Mammoth by nature Quintessentially Southern Californian, Mammoth is about to take on a new look By G.D. Maxwell Many years before Walt Disney was spooked by a chance encounter with a mouse, many years before Hollywood was the undisputed film capital of the world, and long before the name Los Angeles was synonymous with all the evils of urban sprawl run amok, L.A. was a tiny urban outpost in the desert of southern California. Had it not been for the vision, tenacity and complete lack of scruples of William Mulholland, it probably would have remained that way. But Mulholland believed in his heart of hearts that Los Angeles was destined to be a great city. The only thing standing in the way of it fulfilling this destiny was water to fuel its growth. To Mulholland, L.A.’s chief water engineer, this drawback was merely an engineering problem, a minor annoyance he’d been put on this earth to solve. He envisioned a vast network of hundreds of miles of aqueducts and pipelines draining water from as far away as the Colorado River and the Sierra Mountains to slake the thirst of Angelinos. As a part of his megalomaniacal quest, Mulholland plumbed the Owens Valley north of the city and cast his vision further into the Sierra, towards Mono Lake. Some few years after his death in 1935, a young hydrographer trekked into the Eastern Sierras to measure snow depths and survey new watersheds to drain. In an area more prone to drought than abundant snowfall, Dave McCoy studied and fell in love with an anomaly: Mammoth Mountain. Mammoth stands at the eastern apex of two natural corridors in the Sierras, one running roughly southwest and one running west. Both allow moist Pacific air to travel unhindered inland. Unhindered at least until it slams into the imposing bulk of Mammoth. The result of this geological and meteorological coincidence is an annual snowfall on Mammoth Mountain that more than lives up to its name. Some 500 inches of snow will fall on the mountain most years, fuelling a ski season that runs from late November until well beyond the time most of us abandon any thoughts of skiing for the warmer pursuits of summer. Hiking up Mammoth to measure the snow pack those many years ago allowed Dave to ski back down. Being a reasonably sane man, Dave realized the ski down was a lot more fun than the trek up and figured there were others who might see things the same way. So in 1938 — as local legend has it — Dave hocked his Harley and with the $85 he got for it, bought a rope tow and installed it on Mammoth Mountain. To defray the costs of pursuing his passion, he began to charge half a buck to anyone else who wanted to take the easy way up and the fun way down. The rest is history. Los Angeles grew up, post-war America had money to spend and skiing was transformed from an eccentric pastime into a booming business. In 1955 the first chairlift was installed on Mammoth Mountain and in a burst of creativity was dubbed Chair #1. Another followed, and then another and another and another and pretty soon, there were 31 chairlifts, 3,500 acres, 150 trails, bowls, glades and chutes and a 3,100 foot vertical drop that begins at 11,100 feet above sea level in black diamond heaven and ends up somewhere just this side of blissful exhaustion. The fortunes of Mammoth followed the fortunes of California. Every year seemed to get better and better with more lifts, more lodges, more amenities and more skiers. By the early years of the 1980s, management of Mammoth was actually understating the number of skier visits, which still managed to hit about 1.4 million in 1984. Despite a growing reputation for long lift lines and crowded weekends when upwards of 20,000 Angelinos would make the five-hour drive — overwhelming the town of Mammoth Lakes’ 5,000 permanent residents — Mammoth’s future seemed clear. Land was acquired for future expansion of resort lodging, and nearby June Mountain was purchased with a view toward providing an alternate destination for weekend warriors. But then, the script took an unexpected turn. A series of unrelated events reversed the fortunes of Mammoth. Crushingly high interest rates of 18 and 19 per cent made servicing debt difficult or impossible. California grudgingly entered the recession the rest of North America had slid into a few years earlier. Changes to the US tax code eliminated the deductibility of mortgage interest on second homes. The state entered a prolonged period of drought when snowfall was less than spectacular. And earthquakes of a magnitude sufficient to catch the attention of the media began to occur with uncomfortably common frequency. Skiers stayed away