The Soul Gallery: Dave McCoy

Ski resort pioneer, visionary, entrepreneur

Dave McCoy, founder of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. PHOTO: Scott Markewitz

Dave McCoy, born in 1915, founder of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. PHOTO: Scott Markewitz

The Soul Gallery, a tribute to iconic figures who defined skiing, originally ran in the January 2014 issue (42.5). As pure as snowflakes drifting through the sky, each winter represents a clean slate—an opportunity to meet new people, accomplish new goals, learn lessons about yourself and nature, and be reborn as you fly through deep powder snow. What happens when you can experience this every season throughout a lifetime? What lessons do you learn? What can you accomplish when you ski not just for years, but decades?

For a handful of old timers, the annual return of winter gives them the means to influence everyone around them. Season after season, storm after storm, they see things differently than everyone else, and they keep at it long after others slow down or simply give up. They are the pioneers, visionaries, innovators, artists, and warriors who are fully committed. Eventually, their accomplishments help define an entire sport.

Today, these skiers remind us where we came from and what lessons we can learn in order to follow in their tracks.

PHOTO: Scott Markewitz

PHOTO: Scott Markewitz

In 1938, Dave McCoy, a hydrologist with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, began setting up a rope tow on weekends on the Eastern Sierra foothills near his home in Bishop, California. The point, simply, was to provide an outlet so he and his friends could go skiing. He never intended to make money off the endeavor. That is, until one week when he and his wife realized they didn’t have enough cash to put food on the table. According to the book “Tracks of Passion,” by Robin Morning, the couple put out a cigarette box at the bottom of the rope and asked for donations.

For a man who always believed in hard work, it was a painful decision. But they ended up making $15 that week. Next, he secured Forest Service permits based on his knowledge of where the deepest snow was. Then he convinced United Tramway, out of San Francisco, to provide him a chairlift despite not having any collateral. But he made sure he was good for it. Over the next six decades, McCoy presided over skiing in the Eastern Sierra. Notwithstanding his lack of any formal engineering or business training, he grew Mammoth Mountain into one of America’s premier ski resorts. But McCoy is quick to point out that it was a team effort. “We got it in, and I say ‘we,’ because that’s what it was,” he says. “Nobody had anything better to say than to tell us we couldn’t do it. And that gives you the desire to work harder and longer.”

In 2005, McCoy’s lifelong project came to an end when he and his wife sold their remaining stake of the resort to Starwood Capital for $365 million. But instead of celebrating, it was like a piece of them had died. Today, McCoy does not care to discuss it.

Though that figure grabs headlines, and will be what people who don’t know McCoy latch onto, it is contrary to his reputation and legacy. “If you look at most ski areas in the country, they are run by rich men and Wall Street types,” says Hub Zemke, who founded Hexcel Skis in a space provided by McCoy. “But here’s a man who only had a high school education and built a ski area based on his leadership qualities. He had the dream, he skied, and he was a working entrepreneur. He literally put up the lifts and strung the cable. And he didn’t give a damn about the money.”

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  • B.C.

    LEGEND, ALWAYS AND FOREVER

  • Just logical

    This is a great tribute to a true American. I’ve been skiing Mammoth since the winter of ’69 and bought a Condo there in ’72. This is one of the most wonderful places in the world!

    What I can’t get over is how Ballas was able to screw Mammoth for $48M!!! As far as I know, he had little if any money at risk, and, looking at what has happened to the area in recent years, would have lost his ass if the development had gone through: who in the world would want to stay at the god forsaken windswept area of the airport 15 miles away from the Town?? Somebody should just go out and shoot him, the undoubtably sociopathic a-hole that he is.

    • Sarah Ghio

      If you don’t like development, there are better ways to advocate for your causes than to threaten someone’s life publicly, I think. Mammoth got excited about opportunity and didn’t account for the risks adequately. I am very dissapointed in the outcome and observant of their future wellbeing. I love my home Town, and am loyal and biased for sure in their favor, but I accept reality and truth and know they can do better if they act with integrity at all times and truly consider the community’s interest a priority. They did not follow through on their promises. That is wrong. No matter how much you dislike the guy, he did not deserve to be backed out on because of their poor planning and lack of consideration for their open liabilities. I wish them well but they sure put themselves in a different position than they were when the McCoys relinquished control.

      Beautiful article, please don’t dishonor Dave McCoy by hyjacking a tribute to his contribution to the sport of skiing. This was really depressing to read your comment and realize people don’t grasp how things work but judge and assume and villianize businessmen who were in the right unfortunately, when they sued. Whether he was favored by local people or not is irrelevant, he acted in good faith and delivered. Hard to accept but the Town has accepted it and is doing their part to make it better.

