Passing Through: Mammoth Mountain

Finding the old-school ski experience at Mammoth Mountain, California

SKIER: Bernard Rosow | PHOTO: Christian Pondella

When California skier Dave McCoy decided to build a rope tow in the 1950s, he picked the spot that consistently held the most snow in the Eastern Sierra—Mammoth Mountain. The first lift spun in 1955 and the mountain has since become one of the most underrated ski resorts in North America. I say underrated because for a mountain as big and beautiful as Mammoth, it should be in the pantheon with the Jacksons and the Squaws and the Altas. But Mammoth is remote; it’s located 170 miles south of Reno. And it caters to a Southern California market dominated by snowboarders. But if anything, that just leaves an abundance of terrain for those of skiers who do make the long, beautiful drive up the spine of the Sierra on Highway 395, destination Mammoth Lakes.

With 28 lifts serving up 3,500 acres and 3,100 feet of vertical, Mammoth Mountain lives up to its name. Surrounded on three sides by some of the most jagged peaks in the Sierra Nevada, the view to the east drops out to high desert and goes on forever until the next range mountains, the lesser-known Whites. At its highest point, Mammoth reaches an elevation of 11,053 feet, which means that its snowing in even the warmest and wettest of Pineapple Express storms. And when that much moisture encounters that much cold air, the end product is a lot of snow. Especially in an El Niño year, my money is on Mammoth for pow days.

Because of its high elevation, most of Mammoth is above treeline, which makes it especially susceptible to wind, which can either scour the slopes bare or blow in perfect, buffed chalk. The alpine terrain and high winds also mean whiteout conditions on much of the mountain during storms. On those days, lap Chair 22 for steep, protected terrain. The Avalanche Chutes, off to skier’s left, are classic. Or ski Grizzly, the Shaft, and Viva for longer shots in the trees.

If it’s not snowing, it’s blue. With the whole expanse of the ski resort open, it’s easy to get lost for the day, taking one lift to the next, frontside to the backside. The thing about Mammoth is that even if half of Los Angeles is up there, you can still find places that are mellow and quiet and hidden, zones that feel like an old school ski resort. Like Chairs 12, 13, and 14, all doubles that slowly take you through the trees to an area full of fun features and poppers and rollers. Chair 23, a triple that drops skiers at the ridge, on top of the rock-framed Dropout and Wipeout Chutes, is another slow chair that you can often ski right up to with no line. But fair warning, Chair 23 comes around swinging and will knock you in the ass if you’re not watching.

Another thing I love about Mammoth—it’s often the first to open and the last to close in California. Opening day is a big party. And you can ski well into May, even in the worst of years, like the past few have been. On those days, just wear a flannel. Maybe even your board shorts. Pack a few cans in your pocket. And take long breaks between laps on the sun deck at Main Lodge, where you can watch the park rats send it huge off the grand finale kicker in Main Park.

Après at Mammoth is done right at one of the many hot springs in the high desert outside of town. Turn onto the dirt road next to the green church and you’re bound to stumble onto a hot spring or two. Soak in nature and watch the sun dip behind the Sierras and paint the sky pink. Then drive back into town for craft beers at Mammoth Brewing Company, artisan pizza at Campo, or if you’re feeling Mexican, margaritas, and a good football game, Roberto’s. As the night goes on, Lakanuki will be dropping beats and maybe the dancefloor will heat up. Otherwise, go to the Clocktower Cellar, which is often crowded with beanies and raccoon faces. Stumble home, pass out, and repeat. To cure your hangover, take a deep breath of pine-scented air and then walk down to Schat’s Bakery for a greasy croissant breakfast sandwich and coffee.