By RICH CASSONE
Special to The Alpine Mountaineer
Kevin Somes has a lot on his plate. Winter is just around the corner and, as vice president and general manager of Snow Valley Mountain Resort, he takes a hands-on role getting everything ready. That means business stuff, but also painting, general maintenance, walking the mountain and assisting his staff wherever he can.
He’s also actively building an off-season business that requires attention, offering up his network of trails to mountain bikers and hikers. This in addition to serving as president of the Running Springs Area Chamber of Commerce, regular trips down the mountain to organize and plan nature programs, and raising a family.
Nothing, however, is more important than what he is doing right now, which is staring me in the eyes and talking.
Honestly, I’m not even sure what he’s talking about, something about velocities and wind resistance and safety and speed; whatever he is saying, I desperately need him to keep it up. That’s because we’re currently suspended mid-air, cruising in the Snow Valley Express, Snow Valley’s unique “six-pack” or six-seater ski lift, racing 5,000 feet to the top of the mountain. We’re going high and we’re going fast and I am deathly afraid of heights.
That Somes has sensed this and, more importantly, that he cares enough to do something about it – his voice now at an easy, mesmerizing cadence, never letting on he knows I’m scared and never making me feel small about it – tells you everything you need to know about this family-owned business and what you can expect when you come here.
Today I’m tagging along on a guided nature hike. Snow Valley offers these on Sundays during the summer and Somes himself serves as guide. Easy enough for beginners, the hike runs about 90 minutes, taking you a mile or so from 7,600 feet at the top of the lift down to the Children’s Forest at 7,000 feet and then back up again.
Despite my fear, the ride up was worth it. At the top of the lift, the views are incredible. Hesperia and the high desert are on one side, Big Bear Lake is visible in another direction, Butler Peak as well, and finally San Gorgonio Mountain, the highest peak in Southern California, peeks out at a whopping 11,499 feet. Somes explains that if the weather was just right, the Pacific Ocean would be visible as well. He also points out Keller Peak in the Children’s Forest, which is where we’re headed today.
One of Somes’ goals in creating his summer programs is to offer people more to do on the mountain. It seems to be working. As we’re talking, Richard and Grace, a couple visiting from Long Beach for the day, become curious about what Somes is explaining and decide to join us. Richard tells me, “We were driving along Rim Highway looking for something to do, saw the signage, and decided to stop. Usually, we head up to Northern California if we want mountains, but there’s a lot of new stuff to do here now and it’s so close to home.”
Somes rallies us for the hike and we head out. The hike is fairly easy going and there’s more rumor of danger than actual peril, like the bobcat scat he easily identifies in our path.
Then, perhaps to encourage us to stay together on the trail, Somes points out that “we have a couple of rattlesnake types up here, the most common being the Southern Pacific Rattlesnake,” which apparently is much blacker than its down-the-hill counterpart. “Nothing to worry about,” he reassures, but we instinctively huddle a little closer together anyway.
Fortunately, in the mile or so to get to Children’s Forest and back, our only encounter with wildlife is with a Western Fence Lizard, or blue-belly lizard, and he’s actually kinda cute.
Mostly, Somes shares his knowledge about the fauna, landscape, history and lore of the mountain. There is, for example, Slide Peak where a steep hike up to the ridge at over 7,800 feet rewards you with a memory-filled tin can where you can read the notes that past explorers have left and add your own love letters, journal entries or prayers.
Then there’s Margarita Beach, the ghost of a restaurant and reminder that we’re not all that far from Hollywood when Somes explains it “was once voted by Playboy magazine in the 80s and 90s as the number two party place at a ski resort in California.” That was, in no small part, thanks to “body-bag racing,” a sport they invented where you’d be sealed in a body bag and pushed down an icy slope.
Once at Children’s Forest, there’s a small area with bathrooms and drinking water. After a short break, we turn around and head back up to the ski lift. The idea of climbing back up 600 feet of altitude intimidates me, but the reality is much gentler than my imagination and pretty quickly we’re back at the tower looking over the mountains and Big Bear Lake again.
I’m a lot more comfortable on the ski lift going down. Knowing Somes a little bit better, I know he’s got it in hand but, also, I feel that I know the mountain a little bit better, and that makes me want to really look at it no matter how scared I might be.
So, I look up and out and let myself feel the wind and feel my heart beating in my chest and feel proud. I feel like someone took the time to make me a part of something.
I like this feeling.
At the bottom of the lift, as Somes and I walk, he’s still working, making note of some items he sees that need repair, planning his day. I’m still dreaming. It’s silent for a bit and then I ask him why, why do all this? He doesn’t have to think before he responds very simply: “To get people outside more and to keep people employed.”
I shake his hand and thank him.
There’s activity all around me. People head toward the lift for a run, some come down the mountain smiling, out of breath, tourists snap photos. From the cafe and lounge area, music is rocking out over loudspeakers: Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf.” I walk to my car.
Guided hikes are every Sunday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. and are suitable for everyone 4 years old and up. A lift ticket purchase is required. Hikers can also access the mountain and do self-guided hikes Fridays from 1 to 7 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. There is a twilight special on Fridays from 4 to 7 p.m.
Visitors to the Running Springs farmers market who spend $35 will receive a free Snow Valley lift ticket, which can be saved for the winter or used now to take the Snow Valley Express to the top of the mountain to bike or hike.