June Mountain, California, is a throwback of the best kind. PHOTO: Christian Pondella
June Mountain, California, is a throwback of the best kind. PHOTO: Christian Pondella

For Deep Snow Off the Radar, Go to June Mountain

A small-town ski area with some of the best backcountry access in North America, California’s June Mountain remains a gem

This story originally published in the September 2017 issue of POWDER (Vol. 46 No. 1). Never miss a story again and subscribe today.

The industrial-strength blasting of snow on the Sierra was relentless for more than a month. My back ached from shoveling and I hadn't skied in a week because it had been snowing too much.

With winds over 150 mph at the summit and whiteout conditions, Mammoth Mountain was on a well-earned weather hold. The hazard level in even the most benign backcountry spots was pinned in the red. The forecast called for another week of intensive shoveling and the locals were starting to crack. But we'd heard the rumors—20 miles north on Highway 395, it was Game On. Chair 1 was spinning, the Face was open, and the lower sidecountry—1,500 vertical feet of well-spaced old growth at just the right angle—was stacked.

Christian Pondella, Bernie the snowcat driver, local guide Mark Shelp, Matt Schott, Frank the plumber, and I—all Mammoth locals—had been waiting for the snow to ease up so the highway patrol could re-open 395. We had to get out of Mammoth and go somewhere with less weather and wind, somewhere the goddamn lifts weren't buried.

We needed June.

Frank Fazzino and Bernard Rosow take the slow road to Pow Town at June Mountain, California. PHOTO: Christian Pondella

There's only one road into the town of June Lakes in the winter. Tucked into the Eastern Sierra about 350 miles north of Los Angeles and 150 miles south of Reno, June isn't close to anything except big mountains and sagebrush desert. Driving north from Mammoth, the highway winds through empty forest for 20 miles until a small gas station marks the turnoff to the still-invisible ski area. As we exited 395, the previous day's storm was breaking up, dissipating clouds torn ragged by a north wind, blue spilling over white-plastered peaks.

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After cresting the aptly named Oh! Ridge, we saw the true scope of the peaks that rear right up from town—steep alpine flanks towering thousands of feet over the lakes on the narrow valley floor. The hanging bowls, rocky spires, and tumbling couloirs justify the tourism tagline, "California's Switzerland."

Another mile or two around the shores of June Lake, we passed through town. Amid the snowbanks and a well-worn cluster of funky old cabins and hotels with names like The Heidleberg Inn and Whispering Pines, there's a tiny general store and the Tiger Bar, a rough-and-ready drinker that opened in the early '40s. A "___ Days 'til Fishing Season" calendar behind the bar is a clue to the local priorities: June isn't a ski town; it's a fishing town that happens to have a pretty nice ski area.

Another lake and an aspen grove deeper into the valley, the road winds past the ski area base, featuring a parking lot, ticket office, and J1, a trusty, center-pole double chair installed in 1961. J1 spans a deceptively long and steep lower mountain pitch known as the Face, connecting the base to the old-school mid-mountain chalet that houses most of the resort's functions, a stone fireplace, and a tiny, but wonderful bar. June Mountain, which sits at 7,500 feet above sea level and receives an annual snowfall average of 250 inches, is so low profile the base makes a non-impression. But hovering above is an alpine cirque called the Negatives, offering a clue to the ski potential beyond the boundary.

Bernard Rosow enjoys another slow day at June. PHOTO: Christian Pondella

The scene in the parking lot for first chair was typical June. There were 10, maybe 20 vehicles. The few skiers loitering about all seemed to have packs and touring gear. With a foot or more of cold powder, the untracked lower mountain looked great, but there was no powder morning stress among our group, shivering in the cold north breeze as we walked all of 100 feet to the lift. The lifties were the most stoked people there, high-fiving us as they realized the entire first-chair crowd was headed out to hike the Negatives instead of lapping the Face.

The storm had broken, the cold temps should have locked up the pack, and there was not a crown or natural release in sight. Three lift rides, a rolling aspen glade traverse from the area boundary, and a casual one-hour skin had us on the summit of the Negatives, where it was far too cold to hang out and enjoy the panoramic view. Heads down against the frigid wind, we scrambled across the ridge, pausing on top of a rock-walled chute that bulges with 24 inches of new snow.

The slope rolled over a convexity and drained into a sprawling bowl, almost 2,000 feet of temptation spilling beneath my feet. Farther along the ridge, Pondella and Bernie teetered in the wind on the rocky pinnacle known as Dream Mountain, about to drop onto its steep and exposed north face. To the north, Mono Lake glittered with clouds and sky, a colossal mirror set into the desert floor below the granite ramparts and couloirs of the Dana Plateau and Tioga Pass.

I held my breath as dense powder sluffed off his ski cut. Then his first turn threw a wall of spray that hung sparkling in the wind and we hooted like monkeys. The snow held and Shelp casually ripped his line down the chute and onto the huge apron. In seconds, he was a mile away.

Standing next to me on the ridge, Shelp eyed an inviting drift on the right side of the chute. We had plans to keep hiking the ridge to ski Dream with the others, but he stalled on top of Negatives Chute No. 4, sniffing like a dog after an unseen rabbit. "I'm just gonna drop here," he said.

He was right—you can't walk past snow like this. Schott, Frank, and I clicked into our bindings and fiddled with buckles, shuffling and stamping nervously as Shelp pulled onto the slope.