in droves and visits fell to around the 800,000 mark. Enter Intrawest. If you were a successful mountain resort/ski company, if you had a good track record both building and resurrecting ski resorts, if you’d just successfully listed on the New York Stock Exchange and had access to deep pockets of capital, Mammoth Mountain would probably make you dribble all over your club tie. Lots of vertical, vast in-bounds acreage, advanced snowmaking and grooming, plenty of developable land, and a market of millions of skiers familiar with your product a short — by California standards — drive away. If you managed to do no more than lure the Angelinos back to the Mammoth in anywhere near the numbers that formerly came, your investment would pay off. But if you were one of the best in the business at creating destination resorts and were convinced you could draw skiers from all over the world to the big Sierra mountain, you’d do what Intrawest did. In January, 1996, after a lengthy courtship, Intrawest acquired 33 per cent of Mammoth Mountain and considerable land holdings the mountain had purchased over a number of years. In August of last year, that position was increased to 51 per cent — albeit with Dave McCoy retaining voting control — and early this year, as a result of the Mammoth repurchasing shares from three second generation members of the McCoy family, Intrawest’s ownership rose to 58 per cent. The picture painted at Intrawest’s annual general meeting in November piqued my interest. Big mountain, deep powder, low glitz and glam factor, quintessential Sierra experience and, most important to a sun-starved Whistleratic, 70 per cent bright sunny days. Employing my usual impeccable timing, I arrived in the town of Mammoth Lakes mere moments ahead of what would, days later, be dubbed the Storm of the Year. This was the storm that closed sections of I-5, washed away beachfront property up and down the coast and dropped a couple feet of snow dangerously close in consistency to what the locals call Sierra Cement or what we call in Whistler, Wet Coast Powder. So what is Mammoth? MAMMOTH IS... SOMEWHERE. In winter, short of piloting your own plane, there are two ways into Mammoth Lakes. Unfortunately, I choose neither and ended up at a closed highway staring at a snow drift as deep as a ranch style house. A quick call to 1-800-MAMMOTH — a call to be made in advance next time — got me back on the right track. If you’re driving from L.A., Mammoth is five or six hours up the Owens Valley. If you’re coming from the north, it’s 150 miles from Reno, Nevada. If you’re coming from anywhere else, choose one of these routes because that’s it. This is one of the big barriers the new Mammoth-Intrawest partnership will have to overcome in transforming the resort from a regional, SoCal ski area into a destination resort. Not only do the Sierras bar easy access from, say, San Francisco, but anyone from the Bay Area — the next most likely market to mine — has to drive through Tahoe and go another three hours to get there. In a wide-ranging interview, Rusty Gregory, Mammoth’s CEO, spoke of the problem and the solution. "The transportation is probably the easiest piece to solve," he said. "You go get an airline. But you can’t get an airline unless you have the right kind of packagable, marketable bed base. Intrawest is building that. It’s (building) the product first, and then marketing it in a convenient package for people to come." MAMMOTH IS... EVERYWHERE. When you come from Whistler, a town set in a mountain valley so narrow you wear it more than live in it, you can’t help but be impressed by the size and openness of Mammoth. Located within the Inyo National Forest and adjacent to the Ansel Adams Wilderness, the town of Mammoth Lakes is nestled into the eastern boundary of the Sierra Mountains. A western sense of space pervades the place. Vistas to the east, across the Long Valley Caldera, seem endless. The sky is everywhere. Horizons, especially if you gain the advantage of altitude, appear to be limited only by the curvature of the earth and the quality of the Sierra light, a quality that captured and kept the imagination of Ansel Adams for his entire life and illuminated his most stunning photographs. The town of Mammoth Lakes cascades in all directions at the base of the mountain. Coming from the tiny, perfect resort municipality that is Whistler, Mammoth seems a jumble of neighbourhoods, condo developments, strip plazas and a far-flung industrial park. It’s refreshing in its lack of planning. It fits like well-worn jeans. It has a comfortable ambience of a town built around residents, not tourists. It must drive resort planners crazy. I’m not sure Mike Vance is so much going to Mammoth to head up a planning department as he is to start one. