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A MAN AND HIS MOUNTAIN
William Oscar Johnson
February 25, 1985
Almost 50 years ago Dave McCoy first skied Mammoth Mountain; what he's done since is a mammoth achievement
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February 25, 1985

A Man And His Mountain

Almost 50 years ago Dave McCoy first skied Mammoth Mountain; what he's done since is a mammoth achievement

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This is the story of a man and his mountain. It isn't that the man owns the mountain. It is, in fact, the other way around: The mountain owns him. Dave McCoy has said many times that he was drawn to his mountain by powerful, almost mystical forces and that he has never been able to leave it. He has grown rich and a little bit famous because of his mountain in the almost 50 years he has been there. Of course, Mammoth Mountain, an extinct volcano in the eastern range of the Sierra Nevada, has been there a lot longer—for at least 50,000 years.

In all that time, it's safe to say that the mountain hasn't met another man who made quite such an impact on it—and certainly not one with whom it developed such a friendship.

In 1936, when Dave McCoy arrived in the village of Bishop, Calif., about 50 miles southeast of Mammoth, he was already the image of the macho mountain man. Roma Carriere, then a 17-year-old bank clerk, recalls the way the stranger looked when he first came to town: "I would see him going down Main Street in the dead of winter with his shirt open and his skis tied along the side of his motorcycle. He always wore a red bandanna over his hair. Sometimes he wore a black leather jacket. Oh, he was good-looking. I said to my sister, Frances, 'One day I'm going to get a date with that guy.' But she said, 'No way, he doesn't like girls.' "

Very soon it became apparent that the mountain man did like girls, particularly Roma Carriere. When they started dating in 1938, she told him, "I like to dance." He replied, "I don't dance, I like to fish." She said, "I don't fish,'' and he said, "Maybe I'll learn to dance if you'll learn to fish." And, so, in 1941 they were married. But though he did learn to dance and did get married, McCoy remains very much the macho mountain man.

There have been a few changes, of course. He is, after all, 69 years old, and he has put on lots of miles and he has made a lot of money. He still walks with the unique mountain man's stride—steady and springy, not as strutting as a cowboy's, and somehow more insouciant and more efficient-looking than the step of a military man. There's a pronounced limp in that stride now, however, and McCoy no longer shoots game to supplement the family diet. Indeed, he and Roma confer every month or so with a Los Angeles nutritionist who advises them on which vitamin pills to gulp each day. Still, the mountain man remains—tough, square-jawed, with a whippet-lean body-fat content of 11%, roughly that of a world-class swimmer. He thinks nothing of a 40-mile hike at 10,000 feet in the summer, and he still skis hard for a couple of hours almost every winter day.

It's nice that McCoy is in such excellent shape, because he is, sadly, the last of his particular breed of mountain man—the last of the rugged, hell-for-leather individuals who strapped their skis on their cycles in the 1930s and '40s and rode off to start their own ski areas. He's the last to run his whole multimillion-dollar shebang by himself. No Ralston Purina, Twentieth Century-Fox or Apex Oil takeovers for McCoy. No conglomerate partnership, no paying off big-money creditors with shares of the business, no giving away so much as a single chair lift—hell, so much as a snowflake—to any eager, MBA banker or smart lawyer types. No, McCoy has outwitted, out-lucked and outlasted them all. Now he's worth millions, and he and his family control all of it. How many millions? No one on the outside knows, and none of the McCoys is talking. The best estimates are at least $50 million, maybe more than $100 million.

McCoy is the sole operator and developer of the busiest ski area in the U.S. This place, Mammoth Mountain, is a dramatic piece of California real estate that peaks at 11,053 feet. All but a small part of the land McCoy uses is owned by the U.S. Forest Service and is leased to him. (Indeed 90% of all ski-area land in the West is leased by the areas' operators from the Federal Government.) Included in McCoy's skiing kingdom are 1,330 snowy acres of slopes and steeps, ranging from avalanche chutes to gentle white aprons that flow down from the peak as if they were made of marshmallow syrup. Mammoth Mountain has 23 chair lifts, four surface lifts, two gondolas, 54 miles of trails, huge lodges at two different base locations, a 170-room inn, a fleet of 26 grooming vehicles and countless dump trucks, snowmobiles, cars and snow-plows as well as some 1,400 winter employees.

How busy is the busiest ski area in the U.S.? On an average weekend about 14,000 people swarm over Mammoth Mountain. On a gorgeous weekend, 17,000 will be there. But on an excellent weekday in midwinter there will be only 7,000 or so. This is because Mammoth Mountain isn't your plush, jet-set destination resort. People go to Mammoth for weekend skiing. When they take longer ski vacations, they head for Vail, Alta, Sun Valley. Yet, none of those silkier places matches Mammoth's annual customer totals. Last season, 1.3 million lift tickets were sold at Mammoth, and that wasn't its best season ever: 1,424,456 paid and skied in 1981-82, the highest annual total ever recorded in the U.S. And just for the record, at the end of January, Mammoth was running about 9% above its best ever.

The secret to Mammoth Mountain's monumental success is its location: It's the winter playground for Los Angeles, 350 miles away, a six-or seven-hour drive on U.S. Route 395. That may sound like a trek of some seriousness, but to the motor-minds of Southern California, driving 14 hours both ways for 10 hours of skiing and one night of partying isn't even worth a question.

And when they get there, the occupants of each car are happy to pay the $22 it costs for a daily lift ticket to ski McCoy's mountain. This little family business grossed more than $20 million in lift tickets alone in the 1983-84 season. One factor that helps Mammoth attract masses of skiers is that the 300-inch average snowfall on the mountain is both deeper and denser than at nearly all other major U.S. resorts. Thus, the season at Mammoth, which usually begins about mid-November, goes on and on—rarely ending before July 4.

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