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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