Mammoth Lakes has been the ski area of choice for Los Angeles residents since the early 1950s. These days the 5-hour drive can be a frantic scramble from the City of Angels when big snow is forecast. The journey is similar in length for anyone wanting, or needing, to escape the madness of Las Vegas and a further one and a half hours from San Francisco. Better still the “angels” can take flight to Mammoth Yosemite Airport.
I suspect Dave McCoy, the founder of Mammoth, not only had the vision to see the obvious beauty of the area but also to envisage the commercial appeal of a large ski resort within striking distance of a couple of wealthy cities. However at the time he was clearly alone in seeing the latter, and was actually given the right to develop skiing here by the Forest Service in 1953.
He then had to scrape together $135,000 to buy a second-hand chairlift. After a lot of hard graft he finally sold out in 2005 for $365m.
Recently I was marooned in Las Vegas and had to get to San Francisco for meetings a few days later. A quick glance at the map revealed that Mammoth Lakes was near enough the midpoint between the two, making it a perfect pit stop for a bit of skiing.
I decided to add an extra 30 minutes to my journey to take in Death Valley. With frequent stops to gape at the stunning scenery this turned into more like an extra hour, but was worth it.
Having driven just past the lowest point in the United States (Badwater Basin 86m below sea level) Route 395 climbs steadily to Mammoth Lakes at 2,400 meters. Once there I checked into the Sierra Nevada Resort and Spa, a wonderfully luxurious throwback to late sixties “Mad Men” America as depicted in the advertising posters of the time. Don and Betty Draper would certainly have enjoyed an Old Fashioned or two at the bar, possibly alongside John Wayne who was a regular guest.
The skiing at Mammoth has plenty to offer. The US Olympic team train here and the beginner runs are well managed and easy to access. There are aptly named runs like “Climax”, “Wipeout Chutes” and “The Hemlocks” that will challenge any skier, as well as runs that are so well groomed that the only danger is the speed they incite.
As with many US ski resorts, there is a “back bowl” which opens up plenty of off piste possibilities. With my guide, we hiked up a short distance through the trees to access more off piste terrain. With more time I would have checked into the Back Country Ski School run by the resort founder’s son to explore a bit further away from the lift system.
Mammoth has one unusual danger. It is an active volcano. Every now and again the smell of sulphur hits you and you are well advised to avoid the cordoned off vents. This is no idle threat. In 2006 three ski patrollers tragically died having fallen into a volcanic vent. You have been warned.
Skiing in the US, you encounter a number of paradoxes. In such a litigious society the fact that some lifts still don’t have a safety bars strikes me as odd, while in the “land of the free” there are piste police ready to confiscate your lift pass for speeding (although how this is defined isn’t clear).
I felt there was an element of “nanny state” at play when the upper section of the resort closed for safety when fog reduced the visibility. I had never experienced closure due to lack of visibility in the Alps, where the advice is to apply common sense and brakes in equal measure. The difference in Mammoth is that whilst the piste map gives names to certain “runs’ there are no markers on the side of the pistes. That said, having not invested in poles to mark the side of the pistes, the risk of someone skiing over a cliff or into one of Mammoths’s volcanic vents is not trivial.
There is a certain laid back California vibe to skiing at Mammoth. The lift lines can at times be long, but remain orderly and courteous – no one seems to be in the hurry you often experience in European queues. Another tang of California was the smell left behind by those skiers (or more likely snowboarders if clichés are to be believed), who were taking full advantage of the 2016 Adult Use of Marijuana Act.
Mammoth has plenty to offer in both summer and winter, whether you are planning on spending a few days as part of a Californian road trip, or an entire week, you won’t be disappointed and with the top of the resort being an impressive 3300 meters above sea level, there is good snow security between November and May.
I paused atop “Dave’s Run” overlooking the Sierra Nevada, having enjoyed a cracking ski weekend only slightly daunted by the six hour drive to San Francisco – if only America weren’t so damn big.
NEED TO KNOW
Tourist office: www.visitmammoth.com
Sierra Nevada Resort & Spa: thesierranevadaresort.com
General ski enquiries – Alpine Answers: alpineanswers.co.uk
Ski Rental: blacktieskis.com