MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. — “I was stuck here for five days once,” said the young, eyebrow-pierced man sharing the village gondola ride to the base lodge of Mammoth Mountain. “We were buried under 5 feet of powder; the snow just kept coming.”
We took a quick look at the sky: no snow clouds in sight, only violet blue skies and sunshine. Good. We relaxed, sat back, and enjoyed first-day views of the jagged eastern Sierra Nevada .
Call us fair-weather skiers, but we’ll take sunshine over blizzards any day. Mammoth Mountain gets plenty of both. Slapped by frequent Pacific Ocean storms, the mountain gets an average of 400 inches of snowfall annually; in some years, it boasts having the most snowfall in the world. The area, consistently ranked among the top resorts in the country for terrain and snow quality, also has more than 300 days of sunshine.
There was plenty enough snow on the slopes already, we thought. Bring on the warm temperatures and clear skies. We slipped on our shades and gazed at the sun-drenched slopes.
“I hope to get out of here before this storm rolls in,” our gondola mate continued.
That brought us to attention. Storm moving in? We were on a spur-of-the-moment getaway with family and friends, a long weekend of play sandwiched between a pile of deadlines, school days, and events back home.
“They’re saying it’s going to be epic,” he added.
Getting out of Mammoth in a snowstorm could be tricky. The tiny airport is surrounded by craggy mountains, with limited flight choices. Should we change plans, book an earlier flight, and get out of town before the storm hit? The vote was 5 to 1 to stay.
This was our first visit to Mammoth Mountain, a serious ski resort that lives up to its name, with more than 3,500 acres of skiing terrain and 150 named trails. The resort base sits at 7,953 feet, rising to 11,053 feet at the summit. Dubbed by locals as “LA’s weekend playground,” it’s especially loved by Southern Californians, in spite of — or perhaps because of — its isolation. The resort sprawls across the north side of the mountain, surrounded by the eastern peaks of the Sierras. It’s a 5½-hour drive from downtown Los Angeles in the best of weather and road conditions. No matter, Angelenos flock here on weekends, lending the resort its cool, laid-back vibe. (There are also direct flights from LA, San Diego, and San Francisco.)
We had landed at the middle-of-nowhere, bare-bones airport early that morning, caught a shuttle to town, and were on our way to the Canyon Base Lodge before noon.
Mammoth is well known for its extreme summit runs, the black double-diamond plunges into steep, rock-lined terrain and big powder bowls. But, there are plenty of less intense trails, too, most clustered around the three base areas.
After clomping out of the gondola and grabbing a quick snack, we warmed up on wide, cat-scored boulevards, like the Avalanche, Downhill, and Rollercoaster trails. The two snowboarders in our group played in South Park before ditching us and heading off on their own. Mammoth is a hot spot for North American riders, consistently grabbing kudos for its nine gnarly terrain parks, filled with berms, bumps and jumps, technical rollers and rails, and pros practicing for the next big-name contest. Its 22-foot-tall, 500-foot-long pipe is one of the highest and longest in the country. Mammoth’s six-acre Boarder X speed course is home to several United States of America Snowboard Association-sanctioned events throughout the season. There are beginner parks, too, like 6.7-acre Wonderland, where novice riders can learn new tricks. Later, we would sit on the sundeck overlooking Unbound Main Park, a more than 21-acre snow jungle of jibs and jumps, providing camera-worthy entertainment.
Mammoth has value-priced adult-child combination tickets. Group lessons start for children as young as 3 and child care is available daily and on Friday and Saturday evenings. Even we got our picture taken with mascot Woolly the Mammoth.
Did we mention that Mammoth is big? After an hour or so skiing the center bowls, we headed toward the far edge of the resort to the Cloud Nine Express chair, where we found no lift lines and some of our favorite runs of the day: the black diamond Ricochet trail that dropped into a wide bowl, and Solitude, a cruiser that wrapped around a craggy peak and across a broad ridgeline. We skied corduroy-groomed trails through sparse trees and open snowfields, wide open snow basins, glades, and quick-moving chutes, and we barely touched what this mountain had to offer.
When the lifts closed, we met up with others at the Yodler après-ski bar, sitting on the outdoor deck and listening to the buzz about the possible storm.
We opted out of a late afternoon dogsledding adventure, deciding it was packing a little too much into our first day. Instead, we soaked in the resort hot tub and went for dinner at Petras Bistro, dining on rich lamb Bolognese and fork-tender braised beef short ribs served with a side of creamy polenta. The kids shared a bubbly hot bowl of mac and cheese.
On our way back to the lodge, it started snowing — hard.