Almost heaven – Mammoth Mountain
The road is breathtakingly beautiful. We’ve left Los Angeles and its ten-lane highways behind us with David Bowie's “Young Americans” blasting out from the car sound system. The rental car feels like it's gliding as it climbs up towards Red Rock Canyon State Park. The landscape alternates between flat desert and spectacularly sculpted rock formations. It doesn't take long to get from California's car clogged metropolis to where Mother Nature still plays first violin.
After five hours on the road, we reach Mammoth Lakes at 2,400m above sea level. Here, on the heights of the Eastern Sierra Nevada, people live an alternative Californian outdoor lifestyle; aware and relaxed, and where the food, setting and nature experiences are of the highest class.
At this time of year skiing dominates. Mammoth Mountain is a winter paradise where six months of snow are guaranteed. “There’s so much to choose from here for every different kind of snow user,” Jim Marcotte of Black Tie ski rental tells me as we sit in deep armchairs in the lobby of the Village Lodge hotel, trying on equipment. In Mammoth, you book an appointment with the rental firm and the skis are brought to the hotel.
We spend the day in the Canyon Lodge and Main Lodge areas. Lunch guests flock around the Mill Café at the foot of Stump Alley Express. Many of them sit in sun loungers listening to 80s pop hits. Simple Minds, Tears for Fears and New Order's synthesizer sounds snow down over our crunchy Caesar salad. The al fresco bar is soon spiced with more rock’n’roll attributes and the bar tender starts mixing Bloody Mary’s in highball glasses and serves whisky in small, plastic mugs.
The relaxed atmosphere spreads to the pistes where there’s room for both snow ploughing beginners (especially at Eagle Lodge), family skiers and swishing forest skiers who look a little hippy like. To generalize, there are far more bearded men in lumberjack shirts and really skillful snowboarders of both sexes than in Europe. A nod to the Californian surf and skateboard cultural heritage.
The snow at the 3,369m summit remains glisteningly cold all day. It's hard to image how, 65 years ago, Dave McCoy ventured around what was then total wilderness. Although he came here as a geologist from Los Angeles, McCoy was also a dedicated skier and saw the potential. He created what is now considered to be one of the best ski resorts in the US out of nothing. Within weekend distance of Los Angeles and San Francisco, the resort now has 300km of pistes.
The legendary McCoy has now reached the ripe old age of 102 and has moved further down the mountain. But his influence can still be seen. One of the most thrilling runs in the area is Dave’s Run that starts from the top at 3,300m and goes straight down the crazily steep Dragon’s Back. There's still a clear fondness and respect for the man who traced the pistes with wooden skis, dressed in wool pants and a spotless white T-shirt.
Many skiers and nature lovers have followed in Dave McCoy’s footsteps to these Californian mountains and stayed, such as coffee expert Matt Hammer who was drawn here by the snowboarding and has been roasting coffee beans for nine years on Main Street under the name Black Velvet Coffee. They serve the most elegant espresso in town, made from high altitude harvested beans from Ethiopia and Kenya.
“We started selling online and at farmers' markets,” Hammer says. “Today, we roast 2-3 times a week and import half our beans direct from the growers. It's important they’re paid a fair price.”
Hammer is a kind of entrepreneur in fine tastes. On the second floor of Black Velvet Coffee there's not only an impressively large coffee roaster, there's also a small wine bar. Here, visitors are invited to taste a very highly exclusive range from small wine producers that Hammer got to know in Napa Valley and Oregon.
Ian Algerøen is another nature lover who first visited Mammoth Mountain as an eleven year old with his family to go rock climbing. He has now spent almost half his career as a chef here.
At the reopened Skadi restaurant, named after the Goddess of Winter and Hunting in Norse Mythology, Algerøen, who is of Norwegian descent, serves dishes reminiscent of his family background combined with the fine dining techniques he acquired when training in Switzerland. The end results of these culinary compositions are clean and delicate taste experiences he calls High Alpine Cuisine.
Both Hammer and Algeröen are amongst the culinary heroes in Mammoth. And Skadi is, according to many admirers, the best restaurant in Mammoth Lakes. With a reputation that extends far beyond the village and mountains, the dining room is packed every evening.
“I used to work at elegant restaurants in San Francisco but my heart was always pulling me back to these mountains,” says Algeröen, as a waiter sweeps by with a plate of gravlax and rösti. “For me, Skadi is a manifestation of my Scandinavian roots. Granddad came from Algerø, an island off Bergen and granny is from Tromsø. They emigrated to Seattle where granddad was a shipmaster. I’ve been cooking, hunting and fishing all my life. I filleted my first salmon at the age of six and have been in restaurant kitchens since I was 13. But preparing food at this altitude is different. Water boils at 90 degrees and you have to rethink every recipe. We also use snow in our cooking.”
Like most people up here, Algerøen is also a skier and always has 14 pairs of well-honed skis ready and waiting for when he can see sun and fresh snow outside his window. Everyone you meet in Mammoth seems to love the mountains and hails the pioneering McCoy who dared to defy the critics, the winds and the amount of snow.
“Here in the US, I'd say that Jackson Hole has more extreme skiing and Squaw Valley has several steeper pistes, but with all the snow we get and the range of runs, Mammoth is unbeatable,” Algerøen says.
The following evening we go beer tasting at the Mammoth Brewing Company, the oldest of five breweries in the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains. They've been brewing craft beers here for the last 20 years, including a gooseberry sour and a deliciously tart porter called Orange You A’Peeling. IPA 395 is a homage to the only road that takes you to Mammoth.
“The beer is infused with desert sage, a very aromatic taste of Eastern Sierra,” owner Sean Turner says. “This year, we’re also very satisfied with the gooseberry beer that’s matured in bourbon barrels.”
The premises also house Eatary, whose burgers, sliders and pulled pork provide perhaps the most filling comfort food in Mammoth. It’s cheerful and relaxed – just like the rest of Mammoth Lakes.
The next morning we meet Algerøen on the piste. It's blowing what a sailor would call a stiff breeze and the gondola is swaying as he tells us how he's managed to combine his passions so successfully.
“I come to work at seven thirty in the morning. Have a cappuccino and say hi to the kitchen staff. A quick change of clothes and here I am, like today, on the way to the top. Straight after lunch I put on my chef whites at Skadi and prepare the rest of the day.”
We try our best to keep up with him on a few fast runs, but Algerøen and his broad powder skis signed with the Skadi logo are already far away. In his record year, he went skiing on 200 days, a season that lasted from October to August.
We venture further out in the ski system when the wind suddenly drops. We can see the crowns of some huge trees, their branches bowing from layers of thick snow. It's an incredibly beautiful sight.
Published: January 3, 2018