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of one having had a hand in what’s already there. The upshot of this is twofold. Mammoth has some lifestyle amenities Whistler lacks. They are the kind of things a town can have when there’s enough land to keep occupancy prices affordable. There are inexpensive restaurants, a couple of movie theatres, lots of stores locals can afford to shop in and, wait for it, affordable housing. Mammoth is the kind of place you wouldn’t give a second thought to arriving at without a reservation, except maybe some very busy weekends. Reasonably-priced lodging is abundant and while none of it will turn the head of the fur coat crowd, it reinforces the feeling that Mammoth is a ski town, which is to say a town where you will want to come to ski, not to be seen skiing. The downside of this arrangement is a lack of focus. There is no après core to Mammoth. When you come down off the mountain at day’s end, whether you ski to the main lodge, Canyon lodge, or the base of chair 15 — yes, installed some time between chair 14 and 16 — you get in your car and trundle off to, wherever. There is no "scene" to make, no patio to lounge on, no cozy-comfy Monk’s, no Dusty’s, no GLC and certainly no Longhorn. The no longer captive audience scatters back to their hotels, condos and B&Bs, to reconvene in groups and clutches in any of the numerous bars, restaurants, coffee and pastry shops or to simply disappear in the warm glow of après exhaustion in some anonymous hot tub. One of the keys to Intrawest’s strategy at Mammoth is to create the base mountain experience they’ve done so successfully at Blackcomb, Tremblant and elsewhere. MAMMOTH IS... TWO MOUNTAINS. Mammoth is two mountains disguised as one mountain. We didn’t get a chance to ski June Mountain. June may be fun to ski and provide a diversion to repeating your favourite runs on Mammoth but it reminds me of nothing so much as Mount Norquay in Banff. Everyone knows it’s there but no one goes out of their way to ski it when Sunshine and Lake Louise are just up the road. But Mammoth itself is two mountain experiences. We discovered this by accident, thanks to El Niño. The afternoon we arrived, high cumulous clouds were beginning to obscure the bright sunshine we’d come to pay our respects to. By the next morning, chains or four wheel drive were mandatory to traverse the road up to the main lodge. Snow fell all day long and avalanche danger kept the top of the mountain from opening. Stepping into Mammoth’s day lodge is almost nostalgic. It’s like opening a portal to the past. A huge, rambling building, the main lodge is a confusing labyrinth of corridors and lockers, stairways and dead-ends. The decorating theme is concrete bunker and institutional paint and despite all this, the ambience is warm and inviting. This is a place you want to come to play on the mountain. No nonsense, no frills, utilitarian and user-friendly once you grasp the layout and find the exits. Change areas and locker space — features sorely lacking at both Whistler and Blackcomb — were humming with locals and visitors and the excitement that always accompanies a deep dump of fresh snow. Mammoth of the future and Mammoth of the past reside in easy accommodation on the lower slopes of the mountain. New, detachable quads and pokey fixed-grip Yans are spread all over the various aspects of the mountain. Despite the snow falling, a snowboard park and half pipe just up from the main lodge were humming with activity. The US Olympic snowboard team finals were taking place. With no chance of skiing the top of the mountain, we set out with a Mountain Host to explore the lower flanks. The slope was gentle and chair rides frequent. With snow at knee level, there was barely enough pitch to warrant making turns and in many cases, not enough to maintain momentum. If you took the 3,500 acres of either Whistler or Blackcomb and squashed them down into 2,000 less feet of vertical, you’d get the picture. The lower mountain is a gentle cruise, perfect for novice skiers but not very stimulating if black is the colour of your true love. After an excruciating, leg-numbing ride from the Chair 15 Outpost — mental note, pack a lunch for this chair — I kept reminding myself to be upbeat and not draw any conclusions from the day’s skiing paradox: vast but limited terrain. I looked longingly at the map of upper Mammoth and dreamed that night about alpine stretches of white punctuated only with single and double