Friday afternoon, mid-January in La Jolla, the sun was beating down as if the seasons had little importance. Students on longboards glided around the UCSD campus, making weekend plans for the beach. A salty breeze wafted through my window as I packed a bag of winter diapers, mittens, goggles and beanies, along with my snowboard and boots. I hauled my gear across campus to meet a few dozen dodgy like-minded friends. It was 2006, a massive winter. The storms were hitting the Sierra Nevada hard. Our plan was to follow the snow. All of us outliers, seeking winter in a land of eternal summer.
I grew up in Lake Tahoe and learned to ski soon after I was able to walk. In high school, I started snowboarding. Back then, I had only known winters that buried me in snow banks three times the size of me. So as soon as I graduated from high school, I got as far away from the snow as I could, while still going to state school.
At first, San Diego was a welcome respite from my small hometown in the mountains. But when the snow started flying in the Sierra, I felt adrift without the grounding power of cold days. I felt lonely without a team of friends to lead me into the mountains.
Then one day I walked past a small table with a sign-up sheet for the UC San Diego ski and snowboard team. They were kids like me, caught between two worlds: the sea and the snow.
We had no coaches. We weren’t wearing spandex. We joined the team because we just wanted to ride Mammoth, one of the best ski resorts on the planet. And after the ski lifts close, celebrate our days until late at night. It’s a skier’s dream. And we were willing to sacrifice our weekends and long, tedious drives in the Eastern Sierra for it.
Skiing and snowboarding have never been affordable. But there are ways to skimp and make ski bumming work for a student’s budget. Every winter the team captains would sign a ski lease at Mammoth, tricking the owners, and we would cram three dozen students into a small A-frame. Spread over 50 trips, our rental and van costs were only a few hundred dollars for the whole year.
The ski resort also gave us discounts on lift tickets because we were part of a league of Southern California ski teams joined by Cal Poly, UCSB, UCLA, USC and San Diego State.
Every weekend a different school had a party – everyone wore neon 80s ski jackets. The ski team was an anti-fraternity, dustbag social club. We were called Kappa Tappa Keg. Our hazing ritual consisted of swallowing questionable alcohol from a bag. It was a club founded on a silly hobby that involved stuffing your feet in extremely uncomfortable boots, going out in weather conditions that would make most people question your sanity, and getting attached to one or two planks of wood. Everything for the thrill. This brief moment of weightlessness when you land at the top of the slope.
The rides to Mammoth were brutal. What should have been a six hour drive would easily stretch to nine in Friday traffic. By the time we pulled into the icy A-Frame driveway, I was exhausted and rushed to one of the two upstairs bedrooms. The sleeping bags were already lined up wall to wall, but I found some space to roll out mine near the door.
I remember that particular weekend well because the air inside the house was freezing and sure enough the team captain announced that the pipes had frozen. Frozen pipes meant no plumbing. Which meant we had to ration water bought in plastic jugs at the grocery store. Which meant we had to pee outside. Luckily the house was a block from the ski lodge, where we could use the public restroom for other things. Too tired to care, I fell asleep quickly.
Saturday morning came quickly. I had a breakfast of instant oatmeal, put on my diapers and headed to the resort. The chairlifts carried us to the top of Sierra Crest, where the view stretched out in all directions. I could see the jagged, tooth-like ridge of the Minarets, the ancient seabed of the Great Basin to the east, and to the west, the rolling slope of the Sierra down to the Pacific. Mammoth Mountain was founded in 1953 by Dave McCoy, a true visionary who saw future and potential on a mountain buried under an average of 30 feet of snow each winter. Today, more than two dozen lifts drop off skiers and snowboarders above 3,500 acres of choose-your-own terrain.
My time on the ski team was only the beginning of a decade and more devoted entirely to snowboarding and skiing. With the time and effort I invested in this strange pursuit of frozen water and gravity, I was blessed and privileged to ski around the world. Mammoth stands out for the way the wind blows each night, polishing the snow until it’s as smooth as a sheet of paper.
Come morning, you can draw any line you can imagine on its slopes. The same forces that dictate waves in the ocean deliver snow to the mountains. It’s a coastal snowpack that gives back whatever you give it. The rapidity. Stability. Deep cuts in steep falls. That’s why I come back to Mammoth for more, every year. It’s the love of a place and a time that started in college.
Sunday afternoon, mounds of snow outside the A-frame were dotted with yellow spots. We piled into the van, this time with wind-chapped cheeks and aching legs. We pulled out of the parking lot under the pines and drove south towards the ocean.