“Well, I stepped into an avalanche, it covered up my soul ...”
On the drive from Los Angeles to Mammoth Mountain, Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche” was beginning to rattle my nerves.
“When I am not this hunchback that you see, I sleep beneath the golden hill.”
I reached for the pause button. As much as I love him, Cohen was off my playlist for the next few days. I was about to embark on my first backcountry ski tour, and the last thing I needed was dark, snowy poetry.
I was excited to ski some of California’s largest and loveliest slopes, with no lines and no tracked-out runs. But I’m anxious about high cliffs, deep crevasses and, yes, “soul-covering” avalanches. In March 2018, an enormous snow slide partly buried eight people in Mammoth. All escaped with minor injuries. But I was still spooked.
That’s why I enrolled in the resort’s introduction to backcountry touring, a class launched in 2018. The half-day course, led by the Professional Ski Instructors of America and American Mountain Guides Assn., teaches how to access deep powder with touring skis and climbing skins, and how to avert disaster with an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe.
I arrived at Mammoth Mountain Inn, where I met Dave McCoy, the resort’s back-country program director.
“There’s so much to explore in the Eastern Sierra,” he told me between sips of steaming coffee. “Sure, it takes a bit of fitness and a desire to go and venture off. But it’s so worth it. The views, the challenge, the euphoria. There’s nothing like it.
“Mammoth has become so popular that, on a powder day, you’ve got to fight for your space. But the backcountry offers you, well, just solitude and fresh powder skiing. Adventure skiing, we’ll call it.”
Adventure skiing. That was an idea I could get behind. Dave is the grandson of the other Dave McCoy, perhaps the most famous adventure skier in California and the founding father of Mammoth Mountain resort. Dave died in February at age 104. He skied Mammoth’s backcountry until his 80s. Surely I shouldn’t be too concerned about skiing it in my 40s.
But on this crisp, winter morning, the change in altitude was taking its toll. By the time I met my instructor, Sam Scherck, that afternoon, I was decidedly shaky.
“I was out of breath just putting my boots on,” I told Scherck. “Is that normal?”
“Don’t sweat it,” he said, smiling. “Altitude sickness usually clears up in 24 hours or so.”
For now, I felt as if I was in the throes of a red-wine hangover: furry tongue, stiff limbs and a creeping migraine.
We gathered our rucksacks and poles and began our lesson at the top of Chair 12. We skied downhill, past a skull and crossbones sign with the message: “STOP! You are leaving the ski area!” This was it. I was about to lose my backcountry virginity.
At Reds Lake, we attached nylon “skins” to the backs of our skis, adding traction for the uphill climb. It was a fiddly process — like sticking flypaper to a floorboard — but I eventually managed. After that, I had only to release my heels from the bindings (Scherck called this “switching to tour mode”) and climb a fairly gentle slope to a patch of trees about 50 feet above us.
Sounds simple. But it wasn’t. Turning the skis required a backward karate-kick motion that was hard on my middle-aged glutes. I wheezed and wobbled my way to the trees, then wheezed and wobbled my way down again.
“You did great,” Scherck said. I wasn’t sure I believed him.
After all that huffing and puffing (that’s me, of course, not Scherck), it was a relief to stand still for a moment and try my electronic beacon. It worked a bit like a metal detector, beeping when it sensed another beacon within a 200-foot radius.
“Ninety percent of folks get buried in just a few feet of snow,” Scherck said. “But if you’re buried, you’re buried — if you know what I mean.”
I knew exactly what he meant. And I had to resist the urge to hum “Avalanche.”
It had been an illuminating three hours. But by now I was completely whacked. I said goodbye to Scherck and returned to Mammoth Mountain Inn just as a heavy snowstorm descended. From the enormous dining room windows, I watched as long, black clouds prowled along the mountaintops like hungry bears.
As the wind raged, the old hotel’s darkening corridors took on a sinister air akin to the snow-ravaged hotel in “The Shining.” I retreated to my room with a hamburger before Jack Nicholson could come after me with an ax.
The next day, the lodge had lost its horror-flick feel. If anything, it seemed more like the set of a Wes Anderson dramedy. I opened my curtains to a blindingly blue morning. My headache was gone. My mind was clear. Even my legs felt miraculously sturdy.
Just as well. Because today I was booked on a full-day tour with Sierra Mountain Guides, one of the longest-running backcountry operators in the Eastern Sierra. At breakfast, I ordered an omelet the size and shape of a small otter. I had a hunch I was going to need the energy.
My guide, Danny Ozment, and I started our tour on a narrow track near Tamarack Lodge. Quickly veering off-trail, we began the long ascent through snow-capped firs, toward our first downhill ski: Red Cone Bowl.
It was hard work, and my breathing was shallow. But I managed to ask Ozment what first attracted him to the back country.
“Honestly, I got bored with the ski areas,” he told me. “And once I learned how to ski powder, that was pretty much all I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Had he ever been caught in an avalanche?
“Sure,” he replied. “About 10 years ago, when I was skiing the Teton Range [in Wyoming]. I felt like I was being rolled in ocean swell. Luckily, I ended up on top of it — not underneath.”
Emerging from the trees, we were greeted with a gobsmacking view of the Eastern Sierra. There wasn’t a soul in sight.
On our right, we could see Boundary Peak, some 50 miles away, in neighboring Nevada. On our left, glimmering in the distance like a silver pinhead, stood Mammoth’s gondola station. It seemed improbable, in that moment, that it even existed.
“See that lip?” asked Ozment, pointing to a 30-foot cornice on the ridge. “We call it ‘Jaws.’ We want to avoid that.”
I agreed wholeheartedly.
“We’ll cut in on this slope,” he said, motioning with his poles. “Then we’ll ski down Red Cone Bowl. Some people call it ‘the gut.’”
My own gut rumbled at the prospect of descending it. But when we did, I was mesmerized. The powder flew up in undulating waves, hissing and glistening in the mid-morning sun. For a few precious seconds, I was a cork bobbing on a china-white ocean, a spot of ink in a blank paper wilderness.
This was the Mammoth I’d hoped to find; the mountain as it was before the elder Dave McCoy built the first lodge here. This was the virgin backcountry he had carved with wooden skis and homemade bamboo poles. I finally understood what all the fuss was about.
As I drove home to Los Angeles, studiously avoiding Leonard Cohen for the second time that week, I found myself plotting my next backcountry tour. In eight lanes of crawling traffic, I gripped the steering wheel and longed for the crisp, white silence of the mountain.
If you go
Mammoth’s Intro to Backcountry Touring, is a half-day class for intermediate to expert skiers and snowboarders. The course covers the basics, including uphill touring, downhill transitions and safety equipment. From $254 per person, including lesson, lift ticket and equipment rental.
Sierra Mountain Guidesoffers half-day, full-day, and multiday backcountry tours throughout the Eastern Sierra, Alaska and The Alps. Full-day private tours in Mammoth from $225 per person for a group of four.
WHERE TO STAY
Mammoth Mountain Inn, 10400 Minaret Road, Mammoth Lakes; (760) 934-2581. Doubles from $127.
Tamarack Lodge, 163 Twin Lakes Road, Mammoth Lakes; (760) 934-2442. Doubles from $184.