black diamonds. Maybe I was praying instead of dreaming because the next morning the Christ Child cut us a break and painted the sky blue. We bolted breakfast and headed for the alpine. We weren’t the first ones on Chair 23 but we were in the first 10. Fresh, black blast marks dotted the pitch on both sides of the chair where ski patrol had started extensive slides down pitches named Wipeout, Dropout and Huevos Grande. Tying on powder straps and trying to contain my rising anticipation, the beauty of the scene around me began to sink in. The Minaret Mountains, gnarly, glaciated fingers of volcanic rock raking the sky, seemed to glow in the morning light. The Sierras, arrayed to the east and south, stood in contrast to Mammoth, their imposing bulk almost devoid of snow by comparison. Even the top of Mammoth, despite a 10 foot base, was wind-scoured and exposed in places. Launching into the Wipeout zone, we free-fell through half a dozen quick turns, deep fresh snow counterbalancing gravity’s pull. The 11,000 foot altitude left me breathless but it was the pitch that took my breath away. For three or four rides, we cut turns in fresh snow on either side of Chair 23 and then headed for the back bowls, Santiago and Hemlock. The terrain was reminiscent of favourite spots on Whistler — Sun Bowl, Doom and Gloom. Morning stretched into mid-afternoon as we explored the high, black country and found out what makes people come back to Mammoth again and again. Avalanche Chutes off Lincoln peak, Dave’s Run, the hairy steeps of the Dragon’s Tail erased the low-octane memories of the day before. On this Friday, there were no lift lines, no crowding and powder enough for everyone. Mammoth is, first and foremost, a skier’s mountain. MAMMOTH IS... EARTH SHAKING. Some 50,000 years ago, in the Mono-Inyo Craters volcanic chain delivery room, planet Earth gave birth to Mammoth Mountain, itself a dormant volcano. Anchored by Mammoth, the chain runs some 25 miles north to Mono Lake and is a small part of a large volcanic system in eastern California. Although no eruptions have occurred since the mid 1800s, the system is considered active. While eruptions are rare, earthquakes are frequent. Movement along faults — three of which converge directly under Mammoth Mountain — and pressure from subterranean magma cause the quakes. After years of relative dormancy, a period of ongoing geologic unrest began in 1978. It announced itself with a magnitude 5.4 earthquake and reasserted itself in May, 1980, with four magnitude 6 quakes, three in the same day. Since then the U.S. Geological Survey have had earth scientists in place studying seismic activity in the area. Dr. David Hill, chief scientist for the USGS, held forth at an open forum, town meeting, presenting the most recent findings of the Survey and fielding questions from a standing room only audience at the Forest Service/Visitor Centre auditorium. Long Valley Caldera — some 20 miles long and 10 miles wide — stretches west of the town of Mammoth Lakes. It was formed over 750 thousand years ago when a cataclysmic eruption blew some 150 cubic miles of magma from beneath the earth, whose surface sank more than a mile into the resultant depression. After the 1980 quakes, the scientists found a resurgent dome — an area of swelling uplift — forming in the caldera. Today it stands about two feet higher than it was in 1979 and affects some 100 square miles. Despite this activity, Dr. Hill and his crew are convinced the odds of a volcanic eruption are very small. And with upwards of several hundred measurable earthquakes in the area each day during a period last November, the odds of a major quake, magnitude 6 or greater, are only moderate. In a state known for earth shaking events, both cultural and seismic, no one can get too worked up about the earth movements around Mammoth. The level 6 quakes in 1980 caused little damage in a town where high rise means anything over two stories. The people of Los Angeles consider the area virtually quake free. The midnight shakings we experienced were mildly reminiscent of Magic Fingers without the noise. MAMMOTH IS... DEVELOPMENT VERSUS REDEVELOPMENT. When is development not development? When it’s redevelopment in the state of California. If all Mammoth Mountain and Intrawest wanted to do is build the projects they have planned over the next 10 years, there would probably be no controversy. It was almost impossible to find a person in Mammoth who isn’t in favour of these projects. The grand plan calls for three centres of development. Gondola Village will be the new locus of the Mammoth experience. In the two block area just north of Main Street on the way to the main lodge, Gondola Village is planned as 120,000 square feet of commercial/retail space and 1,000 residential units. Built in the Whistler style — retail on bottom, condos on top — but with a Sierra flavour, Gondola Village will provide a centre and main access point up the mountain. Integral to this plan is a gondola rising from the development up to the top of Lincoln Mountain, a peak on Mammoth’s flank. This area is currently developed with a mix of retail, commercial and hotel uses. Sierra Star is a golf course development south of Gondola Village. The course is in and will be ready to play this summer. 