In the mood for Mammoth
In my mid 20s, I turned my back on Los Angeles to live the simple life in the Swiss Alps. Going from city girl to village nanny had its perks, including proximity to the slopes that left me treating my snowboard boots as shoes and my board as transportation.
Years later, when San Diego became my home, the thought of driving to the mountains became my biggest first-world problem. And then, I found Mammoth, the endless-winter mountain resort with the longest season in the country. It may be a seven-hour drive from San Diego, but after that first run, I was hooked — and even more so when JetSuiteX, Alaska Airlines and United added routes to Mammoth.
It was 2011 when my love for snowboarding officially rekindled. My husband, Benjamin, and I chose it as our honeymoon destination, and for eight years, we’ve made snowy anniversaries our tradition every January.
That is until this past September. Rumor had it Mammoth was a year-round playground, with autumn (secretly) the best time to visit. Once the snow melts, Mammoth unveils hiking, fishing, kayaking, golfing, horseback riding and even biking down single-track trails on dry slopes.
We had our fall checklist finalized, and Mammoth wasn’t on it. But seasons change, and apparently, so do we.
With a three-day open window, Benjamin and I chased autumn leaves into the hills, hungry for crisp mountain air and hikes around glacier lakes. It was a last-minute escape that landed us at The Westin Monache Resort, just steps from the village gondola in the heart of Mammoth.
It turns out, our beloved ski town looked good in green, with bursts of yellow splashed across the Eastern Sierra. It was like seeing a friend in an entirely new wardrobe. Skis and parkas were replaced with hiking boots and windbreakers, and nearly every pedestrian had a dog in tow — and for good reason. Between Mammoth Lakes and the Inyo National Forest are 300 miles of hiking trails.
The Westin greeted us with a glass of wine, while unveiling perks like underground parking, dog-friendly rooms, a heated pool, and Whitebark — their signature restaurant, where we planned our weekend over burrata and ribeye with truffle honey.
As adventurous as we are, the one thing that sets us apart is my fear of heights. Benjamin rock-climbed his way through college in Seattle, while I skipped pebbles on the beaches of Santa Barbara. Now in Mammoth, he suggested we rock climb the new Via Ferrata.
Perched on Mammoth’s rugged cliffs is a network of climbing routes linked by steel cables, iron rungs, and a suspension bridge. My hands started to sweat at the thought, and I wanted to curl up in a ball and cry.
Instead, in this season of change, I accepted the challenge, boldly entering a place of discomfort to strengthen the inner me. The moment we hit the family-friendly route, however, my knees buckled, my harness hugged my thighs like a diaper, and I white-knuckled my way around the jagged cordillera.
I refused to look down, especially on the suspension bridge when Benjamin joined me for a “fun bounce.” Through grinding teeth, I asked him to back away, leaving the perceptive guide doubling as our marriage counselor.
We eventually celebrated my feat over lunch at Yodler, a chalet-style Bavarian restaurant at the foot of the gondola. Digging into house-made brats and spongy pretzels, I broke the news that I will never be the rock-climber wife Benjamin deserves.
With a slow nod, he said, “That’s OK. I don’t think I’ll ever be the snowboarding husband you want me to be.”
Visions of chasing winter storms melted before my eyes.
“In fact,” he added. “I think I want to start skiing.”
Where was our rock-climbing counselor when we needed him? That entire weekend, Benjamin and I spoke of healthy change and being open to growth — even at the sacrifice of ourselves.
Fall in Mammoth became a reflection of our minds, a live illustration of letting go and embracing the present before it fades. We soaked in still moments of hikes at scenic Lakes Basin and breathed in the wooded hillsides awash with autumn colors.
From the home brews and burgers at Mammoth Brewing Company to the foie gras and elk tenderloin at Tamarack’s Lakefront restaurant, our lingering dinners were as cherished as the trails that led us there.
On our way out of town, we looped the three-mile shoreline of Convict Lake, taking with us autumn’s promise of renewal and her pledge of winter. Just 10 days later, she fulfilled her promise, with the first snowfall that put Mammoth’s 2018-19 ski season on the map.
