I know people who have done the double trick with cars, and even one who did the trip with motorcycles, but those are long drives—a solid three hours one way without heavy traffic from a Los Angeles beach to the slopes of Big Bear. Eager to cross the California “twofer” (or double) off the bucket list, I decided to try it by air.
First, the team. Since great adventures are often more fun with friends, we’ll need a pilot versed in surfing and preferably better versed in snow sports than I am. I learned to surf as a kid and have surfed periodically since. Skiing, on the other hand, is almost completely foreign. How hard could it be?
CFI Mark Cole works at the Sling Pilot Academy in Torrance, and I knew he’d be the perfect fit for this adventure. A born-and-raised Californian, Cole embodies the spirit of Golden State living. He surfs often and snowboards when he can. He’s involved with a local board riding group that aims to help keep local youth on the straight and narrow instead of falling into the temptations of big city life. He’s competed in the yearly Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race—a 32-mile race from Catalina Island to the Manhattan Beach Pier that takes months of preparation and grit. He worked at In-N-Out Burger (he’s still fiercely loyal to its burgers), then worked with local and national surf clothing companies, and began flying in 2012. Freshly hired by SkyWest, we put a tentative date for the journey on our calendars in between two phases of his airline training.
Next, the flight plan. We’ll fly from Zamperini Field (TOA) to Big Bear City Airport (L35) and back in one day, leaving as early as we can from TOA under the local noise abatement rules. We’ll ski and snowboard in Big Bear, then come back to Torrance for an afternoon surf. Torrance is just a couple miles from the beach, and Big Bear City Airport is just a couple miles from the ski resorts, so our required travel on the ground will be as short as possible.
With an estimated two-hour round-trip flight time, the double isn’t impossible, but we’ll need perfect conditions—good flying weather (specifically good enough for mountain flying), good enough snow to ski at Big Bear, and good enough conditions in the Pacific to surf. And we’ll need to do all of this with the limited sun of a winter’s day.
On a clear Thursday, our race against time begins. Cole pulls his Toyota Tacoma into the airport parking lot at 7 a.m., the surfboards for later sticking out the back window of the covered bed. Cole preflights the four-seat Sling TSi we’ll fly today, and I wipe dew from the windshield as the sun rises, the various airplanes on the ramp casting long shadows in the bright morning light. We load our bags—light but bulky with snow gear—into the back, maneuver Cole’s snowboard in, and start up.
Even with the gear and three adults in the airplane (AOPA Director of Photography Chris Rose is in the backseat), we have plenty of room and great performance as we take off on a right downwind toward Big Bear. The responsive Sling requires only a light touch—much different from heavier Cessnas. Within a couple miles, tower hands us off to SoCal Approach and we turn on the autopilot. We climb to our eastbound VFR cruising altitude of 9,500 feet and note that our estimated time of arrival is less than an hour. So far, we’re ahead of schedule.
It’s early enough that the GA traffic is light, and we mostly hear airliners as we’re transferred to each SoCal Approach sector. Cole is at ease in the right seat with the quiet confidence of a highly proficient flight instructor. He answers any question I have quickly and thoroughly and never gets lost in the GPS, knowing exactly where each press of a button or turn of a knob will take him. He tells me how grateful he is to fly a technically advanced aircraft, and how he anticipates that it will help him in his upcoming SkyWest training.
The visibility is unlimited, and we can see from the Santa Monica Mountains to the snowcapped San Gabriel Mountains and south toward San Diego until the coastline dips in past Dana Point. We fly right over Disneyland then angle northeast toward San Bernardino, pointing out to each other and Rose every little GA airport along the way (Fullerton, Flabob, Chino, and so on) and telling brief stories of our visits to them. Ahead of us, snow in the San Bernardino Mountains looks meager, and I really hope there’s as much snow in Big Bear as the resort’s website promised.
With an airport elevation of 6,572 feet, flying into Big Bear can be tricky even on a cool winter day, and density altitude’s effect on our ground speed and turning radius will factor into the approach. The airport is located in a valley surrounded by rising terrain (like the resorts to the south of the field) so any go arounds or maneuvering in the pattern requires a heightened awareness relative to the sea level fields of the LA Basin. We’re planning to land on Runway 8, which will allow an approach over Big Bear Lake—preferred for superior terrain clearance and noise abatement.
Cole clicks off the autopilot as we cross the ridge to the south of Big Bear and are greeted, thankfully, with plentiful snow on the north facing slopes of Bear Mountain and Snow Summit. We circle the resorts for a moment—we’re early enough that they aren’t even open yet. The empty runs are braided like clean white ribbons down the mountainside.
There’s a chill in the air as Cole greases us in and we taxi to transient, grinning that the first big step of the day is complete. We quickly unload the airplane and head into the terminal. We change into snow gear, and half an hour later, a shuttle arrives to take us to Snow Summit, one of the two resorts in town.
