It was fitting that the first two chairlift riders of the 2013-14 ski season at June Mountain Friday morning were children. After being closed for 364 days to reassess where the ski area in the Eastern Sierras belongs in the multi-billion-dollar snow sports industry, Mammoth powers that be decided the focus needs to be on kids (and their credit card-carrying parents).
That's Mammoth with a capital "M" because the world-class Mammoth Mountain resort 20 or so miles south off U.S. 395 share the same ownership as the smaller, more rustic June Mountain ski area. The recession, low-snowfall years and the (here we go again) mammoth popularity of you-know-where in comparison to June led to taking last ski season off, which wasn't exactly popular with workers nor the June Lake community.
Mammoth CEO Rusty Gregory, who took the brunt of the local criticism for closing June and laying off 75 workers at his flagship resort last season, explained moments before a Champagne toast to reopen June that the off year was spent touring similar ski operations around the world.
"We hadn't done June justice," confided Gregory, who announced before this season began that he will not run day-to-day operations at either ski property. "You can't do stuff the same old way and expect different results."
The Mammoth brass eventually realized that June should not try to be all things to all skiers (like ... well ... you know).
"Why try to compete with Mammoth?" Carl Williams, June's general manager, asked rhetorically before Gregory had spoken. "It didn't make sense."
Neither did it make sense to tear a page from Big Bear Lake, where Snow Summit is the resort destination (ala Mammoth, only much smaller) and Bear Mountain is geared toward snowboarders. Tim LeRoy, whose Lyman Public Relations does PR work for the Mammoth properties, explained on a chair ride up to the slope something SoCal shredders will read as blasphemous: snowboarding is on the decline as fat stubby skis do everything boards can and are better in deep powder than previous generations of skis.
What the head honchos who pay LeRoy found does make sense is playing up June's natural beauty and strength as a winter destination for families with thin wallets and young children. "June is a lot less intimidating," Gregory explained. "At Mammoth you can get on the wrong lift or the wrong trail and end up nine miles away with no way back."
To send a message to ticket buyers and the ski-resort business that June is serious about sewing up the young family market, kids will ski free there through the foreseeable future, something Gregory couched as "a no-strings-attached, no corporate B.S.," available-every-open-day-of-the-season deal.
Another example of that commitment is June having, as Williams put it, "blown up" its ski instruction program, focusing on ensuring that children and others who check in for the first lesson of their lives in the morning are riding the chairlift to the bunny slopes by the afternoon.
June will still have the groomed runs for all abilities and open back country that parents (and non-parents) can hit after dropping the kiddies off at ski school. But to hear Williams tell it, he and his staff are approaching the season as an open canvas, waiting for feedback of customers to dictate what direction June Mountain will follow in the future.
When it comes to goals, Gregory looks at the entire Eastern Sierra Mountains region and hopes to have 2 million winter visitors, which would break down to 1.7 million at Mammoth and 300,000 at June. But Williams said earlier he will not measure success by a set number of visitors but the right kind: young families.
Of course, ever the realist, Williams added, "It will be a successful year if it snows." That hasn't happened enough in recent years to generate the kind of revenue stream needed to re-invest into the ski area, he confided.
It also hasn't generated the kind of revenue stream for Zach my bartender at Mammoth Mountain Inn to get by. Now in his 15th season up the hill, the one-time San Diegan told me the lack of snow gave him 19 straight days off last season. "It hit me personally," he said.
It looked like more of the same after Friday was announced as June's opening day as Ma Nature responded with enough warm weather to nearly make that a half-pipe dream. Williams called it a "Herculean effort" to get new snow-making equipment up the mountain and blowing in time to open a lone, low-intermediate run. He gave most of the credit to his on-mountain staff but also mentioned Santa Ana's Atlas Copco Rental, which trucked up the air compressors used for "snow-making machines that were right out of the box."
Truth be told, Friday's manmade snow felt like ice cubes clanking against the bottom of my rock skis. But at least we were skiing. That is, we were after Glen Plake, the so-called "Pied Piper of Skiing," entertained the child skiers at the top of the run by walking like a dinosaur with his ski tips and poles.
An amazing freestyle skier, Plake and his rainbow-colored mohawk were featured in Warren Miller flicks. He sported straight blond hair with a string of purple locks under his beanie as he broke out ice-skating moves on his slats at June. He'd explained on the shuttle-bus ride up from Mammoth that in between appearances around the world, he is doing ambassador work for the resort. But while the pay stubs say "Mammoth," Plake's heart is with June, where he lived for four years. As the bus approached the ski area, he was like a kid at Christmas pointing out places he liked to climb ice, ski between trees and call it a day (the world famous Tiger Bar).
Plake's enthusiasm was infectious, but what has Williams and Gregory giddy is 90 acres of land across the street from June being purchased this summer past by famed Los Angeles developer Ed Roski, who owns pieces of the LA Kings, Lakers, Staples Center and, if he had his druthers, an NFL stadium in Industry. Gregory explained that Roski has had warm feelings about June Lake since visiting there as a child, and if anyone can build the village that will hold the beds that will be booked by the young families June Mountain is courting, it's Roski. "June will do a lot better if it has its own bed base," said Gregory.
That's years and years away, of course. In the meantime, June Mountain has to do something about the antiquated double-chairlift that takes riders straight--and I mean goddamn straight--up the hill from the parking lot to the base of the ski area. That requires riders to hold onto, rather than buckle into, their skis and boards, which is uncomfortable riding up and nightmare-inducing riding back down.
No final decision has been made but Williams is hoping the chairlift will ultimately be replaced by a gondola, since that would be the easiest way to get one's gear and ass up the hill. Plans are to be submitted to the U.S. Forest Service in January for whatever replaces the double chair and a new snow-making system, although the source of water for that operation remains undiscovered, the GM confided.
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Perhaps the biggest, near-term job is winning back the June Lake community, according to Gregory. "It's not in our nature to shut down ski areas," he said. "It's in banks' nature."
Speaking of nature, that's where June has Mammoth beat.
"Mammoth's great," said Williams, "but at June you have Mother Nature right in your face."