There’s no place like Mammoth!

Anyone who has ever skied at Mammoth or gone cross-country skiing in the Eastern Sierra has arrived at the same conclusion-“Man, this place is unreal!”  It is a special feeling that descends upon the visitor, and even longtime residents, like a wave of happiness, as they gaze out at the spectacular landscape from the top of the mountain.

That is what Dave McCoy thought years ago, when he was snow surveying for Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.  Especially when he viewed Mammoth Mountain sticking out like an island in the rain shadow of the Sierra and sucking all the moisture out of the mighty Pacific storms. Dave was eyeballing Mammoth for other reasons than how much water would go to Los Angeles the next summer.  He saw the giant sleeping elephant as a place to ski and recreate, and he spent his entire life molding that dream into a reality.

No, there is no other place like Mammoth to live or visit because there is no region in the nation like the high desert of the Eastern Sierra.  It is a land of pumice, rock and sand formed by cataclysmic events.  Strong earthquakes beneath Mammoth Mountain and the Long Valley Caldera just about vacated the town in the 1980s. The famous photo in the paper showed a sign that said, “Last one out-turn out the lights!”  The mountain is still very much alive with an active fumarole, and hot springs abound in the caldera.  People have lost their lives in unfortunate situations being trapped by CO2 gas.  Visitors and residents are warned to stay away from tree wells and buildings in the deep snow or in areas with warning signs.

There have been times when Mammoth had 40 or more feet of snow at the Main Lodge, such as in 1969.  Crews had to dig channels under many of the lift lines, so the chairs could get up the hill.  Skiers rode along with their skis touching the snow, even though the towers were high off the ground.  Greyhound buses that got snowed in at the Main Lodge had 20 feet of snow on top of them, after they were dug out.

There were other massive snow events in the 1980s during the time of increased earthquake activity.  Earthquakes would sometimes occur at night with 12 feet of snow in town and cause great concern among the residents. Where can you run to with 12 feet of snow outside your door?  Then it would rain hard on top of the heavy snow and cause extreme avalanches, the results of which can still be seen all over the backcountry.

One avalanche that Mammothites will never forget was the gigantic Sherwin Bowl slide that took out a large swath of mature trees right down to the dirt and sent the rocky debris hurtling down the mountain.  When the mass hit little Hidden Lake at the bottom of the hill, a vicious, 200 mph air blast shot the debris out across the meadow for nearly a half-mile.  Sometimes it is hard to discern what damage has been caused by an avalanche or an earthquake because they are both such powerful forces of nature.  It is important to show respect for these powers whenever journeying into the mountains, especially in the snow.

During the mining period in Mammoth in the 1870s, people dealt with the same large snowstorms that we experience in our time.  There was often so much snow in Mill City in Old Mammoth that they constructed tram sheds to get the ore from the mines to the mill under the snow.  They also suffered miserably from killer avalanches that slid off the mountains above their mining operations.

Modern-day residents of Old Mammoth have experienced similar situations as the old miners did when they had to dig tunnels from house to house and up to the street.

They called it “MoleCity.”  It was common in those days to have 10 feet of snow on the ground and still spitting snow until May.  That is how Mammoth Mountain can stay open for skiing until July 4th every year.

The Mammoth pioneers had a natural icebox they could utilize for cold storage or to get snow and ice from at Earthquake Fault.  If you blink while driving up to the Main Lodge, you can miss it.  It is a dramatic, deep fissure in the ground with basalt cliff walls that go frighteningly deep into the earth.  A scene from the movie, Girl Scouts of the Wilderness with Shelly Long was filmed there.

The old-timers in Bodie Ghost Town and other mining camps continued the tradition of making their own skis, applying their special dope (ski wax), and traveling long distances across the snow.  Snowshoe Thompson is the man that history best remembers for his three-day ski treks hauling 80 pounds of mail from Placerville over the Sierra to Genoa in the Washoe Valley of Nevada.  One of those trips saved a little girl’s life with the desperately needed medicine that Snowshoe delivered to Washoe just in time.

It has been said that a really good skier can ski on two-by-fours.  The old Austrians who taught ski school at many of the ski areas could really carve some turns with their wooden skis with screw-in metal edges.  They would come down the mountain early in the morning, whistling their favorite tunes, and carving perfect turns on the backlit blue ice.  They were in fabulous control and a real inspiration to the average skier, especially when you consider the high-tech ski equipment that we have today.

There are certain things that happen during Mammoth winters that people will always remember such as the softness of a heavy snow at night, or snow falling off the trees onto the roof.  In the darkness of early morning, one can never forget the sounds of the 75mm recoilless rifle, as the ski patrol goes to battle with the top of the mountain for avalanche control.

The Chamber of Commerce likes to brag that in winter people can ski, golf and fish all in one day.  This is made possible in thanks to the glorious weather 40 miles away in Bishop.  It is not unusual for storms to rage in Mammoth while people are running around the desert in T-shirts.  That is the beautiful thing about the Eastern Sierra, where one can go from high snow-covered mountains to the desert floor in 40 minutes.  When the harsh storms of winter end, and the sun comes out, there is no better place to be than Mammoth!


One Response to “There’s no place like Mammoth!”

  1. The Daily Dolphin : Mammoth Mountain Says:

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