Summer finally got started a couple of weeks ago in early August. The insane 16/17 snowpack left much of the High Sierras covered in snow all the way through July and the melting snow created happy breeding grounds for mosquitoes. When not sliding on hardpack snow you were getting eaten alive by bugs: party time.
But no matter: I could still go for a run, ride my bike, climb a rock, and drive off road. These things and many like them are laughable pursuits mid-winter. There’s a lot to be said for just hopping in your car and driving away, without thinking about warming it up, scraping ice, timing the snow plows, and digging. The digging never stops.
But just like that, the thermostat space heater in my office clicked on the other morning. Instead of having our bedroom window wide open at nights it’s been slowly closing more and more until last night when (with three blankets) I woke up cold and shut it completely. Pellet prices go up in a month. There’s less than 90 days until Mammoth opens for skiing/boarding. In short: #WinterIsComing.
And winter is a pain in the ass, don’t get me wrong. Everything is harder. Your hands are in gloves nearly all the time so doing any kind of detailed work outside (automotive, construction, etc) is brought to a halt. Travel schedules get blown out, and portions of your home (like a deck or yard) become effectively off limits.
But with that comes simplicity as well. Armed with a season pass, a board, and some insulated clothes I can spend copious amounts of free time shredding. With my new splitboard this year and snowmobiles (cool kids call them sleds) for sar I need to qualify on, there is a lot to do. The days are shorter and the activity options reduced so “lazy summer days” are a thing of the past. It’s time to hustle either to stay alive (pellets, shoveling, driving and not dying) or time to hustle to enjoy life.
When you walk out and see your truck sitting there looking like the above, and you have a list of a few things that need to get done that day, things get very straight forward.
I had a friend who told me that people who live in far northern (and far southern) climates tend to be harder working and more industrious than our more equatorial and horse-latitude dwelling brethren. The idea being that in areas with harsher seasons you have to figure out your winter plans and equip yourself during the summer or you simply won’t live to see spring. Conversely in a more mild climate you can get still go out mid winter and find some food, plus you won’t freeze to death.
Obviously modern society has negated this a bit and not a lot of folks are dropping dead in our mountain town of malnourishment. The Donner Party excluded, the rest of us can find something to eat at Vons.
I’ve been reluctant to write about the 16/17 winter because of how powerful it was and like a victim of abuse every cloud still makes me jumpy imagining three feet of snow is about to drop. Not knowing what’s in store for next winter is part of the fun: will it be another snowpocalypse, fueled by some new twist of climate change? Or will we get barely any snow and my cool snowgear will just collect dust as I lament the snow-less terrain.
I wrote a previous article about getting to the slopes and I think it’s still pretty accurate early season. And really, most of the logistics is particular to where you’re at. If you’re in a ski-in/ski-out location right by Main Lodge, that’s obviously a lot different than being down in Bishop.
So the applicability of this will depend on where you’re coming from, but hopefully my own experiences can be useful. In short, I fell in love with Eagle.
For me, I avoid Canyon and Main in general for two reasons:
a) They tend to be mobbed. Canyon has 4 chairs (excluding roller coaster) and a massive lodge infrastructure. Main is where most of the team programs are and the parking is basically dog shit even if you get there on a good day. This can be mitigated by rolling into The Mill (chairs 2 and 10), but that’s not really Main.
b) The stuff to do at Eagle is just better, especially when it’s soft or recently-powdery.
On the last point, chair 25 (south side of Lincoln Mountain) has some of my favorite terrain on the mountain for powder days. Super steep so you keep moving. A near infinite amount of lines to choose from, and because the only real ways back down to 25 are single or double blacks it doesn’t tend to get too mobbed. Additionally, unless you’re a jacked up steroided thug you can only ride so many double blacks in deep powder before your legs are cooked so no one’s hanging there all day anyway. There are also gazillions of trees, chutes, and rocks so it doesn’t generally turn into a mogul field.
There’s also chair 9, which even when busy is still a 6-pack chair that covers a ton of ground. Bonus: it’s definitely the most wide open and random long run on the mountain. As it basically offers you access to a big valley that’s a quarter mile across and over a mile long.
Even more of a bonus, as long as you head left off the Eagle 15 chair (skier’s right), you can access chairs 9 and 25. From there no matter what you do and how much you screw up, you’ll end up back at Eagle.
