Mammoth: The real McCoy of ski resorts

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It started with a pioneer and his tow rope. Now Mammoth is huge.

Real-estate funds and other investors have become very keen on US skiing recently. Although the Canadian company Intrawest – once the leader in the field – is now down to its last four US resorts, Florida-based CNL Lifestyle Properties has splashed out on 15 of them (including Crested Butte in Colorado) for reasons no one that I have talked to can wholly explain. Powdr Corp of Park City in Utah has acquired nine, including its home resort and Copper Mountain in Colorado; Entertainment Properties Trust now owns 11 (mostly very small) and the blue-chip Vail Resorts, also on the acquisition trail recently, has seven (mostly very large).

This growing corporate presence does not, as yet, seem to have had a harmful effect on the resorts, but its advent does stir nostalgic feelings about the pioneers of US skiing – the rugged types who turned land fit mainly for trees into playgrounds for the young, sporty and fashion-conscious. People like Pete Siebert, formerly of the US Army's 10th Mountain Division, who staked his claim to the mountainside west of Denver which, in 1962, became Vail; like Alex Cushing, a more patrician figure who created Squaw Valley in California and – having ousted his partner in a boardroom coup – ran it for 57 years until his death. And, most pertinently, like Dave McCoy, who set up a simple tow-rope lift for skiers in 1942 on a site which he went on to develop as Mammoth Mountain Resort, a property valued at $365m (£240m) when he sold it in 2005.

Mammoth is an uncharacteristic corner of California, up on the state's east side and as far as it could be from the Pacific Ocean. It is more than four hours' drive from Los Angeles, and even further from San Francisco and Las Vegas: few major resorts are so far removed from a large population centre. Nevertheless, it is the third most popular resort in the US (after Vail and Breckenridge), judged by the number of skier days. Dave McCoy knew what he was doing when he set down his tow rope here: he had, after all, been scouting the area for six years.

I drove to Mammoth from Las Vegas, which was not ideal. My straightforward route took six hours – and that after a 10-hour flight arriving at 3am, London time. The lights of Las Vegas were bright, but Nevada seemed a harsh environment, a feeling no doubt heightened by weariness and jet lag. The local radio station played an ugly song by heavy-metal band Mastodon immediately after a gun shop's ad for the week's special on Smith & Wesson pistols, and in one of the counties where prostitution is legal, the neon signs which combined to read "Nude Girls dining" – actually a rather fetching tableau, I thought – were followed by one whose message was a tell-it-like-it-is "Brothel".

There was a more significant reason for gloom: Mammoth gets 400 inches of snowfall in an average year, but this season it was still waiting for its first proper snowfall when I arrived in mid-January. Crossing the high ridge above the California state line, the mountainsides facing the western seaboard did – as one would expect – have snow. But it was dirty, and showing its age.

When McCoy first came here in the mid-1930s he was working for the Los Angeles Department of Power and Water, surveying the snowpack which would ultimately provide LA with water. In their spare time, he and his workmates went skiing with homemade skis. They even created a ski lift, by jacking up the back of a truck and attaching to its rear axle a loop of rope which ran up to a pulley at the top of the hill. Later came a permanent rope tow made by an engineer called Jack Northrop, who was later instrumental in the creation of the Northrop Grumman aerospace company.

By 1940, McCoy had received permission from the US Forest Service to take his own portable rope tow on to the mountains at weekends, setting up wherever he found the best snow. This was usually Mammoth Mountain, where clouds blown in from the Pacific regularly dropped their moisture. Then, in the early 1950s, the Forest Service resolved to allow ski resorts in the area; infrastructure was provided, and entrepreneurs were invited to bid for the concession. The Forest Service was hoping for $250,000, and McCoy – quoted in David T Page's excellent Explorer's Guide to Yosemite and the Southern Sierra Nevada – said: "I thought I'd be out in the cold." But no investor was interested. "They said it was too far from a metropolitan area, too high and too remote ... too much snow, too windy, too rugged." So McCoy got a 25-year lease and the obligation to build the resort.

My base in Mammoth was the Westin Monache Resort, which scores an impressive three hooks on my personal ski-hotel rating system. The clothes hook, invaluable for hanging up damp skiwear, is fast disappearing from hotel-room walls, but in my room at the Westin there were three of them, ideally placed just inside the door. The hotel scores well for convenience, too. Opened in autumn 2007, it lies alongside the "Village at Mammoth" development, from which a cable car runs directly to the snow apron at the Canyon Lodge base. On its journey the cable car crosses over great tract of homes, some of them fairly basic, others on the showy side and presumably owned by the sort of person who can get to Mammoth the quick way, flying into its airport on the regular shuttles from San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose and LA.

My ski valet from the Black Tie equipment-rental service, who came to my room to deliver and adjust a pair of skis, likened the cable car's swoop over the rooftops to Mary Poppins, but I think it may be a while since he saw the film.

With 3,500 acres of skiing and 28 lifts, Mammoth's is a big domain. The runs are rated on the US's normal green-to-black-diamond scale, but with variations shown by icons like those used on washing-instruction labels: when the green blob meaning "easiest" run sits on a black square, the run is "easier" (and apparently suitable for tumble drying). Higher up, the terrain is perhaps not as black as it is painted, but with so little snow barely a third of the area was open, not including the expert area.

On my first morning there, the LA Times did Mammoth no favours by reporting, under the heading "High is dry", that poor conditions had reduced its skier visits at Christmas by 20 per cent, year on year, and that snow had fallen only from the 100 snowmaking guns. To make matters worse, when I arrived a blustery gale blew up; lifts had to be closed and conditions got really harsh. On one ridge, lumps of ice as big as chicken nuggets – they had broken away from the icy, corduroy surface – were being thrown up on to my chest and face. Not a good day.

Aesthetically, there's a lot to be said for the ski area: it is heavily wooded up to 10,000ft and has grand views of a substantial mountain bowl. The facilities are more variable. Canyon Lodge has a classic, Modernist style; the somewhat ramshackle Main Lodge has been covered with what looks like army-surplus paint. I wouldn't normally take such a keen interest in lodges, but my second day at Mammoth was barely better than the first: the wind was less gusty but much colder, and – same old story – no snow had fallen.

I could imagine the terrain in good conditions; but turning up five days later would have saved me the effort. That was when the first winter storm came. Four feet of snow fell overnight, and within a few days the entire domain was open, and all the lifts: the real McCoy.

Dave McCoy is still going strong for a 96-year-old. But since he sold the resort – to the Starwood Capital Group, former owners of Starwood Hotels – the corporates have gathered. Intrawest sold its local landholdings to Starwood Capital, and its Village at Mammoth development to CNL Lifestyle Properties; it manages the village and the Westin Monache Resort – which belongs to Starwood Hotels.

It's a tangled web; but so far, McCoy's mountain seems not to have been ensnared.

Travel essentials: Mammoth

Getting there

* The writer travelled to Mammoth with Ski Independence (0131-243 8097; ski-i.com). It offers seven nights at the resort from £859 per person, including room-only accommodation, British Airways flights to Los Angeles and car hire for the duration of the trip. Prices are based on two sharing.

Fourteen nights cost from £1,180 per person, also based on two sharing.

* The writer's rental car was provided by Rhinocarhire.com.

More information

* 001 800 626 6684; mammothmountain.com

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