We head over to gear rental where I pick up skis, boots, poles, a helmet, and my lift ticket for the day (all pre-purchased online). Cole and I shuffle over to the lift he’s decided we’ll take and I’m filled with apprehension. Now that we’re here, I’m more and more aware of just how long it’s been since I’ve skied.
There are times in life when you can choose to have a bad time or choose to laugh at how badly you’re failing at something. There are times when you think gee, wouldn’t it be cool if a photographer was here to capture this amazing and unique moment of my life, and other times when you think wow, I’m so glad no one got a picture of that. All I can do is laugh as Rose captures me falling down Snow Summit on the easiest of runs. As it turns out, skiing is not as much like riding a bike as I’d anticipated, and my basic knowledge of “pizza to stop” and “french fry to go” was not quite enough.
“When you said you were a beginner, I didn’t realize you were that much of a beginner,” says Cole, who drags me to the bunny hill while I internally curse Rose, who is good-naturedly enjoying my struggles from behind his lens. But all I can do is smile and try again, and I do eventually have a few enjoyable moments of not falling. Hey, a little humility is good for everyone, and I am certainly feeling humbled by the time I turn in my gear.
Back in the ski lodge we have a moment to relax and take it all in. This is what the snowfolk call a bluebird day. Crystal clear, cool (in the 20s when we arrive, rising to the high 30s by the time we leave), snow soft and fresh enough for good skiing (for SoCal), a vibrant blue sky, and good spirits all around. Families, friends, bachelorette and bachelor parties mill about the village while a steady stream of pop music pounds out of the speakers, mixing with the crunch of ski boots on snow and echoing laughter. The grease smoke from the grill lingers on the cool mountain breeze, and wrapped up in my ski jacket and a cozy beanie, I take in this sweet Goldilocks moment. Everything is just right.
So right, in fact, and so comfortable that we start to lose track of time. We’re now solidly into the afternoon and need to head back to the airport if we’re going to surf while the sun’s out. We miss the only shuttle of the hour by mere moments. While we wait on the side of the road like displaced Steinbeck characters, unable to imagine jumping in the Pacific this afternoon, fortune favors us—Cole’s friend happened to drive up from LA to snowboard as well, and she offers us a ride back to the airport. Our rescuer saves us a solid half hour and we thank her before heading back into the terminal, repacking our snow gear, preflighting, and starting up.
The Sling Tsi is so capable that the almost 7,000-foot density altitude is truly not a factor as we easily depart Big Bear. We depart in the opposite direction of how we arrived, favoring a departure path toward the lake since the winds are calm. This gives us more room to climb, an easy place to land if needed, and is the preferred route for noise abatement. We use our last frequency from SoCal, still in standby in com 1, to call up and get flight following again. We kick on the autopilot again—less than an hour to go.
A quick 40 minutes later we’re in Torrance’s airspace and, feeling better about how much daylight we have left, cruise over the cliffs of the Palos Verdes Peninsula to check the surf at Bluff Cove, a reef break where longboards are favored, from the air. Surfers dot the turned-up, Tiffany- blue waves that sweep over the kelp forests below. We’ll be down there ourselves in no time.
We land at Torrance a few minutes later, and I’m relieved that we have only one task left to complete in our full day. Skiing at 7,000 feet, even for a short while, is tiring, and I’m quietly grateful we didn’t run into any mechanical or weather issues that could’ve kept us stuck in Big Bear overnight. We check the surf once more from a lookout, then find street parking and begin the 15-minute hike down to the water. Convinced I’ll be freezing after the surf, I refused to leave my ski jacket in the car. As we walk down the trail with our hodge-podge of snow gear, surfboards, wetsuits and flip flops, I’m struck again by how unique our day is, and how easily GA allowed us to transition from snow to surf in just a few hours.
Finally at the rocky beach, Cole and I change into our bone-dry wetsuits, which is a physical sensation equivalent to the sound of nails on a chalkboard. We high step into the rocky shallows until the water is deep enough to paddle.
Cole’s an excellent surfer and we both catch a few waves and stand up on a couple—the measure we’re using to count as actual surfing. And just like that, the challenge is complete. Looking back toward the land, the cliffs are deeply golden, the water glistening, and the last rays of sun catch the spray as the waves curl in and break. Skiing might not be my strength, but surfing has always brought peace. We make it back to a smiling Mr. Rose, and the three of us watch the sunset, every moment of daylight well spent.
That evening, we reconvene to hangar fly the day at Old Tony’s on the pier, a local institution known for its tiki drinks and gorgeous views. This was a first for all of us, and while time was a factor, we weren’t truly rushed at any point. Cole and I reflect on the good and bad of California, agreeing that in the end the good wins. We’ll deal with the traffic, the smog, the high rent, the earthquakes, the taxes, to have an adventure like this—using every moment of sunlight on a winter day to fly to the mountains, ski, then come home and surf, and finish the day with a mai tai on the pier. It is not a bad way to live.