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Following the Pineapple Express to Mammoth with a Mountain Collective Pass

2014-02-13 15 min read Snow Updates marco

What a tragically bad season to get a Mountain Collective Pass! We’ve barely had any precipitation at all in California, and the more South you go, the drier it gets. Snow pack was below 33% of normal, which means most mountains would only allow on-piste skiing, and that’s tragically bad for crowd control.

The Mountain Collective Pass, if you haven’t heard, is the attempt of the non-Vail resorts to band together. Vail owns many of the top ski areas in North America, and they offer a season pass that allows you to ski at all of them. The other ones had nothing similar to offer, and have been coasting on monopolistic revenue for way too long: the snow aficionado could only get a pass to, say, Mammoth or Whistler, and then buy day passes at all the resorts for which a season pass wouldn’t be cost-effective.

Under the threat of losing even more business to savvy Vail, six fancy resorts banded together. They are Aspen/Snowmass, Alta/Snowbird, Jackson Hole, Mammoth, Squaw, and Whistler/Blackcomb. The pass cost $349 during pre-season, $379 at the end of it, and became unavailable as soon as snow fell. It gives you two free days at each resort, plus a 50% discount on additional days. It’s a really good deal if you don’t want to commit to a single resort, and at 50% discount, you can actually go up the mountain even if you are not up for a full day.

Then came the crappy season. I was waiting for something to inspire me – after all, the closest resort to me is Mammoth, and they were boasting their snow and open terrain. But of course I had been fooled before by Heavenly’s deceptive advertising, claiming they had had a dump of freshies, only to get there to the concrete of a late March cold snap.

Fortunately, there was a Pineapple Express coming. That’s the term we use for the winter storms that come from the Southwest, from Hawaii. They are high-energy, laden with moisture, and last for days. The “perfect storm” (literally and figuratively) for a rush up the mountain.

It was my first time snowboarding in Mammoth (I had passed the mountain several times on my way North). I already knew that the trip itself would be of the least concern: the Sierras absorb all moisture like a sponge, and the valley to the East is bone dry. As a matter of fact, it’s the rain shadow of the Sierras that creates the dryness of Death Valley.

I booked a hotel and chose to splurge on something really close to the gondola, the Village Lodge. It turned out to be a mixed blessing, but I’ll get into that later. I packed my belongings and drove in the afternoon, hoping (without success) to beat LA traffic. It was dark by the time I hit Ridgecrest, the entrance to the long valley that shadows the Sierras all the way to Mount Shasta.

There, traffic was blocked. The officer on scene told me that the wind was too strong to let anyone pass, and that they didn’t know when the highway would be open again. I drove to Ridgecrest, a town mostly built as a strip mall to cater to nearby China Lake Naval Station (where the Space Shuttle used to land). There, I checked the CHP road closures report, and apparently it wasn’t the wind that forced the closure, but a wind-related accident. I filled up on gas, ate a pastry, drank a decaf, and got back to the highway to find that the closure had been lifted.

Just after the ingress into the long stretch of highway to nowhere, there was a giant semi truck on the embankment. It was facing traffic, which means it either was pushed from the other side of the road, or flipped around. Either way, a good reason to close the highway. Soon after that point, police installed a road block where all tall vehicles were steered off the road to wait for the wind to die down.

Fortunately for me, this meant the highway was clear of trucks. While the trucks themselves are mostly harmless, slow drivers that see a truck in the distance frequently switch lanes and get in the way, causing giant jams that can go on for many miles on this stretch of road with not alternative. So we could all move fairly rapidly on perfect road conditions.

I got into Mammoth Lakes at around 8:00p. To my surprise, the bone-dry road suddenly was powdered with wisps of snow, turning into an ice sheet soon after. I had an AWD with brand new tires, so I had nothing to fear (I had cables just in case), but it felt slippery. I stopped at the Vons to buy groceries for dinner and breakfast, then I moved on to the hotel. It was a tough drive, I’ll kid you not.

The hotel itself was one of the most luxurious places I’ve ever been to. The room was very spacious – big enough to accommodate a kitchen and a living area with giant couch and fireplace. The kitchen and bathroom floors were slated, the fireplace made of real stone, the windows gigantic with beautiful views of the mountains around.

I had dinner and fell asleep, happy about having double-spent over the next hotel. Then the noise started. Snow removal machines were coming up to under my window, then turned around right in front of it. Whirrrrrrrr…. Beeep Beeep Beeep, Whirrrrrrrrrrr every ten minutes. It was so loud, I couldn’t sleep without ear plugs – and those started itching after a few hours, because to drown out the noise I had to plug them in real deep.

So, all in all the $200 a night were really not worth it. I’d rather have had a less fancy room with more quiet. Especially since I did my own cooking, which was pretty meager.

The next morning (Saturday), I walked to the ticket counter and asked for my pass. It turns out that all you need is the email sent to you by the Collective, plus an ID card. I had my credit card with me just in case, but apparently I didn’t need it. I immediately got photographed and got a pass in return – sub-credit-card-sized, with no picture of me.

The attendant told me that my two free days were already on the pass, and that I’d just have to buy more at the 50% discount if I wanted to. He was right: I just showed up at the gates and the pass worked. Sort of.

From the Village, you take a free gondola to get to Canyon Lodge, the main lodge at this point (although a different one is named Main Lodge). There, you unload right at the base of the ski lifts. Every lift in town (at least the lower altitude ones) is equipped with a gate that lets you pass only if you have a valid chip in your pocket. The detectors are slightly fickle, so that you sometimes have to contort yourself for them to detect the pass, but all in all the system is much smoother than the manual inspection of passes they have (had?) at other resorts.