Upholding anniversary tradition, Benjamin and I returned to Mammoth four months later, eager to capitalize on back-to-back storms that dropped more than 15 feet in February alone. Already, our “home mountain” had nearly reached its annual snowfall quota of 400 inches, adding to its pedigree of 3,500 skiable acres, 150 trails, 28 lifts and 13 terrain parks.
We stayed slope-side at Mammoth Mountain Inn, the only ski-in, ski-out hotel with access to the summit. A regal lobby greeted us with tufted-leather chairs, antler chandeliers and a ski valet offering to take our gear.
In our quest for change, we headed to Main Lodge, where we rented skis, boots and poles ... for both of us. I was willing to give skiing a shot — at the “sacrifice” of myself for the growth of the other.
Growing up in Colorado, I had skied as a child and could recall the basics. This, however, would be Benjamin’s first attempt, and definitely not his last. By midafternoon, I had swapped out my skis for a snowboard, while Benjamin asked what it might cost to buy his own ski gear. And just like that, my wingman had officially become a skier.
Within hours, he graduated from the Bunny Hill on Chair 11 to nearly every blue run south of McCoy’s midstation. Since 40 percent of Mammoth’s terrain is dedicated to intermediate levels, Benjamin was quick to join the “blue” club and keep pace. We lapped Broadway Express until closing, begging the lift operator to give us one more run. The mountain was ours, lit only by the monster snowcats grooming in our wake.
That night, we caught the free shuttle to Campo, an Italian restaurant in center village. Specializing in rustic cuisine with age-old techniques, we snagged a corner booth and sank our teeth into steamed mussels, roasted veal shank and truffle mascarpone risotto.
We spoke of our newfound hobbies that taught us how to bend our spirits a little in life ... which took us cross-country skiing the next morning. It was a sport neither of us had tried, nor particularly wanted to, because we were too busy racing on the slopes to nowhere.
But now, from the banks of Twin Lakes near historic Tamarack Lodge, we glided among the 19 miles of groomed tracks. It took time before we found our rhythm, and even more time before we let it go. Cross-country skiing taught us to slow down, inhale and admire the gifts of nature. There were no lift lines, limitations or lessons required. We just were.
By sundown our bodies were tired but content with the joy that only comes from drenching one’s mind in the great outdoors. For our last night, we dined at 53 Kitchen, named for Mammoth’s lucky number and the year founder Dave McCoy landed permits to develop Mammoth’s ski area.
Ironically, Mammoth was built on love, and one man’s desire for change. It was 1935 when the Paul Bunion-esqe adventurer went out seeking freedom in unchartered lands. Between shifts as a waiter, McCoy climbed mountains and S-curved down slopes on wooden skis he carved by hand.
His vision was to build a towrope for skiers, but when the banker denied his loan, it was the smitten secretary who saved the day. She believed in McCoy and his dream to change the world, so much so that she threatened to quit her job if the loan wasn’t approved.
They caught eyes, and as they say, the rest is history. This courageous couple was among the first to live in Mammoth, the first to push off famed Cornice Bowl, and the first to explore the region’s 14,000-foot summits.
McCoy ignored the naysayers, and within six years he built 14 chairlifts and two gondolas running the course of Mammoth’s slopes. Today, Mammoth is known for having some of the best skiing in the world, and this season, it’s boasting more snow than any other resort in North America.
In 2019, they’re adding more flights, new restaurants and $20 million in improvements to Canyon Lodge. And, while many of us will be waving flags and sparklers on July 4, Mammoth’s ski slopes will still be open.
On our drive back to San Diego, I thought about the power of Mammoth — how it turned my husband into a skier, how it slowed our pace on the cross-country tracks of Tamarack, and how it rekindled my love for snowboarding after a decade of abandonment.
Above all, Mammoth carried us into a season of transformation, awakening a desire for growth, change, and a little bit of the unknown.
If you go
The Westin Monache Resort: www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/mmhwi-the-westin-monache-resort-mammoth
Mammoth Mountain Inn: www.themammothmountaininn.com
Mammoth Brewing Company: www.mammothbrewingco.com
The Lakefront: www.lakefrontmammoth.com
53 Kitchen: www.53mammoth.com
Kast-Myers is a travel writer based in Valley Center; marlisekast.com.
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