Summit (1 hour 40 minutes)
Base elevation | summit elevation | vertical drop:
West Resort: 7,000 feet | 8,000 feet | 1,000 feet
East Resort: 6,600 feet | 8,200 feet | 1,600 feet
North Resort: 7,200 feet | 7,800 feet | 600 feet
Skiable Acres: 290
Average annual snowfall: 117 inches
Night skiing: North only
Trail count: 60 (35% advanced, 40% intermediate, 25% beginner)
West Resort: 34 (1 expert, 16 advanced, 12 intermediate, 5 beginner)
East Resort: 16 trails (1 expert, 4 advanced, 7 intermediate, 4 beginner)
North Resort: 10 trails (6 intermediate, 4 beginner)
Lift count: 14 (2 high-speed quads, 2 fixed-grip quads, 3 triples, 4 doubles, 3 carpets - view Lift Blog’s inventory of Mountain High’s lift fleet)
West Resort: 1 high-speed quad, 3 triples, 2 doubles, 2 carpets
East Resort: 1 high-speed quad, 1 quad, 2 doubles, 1 carpet
North Resort: 1 quad
About Dodge Ridge
Click here for a mountain stats overview
Owned by: Invision Capital and Karl Kapuscinski
Located in: Pinecrest, California
Closest neighboring ski areas: Bear Valley (2 hours, 6 minutes), June Mountain (2 hours, 24 minutes), Mammoth Mountain (2 hours, 37 minutes), Badger Pass (2 hours, 45 minutes), Kirkwood (2 hours 58 minutes) - travel times may vary in winter due to weather and road closures.
Base elevation: 6,600 feet
Summit elevation: 8,200 feet
Vertical drop: 1,600 feet
Skiable Acres: 862
Average annual snowfall: 300 to 500 inches
Night skiing: No
Trail count: 67 (40% advanced, 40% intermediate, 20% beginner)
Lift count: 12 (1 fixed-grip quad, 2 triples, 5 doubles [2 of these doubles - lifts 1 and 2 below, are making way for one triple chair for the 2022-23 ski season], 1 T-bar, 1 ropetow, 2 conveyors - view Lift Blog’s of inventory Dodge Ridge’s lift fleet)
Why I interviewed him
In the Midwest of my youth, the calculus was simple: north, cold; south, warm. The only weather quirk was lake-effect snow, tumbling off Michigan and Superior in vast snowbelts west and north, and across that mysterious realm known as the UP. Altitude wasn’t a factor because there was no altitude. Iowa, Nebraska, the Dakotas get rounded up by the chortling masses reaching for a flatland target to ridicule, but they overlook Michigan by ignorance, or, if they’re Michiganders, denial and self-preservation. Midland County, where I grew up, is the flattest place I have ever seen, a forever plain that disguises itself in treed horizons.
It was California that alerted me to the notion that altitude could override latitude. It could snow in the south. You just had to get to the sky. The mountains went there. Humans have so overrun modern SoCal that it is easy to forget what an amazing natural monster it is: foreversummer – or at least foreverspring – on the coast. From the beach with bare feet in the sand you can see the mountains*, snow-capped and forbidding, impossible and amazing, thrusting Tolkien-ish over pulsing Los Angeles. Beyond that, deserts vast and inhospitable, stretching hundreds of miles toward the rest of America. Cross that wasteland to understand why California so often feels like a nation of its own – geologically, it may as well be.
But what we care about here are those mountains. There is no reason that LA, America’s second-largest city, must have skiing. But it does. Big Bear and Snow Summit, Baldy and Waterman, Snow Valley and Mountain High. From the ocean, the land lurches skyward with astonishing speed. Mt. Waterman, 40 straightline miles from the coast, sits at 7,000 feet. Mt. Baldy, base elevation 6,500, is 52 miles. Snow Valley, 6,800 feet, 67 miles. Snow Summit, 6,965 feet, 74 miles. Big Bear, 73 miles, 7,104 feet. And Mountain High, seated between 6,600 and 7,200 feet, depending upon which parking lot you pull into on any given day, standing 52-ish miles from the ocean.