I held my breath as dense powder sluffed off his ski cut. Then his first turn threw a wall of spray that hung sparkling in the wind and we hooted like monkeys. The snow held and Shelp casually ripped his line down the chute and onto the huge apron. In seconds, he was a mile away.

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When we caught up at the base of the cirque, Shelp was putting his skins on for another lap. But the lower pitch was calling to us with potentially deeper powder down in the junipers and grandfather hemlocks, which looked like giant bonsai trees. A rising traverse north toward the outlet of a winding couloir—known as the Fern Lake Grotto—took us through old-growth trees and past a party of grinning dreadlocked splitboarders smoking a bowl.

We began the last pitch on an airy perch against the ramparts of Carson Peak, almost on top of Devil's Slide, a slot couloir connecting Carson's sprawling upper bowls with the road through town. Pulling skins, Matt and Frank dropped into the bonsai forest and I followed. The first few turns in the steep trees required full safety protocol, but we relaxed when the slab-free nature of the deeper, more sheltered snow became evident. It was cold and silky and dense, and every turn set off long-running surface sluff that forced a fast pace. Luckily, the cliff bands and terrain features that normally characterize this flank were long buried, and we confidently sent every rollover into the aspen groves below.

It had taken us three attempts to ski this run, three battles out of snowbound Mammoth only to be thwarted by weather and closed roads in this winter gone crazy. I'd do it 10 more times for another run like that.

If you’re looking for more of a scene, or fancier digs, turn around and head back to Mammoth. SKIER: Bernard Rosow PHOTO: Christian Pondella


 
On storm days for the next month or so, I kept coming back to skin up the Negatives or daydream on J1 and lap the Face. It was addictive, the powder right under the lift, the big terrain just a short skin away, the total lack of the hectic energy that's synonymous with ski areas that have fresh snow.

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Fittingly, even closing day in April was another pow day. Dropping off the top of the mountain on a blue square below the J6 quad, I discovered something Junique: The snowcats had left 10 or 20 feet of day-old powder untouched on the sides of the broad groomers, strips of perfect snow neatly walled off from the "crowds" by an awkward three-foot-tall berm of cat chunder. It was about 11 o'clock on a Sunday—back in Mammoth, every last scrap would have been crushed by a frenzied crowd, but there I was skiing half-mile-long strips of heli powder on the groomers.

That afternoon, down on the sun deck at the mid-mountain chalet, there was a crowd (by June standards), some beer drinking, and a couple of wacky costumes, but it hardly looked like the Mardi Gras Sodom and Gomorrah that you see at other closing days. At the tiny bar inside, Andy the bartender poured me a free one and sincerely said, "Thanks for coming by this winter, we really appreciate it," like I was a regular. I think I'd sat down there twice in two months.

June Mountain is surrounded by the ramparts of the Sierra. PHOTO: Christian Pondella

Later that day, I looked out from the top of the J7 quad and across at the untracked chutes of the Negatives cirque and the airy north face of Dream Mountain, pristine and shimmering white in the California sun. A single skier was setting a skin track, the last of the season, from the resort up onto the Negatives. Plundering the untracked side of one more groomer, I wondered what the soloist planned to ski. Main Negatives cirque? Rappel into 3D Chute? I'd be jealous but the powder inbounds was just too good, the lift-lapping too damn easy, the sun deck too sunny.

After the mountain closed, I stopped by the June Lake Brewery to check out the après scene in the afternoon warmth. Smiling locals and their various dogs were sociably milling about in front of the bare-bones brewery, laughing and bullshitting and drinking beer as the evening shadows moved in. Far above us, Dream Mountain was still in the sun. But now, there was a lone set of tracks on the sheer north face, huge arcs looping onto the apron, powder sprayed off the apex of every turn.

Know Before You Go

Children under 12 ski free at June Mountain, which also has an open-boundary policy so you can duck the rope and ski wherever you want.

Pete's Dream was the vision of a local guide, Pete Schoener, and was not skied until after he passed away in an ice-climbing accident. Basically only skiable in mid-winter powder, it is one of the most aesthetic roadside lines in the entire Sierra Nevada, and with the mid-line death cliff, potentially one of the sketchiest.

People skied off rope tows in June as early as the 1930s. Mammoth founder Dave McCoy hoped to interconnect June and Mammoth via at least 12 lifts to form a mega-resort. Wilderness designations partly stymied that vision, keeping June isolated amongst the Sierra ramparts.

Installed in 1961, the J1 double chair rises 1,109 vertical feet, nearly half of June's 2,590 vertical rise.

Mammoth locals refer to June as "Juneberry" for its resemblance to Mayberry, the sleepy fictional town from "The Andy Griffith Show."

June Lake Brewing's strongest beer, Carson Peak American Strong Ale (13-percent ABV), was inspired by the June Mountain ski patrol director's request for a beer worthy of Carson Peak, the signature mountain of the June Lakes Valley.

While June gets about 100 inches less snow than nearby Mammoth Mountain, the modulated weather at the more sheltered and lower resort paradoxically means there can be better powder skiing there. June will remain operational when storms shut down the good terrain at Mammoth; June's best terrain is at the bottom of the mountain, and the trees, aspect, and surrounding peaks mean the snow is less wind-affected.