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Mammoth Mountain

Idle they have lain for these many months, these two gleaming surfaces, and now they are gently taken down, caressed and polished, that they might be truly called “Wooden Wings.” Many are there amongst us who have gazed longingly at them on their storage racks and let our minds wander back, fondly recollecting the many pleasant hours these very “Wings” have afforded us in years gone by, hoping upon hope and some, I imagine even praying that old King Winter would again start his reign, transforming our green mountains and blue waters to a land of ice and snow.

Eastern Sierra Ski News, January 1941

The story of how Dave McCoy and Mammoth Mountain Ski Area grew together is documented in the book Tracks of Passion, Eastern Sierra Skiing, Dave McCoy & Mammoth Mountain, written by Robin Morning (www.tracksofpassion.com). Following are some excerpts from Tracks of Passion:

Dave McCoy first skied the slopes of California’s Eastern Sierra during the winter of 1935-36 in the foothills above Independence. Eager to live in the mountains he loved, Dave began working for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, using his skiing skills on snow surveys. In 1941 he married Roma Carriere and became the first hydrographer stationed at the new dam at Crowley Lake. Their six children were born during the twelve years the McCoy’s lived at the LADWP bungalow overlooking the dam. Dave and Roma both excelled at skiing and ski racing, setting up the portable rope tows with their friends and starting a part time “ski business”. In 1953 the Forest Service granted Dave a permit to build the first chair lift on Mammoth Mountain. The rest is history – on a Mammoth scale.
In the 1960’s Dave McCoy’s vision for a family-fun ski resort expanded as his personally trained racers competed internationally and his children raced in the Olympics. With more than a half-century of McCoy’s leadership, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area eventually encompassed 27 lifts and a gondola, lodgings, and amenities for skiers. An enthusiastic staff of dedicated mavericks ran ski lifts, ski patrol and ski school each winter and built lifts each summer. Turning over the reins in 2005 at the age of 90, Dave McCoy summed up his career saying “It wasn’t a job, it was a love affair.”

Mammoth Visions

On August 12, 1953, after three months of negotiations, Slim Davis wrote Dave McCoy a personal letter stating, “This confirms the issuing to you yesterday of a [25 year] term permit for the further development and operation of the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area.” McCoy agreed to construct a service building with water and sewage systems by November 1953, form a corporation by August 1954, build a chair lift by December 1956, construct a shelter hut at the upper terminus by November 1957 and a second chairlift by December 1960.

Determined to remain a family-owned business, Dave set out to secure his own financial backing. No such luck. The ski business was far too risky, he was told, for a man without collateral. With verbal permission but no Forest Service permit and a grand total of $12,500 in personal loans to back him up, Dave broke ground on his Warming Hut. He refurbished a donated 10,000-gallon water storage tank with rivets and tar, hand-dug a hole to house it, and laid a quarter mile of plastic hose connecting the tank to a spring farther up the mountain.

He hired Lloyd Nicoll to frame a foundation while junior racers Rhubarb Marcellin, Kenny Lloyd, and twelve-year-old Gary McCoy helped him collect scrap rebar and hand shovel aggregate from a pit near Rock Creek.

By November 1953, two weeks after the birth of his sixth child, 38-year-old Dave McCoy concluded that to be a successful ski area operator, he needed to devote all his time and energy to that endeavor. He requested a leave of absence from his Los Angeles Water Department (LADWP) job of sixteen years, sold his fishing boats to the LADWP and moved his family to his McGee ski-tow warming hut.

By winter of 1953-54, a newly-paved Minaret Road, an improved parking area, and the friendly atmosphere of a crackling fire in the huge rock fireplace of the just completed Warming Hut welcomed skiers to McCoy’s Mammoth rope tows. Feeling like extended family, they chatted with ticket-sellers, most often Nick Gunter and wives of Dave’s friends who were helping him with the tows. They skied with Mark Zumstein’s Mammoth Ski Patrol, who were mostly volunteers from the Avalanche Ski Club, teased McCoy’s junior racers, and doted on the smiling faces of the six McCoy children—several of them already sporting Mammoth race team uniforms.

Yet during the summer of 1954, an unfamiliar feeling of discouragement nagged at Dave: he had not been able to secure financing to build a chairlift. He had talked to bankers, walked door to door in Bishop asking for support, even explored the possibility of using an old tramway from the Cerro Gordo mine. Just when he could think of no other avenues to pursue, a stranger knocked on his door.