To make all this happen, I try to park at Eagle by 7:45am if I’m going over there on a weekend or busy day. That gives me 35 minutes to hang out in Eagle lodge drinking a cup of coffee and reading the news, getting all my gear together. 10 minutes to get into the line and wait for the chairs to spin, and I’m golden.
There’s an “atmospheric river” overhead which is a warm jet of moisture that lasts days. Too warm, sadly. There’s rain everywhere. Just a few degrees lower and it would be snow. Instead it’s wet during the day and ice at night. I rode in it a bit a couple days back and needing to wipe my goggles every 100′ got old fast.
Because it rained and froze overnight the lower gondola and Broadway was the only thing open. Worse, Broadway was basically a glacier.
The good news is that some snow did drop and it’s the wet bondo base snow that the mountain snowmaking team loves because it doesn’t blow away and new snow adheres to it.
Living up here I definitely get first crack at all the good weather days but I get the garbage ones too.
A much colder storm is predicted in a few days so we’ll see if that forecast holds and keep waxed up. Today looks like trash duty, laundry, and catching up on work.
Goggles keep blowing and otherwise airborne snow out of your eyes.
Goggles generally have 100% UVA/B protection to keep the sun from bouncing around off the snow and up into your eyes.
It’s windy, whether just from the environment or because you’re hauling ass down a mountain.
When you crash, you want to keep snow/ice/stuff from hitting you in the eyes. More than just keeping the sun from your eyes goggles offer physical protection.
You will get hit in the face with poles, boards, and other hard objections.
Goggles tend to come in low-light and bright-light options for super sunny (bluebird) days or cloudy dark days.
You can easily drop $200 for a set of nice Oakley goggles and they are certainly great shades, no doubt about that. Worse, you can not buy anything on your first day and need to pay through the nose at the resort. Instead I offer up what I’m wearing: the Spy Targa 3‘s, which can be had for about $25.
I have a pair of bronze lessons for full light riding, and a rasta-banded set of persimmons for lower light. The problem with wearing the wrong lenses are pretty straightforward: wear low light lenses on a bright day and you’ll be squinting all the time. Wear darker lenses on cloudy days and you won’t be able to make out curves and contours in the snow.
You might have spotted some clear Bolle Mojo‘s tucked in there with the Spy’s. Clear goggles are absolute shit for snow sports: not enough contrast in low light and in sunny conditions you’ll be squinting the whole time. But they’re good for pushing the snow blower around the driveway or other at-home tasks where snow is blowing around.
So if you’re new to the sport and want to be cheap, I’d recommend going with low-light goggles. You’ll be squinting a bit when you look up in the sky but most of the time you’ll be looking down. And if I have to pick between squinting and not seeing all the contrasts in the snow, I’ll take the squint.
One of the reasons I wanted to write this blog is because Mammoth Mountain, bless their souls, is terrible at explaining how some things work. Maybe they don’t want to highlight certain aspects of their operation and instead focus on SHREDDING POW BRAH. But other stuff matters, so let’s talk about dealing with your car.
There is also the Mammoth bus/trolley/shuttle system which I won’t cover much in here beyond the parking shuttles.
Unless you’re coming from outer space, you’ll take the 395 to the 203 to get to Mammoth.
The Village. Open year round, there is a gondola that will take you to Canyon Lodge. There’s also coffee, places to eat, places to lose lots of cash on clothes, and you can buy lift tickets here. But if Canyon isn’t open I’d skip it. There is a bus every ~30 minutes that makes laps between the Village (across the street, near the parking lot) and the Main Lodge.
The Mill. At the base of chairs 2 & 10, there’s a parking lot and a small restaurant. Early and late season chairs 2 & 10 aren’t running, so this might not be the smartest idea at those time. No ticket sales, so you’ll need to have your pass on you as you’re just walking up to chair lifts here. There’s a decent parking lot if you show up early.
When the mountain is “fully open”, that means that all the lodges and all the runs are online and you can pick whatever you like. But figure that out in advance and if you don’t know shoot for Main. Drive your car as far up 203 (Meridian / Main St) as you can and try to park near one of these signs:
A constant stream of free busses run between the Main Lodge and the parking signs doing laps. You probably will only wait 5 minutes, but sometimes in severe weather or really busy weekends I’ve seen it take 15.
