Mammoth Undertaking

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There was a time, not so very long ago, when Mammoth Mountain was Babylon West. The high priests of partying at Playboy portrayed its swinging slopes as the ultimate in winter indulgence. Images of bright sun, bronzed skin, mirrored shades, mustachioed instructors and tie-dyed and halter-topped waves of grooving hedonists lured skiers by the millions. Back when skier visits consisted of just skiers, Mammoth was the undisputed king, pulling in 1.5 million visitors in the mid-Eighties. Skiing was booming, and Mammoth was at the epicenter.

Since that time, the epicenter has drifted north. Like helium slowly leaking from a birthday balloon, the town gradually lost its pizazz and the party moved on to new venues, most notably Whistler/Blackcomb, B.C. It's no accident that when Mammoth set about to reverse its fall from grace, the company they looked to for help was none other than Vancouver-based Intrawest, the same visionaries who developed Whistler into the New Babylon of Boarding, Booze and Babes.

The birth of Mammoth Mountain is the stuff of legend in American skiing. Back in 1941, Mammoth consisted of no more than several portable ropetows powered by Ford Model A truck engines and the dreams of Dave McCoy, one of the tow operators and a hydrographer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Primed with knowledge of local snowfall patterns, McCoy obtained permits from the U.S. Forest Service to erect a permanent ropetow. Over the next half century, McCoy and his family added lodges and lift after lift after lift. There are presently 30 iterations of ski lifts scattered across Mammoth's broad expanse, a staggering number when one considers that almost all of this hill can be fairly described as frontside.

But while the mountain increased its capacity and allure, the town splayed around its base¿Mammoth Lakes¿did not. Sure, there was a Main Street lined with shops, and the Whiskey Creek bar attracted the party-prone, but there wasn't enough gravitational pull to create a true community center. The villain in this tale is also Mammoth's lifeline to the tourist trade: the automobile. Mammoth's history is overwhelmingly as a day-skier resort, not a vacation destination. The resort's main feeder market, Los Angeles, is a six-hour drive away, and the nearest city of consequence, Reno, Nev., is a nearly three-hour trip over narrow roads. Mammoth (like L.A.) became defined by an infrastructure designed to serve a driving public.

In the late Eighties, plans were forming to reverse Mammoth's slide in popularity. Under the direction of then Chief Administrative Officer Rusty Gregory, the resort began acquiring parcels of land around its base, at the same time looking for a development partner to reshape the town's core-free character. Like 80 percent of the customers he serves, Gregory is a product of Southern California, a surfer who morphed into a heliski operator and later into his present role as resort CEO and mountain manager. Like the mountain he runs, he is tall and broad-shouldered, with a strong, handsome face and the burnished skin of a lifetime outdoorsman.

In 1996, he brokered the deal with Intrawest. The resort developer bought 33 percent of Mammoth (later upped to 58 percent) plus 130 acres at three sites, which it pledged to spend $800 million to develop. McCoy retained voting control and continues to run the mountain, along with co-owner Gregory, McCoy's wife Roma and their daughter Penny.

Mammoth is a giant work in progress. In the last four years, the resort has poured nearly $100 million into new lifts, base-lodge improvements and expanded snowmaking, with another $60 million going into the operation over the next four seasons.

The majority of effort, however, will be spent on beefing up Mammoth's lodging in an attempt to recast the area as a destination resort. In 1997, Intrawest embarked on a 10-year plan to develop 10,000 additional beds, including the Village at Mammoth, theenterpiece of the new North Village base development, which is scheduled to open in December 2002. All told, the capital outlay will run in the neighborhood of $850 million. That puts the total resort-development package at more than $1 billion, making Mammoth's transformation the biggest resort makeover in the history of skiing.

None of this mountain of moolah was likely to be invested were it not for the plan to expand the Mammoth Lakes airport to handle jet traffic. This essential piece of the puzzle fell into place last April when the FAA approved $28.7 million in funding for the airport expansion, which would lengthen the runway by 1,200 feet, allowing 180-seat 757s to land where only small aircraft are now permitted. A lawsuit by a coalition of environmental groups, however, could delay the airport expansion if the FAA determines more environmental analysis is needed, but the resort is optimistic.

The new airport and the concentration of services in the pedestrian area of the North Village mean that future visitors to Mammoth won't need a car to get around. A $15 million gondola running from the Village to the mountain, also due for completion next season, will further obviate any advantage to having wheels on hand.

In any discussion of Mammoth Mountain, it's wise to note that its moniker is well-deserved. The mountain's 3,500-plus acres dwarf the town's total developable acreage of 2,200. But size alone is not what makes Mammoth memorable. Its defining physical characteristic is above-treeline skiing, which comprises the top 1,300 vertical feet of its total 3,100-foot rise. On a day when clouds settle like a shawl across its wide shoulders, this attribute can be disconcerting, disguising terrain and baffling one's sense of what's up or down. But when it's bright and sunny, as it is some 300 days a year, the mountain's tree-free top creates a boundless playground limited only by one's own creativity.