Walter Martignoni of United Tramways went right to the point. Another ski area had canceled its order for a chairlift…would Dave take it? Dave said he couldn’t pay. Not to worry, Martignoni told him, he would carry the cost until they worked out a feasible payment plan. On a handshake, the two men sealed the deal.

Dave McCoy turned his attention to the 1954-55 ski season and his current flock of promising ski racers. His junior team was monopolizing the Far West division and four of his seniors—one of them local racer Jill Kinmont whose vibrant smile and winning form had made her the unofficial darling of American skiing—were contenders for the 1956 Olympic Team.

To the Top

“Dave McCoy has followed a policy through the years which indeed pays off. He offers summer employment to all his regular winter crew who care to stay with him, and this summer an average of more than twelve have remained on the job. And the ‘durn fools’ are so enthusiastic about the area and so loyal to their boss they work from sunrise to dark. No outsider understands it, and attempts at explanation are wide of the mark. But that’s the way it is at Mammoth – the bigness of the mountain gets in the blood.”– Lester LaVelle, 1956

In a newspaper article directed toward Southern California skiers hungering for news about the oncoming 1956–57 ski season, Lester LaVelle described improvements that took place at Mammoth Mountain over the summer. His words captured the essence of an entire era between 1955 and 1969.

Junior ski racer turned ski instructor/summer worker Eddie Riley described this era: “Dave had the ideas and he had the personality and stature to influence people to back him. Skiing was the essence of what he lived for. He wasn’t social…there was no icing on the cake. He never lost sight that he was promoting the simple fact of skiing.” Ski patroller John Garner elaborated about the tone of those years: “In meetings Dave would say he wanted Mammoth to be the Vons or JC Penney of the ski industry so that everyone could afford to ski here. And his bottom line was always, ‘Did you have fun today?’ ”

Each summer Dave McCoy invested his winter profits back into Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, pursuing his goal of enhancing the skiing experience. Between 1955 and 1969, without taking on a partner or long term debt, Dave and his small but dedicated crew built Mid-Chalet, enlarged
the Warming Hut, sculpted Mammoth’s ski slopes, and erected nine chairlifts, two T-Bars, and a gondola that accessed the top of his 11,053-foot mountain.

“Dave knew years in advance what he wanted to do,” recalled cat-driver Roger Sorensen. “We’d be at the bottom and he’d say, ‘A gondola will be going up there someday and we’re going to knock off those cliffs and make a run going down such and such.’ ”

Sorensen continued, “The roads weren’t surveyed. If Dave wanted one somewhere, he would just walk ahead of me. I’d follow him with the loader and make a small track, later go back and widen it. A lot of times, he’d stand on a slope and wave his hand directing me where to move dirt. We’d take a hump out over here and build a curve or slope over there.”

Reflecting on his years at Mammoth, Don Rake said, “No one got hired for anything specific. At first I did carpentry because I was a carpenter by trade, but as time went on, like everyone else, I did everything. One day concrete work, the next day putting up rafters, and the next, whatever.
It was great.”

Anybody could run the backhoe—if they didn’t know how, they learned. Improvisation served as the rule of thumb. Using old surplus equipment, common sense, and brute force, the crew lived by the motto, “the impossible is simply something that takes a little longer.”

Dave didn’t talk much. If a ditch needed to be dug, he grabbed a shovel and started digging. “His energy rubbed off on you,” explained long-time Mammoth local Bob Edwards. “Dave would ask, ‘How ya doin’? ’ and that would just put a fire under you because you didn’t want him to show you up. Whether it was conscious or not, I don’t know.”

A Mammoth Day

Anytime anyone took a break, we had one of Max’s five-star hotel pastries. I gained 25 pounds my first year.

Heidi (Hindson) Wagner, Ski Instructor

Between 1955 and 1969, the business office for Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, located on the bottom floor of the Warming Hut, housed only two desks: one for Dave McCoy, although he could rarely be found there, and one for accountant Nick Gunter. As business grew and the office stayed the same size, employees followed Mammoth Mountain’s policy of making do with what they had, assuming new roles and responsibilities as they came along. Experience was not considered a prerequisite for advancement, only the desire to be part of the team and do a good job.

