A skier takes to the air at Mammoth Mountain. A series of storms has brought… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
MAMMOTH LAKES — Before we get to the early snow, the new businesses, the zipping skiers and beaming boarders at Mammoth Lakes, let's remember how bad things have been this year for this corner of the Eastern Sierra.
First, Mother Nature delivered scant snow in the 2011-12 season, driving tourism down just as the larger economy seemed to be recovering.
Then in June, management at Mammoth Mountain, the resort that dominates the town, trimmed staff, cut salaries and announced the shuttering of its June Mountain ski operation — a painful blow to the tiny mountain community of June Lake, 20 miles north of Mammoth.
Oh, and in July the town of Mammoth Lakes declared bankruptcy after it lost a breach-of-contract lawsuit. Recovery, town officials said, would depend on layoffs, pay cuts and a plan to make debt payments of $2 million a year for 23 years.
These have been hard times, especially in June Lake, where local businesses are doing without their own ski mountain for the first time in decades.
Yet the winter of 2012-13 has begun in Mammoth Lakes with a happy bang, because nothing dilutes red ink faster than real snow.
On Nov. 8 — the same day the Mammoth resort opened its season with a handful of trails covered in manufactured snow — a storm started dumping the real thing. By the following Saturday afternoon, more than a foot of fresh power had fallen and about 2,800 skiers and boarders had hit the slopes. By Sunday six lifts were open, serving a dozen trails, and at least one local was using the word "dreamy."
Hovering above the flocked pines, you could almost make out a community thought balloon saying: "Maybe this year ... ."
Another storm arrived the next weekend, and then another. By early December, the mountain had a base of four to six feet. A great start.
If Mammoth seems like a winter possibility but you haven't been here for a while (or ever), here's what I learned on a quick visit last month.
The 5-year-old Westin Monache Resort Mammoth, which stands on a hill towering over the condos, shops and restaurants of the Village, is the ritziest hotel in town. The Westin's Whitebark bar and restaurant, a contemporary space full of dangling round stones and sleek wood paneling, is a fine venue for a round or two of drinks, but the kitchen's too-rich fusilli didn't do much for me.
My favorite meal, in fact, was a flavor-packed veggie lasagna at Toomey's on Minaret Road, a tiny, year-old place that specializes in catering and takeout and looks like the Kansas City Royals' dugout. (Toomey is a big baseball fan.) Whether you order to go or sit among the handful of tables, Toomey's serves memorable breakfasts, lunches and dinners, from coconut mascarpone pancakes to wild buffalo meatloaf. And as locals will tell you, owner-chef Matt Toomey is already a U.S. 395 celebrity, having wowed serious eaters for more than a decade as the chef at the Whoa Nellie Deli in the Tioga Gas Mart in Lee Vining.
After a few days of nosing around, I believe I can predict that after dark in Mammoth this season, hard-partying twentysomethings will be watching snowboarding videos while doing shots amid the tiki-tinged tumult of the Lakanuki Bar in the Village, as they have for several years. Locals will be spooning up hearty albondigas soup at Roberto's Cafe (on Old Mammoth Road), as they have for several decades.
In the morning, serious coffee consumers from near and far will queue at Black Velvet Coffee (opened this year on Main Street), a great, spare white space where baristas labor over their concoctions like post-docs solving DNA riddles. At least a few foodies will nip into Bleu Handcrafted Foods (which opened in July a few doors from Black Velvet Coffee) to gather artisan beers, wines, cheeses and meats for the larders of their rental condos.
As is often the case in ski resorts, some of the worst bargains are found closest to the slopes: A slice of pizza at the Mammoth Mountain main lodge's slope-adjacent Broadway Marketplace costs you $5.25, and a 16.9-ounce bottle of water costs $4. (Four steps beyond the cash registers, savvy skiers and boarders get tap water in paper cups for free.) Then again, the lift line is right outside.
Mammoth Lakes was born as a ski town in the 1950s, when pioneer Dave McCoy started the resort on U.S. Forest Service land on the slopes of 11,053-foot Mammoth Mountain. The slope-side Mammoth Mountain Inn went up in 1959, and McCoy continued to build the resort and town over more than 50 years before selling the resort to Starwood Capital Group in 2005.