And it snows. Not what-the-hell amounts. This isn’t Tahoe. But enough that, 98 years ago, someone said “well by gum we ought to be snowskiing on these here hills” (in my head, everyone in the past either talks like Yosemite Sam or Winston Churchill), and set up a snowskiing operation at Mountain High. The ski areas of Southern California are not, like the Poconos or the mountains of the Southeast, the products of technology, of machines providing snow where nature provided hills and cold. Mountain High is the fourth-oldest ski area in the country, opened in 1924. Snow Valley opened in 1937. Waterman in ‘42. Big Bear in ‘46. Baldy and Snow Summit in ‘52. From a technology point of view, 1924 may as well have been a different planet. Electricity was this newfangled thing. Forget about snowmaking, or even chairlifts. I’m almost positive dudes must have been up there in top hats and bowties. And indeed here’s a photo of a fellow rocking a kerchief while smoking his pipe:
I’ve been processing this for decades, and it still amazes me: there is skiing in Southern California. Of the many geological and geographic wonders packed into our sprawling continent, the mountains-looming-over-the-seaside-city phenomenon remains one of the most stunning in its asymmetric, improbable glory.
And here, in the clouds, dwells Mountain High. Once, this complex was three competing ski areas, fighting it out for families scaling the mountains in rear-wheel drive Buicks and skiing in peacoats. Everything is different now. Those three ski areas – Blue Ridge (West), Holiday Hill (East), and Table Mountain ne Sunlight (North) – are still three separate ski areas, but they operate as one. The cars are better, the gear is better. Vapers and backpack speakers rule the day (Though were I to spy a chap swiveling downslope with poles tucked underarm while puffing on a pipe, I daresay I would invite the old swell to a game of backgammon and a bottle of my finest mead [and there’s the Churchill]). Somewhere along the way, Mountain High installed chairlifts, and then, snowmaking. But despite all this change, a century on, there is still skiing in Southern California. And what a marvelous fact that is.
*“on a clear day,” one must always add
What we talked about
The 2021-22 ski season at Mountain High and Dodge Ridge; a record broken at Dodge Ridge; growing up at Ascutney, Vermont; ascending the ranks to the top of Mountain High; Ascutney’s disadvantages compared to the rest of Vermont; how three once-separate ski areas united to form the modern Mountain High; the novel big-business prospects of “snow play” zones at the base of high-altitude urban-adjacent ski areas; why snow play is “drought-resistant”; Mountain High’s snowmaking source, limitations, technology and potential; the incredible efficiency of modern snowmaking; undeveloped land within Mountain High’s permit area and whether we could see expansion anytime soon; the possibility of connecting Mountain High East and West, and whether that would be done through lifts or skiing; the mountain-to-mountain connection we’re most likely to see; humoring me on the could-we-connect-North-to-East-and-West-with-a-gondola question; the most likely next lift upgrade at Mountain High and what it would take to make it happen; whether we could ever see Mountain High North expand lifts back down into the bowl where trails ran at the old Sunrise ski area; the cultural importance of night skiing and why it’s unlikely to ever expand beyond its current footprint; why Kapuscinski purchased Dodge Ridge last year; how Dodge Ridge is “very culturally different” from Mountain High; the amazing percentage of Dodge Ridge skiers that also have an Epic or Ikon pass; a long-term vision for Dodge Ridge; replacing chair 1 and 2 with a single lift this summer, and how the new alignment will enhance the experience for beginners; how much money the ski area is saving by putting in a new lift rather than a used one; possible alignments for high-speed lifts at Dodge Ridge; what a high-speed lift will run you these days; thoughts on Lift 8; the big expansion opportunities at Dodge Ridge and what sort of terrain skiers would find there; the differences between running a ski area that relies heavily on snowmaking and one that doesn’t; Dodge Ridge’s nascent snowmaking system; whether the ski area could ever get night skiing; reciprocity between Dodge Ridge and Mountain High season passes; the Saturday problem; the number of season passes each mountain sells; an estimate of Ikon Pass sales in Southern California; forming the Powder Alliance; and whether the ski areas are considering joining the Indy Pass.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
Kapuscinski has been the king of Mountain High for decades, taking the CEO job in the mid-90s and eventually buying out his partners to take full control of the resort. He gradually grew the place, and in 2004 purchased nearby Sunrise, now Mountain High North, in what was essentially – as he tells me in the interview – an estate sale.
