Chasing the Storm to Mammoth

When it snows 20 feet in California, you get in the car and drive

Like most skiers out West, I was watching the weather closely last week when forecasts were calling for 20-plus inches in Utah, real snow within Portland city limits, and more than 15 feet in Mammoth and throughout the Sierras This guy thought the forecast was a glitch in the system.

By Monday morning, it was no longer a forecast—it was fact. Snowmaggedon had hit California and the West. Schools were closed, and the main line into Mammoth, Highway 395, was shut down from Tom’s Place to town due to snow and wind. The resort closed too.

Shoot. Did anyone pack a shovel? Mammoth received 154 inches this week alone–and counting.

Shoot. Did anyone pack a shovel? Mammoth received 154 inches this week alone–and counting.

That made getting there a must. I left the office after noon on Tuesday, loaded the car, and headed north with my husband. We checked for road closure updates every 30 minutes, in between answering the barrage of texts—Did you make it? Are you there? How are the roads? I can't believe it's still snowing up there.

Surprisingly, the roads were clear and dry. The thermometer on the dash read 60 degrees. With less than 80 miles to the center of the storm, we half wondered if the whole thing had been a hoax. How could we be this close without any evidence of winter?

Looking for proof winter is here? Watch this storm footage shot in Mammoth.

We got our first sign in Ridgecrest when we drove past three miles of end-to-end semi-trucks sidelined by a closed pass. On the north side of Bishop we eyed a truck stacked with a foot of snow the driver hadn't bothered to clear from the roof. We had to be close.

The "Singles Line" on Chair 22 on Thursday.

The “Singles Line” on Chair 22 on Thursday.

The temperature dropped as the elevation climbed. We passed a driver putting chains on a Prius while the winds whipped in spirals on the ground. “Highway to Hell” came on the radio as the rain turned to snow and the tempered roll of freezing sleet under our tires sounded like waves crashing on shore.

By 11 p.m., we were fully engulfed in a blizzard as we pulled into Mammoth. Gusts of wind moving 70 mph thrashed clouds of snow around the herd of plow trucks steadily clearing the hotel parking lot. They'd be at it all night, we figured. We crawled into bed.

Wednesday morning, we woke to cold temperatures made colder by the relentless wind. And that meant weather holds at the hill. By 9:30, the small crowd that had found their way to the mountain despite 11 feet of accumulation in town was funneled to the two or three chairs accessing the lower mountain above Canyons.

As we lapped packed powder off Chair 16, we anxiously eyed the steeps above Chair 22. It was "expected" to open if the weather cooperated, the lifties rattled off to impatient skiers—mountain ops legalese for "maybe, but probably not, but we didn't say 'no.'"

It never opened. In the trees below Chair 8, a slow triple, we spent day one hunting for powder stashes the wind hadn't managed to whisk back into the atmosphere until we gave in to the call of the hot tub and a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck.

We'd spent eight hours in the car to tap the marquee 'Storm of the Decade' but without access to the snow, it felt anti-climatic in a way. I fell asleep to the sound of avy bombs and the thought that maybe there was such thing as too much snow.

Thursday morning, we planned to take a few laps before the long slog home. We'd leave at noon, 1 p.m. at the latest, we said.

WATCH: This skier got first tracks off Chair 22 and it’s all time.

In the parking lot we realized the wind had stopped; the snow hadn't. Already this day felt different; we skipped breakfast, opting to share a stick of dried meat, string cheese, and some gummies in the first lift line.

We loaded Chair 8, and half way up the lift we heard the first yell. A second, someone calling back, then a third, and fourth until the mountain beneath us was echoing with an unending chorus of ecstatic whoops and hollers that are recognized among skiers as someone getting the goods.

The author ignoring a few emails on Thursday. PHOTO: Brian Davis

The author ignoring a few emails on Thursday. PHOTO: Brian Davis

By the time we skied midway down the run, a queue was forming behind Chair 22—and it was spinning. The air was electric with energy as the first skiers ripped Hollywood lines down Shaft and Viva to get back into line. The yelling and cheering didn't stop.

The chairs spun round the tower, dragging in the snow as we tried to load. From the top, we dropped skier's right through Sunshine Glades into Grizzly, rolling endless turns in what can only be described as bottomless, blower powder. If you like more scientific measurements, it was 12 fresh inches overnight—plus the three or four that had fallen since 6 a.m.—bringing the week’s total to 154 inches.

On the next lap we hiked from the top of 22 to the upper Avy Chute which served up turn after turn of soft, forgiving pockets bordered by rocky cliff bands. I stopped to count at the bottom; I could see only six other people.

As we alternated between glade skiing on skier's right and open chutes to skier's left, mixed with a few rowdy runs through the trees, the Dip-n-Dots snow never let up. It covered us in a thick layer of white on every ride up the lift. Unload, shake off, drop in. Again. Again. Again.

The lift lines mysteriously dissipated by noon. Maybe everyone else was having lunch—we snacked on endless face shots. The morning tracks were filled in again, making the mountain like new. One o'clock came and went. We stayed out.

By the time we pulled out of town, the sky was exchanging the sun for a full moon. We pointed the car south and drove the first of 375 miles home.

It was still snowing.