Toni Milici was the perfect example of the successful application of this make-do policy. After learning to ski at Dave McCoy’s McGee rope tows, Toni worked as a certified ski instructor. Then, out of the blue, Dave asked him to run the Mammoth cafeteria. In shock, Toni said, “Dave, I don’t even know how to boil water.” Dave answered, “Well, I don’t either. But Toni, you’re good with people. You can remember all their names.” For the next twenty years, Milici ran Mammoth Mountain Ski Area Food Services, a restaurant business serving thousands of skiers each weekend.

In this ever-evolving, family-like environment, the ski area expanded. Each morning, junior racers worked in the lobby using metal wires and pliers to laboriously attach lift tickets to customers’ ski pants, while their mothers and wives of employees helped Nick Gunter in the ticket booth. On weekends, elementary school teacher Tom (TJ) Johnston buzzed around the office making snow reports, organizing entries for Far West junior races, and on occasion, putting together a brochure. When ski instructor Bobby Cooper took over the sport shop, Don Sharp, an accountant who had worked as a lift operator before running the sport shop, moved downstairs to help Nick keep track of the cash flow, which was growing by leaps and bounds.

Many employees considered their employment at Mammoth Mountain one of the best time periods in their lives, a time of learning by practical experience. Why? According to Nick Gunter, “It certainly wasn’t for the money, because they didn’t make anything. I think it was how Dave treated them. Employees were always first on his mind.”

Whatever it was that created this sense of belonging, visiting skiers, especially those from Southern California, also felt part of the Mammoth family. They organized ski trips like treasured rituals, looking forward to the hours spent with friends and family while traveling in their packed cars, sharing dinner at White’s Café in Mojave, freezing fingers while putting on chains, and pulling into town in the wee cold hours after midnight. Regardless of winter storm or bluebird day, they awakened to the winding Minaret Road, the “cattle truck” shuttle bus, the luscious scent of Max Riegg’s warm cinnamon rolls, and a “story of the day” from Toni Milici. After stopping in the repair shop to be teased by Rhubarb Marcellin, they met Batch’s smiling face at the top of Chair 1 ramp and Downhill Dick’s casted leg propped up in the shack window at the top of Chair 3. Then, the fun of skiing huge rounded moguls on Upper Broadway and over giant steps on Stump Alley, the balancing act on T-Bar 1, the adrenalin rush of flying off Hair Jump, the pride of counting lots of holes punched in lift tickets, and most of all, the warm-hearted down-home feeling of being part of a Mammoth day.

About Dave McCoy

Dave McCoy first skied the slopes of California’s Eastern Sierra during the winter of 1935–36 in the foothills above Independence. Eager to live in the mountains he loved, Dave began working for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, using his skiing skills on snow surveys. In 1941 he married Roma Carriere and became the first hydrographer stationed at the new dam at Crowley Lake. Their six children were born during the twelve years the McCoys lived at the ladwp bungalow overlooking the dam. Dave and Roma both excelled at skiing and ski racing, setting up portable rope tows with their friends and starting a part time “ski business.” In 1953 the Forest Service granted Dave McCoy a permit to build the first chair lift on Mammoth Mountain. The rest is history—on a Mammoth scale.

Tracks of Passion traces the story of Eastern Sierra skiing from its beginnings in the 1930s with early rope tows outside sleepy towns along Highway 395 to the development of Mammoth Mountain.

In the 1960s Dave McCoy’s vision for a family-fun ski resort expanded as his personally-trained racers competed internationally and his children raced in the Olympics. With more than a half century of McCoy’s leadership, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area eventually encompassed 27 lifts and a gondola, lodgings, and amenities for skiers. An enthusiastic staff of dedicated mavericks ran ski lifts, ski patrol, and ski school each winter and built lifts each summer.

Turning over the reins in 2005 at the age of 90, Dave McCoy summed up his career saying “It wasn’t a job, it was a love affair.”

About the Author: Robin Morning

Brought up in a Southern California skiing family, Robin Morning ski raced for Mammoth Mountain during the 1960s when Dave McCoy was coaching a flock of junior racers that included his own children. She went on to race for the U. S. Women’s National Team from 1965 through 1968.

Robin ended her racing career at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France after breaking her leg in a downhill training run the day before the Opening Ceremonies.

While attending college in both California and Colorado, Robin coached ski racers. She later spent twenty years living in Leucadia, California, where she raised two boys, Benjy and Jesse, and taught school for the San Dieguito Union High School District.

She since has relocated to Mammoth Lakes where she currently resides.

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