1,200 residential units are planned for development, with lower density townhomes predominating the mix. Juniper Ridge, at the base of Chairs 15 and 24, is a natural access point to the mountain. Being right in town and at the lowest elevation of any of the other mountain entries, it had the added advantage of not requiring chains in even the worst snow storms. Intrawest plans to build a 174 unit condo/hotel with construction beginning this summer. Future plans include some 200 residential units featuring a lower density mix. If the story ended here, there would be no controversy, no lawyers, no lawsuits and no uncertainty. But California has something called the California Community Redevelopment Law. It is a statutory mechanism allowing counties or cities to fund the cleanup of blighted project areas. It provides for funding through bond issues, allows governments to acquire private property through condemnation proceedings, uses property tax increments to retire indebtedness and is a powerful tool for change. By any standards, the plan filed by the Redevelopment Agency established by the town of Mammoth Lakes is breathtaking. It includes not only the Mammoth/Intrawest projects but, in total, some 72 projects that would have the effect of radically changing the look and feel of the town of Mammoth Lakes. Enter the Friends of Mammoth. Organized in 1970 to force local government to adhere to the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act, the Friends were a relatively dormant group until Redevelopment breathed new life into them. Founded by double gold medal Olympian Andrea Lawrence, a mercurial local political figure with a sharp wit, a quick tongue and an unerring ability to let you know what she’s thinking in no uncertain terms, the Friends have filed two lawsuits to stop the Redevelopment plan. One challenges the adequacy and legality of the environmental assessment done in conjunction with Redevelopment and the other the legality of the plan itself. In a long interview with most of the officers and some of the members, they outlined their concerns. With apologies to them for the necessity of brevity, their arguments distill down to two. First, the Redevelopment Plan is itself illegal because it encompasses both development and redevelopment projects in areas totally devoid of blight and decay — essential elements of the enabling statute — under any remotely reasonable definition of those words. Second, because the economic effect of retiring the plan’s debt over the 45 year life of the Redevelopment Agency, will quite possibly bankrupt both Mammoth Lakes and Mono County due to the diversion of incremental tax revenues. With a hearing on the Plan’s legality set for June 25th of this year, a ruling in favour of the Friends’ position would effectively halt the Redevelopment Plan. David Greenfield, Senior Vice President, Resort Development Group for Intrawest, when asked about the effect of such eventuality said, "It would be a real shame. It would probably be a bit of a setback. Some of the things we’re planning, like a conference centre, probably wouldn’t happen. It would change the way we look at certain things." But he reassuringly added, "We’ll still be in Mammoth. Maybe with a different set of plans and time lines and scale, but we’ll be there." MAMMOTH IS... MORE THAN SKIING. Beyond skiing, Mammoth offers seemingly unlimited opportunities for other winter sports. Hundreds of miles of snowmobile trails traverse the Inyo National Forest. A tubing concession near the main lodge offers non-skiers the thrill of gravity and sliding on snow. Tamarack Cross Country Ski Centre — acquired by Mammoth Mountain during my stay — embraces the backcountry below Mammoth’s ski area boundary with looping trails and Sierra camp style cabins. And the hiking, camping and fishing opportunities during the dry, sunny Sierra summers holds the promise of another feature on this unique area sometime in the next few months.