With one inch of new snow in the last week and consecutive drought season number four, hopes weren't high for great skiing headed to Mammoth last week. But there's always something interesting about the junction between expectations' fixed mindset and new experiences' open mindedness that sometimes makes for a pleasantly blown mind.
Mammoth Lakes' atmosphere was ripe for just that, making it one of the only places we know of where no snow might not ruin your ski trip.
If not immediately taken by 360-degrees of jagged peaks that frame your first impression, setting a stunning scene right off the airplane, then just wait until climbing toward that remarkable relief. Dusty, sage-spotted plains wind into cool pine forests that will have you nostalgic for the family camping trips of your childhood.
Not long after arrival, Mammoth Ski Area itself only reinforces that cyclical and nagging question: Why haven't I made the trip out here before? Wide-open faces and beckoning bowls are interrupted by cliff bands and couloirs adjacent to unnerving steeps, where you'll also find a groomed ribbon or two welcoming the uninitiated to pitchier pursuits. And that's just the frontside.
Lower on the mountain, the drought is apparent, with brown and green patches signaling a slope's untimely demise amid statements like "it's normally a ski in/ski out property" and "in a good year, that line's skiable." In Mammoth, a good year can far exceed its 400-inch average snowfall thanks to the mountain's elevation and coastal proximity, keeping ski operations in full swing through July 4th. Both milestones are a far cry from present day reality in the face of drought 4.0.
But still, skiers who aren't stymied by bluebird skies and some afternoon mashed potatoes that ski like gravy in the morning will discover impeccably groomed cruisers, steep chutes, soft moguls, some of the best terrain parks in North America, a series of mellow base areas, precocious lifties and a mountain that makes and holds snow like you wouldn't believe.
More about the adventure than a futile hunt for powder, we still managed to find some untouched, albeit inconsistent and at times tricky, snow on our day-long Sierra Mountain Guides-led intro to backcountry skiing. Our guide, Howie Schwartz, told us that while each drought has proven a bit harder than the last, he was having "the best worst season ever."
Howie takes a learn-by-doing tact, and after a quick beacon tutorial and beacon check with a lift ride up June Mountain in between, it was out of bounds and into the trees. About 10 minutes later, we shed layers, applied skins and made our way toward a bowl to which I was told but didn't really believe we were headed—at least, I was unsure of HOW we'd get all the way up THERE, never having experienced the efficiency of travel by touring.
With next to no avalanche danger to speak of, this particular trip was dedicated to backcountry skiing over digging pits and doing drills (a separate set of avy education courses this outfit offers). We skied, we talked avalanche types/sizes/danger, but mostly it was game-on skinning our faces off, mastering alpine touring technique over a 3,000 vertical-foot ascent.
I use mastery in this context quite loosely as I failed more than once to execute the somewhat counterintuitive lean back and un-edge moves necessary to skin seamlessly up and across steeper terrain. I did, however, nail the nervous bootpack straight up while guide carries skis maneuver. And, once composed, hydrated and allowed a few minutes for brain to catch up with body and process what both had just learned, had no more trouble on our final hour or so to the summit.
While we opted out of skiing a nearby set of steep chutes known as The Negatives for lack of snow and, in my estimation, turning options, the descent from whence we came was more than just a little exciting. We enjoyed a Zen-like skin back to June Mountain touring and traversing through shady glades and gliding by scents of sage.
I sputtered out of energy just in time to hear the hum of lifts spinning, a sound that's never been so pronounced or really even noticeable until now. The last step in our awesome journey was downloading the lift back to the base, not just because we were utterly spent, but due to the fact that June, Mammoth's little sister ski area to the north about 20 minutes, was unfortunately in pretty bad shape, snow wise. Not enough, however, to stop a handful of diehards from lapping empty groomer after empty groomer nor to keep the lifties from making the most of the California sunshine.
Many Happy Returns
The vitamin D soak up continued over on Mammoth the next day as we made our way back to the airport for our direct flight from Mammoth Lakes to Denver (new this season on Saturdays), the mountain and parking lots full of basking spring breakers. Like many before me, I'm completely enchanted and sucked in by the magic of this high alpine, Eastern Sierra paradise. I'll be back... with or without my powder skis.