Climate change turns an already troubled ski industry on its head

by Greg Hanscom

George Shirk sits in his office at the Mammoth Times on a Saturday afternoon, with his dog, Fido, who writes his own weekly column for the paper, curled up underneath the desk. Early December is the quiet time between the Thanksgiving and Christmas rushes at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, and Shirk, a 60-year-old news veteran with a sandy smoker's voice, has kindly agreed to give me an armchair tour of his adopted hometown.

Mammoth Lakes is perched in the Eastern Sierra, a half-day's walk from some of California's most spectacular high country. "The first time I drove over Tioga Pass and saw the Eastern Sierra, my eyes just bugged out," says Shirk, who bought a condo here in 1997 and moved up full-time a few years later after a career that took him from the Philadelphia Inquirer to the San Francisco Chronicle.

"We're really out here," Shirk says, rattling off the drive times to urban centers such as San Diego (six and a half hours), L.A. (five hours), and the San Francisco Bay Area (five and a half, minimum). "People take day-long trips to go to Costco in Reno. It's a little like living on Mars."

Nursing a cup of black coffee ("You take cream or sugar? No? Good, because I don't have any"), Shirk divides Mammoth's 8,000-or-so year-round residents into three groups: People who are running from something, like a failed career or a ruined marriage; skiers, climbers and other athletes drawn to the landscape as a testing ground; and "the artists, the dreamers." Shirk himself fits the last category, and maybe the first, as well.

The second group -- the athletes -- has included such greats as three-time Olympian Andrea Mead Lawrence, the first American skier to win two gold medals in alpine skiing. Lawrence, who died in 2009, spent decades fighting to protect her beloved mountains as well as the surrealistic landscape of Mono Lake, about 30 miles north of here. These days, local downhiller Stacey Cook and ski cross phenom John Teller, a mechanic at Mammoth's Center Street Garage, are spending time atop the world's racing podiums.

Others here don't fit so neatly into Shirk's matrix -- young anglos and Hispanics of all ages who come to schlep dishes, clean hotel rooms and run the lifts, and the wealthy weekenders and second-homeowners who bankroll the whole show. Mammoth's service workers struggle in ways familiar to any Western ski town: low wages, high rents, and housing conditions that can verge on the inhumane. The well-to-do part-timers have their pick of condos and vacation homes tucked amid the grand old Jeffrey pines or clustered at base areas connected to the ski slopes by chairlifts and gondolas. There's even a cookie-cutter base "village" (called The Village), built in the early 2000s by the real estate giant Intrawest, featuring a Starbucks, a Ben & Jerry's, a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, a boutique leather shop and, of course, a real estate office.

Rising over it all like a local deity is Mammoth Mountain, an 11,053-foot dormant volcano that rises just east of the Sierra Nevada proper. "It's the lifeblood. The food," says Shirk.

But Mammoth Mountain can't nurture this community if the snow doesn't fall, and if the tourists quit descending from the skies in planes from Southern California or rolling up the highway from the coast. As the climate warms, both may become even less reliable. There are already indications that the long-term future looks bleak.

If you're going to bet on snow, Mammoth is as good a place as any in the Lower 48 to do so. The Sierra as a whole is famous for the stuff -- the range's proper name, Sierra Nevada, literally means "snowy mountains." Storms blowing in from the Pacific Ocean hit the Sierra like the 49ers' offensive line, dumping feet upon feet of wet, heavy snow that buries highways, takes out power lines and sends avalanches thundering down the mountainsides.

Mark Williams, a University of Colorado snow hydrologist who did his Ph.D. work near Mammoth, describes a 1986 avalanche so powerful that it blasted the water out of an alpine lake, scattering fish across the surface of the snow. Four years earlier, a torrent of wet snow swept across Alpine Meadows Ski Area near Lake Tahoe, destroying the building that housed the ski patrol and ski school, damaging two lifts and a day lodge, and burying the parking lot in 10 to 20 feet of debris. Seven people were killed.

