I took a break from skiing, spending time in LA and San Diego visiting relatives and meeting up with my book club. The winter storms that were making the mountains a skier’s paradise was playing havoc with what I thought should be 70 & 80 degree weather. The entire time I spent in SoCal it never got over 70 degrees!!
Midway through my warm weather reprieve I drove to Mammoth Mountain to check it off my bucket list. Once again, I timed the trip between storms that were predicted to sweep through the Sierras. I had never been to Mammoth, and as I left LA I detoured through Antelope Valley, hoping to see some desert poppies. Alas, I was ten days early, and while I did see a few brave poppies, most were in bud stages at best.
From Antelope Valley, I drove to Mohave and past the exits to Ridgecrest where my niece and her husband lived for a couple years, before having their own kids, and teaching other kids at Ridgecrest’s elementary schools. It was their adventure before returning to home and family in the Montana/Wyoming west.
Before getting to Ridgecrest I turned north on 395 and entered Owens Valley. I had never been through this area before, but it was on our route that we were to have taken last year before our trip was cut short. With the soaring Sierra Nevada range on the west and the dry White and Inyo Mountain ranges to the east. Mt. Whitney is in the Sierra range above 14,000 feet. The valley floor is around 4,000 feet, making the this one of the most spectacularly deep valleys in the country. With the rugged and jagged Sierras rising to the west, any weather that comes across California from the ocean is normally sucked dry before it gets to the valley or the White and Inyo Mountains, causing a stark contract between the west side of the valley, pine trees and green, juxtaposed against barren brown stark mountains to the east.
Scot had always wanted to show me this valley, it was one of his favorite places. He would rave about Lone Pine, a little dusty town about midway up the valley. As I drove the valley, my thoughts were in a totally different place, recognizing the amazing peaks including Mt. Whitney on the west and the moonlike valley floor. My thoughts were also on a place named Manzanar.
As I drove through Lone Pine, the police were stopping cars as we travelled north. They were pulling semi-truck trailer rigs off the road due to high winds. My pickup, while tall compared to cars, was not a threat, so I continued on. Only 20 minutes north of Lone Pine is a small sign that designates Manzanar National Historic Site. Manzanar was one of ten internment camps that housed up to 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. My parents had been interned in Gila River camp in Arizona, but Manzanar is know for having a visitor’s center with both history and archival information. I had been to Gila River camp northwest of Casa Grande, AZ, and planned on stopping there again on this Sojourn.
I pulled into the poorly marked visitor’s center and spent about an hour and a half. The park rangers at the center pulled information about my family off their database—time of internment, family member names—and I watched a movie about the site and the internment. I didn’t have time to do it justice, but it was late in the day, and they closed at four. I still had an hour and a half to Mammoth Lakes. As I left I drove around the dirt roads that were marked with signs that indicated “mess hall” and “church” and “administrative buildings.” At the far west end of the grounds facing the massive Sierra Nevada range is a tall white marker, a somber reminder of how a beautiful but stark desert made for an American prison built for innocent Americans.
As evening fell the winds subsided, and at one point on the drive north I passed fifty or sixty semis that must have been released from Bishop. I pulled into Mammoth in the dark, blustery but not snowing.
Mammoth had been hammered with the storms that rolled in from the ocean on a weekly basis. They, too, had been having snowfalls in the foot to three and four foot levels. The town was drowning in snow, the banks so high on either side of the streets a person couldn’t see the businesses behind them. I missed the turn to my Motel 6 twice before I figured out that you couldn’t see the hotel from the driveway entrance. Parking was scarce in the motel, and the front desk told me to just park in the handicap space. Snow took up some of the lot so that cars and trucks were parking where ever they found a space.
I wanted to ski Mammoth for two days. I had a room for Thursday night, but weekend rates were almost triple. So I had one day to ski the mountain. I went to dinner at a Slocum’s a bar and grill across the street from the motel. I could have walked, but it felt so unsafe with the snow piled ten feet high everywhere. I drove across the street. And true to form, I sat at the bar, ordered a drink and struck up a conversation with a couple next to me. Lila and Janine, it turned out, lived in Arroyo Grande, not far from where I was going next to see my aunt, uncle and cousins! They also knew the mountain really well, and had worked for Deluxe Check a company based in Minnesota! We had a lovely, friendly visit, and they invited me to visit them back in Arroyo Grande when I got there.
The next day as per usual, I got an early jump on the day and drove to the main lodge at Mammoth. There’s a gondola that services a cool little area in the heart of town, but based on advice from Janine and Lila, I avoided town. Parking was reasonable, and I was on the slopes when the lifts opened. California, unlike most of the resorts I had been to, collected lines of skiers waiting. Mammoth was no different.
I was impressed with Mammoth Mountain. It’s a big resort so while the lift line to start with was long, once a person got up the mountain there was little waiting. Except for the top.
I skied the blue groomed runs, but they were too easy. Some of the ungroomed runs were harder, and the weather was preventing the top of the mountain from opening. I could see the wind blowing snow off the top of Mammoth, creating a cornice at the top. At mid-morning I joined the line for the Panorama Gondola to the top of the resort—called Eleven 53 which was the elevation, 11,053 feet. The line was long, people were jocular and chatty. I was alone among groups of young men mostly, clumps of twos, threes, fives. I figured they were together to bolster their courage. It was only Black Diamonds and Double Blacks down once you went up.
When I was in Jackson Hole I was in the gondola line that only serviced Blacks and Double Blacks. I had chickened out and stayed on the blues all day. That seemed like a lifetime ago, and I knew that I was at least as good as 25% of the goofballs in line with me. It gave me courage to stay in line, and after a couple months of skiing, I knew I was better than I was back in January.
The wind was howling when we got off the gondola. I went to the nature center that is housed at the top, and was surprised at how full the lodge at the top was. Certainly a lot of people were going up, but not all were in a hurry to ski down. I took some pictures, leaning into the wind and blowing snow. Then I stood up straight and followed the crowd moving across the top ridge.
As I was skiing across the top, I passed a guy walking towards me, carrying his skis. Not a good sign, I thought to myself. He must have looked down and figured he’d rather live for another day. The gondola must be two-way, up AND down. I kept going.
I got to where a cluster of people were standing, peering over the lip of the ridge. This was where we had to fish or cut bait. It was straight down for about ten feet, and then a field of chopped up powder where the turns began.
When I taught skiing at Hyland Hills Snowsports School (my home resort with a vertical of 175 feet located in Bloomington, Minnesota) I used to teach new skiers what I referred to as “Survival Skills.” I would tell the students that by using these few “Survival Skills” they would be able to ski just about anything. In an instant I thought, Who was I kidding? The next instant, I decided I’d take the dive.
I inched my ski tips over the ridge, took a breath, and let ‘er go. I kept my edges, and traversed to a stop, about ten feet down, 15 feet out. From there it was just steep, deep, pow. I could hear Tanya and Andrea shouting in my head, “Find the rhythm!” I tried, but mostly I toughed it out. I fell back once, and even that I didn’t need to, I just got scared. Turn, turn, turn, turn, stop. Turn, turn, turn, stop. Breath. Huff. Puff. Turn, turn, turn, turn, stop. Turn, turn, turn, stop.
And then I was down to the easy stuff!