Climate Change on Mammoth Mountain

Mammoth Mountain is one of the snowiest ski resorts in the U.S., but with the climate changing, the future of winter sports looks bleak.


| January/February 2014



An empty chairlift at Mammoth Mountain

Someday, 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—like some Gilded Age, a time when you could make money and have fun in the mountains, and nobody worried about the consequences.

Photo By John Lemieux

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), LA (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.

anabell jones
12/14/2013 3:01:23 PM

Deny this; We can all agree to disagree whether 30 years of science never agreeing beyond “could be” a crisis is enough to tell our children it WILL be a crisis even though science has never said it. Deny that.