But Mammoth Mountain stands by itself when it comes to snow. Storms whipped up over the ocean are funneled up the San Joaquin River Valley through a low point in the Sierra crest, slamming directly into the peak, where they drop an average of more than 350 inches of the white stuff each year. There are other places that chalk up similar depths, but few as dependably as Mammoth. Even its neighboring resorts in the Sierra are more vulnerable to annual El Niño or La Niña ocean temperature fluctuations. "The Sierras see really high year-to-year variation in snowfall, particularly in the Tahoe region," Williams says. "The only place you don't see much of that is Mammoth."

It was this apparent snow magnetism that first attracted Dave McCoy, a hydrographer for the L.A. Department of Water and Power, to the mountain in the 1930s. McCoy and the Eastern Sierra Ski Club put up a rope tow in 1941. A dozen years later, the Inyo National Forest gave him a permit to operate a ski resort.

Earlier attempts to build an economy here had failed -- "Mammoth" was named by boosters trying to attract prospectors to the area, but the hills produced few minerals of any value. McCoy managed to build a business on the steady supply of white gold, however, and over the years, Mammoth became a favorite destination for Southern California skiers, generations of whom learned to ski here, coming up through the local racing program.

Of course, the snow didn't always arrive. The mid-'70s saw a couple of brutally dry years. Locals still talk about the drought in the late 1980s and early '90s, and "Black Monday," the day in 1991 that the ski area laid off 150 employees. But snow-making equipment installed in the 1990s allowed the resort to even out some of the corrugations in the natural snowfall patterns, and there have been plenty of years when manmade snow was hardly necessary.

The consistent snow and loyal customers caught the eye of Intrawest, the developer that patented the hyper-engineered, ticky-tacky base "village" concept that has swept across ski country. The company bought a controlling interest in Mammoth Mountain in 1996 and plowed millions into new base areas, high-speed chairlifts and other improvements.

Intrawest's 2005 buyout by Starwood Capital Group, a real estate and hotel investment group with a reputation for turning rough-around-the-edges resorts into chic getaways for the wealthy, generated enough speculative buying to help keep local housing prices high through 2007, even as the national economy faltered. While the national economic slowdown sent Mammoth's skier numbers tumbling over a cliff -- from an all-time high of 1.5 million visits in 2005-'06 to just over a million the following winter -- they began to rally the very next year, and rose steadily thanks to a succession of epic winters.

The winter of 2010-'11 was the biggest snow year in recorded history at Mammoth Mountain. Fifty-five feet fell at the summit. On several days, it snowed and blew so hard that managers couldn't open the lifts, but when they did, the skiing was like something out of a dream. In town, snow and ice toppled massive old-growth trees, smashing rooftops and power lines. Locals lost cars in the drifts and didn't recover them until spring. Steve Searles, a wildlife specialist who works to keep the peace between the people and the local population of black bears, calls it "biblical."

Mammoth residents can be forgiven, then, for thinking that snow would always be their savior.

Last winter, however, after early storms that got the lifts running in time for the Thanksgiving 2011 rush, Mammoth was socked with a merciless dry spell. Nary a flake fell between Dec. 1 and the end of January. Just over the usually snowbound Tioga Pass, people were ice-skating on the snow-free surface of Yosemite National Park's Tenaya Lake -- for the first time since 1930, old-timers said.

Mammoth Mountain's notorious winds, meanwhile, scattered volcanic pumice across the ski runs. "There were a couple of days when you just said, 'Wow, that was the worst skiing I have ever experienced,' " says Craig Albright, managing director of the resort's ski and snowboard school.

It didn't help that winter had apparently skipped the rest of the country as well. The TV news showed people sunning themselves in Central Park and frolicking in the Southern California surf. "The skiing got really good in March and April, but by then it was like somebody had let the air out of the tires," Albright says. "People put the skis back into the rafters and broke out the surfboard or the road bike."

The drought destroyed any hope of a quick recovery for Mammoth. Until then, speculation and snow had spared the town from complete ruin, but suddenly real estate prices were in free fall and the construction industry virtually disappeared. Starwood had bought out Intrawest at the peak of the real estate bubble; the $365 million deal was the largest in ski area history. Now, six years later, with the economy on the fritz and new condos sitting empty or unfinished, ski area owners were not only losing money on day-to-day operations, they were also paying thousands of dollars each day just to service their debts.

