A Mammoth-sized storm

As of the last day in December, Mammoth Mountain, Callif. has received 208 inches this month, which breaks its record for most snowfall in December and most snowfall in a season to date (22 feet), records that have stood since 1969.

"This is the most I've seen it snow since ..." is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot. But to see Mammoth Lakes earlier this week was, all hyperbole aside, to see a town in the grips of an honest-to-goodness 100-year storm. Snow removal equipment operated morning and night, plowing driveways and parking lots two or three times a day. The streets in town fluctuated between one and two lanes as gigantic industrial snowblowers struggled to keep up with the rising tide. With overladen trees falling onto vehicles, decks and roofs, the Mammoth Lakes Fire Department had to request assistance from nearby towns to meet the influx of emergency calls.

It's hard to imagine too much snow at a ski resort. And then you see it. The heavy snows and poor visibility of the storm kept the bulk of Mammoth's lifts closed through the weekend. The storm even precipitated a premature end to the ski day on Sunday afternoon at about 2 p.m.

Significant terrain openings began at lower elevations on Monday morning. With tourists discouraged by the inclement weather, or perhaps even immobilized by it, the slopes looked deserted despite the winter break holidays. "We'd normally expect about 10,000 people on the mountain this time of year," said Mammoth's Action Sports Brand Manager Josh Chauvet. "Today there are about 2,500."

Thank you, storm. The crowds staying indoors, Monday was, as Mammoth local Chris Benchetler put it, "The best on-resort day I've ever had." A full day of line-free laps with the backcountry pro had me giddily saying the same thing, minus the "on-resort" part.

" It was snowing so hard our tracks filled in every run," said Benchetler, describing the history-making day. Every cliff was a go, if the unprecedented snowfall hadn't already swallowed it up. Every turn was in a white room. As I sped down Drop 18, the pile of snow in my lap conveniently acted as a cantilever, helping to force my tips back to the surface of powder too deep for just about any ski. This is why teenagers drive from New England to wait tables and live in tiny apartments. This is why folks from Malibu buy condos and vacation homes. This is a feeling that you might never feel again, so take it in. This is why skiing is so magical.

And this was all on Chair 2, which takes you about halfway up the mountain. Higher elevations remained off-limits, a woeful fact that another Mammoth local lamented on one chair ride. "I never thought I'd say that I wished it would stop snowing, so I could go skiing."

While the Mammoth storm may have caused a December to remember in California, it's not the end-all of record-breakers. According to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, in North America the most snow to fall in one storm came in 1959 at Mt. Shasta Ski Bowl, Calif., where 189 inches fell in six days. Tamarack, Calif. holds a 100-year-old record for the most snow in one month, at 390 inches; Silver Lake, Colo. had the most snow in a single day (76 inches in April 1921); and Mt. Baker, Washington had the most snow that has ever fallen in a single season (1,140 inches during the 1998-1999 ski season).

But Mammoth's far from throwing in the towel just yet. Dan Hansen, the spokesperson for Mammoth Mountain, explained that a recess in the precipitation would provide a necessary opportunity for ski patrol crews to do crucial avalanche control work. "It's really been an incredible amount of work just to get any of the upper mountain stuff going," he said. "The amount of snow they got was absolutely insane."

On Tuesday morning sunshine presented the first opportunity to send troops to the top for control work. There, the two-story upper lift station of Chair 23 made a novel measuring stick for the all-time storm, and the all-time December.
"Patrollers had to go up on the snow bank and directly over the top station to get to the other side of Chair 23," Hansen said. "The snow banks are built all the way to the top of that."