Mammoth Mountain Meltdown: End Game?

Editor's Note: This is the first part of a three-part story on the growing impact of global climate change on the ski industry, as viewed through the lens of California's Mammoth Mountain. Though it gets some of the nation's most consistent and reliable snow, last year's drought, combined with the fickle boom-and-bust cycles of resort development, nearly killed Mammoth's local economy, underscoring how unstable the entire industry is. Click here for Part 2, and here for Part 3.

George Shirk sits in his office at the Mammoth Times on a Saturday afternoon, with his dog, Fido, who writes his own weekly column for the paper, curled up underneath the desk. Early December is the quiet time between the Thanksgiving and Christmas rushes at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, and Shirk, a 60-year-old news veteran with a sandy smoker's voice, has kindly agreed to give me an armchair tour of his adopted hometown.

Mammoth Lakes is perched in the Eastern Sierra, a half-day's walk from some of California's most spectacular high country. "The first time I drove over Tioga Pass and saw the Eastern Sierra, my eyes just bugged out," says Shirk, who bought a condo here in 1997 and moved up full-time a few years later after a career that took him from the Philadelphia Inquirer to the San Francisco Chronicle.

"We're really out here," Shirk says, rattling off the drive times to urban centers such as San Diego (six and a half hours), L.A. (five hours), and the San Francisco Bay Area (five and a half, minimum). "People take day-long trips to go to Costco in Reno. It's a little like living on Mars."

Nursing a cup of black coffee ("You take cream or sugar? No? Good, because I don't have any"), Shirk divides Mammoth's 8,000-or-so year-round residents into three groups: People who are running from something, like a failed career or a ruined marriage; skiers, climbers and other athletes drawn to the landscape as a testing ground; and "the artists, the dreamers." Shirk himself fits the last category, and maybe the first, as well.

The second group—the athletes—has included such greats as three-time Olympian Andrea Mead Lawrence, the first American skier to win two gold medals in alpine skiing. Lawrence, who died in 2009, spent decades fighting to protect her beloved mountains as well as the surrealistic landscape of Mono Lake, about 30 miles north of here. These days, local downhiller Stacey Cook and ski cross phenom John Teller, a mechanic at Mammoth's Center Street Garage, are spending time atop the world's racing podiums.

Others here don't fit so neatly into Shirk's matrix—young anglos and Hispanics of all ages who come to schlep dishes, clean hotel rooms and run the lifts, and the wealthy weekenders and second-homeowners who bankroll the whole show. Mammoth's service workers struggle in ways familiar to any Western ski town: low wages, high rents and housing conditions that can verge on the inhumane. The well-to-do part-timers have their pick of condos and vacation homes tucked amid the grand old Jeffrey pines or clustered at base areas connected to the ski slopes by chairlifts and gondolas. There's even a cookie-cutter base "village" (called The Village), built in the early 2000s by the real estate giant Intrawest, featuring a Starbucks, a Ben & Jerry's, a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, a boutique leather shop and, of course, a real estate office.

Rising over it all like a local deity is Mammoth Mountain, an 11,053-foot dormant volcano that rises just east of the Sierra Nevada proper. "It's the lifeblood. The food," says Shirk.

But Mammoth Mountain can't nurture this community if the snow doesn't fall, and if the tourists quit descending from the skies in planes from Southern California or rolling up the highway from the coast. As the climate warms, both may become even less reliable. There are already indications that the long-term future looks bleak.

If you're going to bet on snow, Mammoth is as good a place as any in the Lower 48 to do so. The Sierra as a whole is famous for the stuff—the range's proper name, Sierra Nevada, literally means "snowy mountains." Storms blowing in from the Pacific Ocean hit the Sierra like the 49ers' offensive line, dumping feet upon feet of wet, heavy snow that buries highways, takes out power lines and sends avalanches thundering down the mountainsides.

Mark Williams, a University of Colorado snow hydrologist who did his Ph.D. work near Mammoth, describes a 1986 avalanche so powerful that it blasted the water out of an alpine lake, scattering fish across the surface of the snow. Four years earlier, a torrent of wet snow swept across Alpine Meadows Ski Area near Lake Tahoe, destroying the building that housed the ski patrol and ski school, damaging two lifts and a day lodge, and burying the parking lot in 10 to 20 feet of debris. Seven people were killed.

But Mammoth Mountain stands by itself when it comes to snow. Storms whipped up over the ocean are funneled up the San Joaquin River Valley through a low point in the Sierra crest, slamming directly into the peak, where they drop an average of more than 350 inches of the white stuff each year. There are other places that chalk up similar depths, but few as dependably as Mammoth. Even its neighboring resorts in the Sierra are more vulnerable to annual El Niño or La Niña ocean temperature fluctuations. "The Sierras see really high year-to-year variation in snowfall, particularly in the Tahoe region," Williams says. "The only place you don't see much of that is Mammoth."

It was this apparent snow magnetism that first attracted Dave McCoy, a hydrographer for the L.A. Department of Water and Power, to the mountain in the 1930s. McCoy and the Eastern Sierra Ski Club put up a rope tow in 1941. A dozen years later, the Inyo National Forest gave him a permit to operate a ski resort.

Earlier attempts to build an economy here had failed—"Mammoth" was named by boosters trying to attract prospectors to the area, but the hills produced few minerals of any value. McCoy managed to build a business on the steady supply of white gold, however, and over the years, Mammoth became a favorite destination for Southern California skiers, generations of whom learned to ski here, coming up through the local racing program.

Of course, the snow didn't always arrive. The mid-'70s saw a couple of brutally dry years. Locals still talk about the drought in the late 1980s and early '90s, and "Black Monday," the day in 1991 that the ski area laid off 150 employees. But snow-making equipment installed in the 1990s allowed the resort to even out some of the corrugations in the natural snowfall patterns, and there have been plenty of years when manmade snow was hardly necessary.

The consistent snow and loyal customers caught the eye of Intrawest, the developer that patented the hyper-engineered, ticky-tacky base "village" concept that has swept across ski country. The company bought a controlling interest in Mammoth Mountain in 1996 and plowed millions into new base areas, high-speed chairlifts and other improvements.

Intrawest's 2005 buyout by Starwood Capital Group, a real estate and hotel investment group with a reputation for turning rough-around-the-edges resorts into chic getaways for the wealthy, generated enough speculative buying to help keep local housing prices high through 2007, even as the national economy faltered. While the national economic slowdown sent Mammoth's skier numbers tumbling over a cliff—from an all-time high of 1.5 million visits in 2005-'06 to just over a million the following winter—they began to rally the very next year, and rose steadily thanks to a succession of epic winters.

The winter of 2010-'11 was the biggest snow year in recorded history at Mammoth Mountain. Fifty-five feet fell at the summit. On several days, it snowed and blew so hard that managers couldn't open the lifts, but when they did, the skiing was like something out of a dream. In town, snow and ice toppled massive old-growth trees, smashing rooftops and power lines. Locals lost cars in the drifts and didn't recover them until spring. Steve Searles, a wildlife specialist who works to keep the peace between the people and the local population of black bears, calls it "biblical."

Mammoth residents can be forgiven, then, for thinking that snow would always be their savior.

Click here for Part 2.

This story first appeared in High Country News.