That may have been practice for what came last summer, when Kapuscinski purchased big and snowy Dodge Ridge from Frank and Sally Helm, who had run the joint for 45 years.
“I’d had my eye on Dodge Ridge for quite some time,” Kapuscinski tells me in the interview. “It was an area that I knew probably wouldn’t draw a ton of interest from the bigger ski companies. There’s not a lot of those areas that are well-positioned, where they still have a fair amount of upside, but aren’t going to get gobbled up by the bigger ski companies.”
Dodge Ridge is one of a series of larger-than-you’d-think ski areas – Bear Valley and China Peak are the others – that hangs off the west side of the Sierras, in an awkward limbo that’s invisible to Epic- and Ikon-wielding skiers racing off to Mammoth and Tahoe. It’s a bit of a time machine, a fixed-grip redoubt that lacks material amounts of snowmaking and is seated, in a very un-California way, far from a large city or interstate. But it has terrain, room to expand, and 300-plus inches of snow per season. That’s plenty to work with.
With a full season of operations behind him, I figured it was a good time to check in with Kapuscinski to see where Dodge Ridge was sitting and where he planned to take it, and how the ski area may work with Mountain High – six hours away – to form a little in-state ski network. He has plenty of ideas, particularly when it comes to blowing out the lift fleet. Dodge Ridge skiers tired of the 10-minute ride up Lift 7 are going to like where Kapuscinski’s head is at with an upgrade. Things are already starting to happen: this summer, Chairs 1 and 2 are making way for a used-but-rebuilt replacement, and the resort has, for the first time, the whispers of a snowmaking system.
With skier visits up across the country and multi-mountain passes opening the state’s resorts to a new generation of skiers, this is an exciting time for California skiing. Kapuscinski is, and will continue for some time to be, an important part of the whole scene.
Questions I wish I’d asked
Given that Kapuscinski ran Stevens Pass for many years, I ought to have asked him about Vail’s struggles up in Washington this past season. There was enough, however, to talk about with his two ski areas, and that seemed like the better place to focus. I also neglected to ask which runs, in particular, Kapuscinski had in mind for Dodge Ridge trail improvements when he mentioned that as a priority.
What I got wrong
This isn’t really something I got wrong so much as something I didn’t explain properly – when I mentioned Loon’s base-to-base railroad connection, I commented that it “would never get environmental approval” in California. The reason why is that this is an old-fashioned steam train with an exhaust pipe that would embarrass the Onceler:
I’m sure it’s grandfathered in in New Hampshire as some sort of tourist novelty, but any base-to-base transit between Mountain High East and West would have to, um, not run on wood. Not that they would propose it, but that explains my remark in the podcast.
Why you should ski Mountain High and Dodge Ridge
There was a moment, before I turned against it, when I was in thrall to U.S. America’s car-first notion of civilization-building. Dropping out of the high desert after a cross-country roadtrip my buddy Ron and I found Los Angeles and its spectacular network of freeways. For days we explored, Midwest teenagers awestruck and eager, zippering through staggered herds of Hondas and BMWs in a beat-up GMC pickup with a topper and a brand-new transmission we’d acquired after a mid-night breakdown in Victorville*. What was this magical realm, sandwiched between sparkling ocean and spectacular mountains, with its Beach Brah vibe and its bristling subtext of hustle and ambition? City-strong, nature-adjacent, nearly rainless with moderate coastal temps, it struck me as a sort of American Utopia, everything great about the nation organized into a self-contained realm.
