By Marlene Greer
This week in Mammoth Mountain was the first time I’ve actually had to pole downhill. Yes, that’s right – use my ski poles to propel myself down the mountain.
On Tuesday, bone-chilling winds at the summit hit 75 mph, according to mountain staff, and mid-mountain was not much better with strong 30-40 mph winds. The temperature at the top was a chilly 20 degrees.
The gondola to the summit was closed for three days and opened again on Thursday, though Chair 23, the other lift to the top, remained open despite the high winds. Whether that was a wise choice is debatable.
Those who ventured to the summit Tuesday and Wednesday described winds nearly blowing them over and being pelted unmercifully with ice. Skiing off the summit, they told me, was a scary experience.
Caitlin, a 20-something skier from Utah, was skiing Mammoth on Tuesday with her four friends and got caught off guard at the summit by a powerful gust of wind.
“It was so bad we all huddled together for about five minutes,” she explained. “We didn’t know what to do, which way to go. I felt like I was going to get blown off the mountain.”
Inga, spending spring break at Mammoth with her boyfriend and friends, called her one and only ride to the summit and ski down “an unfortunate adventure.”
“The wind was blowing ice so hard that the ice hitting my helmet sounded like hail,” her boyfriend added. The San Diego couple did not plan on making a second attempt to the summit that day.
I arrived in Mammoth on Monday night and Tuesday was my first day on the mountain. I joined a small group of intermediate skiers led by Paul, one of the many mountain hosts at Mammoth. Paul explained it’s often windy at Mammoth though not to this degree. He jokingly said there’s wind at Mammoth 363 days a year.
Standing at mid-mountain, we could see plumes and clouds of ice blowing across the entire ridgeline. Paul recommended we stay off the summit, and we thought that was an excellent idea.
Plus, we were having enough trouble with the wind and blowing ice at mid-mountain. Getting off the chairlifs into a fierce crosswind or headwind, being hit by flying ice, was not pleasant. Several times I had to use my poles to push myself downhill.
Fortunately, the winds died down to a comfortable breeze once we skied a couple hundred feet down from the lifts. And there’s so much terrain to choose from at Mammoth, there were places to go to get out of the wind and enjoy some excellent spring skiing.
Kad, visiting Mammoth with her Over the Hill ski club friends from Los Angeles, said they “stuck to the trees” for shelter, and after two days had yet to attempt the summit.
Our group headed to the west side and skied the many groomed, intermediate runs on the lower part of the mountain, out of the wind, in the sunshine and in the nice, soft snow.
That’s one of the great things about skiing Mammoth – most of the mountain is groomed. Mammoth, explained Paul, grooms as much as it can get to every day.
Amazingly, at the mountain bases – Canyon Lodge, Main Lodge and Mill Café – the wind was barely noticeable. Skiers and snowboarders lounged in the sunshine and even enjoyed lunch outside at Mill Café. The temperature at the base was a very pleasant mid-40s – an absolute 180-degree change from the conditions on the upper mountain.
The winds died down by Thursday and the entire mountain was open with the usual spring skiing conditions. With the temperature at the base rising to nearly 50 degrees, the lower portions of the mountain became slushy and sticky in the afternoon.
Bob, another mountain host I met on a chairlift, explained that with spring skiing “you need to follow the sun.”
“Start in the east, hit the summit, then head west,” he said.
It sounded like solid advise so that’s what I did today, and everywhere I skied I found beautiful, soft snow – ideal spring skiing.
The temperatures are expected to remain in the 40s through the weekend. The Eagle Lodge and Canyon Lodge areas will close on April 21, but the rest of the mountain is open for spring skiing at least until the end of May.