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FROM the top of Mammoth Mountain, the sound of hammers pounding in the distance drifts up from a sea of gray-green Jeffrey pines. To the east, the sun is gleaming off the top of an orange construction crane, towering over development of Craftsman-style lodges, restaurants and shops at the town's center.
Just three weeks from the start of the season, the mountain is bare and dusty above the tree line, with dozens of hiking trails covered by gravel and volcanic rock. From this lofty peak, the gray crest of the Minarets and the deep blue of Crowley Lake are visible in the distance. Soon thousands of skiers will hurtle down these slopes.
"It would be hard to come in and ruin this," Gary Posekian, a former ski instructor and 30-year resident of Mammoth Lakes, says as he hikes down the mountain, his golden retriever sprinting through a nearby creek.
Posekian is referring to the 11,053-foot eastern Sierra peak, the backyard for die-hard Southern California snow seekers who make the crawl up Highway 395 every winter weekend to careen down what many consider one of the country's best ski and snowboarding mountains.
But this beloved behemoth has been abuzz ever since the Connecticut-based Starwood Capital Group purchased a controlling interest in Mammoth Mountain Ski Area last month with plans to transform the dowdy getaway.
The debate about the town's makeover leaves the mountain's most ardent fans wondering whether changes at the bottom of the mountain will affect life at the top. Many worry what lies beyond Starwood's ambition to create "hip restaurants as well as new residential, hotel and entertainment experiences," as Starwood's Marc Perrin described future plans.
Christian Vanderslice has been working on the mountain for 19 years, as a ski instructor during the winter and as a U.S. Forest Service firefighter during the rest of the year. Like many, he hopes all the good things that are predicted come true and all the bad things don't.
"I don't think anyone can say how it's going to change," he says, standing behind the counter at the visitor center in Mammoth, and though he admits to uncertainty, he's clear on one thing: "Change is scary."
A few miles away, Rusty Gregory, chief executive of the ski resort, sits in a spacious office in Mammoth's main lodge, where he can see half-pipes cutting into the slopes and ski lifts stretching to the peak. Gregory, who started out as a ski operator in 1978, dismisses dire predictions about changes, especially when it comes to the slopes themselves.
. "We are not going to cut down the bumps," Gregory says. "Mother Nature determines how steep the runs are, not us."
About 20,000 years ago, a series of volcanic eruptions formed the mountain that towers over a series of small fishing lakes on the eastern Sierra Nevada, 325 miles from L.A., the heart of a Mammoth-loving region of more than 17 million people.
The village at the base of the mountain, once home to the Mono Lake Paiute tribe, turned into a ski-worthy site after Dave McCoy, a hydrographer for the L.A. Department of Water and Power who had been skiing in the area since the 1930s, won the rights to build a permanent rope tow on the mountain. In 1955, McCoy installed the first permanent lift on the mountain that today features 28 lifts. Last year, those lifts carried 1.5 million skiers and snowboarders, second in the nation only to Vail, the Colorado resort that epitomizes a luxurious skiing lifestyle.
Averaging 33 feet of snow — and 300 days of sunshine — a year, the dormant volcano was a hit, particularly with professional skiers and snowboarders, some of whom moved here to have access to the mountain's chutes, bowls and runs.
Once a regional resort, Mammoth began to change into a destination resort, as it's known in the trade, when Canadian resort developer Intrawest Corp. purchased a 33% share of the ski area from McCoy in 1996. Two years later, the share increased to 58%, and for residents such as Heidi Helbig, a real estate broker who's lived here for 17 years, things started to improve.
"It has always been a great mountain," Helbig says, remembering the pre-Intrawest days. "But the lifts did break down on a regular basis. There were no services to speak of on the mountain, no amenities. It was as if they hadn't consider that people might like them."
In the mid-'90s, the idea that this sleepy town might transform from a hodgepodge of motels, strip malls and A-frames into hotels, five-star restaurants and condos was somewhat radical, but the reasons were clear.
Scrape beneath the surface of what regulars refer to as Mammoth's rustic charm and you find that, by the mid-'90s, it was beyond rustic. At the mountain lodges, the norm was peeling paint, lockers that were rotting out, cafeterias no better than those of most grade schools and slow lifts that broke regularly — along with an abandoned people mover that was shut down after it spilled a few riders in the snow.
In the succeeding years, Mammoth's allure as a ski town has been slow to jell. Today, city hall operates out of the second floor of a shopping center next to a chiropractic office. The police station is a former furniture store where prisoners are handcuffed to a wall because the town has no holding cells.
Starbucks, Ben and Jerry's, and other franchises may have replaced ramshackle retail stores, but they still fall short of creating any type of village with a soul. "People want the whole experience," Helbig says. "They want to come up and park their car and not worry about it in the snow conditions. They want to go have dinner and go shopping, as a family, because skiing is one of the best family sports you can do.
"For Dave [McCoy], it was about racing and skiing and the mountain. Dave had fabulous grooming. Grooming here has always been the best. But times change. Dave is 90, and he is a wonderful man with an amazing vision. He was instrumental in making Mammoth what it is today. Now we need someone to take us to the next step."
Some observers believe the local airport is the key to Mammoth's future. Currently there are no regular commercial flights into the Mammoth Yosemite Airport. This month, the operators of the ski area, who will subsidize the cost of the flights, plan to select an air carrier to shuttle snow buffs from Los Angeles International Airport to this small aviation strip on the outskirts of town. Service will start next year. But the present size of the air strip rules out major carriers — unless the airport expands.
An area in flux
Marc Dupaul likes the direction Mammoth is taking. He's a bar manager at Dublin's Irish Whiskey Pub in the upscale development built downtown two years ago called the Village, where a gondola now whisks visitors to a ski lift at the base of the mountain. Dupaul also likes rocketing down the mountain's 90 miles of bike trails he shares with maybe 10 others during the non-snow months.
"The mountain is big enough," he says, sitting at the bar of the pub. "There is definitely room for more."
Longtime skiers such as Todd Iketani, president of Southern California's Wailers Ski Club, worry lift tickets will skyrocket. He's been visiting Mammoth for 20 years and bets the quality of the experience won't change.
"The overall geography of the mountain dictates the steepness and the design of the runs," he says. "They can't change that."
Still, locals and longtime visitors who like the old Mammoth say the town is losing its character and appeal.
Bill Hovey manages the Troutfitter tackle shop on Old Mammoth Road. He moved to Mammoth Lakes 24 years ago from Acton to work in the ski industry. He remembers when he could leave his door unlocked and just about everyone in town knew one another. But, like the strip malls and the A-frames, that's part of the past, he says.
"I moved here to be in a small town and it's become less and less of a small town," Hovey says, standing behind a counter of fly-fishing reels. "Sure, business is going to be great for me. But if I wanted to live in Vail, I would have moved to Vail."
Hugo Martín can be reached at email@example.com.