If you’re at Parking A, walk unless you’re really beat up or in ski boots. If you’re at B and have the legs (and again, aren’t in ski boots), go for a stroll. C or further down you’re dumb as a post if you walk. Make sure you grab the bus on the going-to-the-mountain side of the street.
Also, even if you want to walk remember that it’s probably windy/snowy/icy and that busses are flying around. It’s not the safest place to be on foot.
Bring all your crap with from your car that you’ll need for the day. You can always grab the bus back to your car but that wastes time unless you’re done for the day.
Remember what parking zone you’re in, what side of the street, and whether you’re before or after the post. All SUV’s and Subarus look the same when covered in snow.
At the lodges you can also pay $25 to park right up close. Although this is rather dumb for most people, I would recommend it for first time visitors especially those with kids or that just has a big group. It’s hard to know everything you’re going to want and it’s easy to forget stuff when you’re worried about your kids. Also consider that locker rentals are $5 per use. So if you open a locker up and close it again you’re halfway to the cost of having your car right there in front of the lodge building.
Hopefully this can help some folks navigate the rather dizzying web of lodges, quasi-lodges, gondolas, roadways, parking zones, and shuttle busses that Mammoth has to offer.
Sure, it looks like a crazy science experiment gone wrong. But this thing kicks ass at drying lots of gear so the next day you’ve got warm and dry gear to put on.
I started with a prototype made of cardboard. I’d really recommend that to anyone as you probably have plenty of it laying around and with some tape you can make a design and see how well it will work. In a pinch, you can even get by with a cardboard model for quite some time.
There are two core concepts with a snowsports dryer:
Have everything spaced out so they can dry. This is pretty easy to achieve as you can just hang things up, no big deal.
Blow warm and dry air inside of things like gloves, mitts, and boots. This is the tricky part and why you can’t just leave wet gloves out on a table and expect them to be dry anytime soon.
The fan sucks air into the airtight box, and then you’re faced with the challenge of getting it to your boots/gloves/whatevers. I decided to go a little hardcore and use 1/2″ hose barbs, screwed onto fittings between a piece of particle board. That the whole box was done with 3/4″ ply and particle board was no accident. The hoses are tough and pull on the box. The fan needs to be mounted firmly. You can expect the box to get kicked, bumped, and treated with neglect. I opted to make it beefy.
What’s cool about using barbs like this is that you can get creative with the types of hoses you use after the fact without really doing anything to the dryer itself. I even installed some T fittings on the ends.
Before I put the top on (with all the fittings) I used some foam crack filler to seal up the interior as much as possible. The whole thing is screwed together in the hopes that it can handle a lot of abuse. The fan is rated at 67,000 hours, which at 100/days of service per year running for 5 hours at a clip I should be able to snowboard 134 seasons before I need to replace the fan.
For the hose I found 25′ of 1/2″ conduit for $10. It’s pretty stout stuff and maintains its curve fairly well which is a blessing if you want it and a curse if you don’t. I slashed the bottoms that fit over the barbs so they can come off easier, and put little holes near the ends in the sidewalls that go into the boots/gloves.
I can dry 10 items at a time, and the whole thing breaks down relatively easily. I place it (safely) near the pellet stove so there’s plenty of warm air about and no need to add a separate heating element. It’s sort of obvious: after a day of snowsports you want to be warm and dry too so the heater will most definitely be on.
If I had to do another, my shopping list would look like this:
10 pipe fittings, cost around $15.
3/4 ply or particle board, maybe $5-$20.
Done cheaply you’ll be in for around $50 and have something that absolutely clowns on the piece of garbage plastic jobbers out there, nevermind you’ll have 5x the capacity and a much longer product life. The only downside is that you’ll have an octopus of death dryer in your living room.
The snow season has been a little “meh” so far, but to be fair it’s on November. If you peel into the data a bit you’ll note that Mammoth’s snowfall really kicks in December – March. So big dumps in November are terrific (but rare) and big dumps in October are like hitting an arrow with a bullet while drunk and blindfolded.
November gets more than 2x the snow of October, and December is 3x the snowfall of November. I’ve been checking in with MammothSnowman for a while now: it’s a terrific place to get a bit more narrative on conditions. Armed with info from the Snowman it looks like Chair 3 will be open. This is super cool because Chair 3 is totally awesome.
