By Monica Prelle | Photographs by Christian Pondella
Standing atop aptly named Paranoid Flats, I can’t help looking around 360 degrees as I walk to my preferred chute. In the distance, the craggy peaks of the Ritter Range extend above low-hanging clouds. The ridge is calm. My friends are moving out to their intended lines. I strap my snowboard on and prepare to ride the uncut 35-degree, north-facing fluff, and I notice the lift line below me at Chair 23 growing longer. Today we’ve managed to access the top of the mountain from the backside—it’s a rare day when Chair 14 opens first—and we are about to score nearly 1,000 vertical feet of fresh snow with no one around.
Mammoth is unlike any ski area in California. It’s steep and direct, and the snow can be cold and dry. It’s also flat-out huge: Situated on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Crest, Mammoth offers 3,100 vertical feet over 3,500 skiable acres of terrain. With a summit that rises 11,053 feet above sea level, it’s also California’s highest ski resort. That fact means a lot to both snowfall and snow quality: The higher you get, the lighter the snow. Mammoth sees an average of 400 inches of dry flake each winter—which would seem to conflict with the resort’s 300 days or more of California sunshine. And oh yeah, all that skiing sits above a real mountain town (as opposed to a soul-sucking casino). Mammoth Lakes is four square miles of authentic, outdoorsy, alpine adventurism chased with craft beer and a soak in a hot spring.
That’s why I live here. On most powder days I wake to my dog panting in my face as the boom of avalanche bombs shake the house. It’s the Mammoth ski patrol’s good morning song. I listen to the reverberations as I make coffee and walk the dog around the neighborhood. The snow-covered mountain turns orange-pink under the early morning sun.
My powder day strategy involves starting from the Little Eagle Lodge, hoping Eagle Express loads before the chairlifts at Canyon Lodge. The chatter in line is boisterous and familial—the same faces have been smiling at Mammoth for years and each powder day is greeted with the same enthusiasm. From Eagle it’s a race to Chair 22. The famed lift accesses Lincoln Mountain, a Mammoth sub-peak that contains some of the most rollicking 35-degree tree skiing anywhere in North America.
No one really knows how Powder Dan manages to always be first in line at Chair 22, but there he is with a grin like it’s his first powder day all over again. My friends Jenna and Rachel shuffle up the flanks of the crowd, while the rest of us scoot up the middle. Locals find a way to get on the hill on the best days of the year. As the first skiers begin loading the chairs, the crowd hoots in anticipation. We race to fresh stashes among the old growth Jeffrey pines.
From the chair we howl as local telemark strongman Ryan Boyer launches off a rock diving board, stomps the landing, and drops a knee before checking speed. From the terminus I head to the Sunrise Ridge on Grizzly—every time. The ridge rides like a goofy footer surfing a right. I just can’t get enough backside turns, and spray rooster tails into the gathering wind.
Even the Mammoth wind is an asset if you know how to play it. The predominant west winds pick snow up off the backside and deposit it on the northeast face to create pillows of powder. There was a time when skiing wind-buffed snow was the purview of expert skiers with steel cables for tendons, but rockered fat skis and snowboards have changed all that. Today, Mammoth wind buff is like skiing on butter. And the drifts provide free refills for the soul. The moving snow reloads Wipe Out and Drop Out chutes with fresh deposits, erasing the tracks with each lap of the chairlift.
Of course there are California sunshine days at Mammoth when the high pressure turns the sky to cobalt and fresh groomers are the first chair prize. With all the wide-open vertical you can arc big turns on perfectly groomed corduroy, taking speed lap after speed lap before making your way to a parking lot tailgate barbecue, where dogs, kids, and friends celebrate another day with adult beverages and brats.
But if you ski enough, one day you might find yourself standing on top of your favorite ski run by yourself, turning a slow paranoid circle as you take in the splendor, with an untracked powder field below you.
How to Ski It
With 3,500 skiable acres, 150 trails, and 28 chairlifts, you’ll need a game plan to experience Mammoth. Your best bet? Follow the sun around the mountain to find prime conditions and get a feel for the place. Start your Mammoth tour with a coffee in the Village and then ride the Village Gondola to Canyon Lodge. Skip the line at Canyon Express and ride Chair 8 instead. Ski Follow Me past the top of Eagle Express and continue on Holiday to Cloud Nine Express. Ride the six-pack to the top and arc groomer turns on Gold Hill corduroy in the early morning sun. Lap Chair 9 a second time, but this time divert onto the cat track to Solitude and connect the Comeback Trail to Stump Alley Express. Stop at the Mill Café for water and a cookie, then burn a speed lap on Stump Alley and take the chair up again before heading over to the Upper Gondola at McCoy Station. From there, strong skiers and snowboarders can drop into the Cornice Bowl—Mammoth’s most popular black diamond—descending to Chair 23. At the Chair 23 terminus, route yourself down Road Runner to the backside and drop into Outpost Glades before grabbing lunch from the grill at Outpost BBQ and enjoying the sundeck. After lunch, keep wrapping your way around the mountain via Chair 14, the steeps of Scotty’s, St. Anton, Stump Alley, Mambo, and down to the Mill. To finish, ride the Goldrush Express up and follow the groomers back to Canyon Lodge. Find a seat at the slopeside Grizzly Bar and toast to an epic day of snow shredding.
Air service to Mammoth Lakes expands this winter. Two new flights from Denver and Las Vegas by United and Alaska Airlines provide unprecedented access to Mammoth Yosemite Airport for East Coast, Midwest, and international travelers. Stacey Cook’s Chix on Stix ski camp is back by popular demand this winter. Participants in the all-women’s weekend receive coaching from the two-time Olympian as well as healthy cooking tips, yoga classes, and nightly entertainment. Pro skier Chris Benchetler is offering a new backcountry camp at Mammoth Mountain where participants will learn out-of-bounds safety and skills. The Village at Mammoth continues to be the hub of dining, entertainment, and nightlife. New restaurants are rumored to open this winter including the grand reopening of local’s favorite Restaurant Skadi in the Berner Street Business Park across from the Village. mammothmountain.com