It was the skiing, as mentioned above, that most fascinated me. Access to winter without the doldrums of winter, the ice and the wind, the endless months in jackets and boots, the extra 20 minutes in the morning to warm and de-ice the car and clear it of snow. While my infatuation with Southern California freeway culture would not last the week – shattered in a four-hour dead stop southbound on the 5 while the authorities tended to an overturned and fire-blackened vehicle – my belief in the awesomeness of its top-of-the-world skiing never abated. Most of America’s warm-weather cities – Miami, Houston, Dallas – are considerable journeys from easy turns. Not Los Angeles. There are a half dozen choices, right there. Vertical drops up to 2,000 feet. Glades aplenty and skiing into May when the snow comes. Parks, nights, whatever you want. I’m not saying it’s Mammoth. But I’m saying that it’s right goddamn there, and that’s pretty incredible.
I never did move to Los Angeles, or anywhere in California. But if I had, I imagine I’d treat that halo of resilient little SoCal ski areas the same way I treat Mountain Creek now – as my local to notch turns between my runs farther north. The season passes are not expensive – Snow Valley’s is just $329 and grants you the option of a discounted Indy Pass add-on. Baldy and Mountain High run $499. Big Bear and Snow Summit are, of course, on the Ikon Pass, and I suppose that’s become the default for so many Southern California residents as a result. But Mountain High remains compelling – North is a beginner’s paradise, completely free of Radbrahs. West is a parks and night-skiing haven. East is the more traditional trails-and-glades option. I guess many people in Southern California simply choose none-of-the-above and wait out winter between trips to Tahoe and Salt Lake. Which, OK. But, I don’t know man, if there’s turns to be had, I’m taking them.
Dodge Ridge is a whole different thing. How, exactly, does a mountain sandwiched between Tahoe and Mammoth stand out? Well, by not being Tahoe or Mammoth. The terrain gets plenty of snow. The mountain is big enough. It’s a good place to hide out, especially from high-speed lift snobs with the patience of a fruit fly, who act as though a 10-minute lift ride were the equivalent of waterboarding.
Kapuscinski seems committed to changing that and upgrading the rusty lift fleet, but the mountain will always be a smaller alternative to California’s ski resort royalty. He told me in the interview that an amazing percentage of Dodge Ridge passholders also have an Epic or Ikon Pass. For them, Dodge Ridge is where they go when they can’t – or don’t want to – go to the chest-beaters. It is, as Kapuscinski says, “a multi-generational mountain.” Meaning, for a lot of people, it’s home.
*To this day (this was 1996), my buddy is convinced that it was my insistence to reroute off I-70 and up US 6 in Colorado that strained the transmission to its breaking point later in the journey. He’s probably right, but I really, you know, NEEDED, to drive past Arapahoe Basin.
More Mountain High
In our interview, Kapuscinski mentioned mothballed plans for a gondola to connect the resort to lower-altitude terrain, which would have eliminated the need for “mountain driving.” I couldn’t find any of these old plans – if you have any materials on this, please send them over.
I had a lot of fun poking around in the archives for trailmaps to Mountain High’s predecessor resorts. Here are a few:
Table Mountain/Sunlight (now Mountain High North)
Poma #1 in this 1970 trailmap of Table Mountain runs in the approximate line of the modern-day Sunlight quad at Mountain High North. Lift service is now restricted to the top portion of the mountain, and Poma #3 on this map stretches down into a bowl that is just a wide-open snowfield on the current trailmap.
Holiday Hill (now Mountain High East)
It’s hard to make out the modern hill in this map from 1976.
In this version, it’s easier to recognize the basic footprint of modern-day Mountain High East. I’m not entirely confident on the date here, as skimap.org suggests this is from 1980, and some sources indicate that the resort merged with its neighbor in 1979.
Mountain High West
I couldn’t find any trailmaps of Blue Ridge, as West was originally known. But this 1978 map of the ski area is pretty cool. You can see the outline of modern Mountain High West here: Chairlift #2 here runs along the approximate line of modern-day Lift 6, Exhibition. The resort long ago abandoned the Wild West-themed trailnames, but, for context, “Calamity Jane” is “Calamity” at the modern ski area.
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