Chair 3 sits just above McCoy Station, which you can take the Gondola (G1) or Broadway Express (Chair 1) to access. It’s basically a bunch of single black bowls which are this author’s favorite thing to shred. Because the base looks pretty terrible on Broadway, it looks like the fun will be had on Chair 3 and heading down to Main Lodge on Broadway will be to stretch some legs but is more about “access” than “fun”. IE: rather than take the gondola back down you can ride down, but don’t expect great conditions.
A couple of strategies I employ, consider them for what they’re worth:
Don’t go unless you have a season pass. Sure, the tickets are $50, but it’s essentially one chair that’s open with somewhat okay-ish conditions.
Don’t bring your good board/skis. With the thinned out coverage you should anticipate some rocks poking up and this is why you should keep your older board/skis around.
Remember, you haven’t ridden/skied in months and you’re going to start on a black (again, with less-than-great conditions). Take it slow, stupid hurts, and remember that the real stuff is still ahead.
I’ll be up there for sure with my goal of riding every day that I can this year. But that might mean half a dozen runs to work the kinks out and remind myself where my toe and heel edges are.
If you want to spend copious amounts of money in Mammoth you certainly can. I’ve written previously about how expensive (and white) snow sports are. And even if you have the cash to blow, I’m a fan of blowing it where I want to, rather than being forced to out of circumstance.
A single night at the Westin in Mammoth Village will set you back over $700 in peak season. Conversely you can be at the EdelWeiss’ Studio for $100 night. Is the Westin vastly “better”? Of course it is. But for my bank account I’d rather pocket the $600 difference and buy a top of the line snowboard with it. Again: let me save money where I like so I spend it where I like.
So here are some ways you can spend (relatively) less money visiting Mammoth:
You might see two hostel names floating around, but Holiday Hause and Moderne Hostel are the same thing (both at 3905 Main St). Regardless, you can stay in a hostel setting for $41/night. Having stayed in hostels before I actually kind of dig it because you meet new people and can frequently tag along with others for night life.
Stealing from my article on how to save money snowboarding, tuck some lunch in your backpack before you head up to the mountain. One place it’s hard to not spend some money is at the lodge buying a beer at the end of the day. But you can bypass that one too by tucking an IPA into your bag, and nestling it in the snow in a treewell somewhere (make sure to put it on the downhill side of the tree so no one follows your track and nails it).
For lift tickets, the best I’ve found is Costco’s deal of 4 tickets for $300 (this comes and goes by the month). Also consider that with 4 lessons you can frequently get a season pass: something to consider.
But with the Costco deal, staying in a hotel, and $20/day for food you can shred the mountain for $41 (lodging) + $20 (food) + $75 (lift) = $136/day. A four day amazing trip would run the tab to $544. Still less than a single night at the Westin, I might add.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with having money in your pocket and enjoying your life. But I think it’s worth reminding ourselves of just where snow sports do and do not exist in the American socio-economic system. To date, I can count the amount of black skiers and snowboarders I’ve met on two hands and still be able to fasten my bindings. Not only is skiing and snowboarding a sport for wealthy folks, but it also is a white sport and I’m not just talking about snow.
And before you spaz out and tell me about your friend Jose or Leroy that you ride/ski with, let’s let the data speak for itself, compiled by SIA/Physical Activity Council in 2013:
So without further ado, here’s the strategy I employ for paying my mortgage and snowboarding at the same time.
1) Don’t do it unless you’re going to do it a lot. Let’s just be blunt: there are a ton of up front costs that you will eat, even if done cheap. If this isn’t a sport you can really see yourself doing, pick something else. If you want to sample it on the cheap, go to a lower-priced resort in the springtime when you hopefully don’t need serious cold weather clothes.
2) Buy your skis, boards, boots, bindings, poles, and other gadgets on Craigslist. You can easily shell out $2,000 for skis/boarding gear and another $1,000 for clothes if you purchase new. For $200 I got a decent 7 year old board in okay condition and bindings that were good enough. Find the guy or gal that bought their stuff new, used it a few times, and fell out of the sport. Also, don’t be that guy or gal yourself.