While the trail map applies names to the mountain's various faces, there's little evidence of trail signage on the hill. Where one is skiing is more commonly described by the adjacent lift, as in, "Today we skied off 23 and 14." (The resort names its new lifts, but most are still frequently referred to by their numbers.)

There's no way a trail map can do justice to this mountain; a better depiction of the place would be if the map were crumpled into a 3-D bit of origami. Then you could appreciate that Lincoln Mountain, serviced by Chair 22, is a hill unto itself. Or that getting to some of the best skiing on the frontside, such as the inaptly titled Paranoid Flats, entails dipping over the backside. It is instructive to recall that Mammoth is a volcano by birth, and it straddles a deep fault line, with all the contours and craggy protuberances that a timeless history of upheavals has left in its wake.

Mammoth newcomers are often found, dazed, at lift's end, asking anyone who will listen, "Where is the best skiing?" The answer to that question lies in which way the wind has blown. Of the natural forces that buffet its slopes¿sun, snow and wind¿the wind has the greatest influence. The wind changes how the mountain skis yearly, weekly, daily and hourly. It can reduce hundreds of acres to gnarled coral heads, interesting to look at but gruesome to ski, while on another face it loads in silky snow that splashes against your chest with every turn. When the wind is at its worst, scouring the summit, the top of the mountain is shut down. But even on such days, skiers can find refuge on the leeward face of Lincoln Mountain, where Avalanche Chutes provide a private playpen filled with powder.

As is true of all great mountains, Mammoth is in its glory when the sun rises the day after a storm blows through. If you're looking for guaranteed goodies, drop off the top and head skier's-right to the glades of Dragon's Tail. It entails a bit of traversing, but here the trees shelter the snow, preserving nifty lines that snake through the forest. It's the only part of the upper mountain that is dappled with trees, and therefore the only place that isn't obviously cut up by noon.

If there's a drawback to Mammoth's natural layout, it's that all slopes are exposed to the eye as well as the wind. As local freeride star Silver Chesak succinctly puts it, "There are no secrets at Mammoth," meaning the untouched line you saw during your lift ride has also been coveted by lift-mates in front of you.

On the plus side, Mammoth's high altitude (11,053 feet) assures that snow stays mid-winter light into May and won't set up like porridge despite a preponderance of sunny days. Even when tracked up, the snow quality in nooks such as Wipe Out Chutes off Chair 23 or on the open flank of White Bark Bowl remains exceptional even in the late afternoon two days after a storm.

From a skier's perspective, the looming transformation of the town conjures fears of once-open expanses chock-full of out-of-state visitors. Not to worry. Even doubling Mammoth Lake's local population from 5,000 to 10,000 and adding another 2,000 to 3,000 pillows won't overwhelm the mountain's robust hourly uphill capacity of 56,000, which will only grow as resort redevelopment continues. The bulk of the increased tourist traffic is targeted at visitors who come midweek, when the hill can easily absorb more skiers and boarders. As Doug Ogilvy, vice president of Intrawest Mammoth, notes, "If you're standing in line, you're skiing at the wrong lift."

In fact, Mammoth has already turbo-charged midweek business by slashing its season-pass price from a gaudy $1,100 to $399, with sales surging from 2,000 to an incredible 27,000. "Lowering the pass price was a boon to everything and everyone," Gregory observes. "It created a lot of happy people," not least of whom is the broadly beaming Gregory. "Dave McCoy always had a vision of this place as Anyman's Ski Resort, so the price shift and renewed emphasis on low-cost lodging at the mountain are just an extension of Dave's philosophy." Despite the nearly 1,250 percent increase in season-pass holders, this massive mountain still seems undercrowded, even on a holiday weekend.

While the town planners, the mountain and the ski world's premier resort developer have moved in symbiotic fusion toward a shared vision of Mammoth's future, their grand plans have not been without opposition. Andrea Mead Lawrence, 1952 Olympic gold medalist and environmental activist, successfully challenged the Mammoth Lakes redevelopment plan in court over a financing scheme that she decried for dipping into public funds for private benefit. The town had sought to finance redevelopment using a statute intended to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods, a ploy Lawrence characterizes as "grossly illegal."

That plan, Lawrence asserts with her customary candor, "would have bankrupted the rest of Mono County within 20 years." She cites a $6 million subsidy for the new gondola as an example of public money that would have served the developer's needs in the guise of public interest. Lawrence is no Pollyanna. She knows that development is inevitable, even desirable. "There's no question the town will change," she says. "With real-estate values going through the roof and business being up, town leaders can get stars in their eyes. In a company town, which is what we are, you don't hear from the rest of the people, which makes us somewhat of a town divided. We need to consider the community, not just the visitor.