The conditions on the surface were pretty good. It had dumped about a foot of snow overnight, and it was cold enough for the powder to stay fluffy. That was the good part. The bad part was that the Pineapple Express was still in full swing, with dark skies and sustained winds of 70-80 mph. In other words, it wasn’t fun. The lift rides, in particular, were painful: the wind blew the ice crystals into your face, and getting off the lift constantly risked getting pushed out.

I did the best I could and snowboarded as long as possible. By the time lunch rolled in, though, crowds and wind had done me in. I got back to the base and rested in the hot tub, mulling about the wisdom of coming here before the storm was over.

Sunday brought more of the same, only it was less crowded. The locals became very grumbly about not being able to get to the top of the mountain. I hadn’t ever been there, so what did I know.

Monday, then, a complete turn for the better. The sky was clear, the mountain empty, and the snow weep-worthily perfect. I tried to load the ticket online, but the computer wouldn’t apply the 50% discount. That was quite annoying. Then I went to the ticket counter at 8:15. The “Supervisor” I got gave me some super-lame excuse as to why I wouldn’t get the discount online – he said that they needed to verify that I indeed had the Mountain Collective Pass. But since you load the ticket onto your pass and have to provide the pass number, and since the ticketing system knows about season passes at Mammoth, one is left to wonder whether they just don’t like Mountain Collective holders and force us to stand in line.

In any case, I was on the lift line at 8:27. Then the wait began. Sadly, I didn’t quite know yet how the place is structured and didn’t realize they hold lifts in increments. My lift, Canyon Express, was open, but the adjoining ones were not. So I ended up at the bottom of Mill’s Cafe having to wait for one of the two lifts there to open.

Once I got up again, I could really enjoy the conditions. The snow was perfect, the sun was bright, there weren’t too many people around, and most of them were much better than the weekend crowd. We could all zip in unison without the faintest holdup, and it was so much fun to carve from slope to slope. I discovered Dry Creek, which is my favorite run on the lower mountain at this point. Very beautiful.

Then news popped up that they were opening the upper mountain. The lifts were running, but empty, so I decided to wait (wise move: the guys in line ended up standing there for over an hour). By the time I saw the gondola to the top of the mountain filled with people, it was already noon. I decided I couldn’t leave on a day like this without getting to the top, so I braved the line.

It was a Monday, no holiday, but the line was insane. It looked much like a security line at the airport, with all space in a giant hall filled with dividers making people snake their way to the top. It took forever to get into a cabin, and it was getting increasingly hot.

The gondola ride was pleasant enough. Certainly much better than a lift ride would have been, considering the typical wind conditions. Then, the view of the crest scared me senseless: the drop was steep all over, and there was no indication you could get down without a double black fall.

I got off at the top. Fortunately, the gondola has a real house as terminus, so you don’t have to face the elements directly. You step out onto a flat surface – a terrace, really – knowing that the drop on either side is going to be unpleasant.

I took a few pictures, seriously wondering whether I should just get back into the lift and go to base station. Then I looked at the promisingly manageable crest that linked this peak to the next one down. Then I just told myself to shut up: if all these people could make it, I could as well.

I found an entry point that would allow me to get into the snow without a drop. I remember getting off a lift in Squaw and tumbling all the way to the bottom of the run (well, sliding) on the concrete ice there. Didn’t want any of that.

But the snow was perfect. I inched my way to a spot I liked, checked who was around, and started carving my way down. I stopped a few times, but it was mostly to orient myself. I was coming down this sheer face, aided by the powder, the adrenaline, and the fun.

I actually managed to get all the way to Canyon Lodge in one go. It was fantastic! (Although it wasn’t the longest run in Mammoth. For that, you have to go to the bottom of Eagle Lodge – or even take the side trail to the Village.)

French fries and Coke (it was too hot for my usual coffee/cocoa mix). Then back to the hotel. I picked up the car, dumped my stuff in the trunk, and drove off. I wanted to stop at the sports outlet store, which had amazing prices on snowboarding gear. The link is to the Google Maps, the store is apparently new and who knows how long it’s going to be there – but if it is, the prices are AMAZING!

Next on the menu was a side trip to Hot Creek. That’s a geological formation next to Mammoth Creek that spews out scalding hot water and transforms it into Hot Creek. Well worth a visit, if only for the views of Owens valley and the steaming creek.

The drive back was pretty pleasant, especially because there were tons of police cruisers on patrol trying to catch speeders. I watched them stop at least a half dozen cars, some of whom didn’t exceed the speed limit by more than 10 miles per hour, so be careful! Also, note that every town on the way has extremely low speed limits (down to 25mph in what usually would be a 35-45mph limit zone). My sense is that these towns consider the income from speeding tickets a vital part of their budget, so drive accordingly.

Since I left late, it got dark by the time I hit Olancha, the last of the “towns” East of the Sierras. After that, it was just a long trip to San Diego in the dark. I got home around 8p, pleasantly surprised that my Subaru had managed to rack in an amazing 34mpg (on 27mpg advertised), with most of the initial part (to Olancha) at 36mpg.

Then, to finish off a perfect (sorta) weekend, the next morning I woke up with a distressed stomach. I puked out three days of snowboarding (or at least Monday’s dinner), wondering whether I had caught something somewhere.

Who knows. It was the first time I vomited in over twenty years. If that was the price to pay for a snowboarding weekend, I’d do it any time again!