Mammoth Mountain Meltdown, Part 3

Editor's Note: This is the third 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 1, and here for Part 2.

For the time being, the town of Mammoth Lakes appears to be pulling itself out of its recession-, weather- and lawsuit-induced slump. In September, town leaders signed an agreement with the airport developer that should create a path out of bankruptcy. The town will make a $2.5 million down payment when its bankruptcy case is dismissed, and another $2 million each July 1 for the next 23 years. To free up funds for the payments and compensate for last year's terrible winter, town leaders put in place a series of strict austerity measures this fall, including laying off almost half of the police force.

"We have cut every single ounce of fat off our bones," says Rick Wood, a local attorney and longtime town council member.

Despite the layoffs and the local grumbling, Wood is optimistic that times will get better. The real challenge, he says, is to prepare the town for the next boom. "I think it's over. I think we're at the bottom. Now we go up."

Around town, there are signs of slow recovery. New businesses are moving into boarded-up storefronts. The Black Velvet coffee shop, recently opened by former pro snowboarder Matt Hammer, is doing good business. "A good cup of coffee will change your life," Hammer likes to say. Pam Hennarty, executive director of the nonprofit Mammoth Lakes Housing, reports that the town is making steady progress improving living conditions for workers.

The real estate business is a shadow of what it was during the boom years: At the height of the bubble, in 2006 and 2007, the median price of a home here was close to $900,000; last year it was less than $600,000. But local real-estate agent and planning commission member Madeleine "Mickey" Brown says that as the market in Southern California recovers, people are starting to think about buying second homes in Mammoth again. There's even a waiting list for new condos at the Weston Monache resort hotel, just across the street from The Village.

On the mountain, meanwhile, the show goes on. During my visit in December, lift attendants called me "boss" and "old friend." Speakers blared hip-hop in the terrain park, and the runs were groomed to perfection. At McCoy Landing, visitors noshed $18 "snowboard pizzas," baked on a half of a baguette, and washed them down with $10 glasses of Mammoth Brewery's Epic IPA. On the walls above them, black-and-white photos, blown up larger than life, showed the ski area's now legendary founder, Dave McCoy, who is retired and living down-valley in Bishop with his wife, Roma. They're both in their 90s.

Albright, the ski school managing director, reported in late January that this winter has been good to the town and its mountain. More than 12 feet of snow fell at the top of the ski area in December, enough to carry the resort through a dry January. "We are having a GREAT season with good snow (and ironically some of the coldest temps we have seen in 25 years)," Albright emailed, "and it looks like it will be a long and fruitful season."

Some day, our grandkids may look back at all this—the high-speed lifts, the manmade snow, the perfectly groomed corduroy, the opulent base developments and second homes—much the way we regard those black-and-white images of McCoy in Mammoth's early days, sporting leather ski boots, bamboo poles and a pompadour. To them, our era may look like some Gilded Age—a time when you could make money and have fun in the mountains, and nobody worried about the consequences.

Will there be skiing on Mammoth Mountain in 20 or 50 years? Probably—at least when there's snow. But will there be enough snow, at the right times of the year, on a reliable enough basis, to support the kind of show that Mammoth produces now? Will the ski area be able to get itself out from under its current debt and onto solid financial footing? That is impossible to say.

"Maybe Mammoth will be the last one standing because we're up so high," muses Ted Carleton, with The Sheet. "Maybe we'll finally achieve our dream of becoming a destination resort."

"The ski industry in general, it's going to be around in a generation," says Mark Williams, who has done climate modeling for Aspen Ski Company and Park City Mountain Resort. "What we see in general is not that large of an effect in 2030. But by 2070 or 2100, in two or three generations, we reach a huge tipping point."

That's what the climate models say, but if Mammoth's story is any indication, it won't be lack of snow alone that signals the end of skiing as we know it—though it will certainly play a part. Factors and forces from the outside will be involved: economic hard times, epic droughts in our urban centers, a populace that has more pressing or simply better things to do.

And what will happen to Mammoth Lakes if the ski area folds? It will no doubt find a way to persist, albeit with a very different and likely much smaller economy than the one that is fighting for its life today. The town has already built a respectable summer economy, with new mountain bike trails and concerts under the stars.

"This is my third recession in Mammoth," says Rick Wood. "I arrived in 1991, just in time for Black Monday. We had another dip when the tech stocks crashed in 2000. But here we are, 10 years later. Somehow people make it. This town survives."

And right now, the snow is falling, and the tourists arrive each weekend in search of good times. "We still have 24 million people in Southern California that really love Mammoth and the Eastern Sierra," Albright says. "We're their mountain home. We're just three-quarters of a (gas) tank away."

This story first appeared in High Country News.