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SPECIAL ISSUE: SNOW PREVIEW

Mammoth's comfort zone

Pros know the star of Mammoth is the mountain itself. So just how many snow lovers can it hold?

November 01, 2005|By Scott Doggett | Times Staff Writer

KELLY CLARK'S idea of a perfect day is carving fresh powder on Mammoth Mountain under sunny skies — but not on a weekend. The 2002 Olympic half-pipe gold medalist who lives within big-air distance of the mountain likes the smaller midweek crowds.

So what happens if, in the wake of the sale of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area to Starwood Capital Group, the mountain becomes the new Vail and more snowboarders crowd the favorite peak?

"Mammoth is so big that even when it is really, really busy, you're never going to wait more than 15 minutes in line," the 22-year-old snowboarder said.

Pip Simmonds, a competitive skier from New Zealand who lives in Mammoth Lakes most of the year, agrees. "It's pretty much a ghost town in the middle of the week."

Professionals and Olympians love Mammoth for its spectacular terrain parks, the mountains of fine snow that dump on its slopes, sunny skies five days out of six, and an uncommonly long ski season that stretches from mid-November into late spring.

When asked which North American resort comes closest to topping Mammoth, most mention Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, but usually add that Whistler doesn't have Mammoth's more temperate weather.

A simmering volcano with a rounded, denuded dome towering over a sea of evergreens, Mammoth has 28 lifts spread over 3,500 acres. In addition, there are three terrain parks packing three world-class half-pipes, 46 jumps and 40 jibs on 75 acres.

It may be a numbing five-hour drive from Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco, but other California winter resorts pale in comparison. Heavenly in South Lake Tahoe, for instance, claims to edge Mammoth as having the most skiable acreage in the Golden State, but its season is considerably shorter, and it has fewer trails (91 compared with 150).

Mammoth Mountain was recently named the best resort in North America in Transworld Snowboarding magazine's 2006 resort poll. "More snow, terrain and nightlife than you can shake a board at," was the magazine's simple explanation.

As pro boarder Tara Dakides puts it: "There's really no place like Mammoth."

While pros don't yet sweat the numbers, the resort's managers see opportunity in the acres of emptiness. By some estimates, the mountain can accommodate 18,000 visitors a day, and right now, with a mere 5,000 skiers hurtling down the slopes Monday through Friday, there clearly is room for growth.

According to Dana Vander Houwen, a spokeswoman for Mammoth Mountain, management had hoped to double the number of weekday visitors to 10,000, even before the recent sale. "This is a plan we had laid out 10 years ago," she said. "Starwood's influence is probably going to help accelerate it."

On weekends, the situation is a little different. Flooded with visitors mostly from Los Angeles, the numbers jump considerably closer to the mountain's limits: 15,000 skiers on most Saturdays and 12,000 on Sundays.

(By way of contrast, Heavenly takes in 6,000 daily visitors midweek, 10,000 to 12,000 on a typical Saturday and 8,000 to 10,000 on an average Sunday, Heavenly spokesman Russ Pecoraro said.)

Understandably, Mammoth's managers would like to see less of a spike in these numbers — 10,000 visitors a day is one goal. "On our busiest days," concedes Vander Houwen, "we have a less than comfortable experience in the cafeterias and longer parking shuttle lines than we like."

The strategy to spreading these numbers evenly throughout the week is simple: sell ski packages as Vail and other resorts have done that encourage visitors to spend more time on the mountain midweek. But whether this will work for a resort whose reputation has been built as a weekend getaway for Angelenos remains to be seen.

So what is the tipping point at Mammoth? How far will the new owners go toward bringing in new skiers — and potentially alienating the die-hards? It's a question no one seems ready to answer.

Nonetheless, it is a question that hardly bothers Chris Benchetler, 18, a professional skier who lives in Mammoth.

On one hand, Mammoth is well diversified with a variety of ski runs and terrain parks that spread visitors throughout the slopes. On the other, says Benchetler, the resort's lift operators — with nine high-speed quads in place — "do a good job of moving people through. There's a wait in line usually on weekends, but it's not so ridiculous that you're waiting two hours."

And even if it does get too crowded, there is always the back side of the mountain, which Benchetler reaches on his snowmobile.

"Powder interests me the most out of anything because being out alone on the mountain in the backcountry where it's just fresh powder — fresh snow — it's just an all-time dream," he said. "Relating it to surfing, it's like a perfect wave with no one around. That's my all-time favorite thing to do. I love every aspect of skiing. That's why I do it."

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Scott Doggett can be reached at scott.doggett @latimes.com.

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