3) Check the rental vs. buying math. Figure $35 to rent a board, boots, and bindings (similar rig for skiers). I got my board/boots/bindings for roughly $320, so really it can pay to rent for a while unless you know you’re in the sport to stay. Also, get boots first which are harder to size, more personal, and will chop some cash off the rental prices. One benefit to renting that people talk about is that you get a chance to experience different equipment. Truthfully I think that’s horse manure because most folks renting are just starting out and you’re not on some badass Capita Mercury for your rental board, nor should be on one.
4) Buy your clothes at the local big-box sporting goods store. I scored some sweet snow bibs on sale for $30. Do I want the $250 Dakine ones? Hell yeah I do. Are they better? Sure! Do I have $220 left in my wallet to put food in my fridge? Damn straight.
5) Buy your boots new from a store you can take them back to if they don’t fit. Sorry, but you’ll need to drop ~$150 minimum for snowboard boots (no idea on ski boots). Like most shoe purchases, if you get something that doesn’t fit it’s going to be a nightmare and ruin everything. Find them at the big-box stores.
6) Don’t ever buy any food from the lodge, ever, ever. It’s nice to have a warm cup of coffee and some eggs in the morning. Paying $25 for it though is ridiculous. Most lodges have a microwave and it will be your best friend. The food in my backpack generally looks like this:
Some paper towels to nuke the sandwiches and to clean up your filthy self.
A couple of Monster energy drinks. I’m here to shred, I’ll drink after the last chair. Speaking of chairs, drink your drinks on the chairs to save time.
A Cliff bar or whatever is cheap and on sale. These are sort of crap food but if you’re a little hungry it can make the difference between staying on the hill or packing it in early. Warning: cold ones are like eating rocks.
7) Get a season pass if you ski a lot, or look for discount passes.
A Mammoth/June/Summit/Bear pass is roughly $800. This sounds insane except remember that for Mammoth the lift tickets are anywhere from $103-$134 per day. Average to $118/day and the season pass pays for itself on day 7. For those of us lucky enough to ride all the time, if you ride roughly 1/3 of the days the park is open you’re spending $10/day, saving roughly 92%.
Costco is known to carry a 4-for-$300 deal for Mammoth, bringing each ticket to $75. While not insanely cheap, it’s still much better than full price.
8) Don’t go to expensive resorts if you’re learning. June Mountain, 20 minutes north of Mammoth, is awesome: long runs, almost always empty, beautiful scenery, and ~60% the cost of Mammoth. The last I checked, lessons were roughly 1/2 the cost of Mammoth. If you’re taking lessons, you’re going to be on a narrow slice of the mountain anyway. Why pay big bucks for a ticket to a mountain that you’ll only see the beginner slopes on? Plus, some spots (like June Mountain) have kids riding for free.
9) Don’t rent from the resort. If you need to rent, you will almost absolutely find cheaper deals and a better selection in town. Look around on Yelp and call around. Also, they probably open earlier and stay open later. You won’t need to cut into your slope time by waiting around in the gross-stinky rental area.
10) Stash your backpack in the trees. If all you have is sunscreen, some food, and an IPA for later sitting in your backpack, go off trail a bit and stash it in the trees. Lockers at Mammoth are $5 per use. So if you go in and out of your locker three times, which is of course why you have a locker, you can rack up $15 right there. Put your wallet/phone/keys on your person and keep your stuff in a bag in the forest. No one wants your crappy old Jansport bag.
11) Stay somewhere cheap. I spent a week with my daughter buzzing June and Mammoth before we moved up here, and I found a $50/night AirBnB in Lake Crowley. It was a little… rustic, but it worked and we had a great time. We brought groceries with us, cooked in the kitchen, and popped the PS4 onto the TV to hang out in the evenings.
About the worst thing you can do is roll into a nice resort armed with nothing but a credit card. The more you need to do in a resort town and the faster you need it done the more you will pay through the nose.
As much as I feel for the businesses that cater to an increasingly affluent white crowd, the business owners and employees of those businesses save their pennies as well. When the owner of the “local board shop” goes on vacation you can bet that he or she is shopping in advance and trying to stretch their dollar. I hope that this article helps other non-ultra-rich snow spots enthusiasts get more enjoyment from an activity which seems to be getting more and more out of reach.