Words and Photo: The Jaded Local
“Are you all right? What’s wrong?”
“A great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.”
It’s been a few days since the announcement that June Mountain won’t be open this winter, so I’ve pretty much come to terms with it now. I've gone through the Five Stages of Grief identified by Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. And then I went to the Clocktower last night and got drunk on old Scotch with the owner after closing time. If you were walking by around 1 in the morning, you would have heard a high-pitched keening sound like some kind of orphaned baby animal.
Dammit man, not June.
There’s something scary and sacrilegious about the thought of those lifts sitting there all winter while the snow piles up, silent for the first time in 50 years. Great powder skiing, functional chairlifts, a bar with a nice fireplace, the longest sustained lift-served pitch in the state…a classic ski resort all paid for already, and somehow nobody can figure out how to make money with the damn thing.
If the town of June Lakes were in Colorado, it would be Telluride. It’s the most beautiful mountain town in California, the only one in the whole state that's surrounded by big alpine peaks, lakes, waterfalls, and couloirs. But this is California, so all the rich people would rather go to Telluride and the local ski community could fit in my apartment.
The deepest day I’ve ever had was at June Mountain. February of ’98, right in the middle of an apocalyptic weeklong El Niño storm cycle. Everything was shut down in Mammoth, so we put ‘er in 4-low and beat it up Highway 395 to June, sneaking in just as they were closing the road for avalanches, cutting the little town off from the world.
We didn’t ski anything except the lower mountain, right under the lift, because if you fell into a treewell or even just fell at all and nobody saw it, you’d be gone forever. It was neck-deep, overhead in places. It was somewhere around 6 feet of fresh with constant refills from the wind. They let us keep loading until dark because they had to keep the chair spinning so the lift wouldn’t ice up and seize. When we finally wrapped and went to the Tiger Bar in town, there were people drag-racing snowmobiles down the main street. I’ve forgotten dozens of other deep days in June, but that one will stay with me forever.
And it’s not the reason for the high-pitched keening sounds, or the carpet-bombing campaign on my liver. The Negatives, 3D Chute, Dream Mountain, Hemlock Ridge, Fern Lake Grotto, Four Seasons, Carson Bowl, Devil’s Slide, Pete’s Dream… We’re losing the best lift-assisted backcountry skiing in California. Four thousand feet of couloirs, bowls, techy alpine faces, and some of the finest north-facing old-growth powder skiing in the land. An hour and half skin from the top of Lift Seven puts you on top of Pete’s Dream, a 4,000-foot fall line fantasy run with powder spines and massive exposure. Put a number on that. What’s a Granite Canyon or Bear Creek worth, but with better snow, better tree skiing, no access issues, and nobody dropping in on top of you?
Whenever I've written something about the June sidecountry for POWDER, there have always been a couple of local guys who would get all self-righteous and bitch at me like it was going to get invaded by hordes of backcountry skiers and tracked up if I sold out “their” Super Duper Seekrit Stash. Well, you got what you wanted, I guess.
The locals in Mammoth and June are starting to freak out. The town of Mammoth is about to go bankrupt, the ski resort has been laying off long-term employees with a vengeance, we’re one dry winter from boarding up the windows on Main Street, and now June. The place was pretty thoroughly harvested by Intrawest and other purveyors of the housing bubble of the 2000s, and there’s not much left to exploit anymore. But the investment portfolio that owns Mammoth/June now just happens to own a nice chunk of property in June Lakes that, I'm sure, they would very much like to develop with a multi-story pile of Rustic Elegance and Slopeside Investment Opportunity (or at least get all the paperwork out of the way so they can sell a ready-to-build project). The locals declined to change their height-restricted zoning when Intrawest applied for a building permit, but they might be a little more inclined to get with the program after a taste of the lash. Who knows? The various discussions on the street and the Internet are emotional and generally clueless.
The official rationale for the closing, that the mountain was $1.5 million in the red per year, can no doubt be made true in some accounting sense, but how do they factor in use (or value assigned to the option) by the 20,000-plus season pass holders at Mammoth/June? Accounting aside, the recent strategy of maintaining multiple parks and pipes that were being used by tiny numbers of people could have cost millions on it’s own in snowcat time—the mountain was being run like a loss leader, not a profit center. At any rate, just shutting it down is worth more in terms of local political leverage than a sustainable business model for a rinky-dink resort. The group that purchased Mammoth from Dave McCoy is not in the running-ski-resorts business, they are in the investment-maximizing business and that means real estate.
If the people at Starwood (the equity group that now owns Mammoth and June Mountain) were interested in running June at a profit it would be the simplest thing in the world. Spin the lifts, do some light AC on the inbounds terrain, and stock the bar. That's it. Promote it as the sickest backcountry access in California and sell one-rides for $20. Silverton is making money in the middle of nowhere with a permit that limits them to 130 skiers a day and they only run four days a week up a sketchy frigid canyon in B.F.E. Southwest Colorado.
The real unknown is the Forest Service. The F.S. owns the land and the lease for June, and the local office is probably full of the nervous scuttling sounds of people ducking for bureaucratic cover as fast as they can find it. The last thing anyone wants to do there is make a decision about what they’ll sanction. And who knows what’s going to happen this winter—will the Forest Service close June to uphill travel? Will it become the ultimate Mad Max style snowmobile freakfest? Because if those lifts aren’t spinning I’m taking matters into my own hands—I’ll be there every powder day with a 1000cc paddle-tracked screaming death machine charging people a sixer for a ride up The Face and twelver to the top of Lift Seven so they can go ski the Negatives. It might not be pretty, and it sure won’t save those jobs in June, but what the hell, we can still ski there right?