Mammoth, California. PHOTO: Christian Pondella
Mammoth, California. PHOTO: Christian Pondella

When the Powder at Mammoth is So Deep It is Scary

Last season it snowed so much at Mammoth, California, locals were overwhelmed

618″
Mammoth, California, by Hans Ludwig

A glacier fell out of the sky.

Between January 4 and February 28, it snowed 409 inches on the patrol's study plot at 9,000 feet. Double that number for the upper mountain, factor in wind-loading, and some aspects received 80 feet of snow in 34 days.

The first week was exhilarating. California had been in an extended drought, and we're skiers in a ski town. By the third week, the game had changed. If you didn't dig out your car, often twice a day, it was gone. For many of us, if you didn't dig out your house, it was also gone. (One apartment building suffered a total roof failure in February; tenants of several other residential buildings were forced to leave.)

The ambient hazard level was alarming. A cornice the size of a bus hung from the supermarket entrance for days. Tree wells were bottomless. Every roof and snowbank was an avalanche risk. The ski area took the unprecedented step of posting warnings about deep snow immersion danger all over town. At one point, the banks around my driveway were 20 feet tall.

The mountain was bananas. Lift towers, cables, and chairs had to be dug out with snowcats. The terrain became distorted and surreal with the huge pack. Twenty-foot cornices accumulated on ridges, steep chutes transformed into bowls, wind load and avalanche debris grew to 60-70 feet deep. Patrol set off wall-to-wall slides with 10-foot-plus crowns—that were then buried within days.

I got out on my skis during the mega-cycle, mostly to look at what was happening. I even skinned a little. But most days the good terrain was a no-go. So we shoveled. And kept shoveling.

After 104 inches in five days, the upper mountain opened on January 24 under blue skies. The cycle started wet but finished with several feet of light snow and almost no wind. I got in the gondy line early and had a killer lap on the Paranoids and then, out of sheer perversity, was the first to head out to the Dragon's Tail—the south end of the ski area where the deepest pockets collect.

Patrol had ski-cut and bombed the sheltered old growth of the Tail, but nothing had slid, just surface sluff. I traversed to the far end of the ridge, dropped into my favorite chute, and was immediately terrified. The snow was incredible, but it was too deep. The first turn was over my shoulders without hitting bottom. Something clicked as I came up for air—I was by myself, nobody knew I was out there, and it was so deep that you didn't need a tree well to die, you just had to fall over.

I went into emergency mode, skiing two-footed for maximum float, slithering instead of slashing, and didn't exhale until I finally shot onto the trail across the flats. I've spent my entire adult life chasing powder all over the world. That was the first time it was so deep that it scared me. It snowed almost every day for a month after that.

This story originally appeared in the September 2017 (46.1) issue of POWDER. To have award winning stories delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.