On Feb. 29 of last year, with skier visits 33 percent below budget and revenue down 29 percent from the previous year, Mammoth Mountain laid off 77 employees, almost a quarter of its full-time staff. Those who didn't lose their jobs took a pay cut, while some senior staff were demoted to the lift and bus lines. Locals dubbed it Black Wednesday.

"This is the mountains. Mother Nature owns the place, we just rent it," says Mammoth Mountain CEO Rusty Gregory, the former college football player who made the Black Monday cuts more than 20 years ago, and who also wielded the ax last year. "What do you do? You have a good snowmaking system, and make sure you can variabilize your expenses" -- that is, you set yourself up to quickly jettison employees and cut costs if business takes a turn for the worse.

When the final numbers were tallied, Mammoth Mountain cashed in on only 920,000 skier days last winter -- almost 300,000 fewer than the previous year and the lowest in more than a decade. When summer came, Gregory announced that Mammoth would close the nearby June Mountain Ski Area, possibly for good; the local haven hadn't been a moneymaker for years.

And as the ski area went, so did the town. Mammoth Lakes gets 60 percent of its revenue from taxes on hotel rooms and condos, and another 10-plus percent from sales taxes. If tourists don't show, the town suffers. Facing a $2.8 million shortfall in its 2011-'12 budget, town leaders set about cutting services and trimming employee pay.

Looming over it all like a cornice ready to crack was a botched plan, cooked up a decade earlier by town leaders in league with Intrawest, to turn Mammoth into a weekend destination for skiers from around the country. The plan hinged on expanding the municipal airstrip to make way for huge 757 and 767 jets from Dallas and Chicago. It would have freed Mammoth from some of its dependence on Southern California and allowed it to better compete with Rocky Mountain resorts at a time when the number of skiers nationwide had flattened out.

In an effort to win millions of federal dollars for the airport expansion, however, the town reneged on its prior approval of a developer's plans to build a hotel, a gas station and a commercial center near the airport -- amenities that the Federal Aviation Administration deemed incompatible with the increased air traffic. The airport expansion sputtered and the federal dollars never materialized, but the developer sued, claiming the town had breached its contract with him. After a string of court rulings, in the midst of Mammoth's winter of discontent, a judge ordered Mammoth Lakes to pay a jaw-dropping $42.5 million -- nearly three times the town's annual operating budget.

On July 3, hobbled by the terrible winter season and unable to pay its debt to the developer, Mammoth Lakes followed a number of busted cities and filed for bankruptcy. "This place is just crippled by debt," says Ted Carleton, editor of Mammoth's small-time alternative newspaper, The Sheet. "We are California."

Life in Western mountain towns has always been tough. It's just how it is: You live in a place that's snowed in half the year, where the economy is bound to roller-coaster along with the whims of national and international markets, whether over minerals dug out of the earth or stocks that underwrite leisure time for tourists.

But Mammoth's experience offers an inside look at how contemporary ski towns work, and particularly at how vulnerable they are to the vagaries of the economy and the weather. In good times, these communities borrow and build like mad. Encouraged by mega real estate developers, resorts take on massive debt to fund improvements and compete in the "arms race" that pits state against state and resort against resort for a limited number of skier days. Then the economy turns south or the snow doesn't come -- or it comes, but at the wrong time of the year -- and the party ends in spectacular fashion.

And now, of course, there's climate change.

In contrast to the high, cold continental climate in the Rockies, famous for their weightless powder, the Sierra lies in a maritime climate, close to the ocean. Because the air is warmer, it can hold more water vapor -- thus the Sierra's legendary dumps. But the snow is denser, wetter and warmer than the stuff you'd find in the Rockies. Colorado or Utah powder is 5 or 6 percent water, while the rest is air; "Sierra cement," as it is fondly known, can contain 40 percent water. "It's also closer to the melting point," says Williams, the CU snow hydrologist, and as a result, it is "way more sensitive to increases in air temperature."

As the climate warms -- and it will warm further, even if we summon the will to attempt to do something to slow it -- the snow line will steadily ascend the slopes. Because of their low elevations and warm climates, the maritime resorts will feel it first, says Jeff Dozier, a snow hydrologist at UC Santa Barbara who tracks the Sierra snowpack. In California, the first to be hit will be the ones on the West side, Dozier says, and in the Tahoe area.

