, Gloucester, MA

April 30, 2013

Outdoors: Mammoth spring skiing

Dave Sartwell

---- — Spring skiing is one of the little gifts of Nature. I like to think of it as a celebration on receding snow, a warm exhalation after a long, cold winter. Last week we jumped on a plane and flew out to Mammoth Mountain in eastern California for the annual meeting of the North American Ski Journalists’ Association. Here we stripped down to shirts and wind pants and pounded this big, brawling powerhouse of a mountain.

Dave Fonda, a skiing buddy from Quebec, and I decided to tackle the steeps on Wednesday. Whenever skiing difficult terrain you should always ski with someone in case of a fall or avalanche. Dave is one of those fellows who can ski anything and make it look easy. Me ... well lets say I can ski anything, but I look more like a linebacker tackling a mogul rather than a gifted receiver gliding down field.

Chair 23 is the locomotion to action on Mammoth. It takes you up the face of a bowl that is as steep as it gets. The day before I had glided along the top ridge to the entrance of a drop called Wipeout Chutes. It is a narrow twisting opening that falls down through some huge rock pinnacles. it is an extreme double diamond that demands perfection.

The fellows I was skiing with were going to slide along the top of the mountain a short ways and ski down a steep but more benign groomed run called Scotty’s. I asked them if they would take a picture of me dropping through the chute before they moved on. They agreed.

I took a last look over the cornice, but I couldn’t really see the slope below because of the overhang. I sucked in some gas and jumped over the edge into hard snow slabbed into the gap by the incessant wind. The snow was moderately deep but crusty. Two quick power turns and I was into the rocks. A jump turn, a hard left jab, and then a quick move to the right to get around a couple of rock gates that would hurt if I hit them.

There was a long chute of about three hundred vertical feet that did not allow any turns. I flexed the knees to take any bumps and in a second I was just roaring straight down the fall line. At the end of the rock formation I stamped down hard on the right ski and shot left out onto the treeless steep, angling up to slow my speed. I then turned into the slope, traversing across the open vertical field heading to Scotty’s to join my friends.

Unbeknownst to me, one of the folks in our group decided to follow me into the chute. The problem was his courage was stronger than his skill. He took the two turns at the top and then caught a ski in the hard snow and fell. This was no place for mistakes. He started to go end over end down through the chute. In skiing we call it tomahawking. He did that several times and then started sliding. His gods must have been with him because he did not hit a single stone.

The natural chute acted like the gutter in a bowling alley. He stopped flipping when his skis came off, but he started to slide. It was so steep on the run that there was no way he could stop himself. He slid on his back and side for over one thousand feet! I turned on my skis and shot back across the face of the mountain, holding my breath that he wasn’t hurt. Bad. He was just laying there.

As I approached he started to move. He then slowly got to his feet. He had miraculously not broken a thing, but he was going to be sore in the morning. The only real damage was that he had rashed skin off his back, arm and legs right through his light ski wear. It was fortunate he was wearing a helmet A couple of skiers had picked up his gear and brought it on over. After a few minutes we headed on down to the lodge.

However, none of this floated through my mind as Dave and I turned over the edge of the The misnamed Paranoid Flats. There was nothing flat about them. At 11,000 feet there are no trees, only rocks and snow. He never even slowed down as we reached the cornice. He just flowed over the top and raced down through the stones.

“Just pretend you are lava flowing off this old volcano.” I told myself. “Round the high points and ride the channels.”

How come my advice to myself is so rational, but my actual response is somewhat different? I struggled a bit at the top. Relaxing is the key, but it is somewhat off-putting when the hard rocks seem to come flying at you. But relax I did, and soon I was just riding the moment, following one of the smoothest fliers in the business, working up a sweat and loving the sun.

We rolled on down the open slope, weaving long swooping turns at speed, racing toward the valley below. We hooked over to the Panorama Gondola that sped us to the top. We tightened our boots and hucked down through Climax, a vertical wonder of perfect soft snow, going faster than an old person should, loving every second of the adrenaline release.

With tired legs, lungs gasping for air at elevations I am just not used to, we sought out the steep and the difficult. We knew that this was the end. This was the last time we would feel such a release this season. Dave turned and led me to the Avalanche Chutes served by Chair 22. These short steep affairs were cut into the side of a mid-mountain peak below tree level. Here we had steep AND trees.

Grizzly, Shaft and Viva were these gnarly little double diamond affairs that would challenge both our legs and agility. After the third run we knew we had to leave to catch a plane.

“One more?” I was asked.

“I think we ought to go,” was my response.

Arched eyebrows.


“Okay,” I replied. “But you are the one that will have to explain to Mary Gayle if we are late!”