Group shred sesh. Photo: Christian Pondella

Photo Essay

Uncontrollable High

Soul Sessions During Mammoth Mountain’s Deepest Season

First published in Volume 21, Issue 1 of The Snowboarder’s Journal

With support from Mammoth Mountain.

What a time to live and ride at Mammoth Mountain. Atmospheric rivers and ceaseless snow cycles in California’s Sierra Nevada range made this past season the deepest on record at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. Basically, it snowed straight from November through March. 

Chair 14—one of the three lifts that accesses the top of Mammoth Mountain

“Chair 14—one of the three lifts that accesses the top of Mammoth Mountain—was fully buried. We’ll probably never see it like this again.” Photo: Peter Morning

In early November it snowed several feet, providing a solid early season base. The next couple of storms felt more par for the course—they were spaced out a bit and dropped a foot or so of snow. Still, it was snowing consistently, and the community was buzzing. It’s hard to describe the buzz that happens when the snow is falling in a resort town, but it feels like an uncontrollable high. As storms kept rolling in, hopes grew that it would be an especially big year. But few went as far as to guess that it would be historic. The prior year had seen a big December, but the taps turned off in January. Then the timing between storms diminished. It snowed 30 inches in 48 hours in mid-December, closing all roads in and out of town.

Owing to the hype of all the new snow, crowds made it to the mountain eventually, despite road closures. A turning point was coming though. Near the end of January, after a month that saw 220 inches of snowfall, the town of Mammoth Lakes became overwhelmed. Snowbanks swallowed two-story houses and parked cars, and the roadways kept getting skinnier. There was nowhere to put the snow. It seemed like most people were just trying to survive. Frequent highway closures meant very short windows of time for people to make necessary trips in and out of town. It was pure mayhem. To the north, an avalanche took out Highway 395, burying it under 30-40 feet of snow, closing it for almost two months. The usual three-hour drive from Mammoth to Reno or Tahoe could easily take six or even eight hours. Presumably, the thought of getting stuck in the snow kept a lot of folks at home. 

“As the season rolled on and monthly snowfall records were being broken, the mountain was transforming from its norm. Here, Nick Russell explores a rock corridor that is usually unrideable. With each storm the game of Chutes and Ladders continued to evolve.” Photo: Christian Pondella

This made for a lot of sleeper days on the hill. One day I showed up to Mammoth’s popular Chair 2 parking lot at 8:30 a.m. thinking I was late to the party to find only 40 other cars in the lot. From the chair I could see only a few tracks. With no one else around, it felt like I was riding a private mountain—one of those days that rejuvenates the soul, one of many such days this winter.

Life was on repeat—shovel, shred, survive, shovel some more. As the season progressed, the mountain was transformed by heavy snowfall in ways none of us had seen before. Chairlifts disappeared, engulfed by the slopes. Snowcats dug trenches to get the lifts running again and ski patrol roped off areas where you risked hitting your head on a chair. Cliffs that generally stand about 60 feet tall were gone, flattened. The iconic Mammoth Mountain sign at the top of the resort was buried, as was just about everything else. When all was said and done, Mammoth Mountain received over 900 inches at the summit and just over 700 inches at the Main Lodge which was plenty to keep us shredding into summer. We probably won’t see a January like that again. Maybe not another whole season. Then again, as the saying goes, records are made to be broken.    

above clockwise from top
“Early December storm shredding. Jimmy Goodman sends a huge method off a classic rock feature. These are the days locals cherish, with cold blower pow and empty chairlifts—and technically winter hadn’t even started.” Photo: Christian Pondella

“Early morning on Dec. 1. The parking-lot employee gives me a look of disbelief as his job of directing parking has turned into countless consecutive days of shoveling out parking spots and stuck cars.” Photo: Christian Pondella

“Highway 395, the main road into and out of Mammoth, had been closed for multiple days—something that rarely happens.” Photo: Peter Morning

above clockwise from top left
“I got to live with Vincent Valencia during one of the gnarliest three-day storms of the season. As the gondola operator and top station caretaker he lives at the top of the mountain full-time. It’s an unreal experience up there with him.” Photo: Peter Morning

“Near the top of the mountain the tunnel for Chair 23 was buried and the snow could no longer blow through. We had to hand-dig it out.”Photo: Peter Morning

“Entering midseason, the vibe was still alive at the bottom of Chair 1.” Photo: Peter Morning

Vincent Valencia in his habitat. Photo: Peter Morning

“A break between storms and an epic bluebird pow day. Gabe Taylor takes advantage of double overhead conditions.”Photo: Christian Pondella

above top to bottom
“Slope-side lodging at Mammoth Mountain’s Main Lodge comes with its perks, and digging out your buried car was one of them this year.” Photo: Christian Pondella

“A wild, windy early season storm. The woolly mammoth at the Main Lodge parking is the marquee statue at the resort. When you see it, you know you’ve arrived.” Photo: Peter Morning

“The Main Lodge parking lot is the portal that’s open first and closes last. The snow pile from clearing space there was so giant it could have been a ski hill in the Midwest.”Photo: Peter Morning

“Kimmy Fasani on the backside of Mammoth during a special day ripping with her and her husband, Chris Benchetler. The first good action shot I got with Kimmy since she came back from her battle with breast cancer.” Photo: Peter Morning
Ed: Read Kimmy’s story in her feature interview in Issue 20.3



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