"Mammoth is probably the most resilient of the California ski areas," Dozier says. "The main lodge is almost at 9,000 feet. But even then, you'll sometimes go up there in winter and cross the rain-snow boundary between 8,000 and 9,000 feet."

In the coming decades, that boundary will rise, meaning that lower elevations of the mountain will often see rain rather than snow. And when the temperatures are warm, the finest snow-making equipment in the world won't do any good.

Mammoth's newer base areas, which sit right around 8,000 feet, are equipped with gondolas and chairlifts that can carry guests to higher elevations. But there's another problem: Climate scientists also predict that we will continue to see more extreme weather events -- the product of adding more heat and water vapor to the atmosphere -- and wider gyrations from year to year. Climate models can't forecast the specifics with any accuracy, but the picture that emerges is of a chaotic climate that could produce a feast-and-famine cycle of back-to-back droughts and deluges.

Mammoth has survived droughts before, but it is not at all clear, particularly given its current financial state, that it could weather a sustained dry spell, or a climate that swings as wildly as it has recently.

Dozier, for one, believes that Mammoth Mountain can survive if it plays its cards right. "There's a lot of inter-annual variability anyway," he says. "Coupling the dry years with warmer temperatures -- yeah, it might be a bit worse. Still, if you have any sort of business that depends on the weather, your business plan has to take into account that some years are going to be better and some are going to be worse."

But as the 2011-'12 season in Mammoth shows, it's not just the weather that impacts ski towns. No matter how much snow falls, if the skiers don't show up, the party never gets started. Part of that is driven by the economy, but part of it is the simple fact that, if the weather in urban areas is mild, would-be skiers and snowboarders just stay home.

"We worry less about whether it's snowing here than whether it's raining in L.A.," says Ron Cohen, Mammoth Mountain's director of government relations and environmental affairs. "If it's raining in L.A., people say, 'Oh, man, I bet it's dumping at Mammoth.' If it's beautiful down there, people aren't going to leave."

And if the skiers and snowboarders don't show, the local economy is dead. So perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, despite what George Shirk says, Mammoth's real lifeblood is not its namesake mountain -- it's the masses from Southern California.

As if to highlight this fact, in the midst of Mammoth's troubled 2011-'12 ski season, the city of Los Angeles sued Mammoth Lakes, arguing that it owns the water rights to Mammoth Creek, the community's primary water source. You'll recall that Dave McCoy, who founded the ski area here, stumbled upon the snowy wonderland while scouting for the L.A. Department of Water and Power. He was part of a decades-long effort by the city to buy up land and water rights along the Eastern Sierra. The DWP pipes snowmelt through a series of aqueducts and reservoirs to 3.9 million thirsty Angelinos.

In recent years, the city has been forced to relinquish some of its water to maintain Mono Lake's ecological health and to restore parts of Owens Lake, which became a lifeless dustbowl in the 1920s, when the city began diverting water from the Owens River. Now, with climate models predicting a shrinking snowpack and heat waves in coastal cities, the DWP, an infamous bully around here, is pushing back on Owens Lake and other fronts. And it appears to be making an example of tiny Mammoth Lakes, to show other towns what could happen to them if they use water that the city claims for its own.

Greg Norby, the outgoing manager of the Mammoth Lakes Community Water District, says the district is in negotiations with the DWP, and he believes that the town's water source is secure. Nonetheless, the message is clear: L.A. giveth, and L.A. can take away.

For the time being, the town of Mammoth Lakes appears to be pulling itself out of its recession-, weather- and lawsuit-induced slump. In September, town leaders signed an agreement with the airport developer that should create a path out of bankruptcy. The town will make a $2.5 million down payment when its bankruptcy case is dismissed, and another $2 million each July 1 for the next 23 years. To free up funds for the payments and compensate for last year's terrible winter, town leaders put in place a series of strict austerity measures this fall, including laying off almost half of the police force.

"We have cut every single ounce of fat off our bones," says Rick Wood, a local attorney and longtime town council member.

