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Mammoth Lakes, California, 1987. My friend Pete is barfing off the balcony of a shag-carpeted condo, just down the road from what’s now called Canyon Lodge. I’m standing behind him, doing what 16-year-olds do when a buddy pukes on a girl’s head at some liftie’s LSD party—which is to say I’m laughing. Then I grab his jacket and whisk him toward the door, where the puked-on girl and her guy friends are now rushing in, looking for the culprit.
My parents sent me to the party. I mean, they were the ones who bought a family ski condo in Mammoth, right? They’re the ones who set the stage for my altogether debased and highly secretive teen years—a phase of my life fueled by alcohol purchased in bulk, mind-altering substances, and several unpleasant, sometimes epiphanous visits to the toilet.
The depravity started that winter. I wasn’t good enough to ski anything except groomers—but so what. I had a driver’s license, a group of friends who skied like stoned gorillas, and the twisted pride of a kid who’d recently lost his virginity—in a Mormon temple, on a Sunday. (Apologies to the night custodian.) I also had the keys to the condo. To create the illusion of adult supervision, my parents usually sent one of my older siblings along. Nice try. My brother Ron, the Sonny Corleone of the family, spent his evenings chasing tail at Whiskey Creek. Dave was drinking wherever Ron wasn’t. And Liz (three years my senior) hosted more than one tequila-fest for such fine organizations as the UC Irvine water-polo team. Either my parents were in crippling denial, or they were practicing a progressive child-rearing method that went something like this: Let the kids think we don’t know about their booze orgies—they’re better off in the mountains than cruising the streets of L.A.
So now it’s a few days after the liftie party. Pete and I have just skied bell-to-bell, and already we’re poisoning our livers. On the yellow Formica counter is Cuervo Gold and 7UP, for slammers. There’s Jà¤germeister, too, because someone told us it’s made with opium. In the fridge is a 12-pack of Mickey’s malt liquor. The stereo blares Uplift Mofo Party Plan, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ last truly great record. And there’s Liz and her best friend, Vickie, egging us on to drink more, and more, until a few hours later I project the frothing contents of my stomach all over the toilet before using it as a pillow for the night. No problem. My parents will never find out. And even if they do, what could they say? Kids like me were/are/will-always-be yacking their brains out in ski condos from Jackson to Sugarloaf—and thinking their parents don’t know.
A few years later, my Mammoth trips evolved into a string of barely manageable nights under the influence of hallucinogens. It’s not that we didn’t ski. We skied hard. But we knocked off early to nap—and then got down to business. “Gotta eat the ‘shrooms two hours before sunset, Dave, our drooling leader, advised. We did. That’s when things got blurry. Was it President’s Day weekend when Pete took that 27-year-old schoolteacher home and showed up the next morning with ice cream all over his clothes? What about the time my friends and I dug a stranger’s car out of the snow because the scraping of the shovels sounded like jet planes? Who were those weird girls from Orange County, anyway?
No matter, because one night a few years later, the Mammoth Experience concluded in a blaze of drug-induced antiglory. The James Gang was cranking—sordid times call for music by sordid people. I was draining my bladder to make room for more malt liquor when I looked up at an old picture of brother Ron, frolicking innocently in a Sierra stream. Thanks to the mushrooms I’d ingested, the photo expanded like a lung and set me into a panic: I’m using the sacred family retreat to degrade myself, I thought. I am such a corrupt little a-hole.
Whatever. My parents must have known what was up, and the place in Mammoth made them feel OK about my low-grade troublemaking. I was in the mountains. I was skiing and being free with my friends. I was safe. And that’s the thing. Anyone with the good fortune to have had access to a family ski pad understands this. It’s all harmless. By day, you exercise at altitude. At night, you eat, get loaded, and sleep. So what if you shovel someone’s driveway because it sounds cool? And who cares if your buddy hurls on someone’s head at a party full of locals?
Well, at that party, at that moment, I cared. I walked casually down the stairs, Pete at my side, vomit fumes on his breath. The gang of locals raced towards us, ready to pounce. But we played it cool, and they ran right past. Is this what my parents had in mind when they sent us to Mammoth? Did they really set the stage for a life of bad behavior? Nah. The stage is set for every kid—mine just happened to involve shag carpeting and powder days. I’m not sure if my parents knew how debauched I really was. But I guess they figured, wisely, that if you have to turn a teen-ager loose, you may as well unleash him in a ski town.