Man Meets Mountain: Mammoth Success Story : Dave McCoy, 70, Is Monarch of the Busiest Ski Area in the United States

February 23, 1986|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

MAMMOTH LAKES — The mountain right outside Dave McCoy's office window was bound and pinned with cables and towers. Skiers sliced every which way across its artificially sculpted belly.

An environmental purist might imagine the hill writhing in indignation from this treatment--like Gulliver hogtied by pesky Lilliputians.

Not McCoy.

Monarch of the busiest ski area in the United States, 70-year-old McCoy is sure that Mammoth Mountain doesn't mind the human traffic, the lift hardware or the fleet of 30 snow-grooming machines that tickle its hide every evening. "Fun comes from giving. And if the mountain can give this many people this much pleasure. . . .

'Nearly Perfect for Skiing'

"When I look at Mammoth, I think it was designed and built for what it's used for today," he added, turning a kindly smile on the mountainside as the shadow of a rising gondola flicked across his face on a recent Monday morning. "I've never seen anything so nearly perfect for skiing."

McCoy didn't get to be the success he is today through negative thinking. His conviction that his mountain is happy is just an example. McCoy could, in fact, serve as a case study for Terry (How-to-Have-More-in-a-Have-Not-World) Cole-Whittaker or any of the new glut of prosperity preachers.

As if it weren't enough that he's one of only two solo developers and operators of a major ski area in the country (Ernie Blake of Taos still operates the ski area he raised from infancy; most of the others are run by large corporations), McCoy also has what seems to be a blessed marriage. His wife, Roma, has been with him since before there was a single lift on the mountain. Their home in Bishop has an indoor gym, a studio for Roma's stained-glass work and an indoor pool--a "homey home," as McCoy described it, with motorcycles and horses in the yard.

A Couple Rarely Apart

"If we can be outside doing something, we'll be outside," McCoy said, explaining how he and Roma prefer to spend their time. "We could care less about staying in." They ski and backpack together, and are rarely apart.

Each of their six children is a great skier; but Penny, Pancho and Carl, in particular, have accomplished enough in the arena of world-class and Olympic ski racing to stoke the pride of six fathers. And McCoy has kept his grip on that quality that can elude even a lucky man: his health.

Heads still turn to check out his technique when Dave McCoy enters a ski race. He often bicycles the 55 miles--a 5,000-foot climb--from his Bishop home to the ski area. And he races motocross--motorcycles, not bicycles.

He relegates credit for the fortune that has come his way to Roma, to the people whose input helped shape Mammoth, and to an unnamed higher partner: "I've always felt I've been guided, dangled on a string. . . ."

When the young Dave McCoy first skied into town while working as a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power hydrographer in the winter of 1935-36, only six people lived in Mammoth. After that, whenever he had a day off in the vicinity of Mammoth, McCoy would get up at 3 a.m., hike to the top of the mountain and ski down, repeating the process three or four times during the day. ("I'll still do that now in the evenings sometimes, after the lifts shut down," he said. He and his German shepherd, Rebel, climb to the top of lift 13. Then, since Rebel doesn't ski, they walk back down again.)

In the early days, McCoy and maybe a buddy or two would have the hill to themselves. Now the area is famous for its Sunday evening traffic jams. The Porsches and buses duke it out for a couple of hundred miles south to Mojave on Highway 395.

McCoy's success has made Mammoth the most urbanized spot in the eastern Sierra.

McCoy regrets nothing. He prefers it this way: "It's really more fun and more enjoyable now than it used to be."

Ski area public-relations manager Pam Murphy said that while others may get nostalgic for the old days--when Dave and Roma could practically live off the wild trout and duck they took from the land--McCoy himself will have none of that.

"Dave won't ever say 'the good old days,' " Murphy said. "You ask him, 'When are the good old days?' and he says, 'Tomorrow.' "

There have been a lot of celebrations on the mountain recently. McCoy turned 70 Aug. 24 (his wife is 65). Chair 1, the first chair installed on the hill, had its 30th birthday at Thanksgiving. McCoy just marked his 50th year of "being close to Mammoth"; and 1986 has been the ski area's biggest visitor year, with 600,000 lift tickets sold to date, not including season passes and other special admissions.

All this delights McCoy because there was a time when no one thought Mammoth had a chance of becoming the outdoor entertainment mecca it is today. In fact, when the U.S. Forest Service originally issued an invitation for developers of a proposed ski area in 1953, McCoy was the only one to submit a bid. And, according to local lore, he had to be coaxed into it.

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