With a new big-time majority owner, Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort is looking forward to decades of steady improvement to turn this once sleepy ski town into a major destination ski resort on the order of Vail or Aspen. But don't count on it happening for the 2005-2006 season.
In fact the mega-deal that will make Starwood Capital Group Global the new majority owner of the resort has not yet closed, and everyday mountain operations this season will be similar to last year albeit with an increasing emphasis on service and gradual upgrades of facilities.
"I don't think you'll see a ton of changes this year," said Dana Vander Houwen, Mammoth Mountains Communications Manager.
The mountain opened this year on Nov. 10 and everyone is hoping for another long season — although it will be tough to beat last year's record season that lasted from Oct. 26 through July 4. While ski resorts in the Northwest were suffering their worst season ever, Mammoth snow came early, came often and stayed late. It was the second most visited ski resort in the country.
It was an especially good year to put the $365 million property on the market. With founder Dave McCoy turning 90 years old, he and partners Rusty Gregory (current Mammoth CEO) and Intrawest Corporation, began looking for an orderly way to transfer some ownership and, in essence, cash in on some of the equity that was created during a run-up in value over the past several years. While Gregory and Intrawest will remain minority partners, Starwood is buying enough stock to reduce Intrawest's holdings from 59 to 15 percent.
McCoy is legendary among ski operators and his involvement at Mammoth dates back to 1953 when he was a rope tow operator at the fledgling ski hill and a hydrographer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He obtained the rights from the Forest Service to build a permanent rope tow on the mountain and, two years later, installed the mountain's first chairlift. Mammoth has since grown into one of the country's largest ski operations with 28 lifts, including the state-of-the-art 15-passesnger Village Gondola and six high-speed quad chairs.
Starwood is a magical name in the hotel industry and operates such brand names as Sheraton, Westin and St. Regis. While Mammoth Mountain was not technically purchased by the hotel company, the Starwood investment company is related and most observers say the result will be an aggressive roll-out of increasingly luxurious mountain accommodations to handle the anticipated growth in destination skiers.
When those destination skiers will come is still unclear. The mountain has been working with local city officials to add major air service to Mammoth Mountain and, theoretically, attract planeloads of skiers who will not just visit the resort on often-crowded weekends, but during mid-week when slopes are much less congested. With an eye toward 757 service from Chicago and Dallas, the town began about a year ago to prepare an environmental impact statement on the necessary improvements to the airport such as the extension of the current runway to 8,000 feet and the building of a new terminal facility.
According to Mammoth Assistant Town Manager Karen Johnston, completion of that EIS is still a year away, and any potential 757 service is at least two years out. In fact, officials are even evaluating whether 757 aircraft are the best type of planes to use for the planned interstate flights. But Los Angeles residents will be heartened to know that direct scheduled air service from L.A. is slated to begin in December 2006 using smaller aircraft in the 70 to 80 passenger range. This will be the first scheduled passenger service to the Mammoth airport and can be started sooner because it does not require improvements to the existing airport.
With 1.5 million skiers visiting Mammoth last season — and no scheduled air service just yet -- it's obvious the area is a popular ski destination for California residents who don't mind the drive. The area includes about 3,500 acres of terrain and 150 trails, and offers plenty of wide-open skiing during the middle of the week when perhaps only 5,000 skiers are on the mountain at any given time. The mountain has the largest amount of in-bounds ski terrain in California.
Adding to the mountain's appeal are the accommodations that are plentiful in the area, many of them offering ski-in and ski-out access. The small town of Mammoth — just 7,000 fulltime residents — offers a surprising variety of accommodations ranging from simple and inexpensive motel units downtown to million-dollar condo units right on the mountain. Altogether, there are about 8,500 rental units available in the Mammoth area, most of which fill up quickly on weekends during the prime of the season.
Mammoth Mountain operates several lodging facilities and, among this year's improvements were the addition of ski rental shops to two of Mammoth's resorts, Mammoth Mountain Inn and Juniper Springs Resort. Also during the off-season, the resort did a $4 million remodel on the main lodge dining facilities in order to offer a larger and healthier variety of foods. Prior to this year's improvements, Intrawest had spent more than $95 million on improvements to facilities throughout the Mammoth complex.
One of the most popular additions to Mammoth in the last couple of years has been the new Villageat Mammoth, a Whistler-style ski village and condo development that includes a gondola to shuttle skiers directly from the condos to one of the mountain's base lodges. While skiers and snowboarders previously had to drive a windy four-mile road to get to the skiing, visitors who stay at the Village can just walk a few steps to the gondola and be whisked to the mountain in only six minutes.
The Village has about a dozen restaurants and more than 20 shops and, as we discovered during a visit last season, offers the feel and ambience of some of the finest ski resorts. The bars and restaurants in the Village are popular with the après ski crowd who find everything from burgers to sushi as well as a new restaurant this season, Restaurant Lulu, which offers seasonal Provencal entrees prepared in a wood-fired oven, rotisserie and grill. Another new addition this year is the Side Door Café, a European style market with an extensive wine selection, paninis and crepes.
Skiers are attracted to Mammoth because of the snow/sunshine ratio — 400 annual inches of snow to 300 annual days of sunshine. The snow is a drier snow and easier to ski than mountains where the snow is wetter and icier. About 40 percent of the mountain is intermediate terrain, 25 percent beginner, with the remainder evenly divided between expert and advanced. The mountain offers a vertical drop of 3,100 feet with its highest level at 11,053 feet. Although there may be as many as 15,000 skiers on the mountain during a busy holiday or weekend day, the lift lines are generally less than five minutes, according to Vander Housen.
Those concerned about those crowded weekends coming later in the season would do well to consider some early-season low-cost packages being offered by the mountain. The First Tracks Lift and Lodging package is offered at the Mammoth Mountain Inn, Village Lodging, Juniper Springs Resort or Tamarack Lodge and Resort. The package includes two adult lift tickets with each night stay - prices start as low at $82 per person, per night, based on double occupancy.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Mammoth Mountain is on the eastern slopes of the Sierra, near Yosemite Park. Most visitors drive either north or south on Highway 395, then take Highway 203 for a few miles to Mammoth Lakes. The drive from Los Angeles is generally at lower elevations until you reach Highway 203, so winter weather normally is not a problem.
WHAT: Mammoth Mountain claims to be the largest ski area in California and is the largest ski area easily accessible from Southern California.
WHEN: Mammoth Lakes is a year-round resort area, known for spectacular views and the nearby mountain wilderness areas. Skiing and snowboarding are generally available from late November into May.
WHY: Great snow depth, lots of sunshine, major improvements recently made to ski and après-ski facilities.
(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)