“We love skiing here. It’s so close, just an easy five-hour drive from home.”
While my jaw didn’t drop, my eyes opened wide. Riding down on the Village gondola at Mammoth, I was chatting with a lovely woman, another ski mom, and her 11-year-old son.
They live in the Los Angeles area and ski Mammoth as often as they can, which often means every weekend.
Not that there isn’t decent, and sometimes great, skiing closer to Los Angeles. I’ve talked to plenty of Southern California families that enjoy day trips to resorts like Snow Summit, Big Bear and Mountain High.
But when I started chatting with Mammoth skiers, this mom and many others, they made one thing very clear.
In Southern California, Mammoth is the “big” mountain. It’s where the serious skiers go.
Spring Fun, Sun and Wind
Some friends and I skied three days at Mammoth in April. Although April is late in the season at many resorts, Mammoth has a long season. The resort is generally open from November through June, So April is sort of like February at other mountains.
Or, maybe sort of like February without the cold.
The first morning, we awoke to light snow. By 9:00, the day cleared out beautifully, the clouds blown away on the wind. Our group of writers and industry reps set out with Phil, our guide for the next two days.
Skiing with a guide is a great way to get oriented on any mountain, but it’s especially helpful when you’re skiing a huge mountain with 34 lifts.
Since we were staying in the Village, we took the Village gondola to Canyon Lodge, one of several bases serving different parts of Mammoth, to start our day.
From Canyon Lodge, we took Chair Four, the Roller Coaster Express, and warmed up on some cruisers. From there, we followed Phil across the lower part of the mountain. Through trees, in bumps and down fast groomers, he took us up, down, around and about, giving us an excellent overview and finding the best snow.
The North Wind Doth Blow
Was it really a north wind? I have no idea. But the wind, which so kindly blew out the morning squall making way for bluebird skies, was fierce at the top of the mountain.
Just about the upper third of Mammoth lies above tree line, and from below, these pistes are beguiling. Endless lines, fields of bumps, chutes and cornices provide a vast playground for advanced and adventuresome skiers.
Although we could see the wind tossing up snow from the peaks (and we knew that the Panorama gondola was on a wind hold), we decided to venture part up way on chair 23, a fixed grip triple, covered in rime ice, that discharges skiers into a windproof structure known as “The Worm.”
As we turned out of the shed, an uphill wind hit us and nearly knocked us over. Fighting our way past some chutes, we turned into the wind and into chunks of blowing ice. Covering our faces with mittens, we pushed over the cornice, fought through a few turns and then suddenly it was quiet!
No wind, soft snow, steep pitch and, did I say, no wind?
It was beautiful skiing, amazing skiing made all the more so because the top was so darn treacherous.
What I Learned, Where We Skied
The next two days saw better weather.
Less wind and warm sun made for perfect spring skiing conditions at the bottom, while mid-winter reigned at the top. We skied fast groomers, ripped chutes and carved glades, skied warm southeast aspects in the morning and then went up high in the afternoon.
When I ski with a guide, I rarely know where I am and I often cannot revisit where I’ve been.
After two days of skiing with Phil, however, I learned a lot. I learned that morning is the time to ski the glades off of Lift 9, above Eagle Lodge and that afternoons are fun (and out of the wind, even on the first day) on Lift 5.
I learned that Mammoth forms the southwest rim of the Long Valley Caldera and that there are several spots on the mountain where skiers can see (and smell) earthly gas rising like steam from volcanic hot spots.
I also learned that I could spend day after day making laps off the top of the mountain, above the trees, alternating between Chair 23 (that of the windy Worm) and the Panorama gondola. And while I never dropped to Chairs 13 and 14 on the Backside, I hear the skiing is incredible over there, too. I learned that I want to go there someday.
Riding the chairlifts and standing atop the mountain, I learned that the views from Mammoth are like none other. As a group, we were stunned by the views down into the arid Owens Valley in one direction and then across to the backdoor of Yosemite National Park in the other.
I learned that if I want a delicious filling meal, but can’t decide what to get, that I can get it all with the Loaded Cornbread at The Mill.
And I learned, that like any great ski mountain, skiers and riders of all abilities were having a terrific time at Mammoth.
While we were out exploring the mountain, we saw total beginners learning their first turns and plenty of families laughing and racing down blue groomers. We saw aspiring X Games athletes in the parks, and we saw older skiers carving turns that they’ve perfected over decade upon decade of skiing.
So in the end, is Mammoth worth a five to six-hour drive? Undoubtedly.
I think it might even be worth a 12 hour drive.
Road trip, anyone?
A Little Bit of History
Like so many ski resorts around the West, before there were was skiing at Mammoth, there was mining. Inhospitable desert surrounds this part of the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains on three sides, but when gold was found by the Mammoth Mining Company in 1877, a short-lived rush began.
By 1889, it was over.
In the early 1900s, the beautiful mountains, meadows and lakes in the area were discovered. The first summer visitors came from nearby towns, but soon, Los Angelenos were making the two and one-half day trip to Mammoth Camp.
Put into this context, I began to understand how a five to six-hour drive can seem short.
Organized skiing began in 1938, when local hydrographer and California state skiing champ, Dave McCoy set up a rope tow on nearby McGee Mountain. By 1942, he’d moved his tow to Mammoth.
Today, Mammoth has over 3500 skiable acres rising 3,100 feet to a summit of 11,053 feet. Near the summit, you’ll find a single black piste, well above the tree line. It’s called Dave’s Run, named, of course for Dave McCoy.
Dave is in his ‘90s now. And he’s still skiing.
When You Go…
First of all, do go.
Drive or fly or hitch up your wagon, and go.
While Mammoth is way off the beaten path, it’s a beautiful mountain with amazing skiing and it should be on every skier and rider’s list.
We stayed in the Village, which was great because we didn’t have a car and we didn’t need a car. Restaurants, shops, bars, demos and rentals: it’s all there.
Plus, free buses connect the Village with the bases and the town of Mammoth Lakes.
For families, there is nothing easier.
As for dining, you can cook in your condo or choose from a complete culinary palette.
In one of the more diverse pairings I’ve seen, choose between The Red Lantern (Chinese) or Jimmy’s Taverna (Greek), both located in the same building. In the village, Campo offers rustic Italian, while the Mammoth Brewery Company will serve you what you need from root beer on up.
For more information, please visit mammothmountain.com and visitmammoth.com.
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