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Schuss! At 94, Mammoth Mountain resort founder is shooting the slopes (with a camera)

Dave McCoy, the elder statesman of the California ski industry, is exploring the world through zoom lenses with the same enthusiasm he used to transform the remote mountain into a renowned resort.

December 15, 2009|By Louis Sahagun

Reporting from Bishop, Calif. — In October 2005, Dave McCoy's friends bought him a digital camera, hoping it would help the founder of the storied Mammoth Mountain ski resort stay active after selling the enterprise to a private investment firm.

Instead, McCoy found a new calling.

The elder statesman of the California ski industry has been, as he likes to say, "shootin' shots" ever since, exploring the world through zoom lenses with the same enthusiasm and dedication he used to transform the remote mountain into a ski resort that sold for $365 million.

At 94, McCoy has archived hundreds of thousands of photographs in his home computer, which is connected to a 52-inch flat-screen television monitor used to critique and manipulate the images.

A tireless shutterbug, he prowls the Eastern Sierra's 5,000 miles of backcountry roads several days each week on an all-terrain vehicle known as a Rhino, toting an array of sophisticated cameras he calls "my six-shooters."

In the final years of his life, McCoy has had the good fortune to see his work -- from snapshots taken with Brownie cameras in his youth to technically altered digital images taken over the last four years -- displayed in local exhibitions and in elaborate photo essays for family and friends. Portfolios of his recent photographs have been sold to art collectors.

"Photography has made a young man out of Dave again," said Roma McCoy, his wife of 68 years. "He's creating new memories, not dwelling on old ones. I love it."

McCoy prefers to think of himself as an amateur photographer specializing in unexpected pictures. "Each morning, I thank the Lord, put my feet on the floor, grab my coat and camera, jump into the Rhino and go see what's out there," McCoy said. "It's like I'm seeing things for the first time."

Yet for the most part, his subjects are wildlife and vistas that McCoy has known since childhood: cloud formations over the White Mountains, iris blooms in spring meadows, bald eagles, 13,649-foot Mt. Tom, cottonwood and birch trees, sagebrush, snow-fed streams, waterfalls, and boulders sculpted by rain and wind to resemble walruses, wolves, bears and human faces.

"In our younger days," Roma said, "we used to hike in the mountains Dave has been photographing like mad lately."

In the meantime, McCoy's reputation as a photographer continues to grow.

Earlier this month, 24 prints from vintage Kodachrome slides he took when he began developing the Mammoth Mountain resort in the 1940s were auctioned off to benefit the Mammoth Lakes Foundation, which McCoy founded to support higher education in the Eastern Sierra. Framed with weathered barn wood, the prints were priced at $250 to $1,000 each.

Exhibitions at the Mammoth Ski Museum include one titled "Dave McCoy Photography: a 50-year Retrospective." McCoy took many of the photos in a new book by Robin Morning, "Tracks of Passion: Eastern Sierra Skiing, Dave McCoy & Mammoth Mountain."

Despite McCoy's physical difficulties -- he walks uneasily after multiple knee surgeries -- he is happiest when driving his ATV on photographic expeditions in the most remote and rugged reaches of the Owens Valley, about 150 miles north of Los Angeles.

"Want to go for a ride?" McCoy asked visitors on a recent weekday. "Hop in the Rhino!"

At the base of a steep 400-foot hill less than a mile from his home, he stopped, smiled mischievously and asked: "Think we can make it over the top?"

Then he gunned the engine. "Hang on," he said as the vehicle squirmed up a dirt road so rocky, steep and narrow that it seemed as though he was flying.

On the mountain's ridgeline, McCoy surveyed the wind-swept desert valley floor below and said, "There's a picture everywhere you look around here."

McCoy inadvertently chronicled the development of his resort with hundreds of family snapshots. He did not take photography seriously until "they gave me that camera four years ago," he said.

The newest additions to his growing collection are not tinged with sentiment or nostalgia. "They are about right now," said McCoy, who is being coached in photographic techniques and technology by his assistant of three years, Brandon Russell, 27.

Together, they spend hours at McCoy's computer, at once savoring the images collected on a given day and learning from mistakes.

"Dave doesn't really understand the intricacies of depth-of-field, shutter and film speed -- his cameras are set on automatic," Russell said. "But he's got an amazing eye, and some of his pictures are awesome."

McCoy's favorite photograph to date is of an "angel in the sky" cloud formation taken Feb. 8, 2008, while he and Roma were off-roading a few miles from home.

"I looked up," Roma recalled, "and noticed wisps of clouds shifting over the White Mountains. I grabbed Dave's arm and said, 'Stop! We've got an angel up there.' "

McCoy aimed his telephoto lens and waited. "I saw her taking shape," he recalled. "First her body, then her athletic thighs and legs. Then came the wings and arms. Then she seemed to be carrying a torch. I took the picture.

"I still don't understand that picture, though," he said. "It must mean something."

Video

PHOTOS: Hitting the
slopes with a camera

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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