      Let us celebrate Dave McCoy. We really appreciate him and don’t want to be reminded of this in such a negative way. We need hope not negativity. He gave us a way of life and something to believe in and that’s all we want to do here, is honor him ok?

      Thank you for this beautiful article Powder. I have always respected how you uphold the soul of the sport, Dave did also and I know you enjoyed the opportunity to give him acclaim. He is a mentor to many many people and you captured the influence he had very well, thank you. Seeing him smile almost makes it ok, because we got to have the opportunity to see it done RIGHT. He is a humble man and would never support this kind of comment. He’s possibly even being protective of the wellbeing in his communities in the Sierra’s by not taking sides and being discreet and respectful in his opinions because we do trust him, and follow his lead like we would if he were a good horse and we were learning to be led. He’s a good man. Don’t taint his contributions with ugliness, its so thoughtless and misses the point of what he exemplifies for entrepreneurs in general and specific to skiing. He is the kind of businessman I can believe in and if I can accept the mistakes of my own home town, so can everyone else be helpful and not more harmful and disparaging.

      Thank you for this beautiful article Powder. I have always respected how you uphold the soul of the sport, Dave did also and I know you enjoyed the opportunity to give him acclaim. He is a mentor to many many people and you captured the influence he had very well, thank you. Seeing him smile almost makes it ok, because we got to have the opportunity to see it done RIGHT. He is a humble man and would never support this kind of comment. He’s possibly even being protective of the wellbeing in his communities in the Sierra’s by not taking sides and being discreet and respectful in his opinions because we do trust him, and follow his lead like we would if he were a good horse and we were learning to be led. He’s a good man. Don’t taint his contributions with ugliness, its so thoughtless and misses the point of what he exemplifies for entrepreneurs in general and specific to skiing. He is the kind of businessman I can believe in and if I can accept the mistakes of my own home town, so can everyone else be helpful and not more harmful and disparaging.

      However I digressed – please don’t turn a tribute into an ugly reminder, this situation is painful for those of us who lived under Dave’s legacy. I’m the luckiest woman in the world to have grown up with him and his entire family is nothing but appreciative and giving. They have absolutely nothing to do with what happened because of this breach. Give us all a break. We long for the days of the past but must go forward. However I digressed – please don’t turn a tribute into an ugly reminder, this situation is painful for those of us who lived under Dave’s legacy. I’m the luckiest woman in the world to have grown up with him and his entire family is nothing but appreciative and giving. They have absolutely nothing to do with what happened because of this breach. Give us all a break. We long for the days of the past but must go forward.

      Aloha, and many mahalos Dave. You are absolutely appreciated and my opinions do not represent you, MMSA, the Town of Mammoth or any other entities or parties in any way, they are just clarity for a harmful comment. I am not an attorney or representative of anyone but my own person, just that I have experience that helps me grasp why it was a fair outcome. when issues like this get misrepresented its not helpful it creates fear, resentment, lack of faith in business investment and makes people like me very concerned about the attitudes focused on the place I love so much and want to thrive.

      I am cautious about supporting further development of Mammoth into higher density build out. This “pencils” better for developers but it doesn’t necessarily improve life to urbanize so its hard to accept but I’m accepting because it is more realistic to deal with life on real terms than to just complain about it.

      I really was happy to see this article and going to write something very nice to the McCoy family for their generosity, leadership and trustworthiness amongst other qualities they all have. Instead I got brought down. People are entitled to their opinions, but I think its important to be careful that our opinions don’t represent vendettas that are based on resentment rather than reality.

      I hope, that the end result is to have all Towns and developers and investors become more conscientious. I tried to understand how you feel and I know as well as everyone does that development can also be harmful, so I forgive you for making disparaging comments but I hope future commenters focus on DAVE, because that is who this article intended to honor. My very best and I hope that gives clarity instead of creating conflict.

      • Sarah Ghio

        And please don’t imply people are sociopaths. That is incredibly harmful and misrepresents what happened. We need to learn from this not lose our minds – thank you

  • Joel Kaplan

    I will remain out of the politics. Bottom line, I have been skiing Mammoth Mountain since I began skiing, in 1972. I have skied many other mountains but Mammoth is, by far, my heartthrob in the world of skiing. Most of my ski days are at Mammoth, and I plan on keeping it that way. Dave McCoy has been and will remain in my heart as a man of great foresight and leadership. He has brought so many people so much joy, and always keeping the well being of the Eastern Sierra in mind. Bless you Dave McCoy. I wish I could give back to you what you have given to me and so many others. Well, I guess I can. I will remain skiing at Mammoth Mountain until I can ski no more. Right on Dave McCoy!

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