Despite the layoffs and the local grumbling, Wood is optimistic that times will get better. The real challenge, he says, is to prepare the town for the next boom. "I think it's over. I think we're at the bottom. Now we go up."

Around town, there are signs of slow recovery. New businesses are moving into boarded-up storefronts. The Black Velvet coffee shop, recently opened by former pro snowboarder Matt Hammer, is doing good business. "A good cup of coffee will change your life," Hammer likes to say. Pam Hennarty, executive director of the nonprofit Mammoth Lakes Housing, reports that the town is making steady progress improving living conditions for workers.

The real estate business is a shadow of what it was during the boom years: At the height of the bubble, in 2006 and 2007, the median price of a home here was close to $900,000; last year it was less than $600,000. But local real-estate agent and planning commission member Madeleine "Mickey" Brown says that as the market in Southern California recovers, people are starting to think about buying second homes in Mammoth again. There's even a waiting list for new condos at the Weston Monache resort hotel, just across the street from The Village.

On the mountain, meanwhile, the show goes on. During my visit in December, lift attendants called me "boss" and "old friend." Speakers blared hip-hop in the terrain park, and the runs were groomed to perfection. At McCoy Landing, visitors noshed $18 "snowboard pizzas," baked on a half of a baguette, and washed them down with $10 glasses of Mammoth Brewery's Epic IPA. On the walls above them, black-and-white photos, blown up larger than life, showed the ski area's now legendary founder, Dave McCoy, who is retired and living down-valley in Bishop with his wife, Roma. They're both in their 90s.

Albright, the ski school managing director, reported in late January that this winter has been good to the town and its mountain. More than 12 feet of snow fell at the top of the ski area in December, enough to carry the resort through a dry January. "We are having a GREAT season with good snow (and ironically some of the coldest temps we have seen in 25 years)," Albright emailed, "and it looks like it will be a long and fruitful season."

Some day, our grandkids may look back at all this -- the high-speed lifts, the manmade snow, the perfectly groomed corduroy, the opulent base developments and second homes -- much the way we regard those black-and-white images of McCoy in Mammoth's early days, sporting leather ski boots, bamboo poles and a pompadour. To them, our era may look like some Gilded Age -- a time when you could make money and have fun in the mountains, and nobody worried about the consequences.

Will there be skiing on Mammoth Mountain in 20 or 50 years? Probably -- at least when there's snow. But will there be enough snow, at the right times of the year, on a reliable enough basis, to support the kind of show that Mammoth produces now? Will the ski area be able to get itself out from under its current debt and onto solid financial footing? That is impossible to say.

"Maybe Mammoth will be the last one standing because we're up so high," muses Ted Carleton, with The Sheet. "Maybe we'll finally achieve our dream of becoming a destination resort."

"The ski industry in general, it's going to be around in a generation," says Mark Williams, who has done climate modeling for Aspen Ski Company and Park City Mountain Resort. "What we see in general is not that large of an effect in 2030. But by 2070 or 2100, in two or three generations, we reach a huge tipping point."

That's what the climate models say, but if Mammoth's story is any indication, it won't be lack of snow alone that signals the end of skiing as we know it -- though it will certainly play a part. Factors and forces from the outside will be involved: economic hard times, epic droughts in our urban centers, a populace that has more pressing or simply better things to do.

And what will happen to Mammoth Lakes if the ski area folds? It will no doubt find a way to persist, albeit with a very different and likely much smaller economy than the one that is fighting for its life today. The town has already built a respectable summer economy, with new mountain bike trails and concerts under the stars.

"This is my third recession in Mammoth," says Rick Wood. "I arrived in 1991, just in time for Black Monday. We had another dip when the tech stocks crashed in 2000. But here we are, 10 years later. Somehow people make it. This town survives."

And right now, the snow is falling, and the tourists arrive each weekend in search of good times. "We still have 24 million people in Southern California that really love Mammoth and the Eastern Sierra," Albright says. "We're their mountain home. We're just three-quarters of a (gas) tank away."

Former High Country News editor Greg Hanscom, who grew up in Park City, Utah, is now a senior editor at Grist.org. He lives in Seattle with his wife and two young daughters, whom he is teaching to ski.

This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.

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