"Mountains are huge resources, spiritually, as well as otherwise," she continues in a firm voice resonating with a lifetime's devotion to their conservation. "There's more to being in the mountains than just how much vertical you ski; mountains are so much more than just a playground with infrastructure. We want to see quality development, courtesy, respect and a reverence for these special areas."

While it's possible to find thoughtful opponents agnes that snake through the forest. It's the only part of the upper mountain that is dappled with trees, and therefore the only place that isn't obviously cut up by noon.

If there's a drawback to Mammoth's natural layout, it's that all slopes are exposed to the eye as well as the wind. As local freeride star Silver Chesak succinctly puts it, "There are no secrets at Mammoth," meaning the untouched line you saw during your lift ride has also been coveted by lift-mates in front of you.

On the plus side, Mammoth's high altitude (11,053 feet) assures that snow stays mid-winter light into May and won't set up like porridge despite a preponderance of sunny days. Even when tracked up, the snow quality in nooks such as Wipe Out Chutes off Chair 23 or on the open flank of White Bark Bowl remains exceptional even in the late afternoon two days after a storm.

From a skier's perspective, the looming transformation of the town conjures fears of once-open expanses chock-full of out-of-state visitors. Not to worry. Even doubling Mammoth Lake's local population from 5,000 to 10,000 and adding another 2,000 to 3,000 pillows won't overwhelm the mountain's robust hourly uphill capacity of 56,000, which will only grow as resort redevelopment continues. The bulk of the increased tourist traffic is targeted at visitors who come midweek, when the hill can easily absorb more skiers and boarders. As Doug Ogilvy, vice president of Intrawest Mammoth, notes, "If you're standing in line, you're skiing at the wrong lift."

In fact, Mammoth has already turbo-charged midweek business by slashing its season-pass price from a gaudy $1,100 to $399, with sales surging from 2,000 to an incredible 27,000. "Lowering the pass price was a boon to everything and everyone," Gregory observes. "It created a lot of happy people," not least of whom is the broadly beaming Gregory. "Dave McCoy always had a vision of this place as Anyman's Ski Resort, so the price shift and renewed emphasis on low-cost lodging at the mountain are just an extension of Dave's philosophy." Despite the nearly 1,250 percent increase in season-pass holders, this massive mountain still seems undercrowded, even on a holiday weekend.

While the town planners, the mountain and the ski world's premier resort developer have moved in symbiotic fusion toward a shared vision of Mammoth's future, their grand plans have not been without opposition. Andrea Mead Lawrence, 1952 Olympic gold medalist and environmental activist, successfully challenged the Mammoth Lakes redevelopment plan in court over a financing scheme that she decried for dipping into public funds for private benefit. The town had sought to finance redevelopment using a statute intended to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods, a ploy Lawrence characterizes as "grossly illegal."

That plan, Lawrence asserts with her customary candor, "would have bankrupted the rest of Mono County within 20 years." She cites a $6 million subsidy for the new gondola as an example of public money that would have served the developer's needs in the guise of public interest. Lawrence is no Pollyanna. She knows that development is inevitable, even desirable. "There's no question the town will change," she says. "With real-estate values going through the roof and business being up, town leaders can get stars in their eyes. In a company town, which is what we are, you don't hear from the rest of the people, which makes us somewhat of a town divided. We need to consider the community, not just the visitor.

"Mountains are huge resources, spiritually, as well as otherwise," she continues in a firm voice resonating with a lifetime's devotion to their conservation. "There's more to being in the mountains than just how much vertical you ski; mountains are so much more than just a playground with infrastructure. We want to see quality development, courtesy, respect and a reverence for these special areas."

While it's possible to find thoughtful opponents against the perceived Vail-ification of Mammoth, the majority of locals are all for it. When Corty Lawrence, Andrea Mead Lawrence's son and a co-owner of Footloose, the town's preeminent ski shop, watched the demolition of his store's vestigial site at Minaret and Main to make way for the North Village, the sense of something lost was far outweighed by the realization of what will be gained. "We've been waiting for this renewal to take place for over a decade," he says. "What's good about this town will only get better."

When considered in light of Mammoth's partying past, the town's transformation is more a return to roots than an uprooting of traditional values. Mammoth will become younger, hipper, more vibrant and, at the same time, more livable. More like it was. More like it should be.s against the perceived Vail-ification of Mammoth, the majority of locals are all for it. When Corty Lawrence, Andrea Mead Lawrence's son and a co-owner of Footloose, the town's preeminent ski shop, watched the demolition of his store's vestigial site at Minaret and Main to make way for the North Village, the sense of something lost was far outweighed by the realization of what will be gained. "We've been waiting for this renewal to take place for over a decade," he says. "What's good about this town will only get better."

When considered in light of Mammoth's partying past, the town's transformation is more a return to roots than an uprooting of traditional values. Mammoth will become younger, hipper, more vibrant and, at the same time, more livable. More like it was. More like it should be.