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.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed in the ski business, not even snow on December 25, let alone July 4. As McCoy says himself, "I have been lucky here. Somehow, it seems like I could never make a real serious mistake. Droughts, gas shortages, blizzards, recessions, blocked roads, busted machinery—whatever went wrong, it seemed something almost always happened immediately that set it right."
True. No man can succeed alone in a business dependent on the warped ways of the weather without being either lucky or touched by God's blessing. McCoy can think of all kinds of disasters he has escaped—alive if not unscathed. Take the winter-long drought of 1958-59, when people were horseback riding as late as December. Or the season of 1969-70 when hardly a flake flew for more than a month—and then it snowed so much that 32 feet of the stuff covered the slopes. Or the avalanche of 1979 that smashed a chair lift. Or the winter of 1982-83, when it snowed every weekend except one in January and February, keeping skiers away by the tens of thousands. Political and economic factors can also cause disasters. The gasoline shortage of 1973-74 might well have left McCoy bankrupt except somehow the skiers kept coming. "Californians never say no when it comes to cars," he says. "They came six or eight to a car. They stayed four days instead of two, and we all made it through alive."
Most ski-area operators don't know exactly when, or which, forces of disaster will hit them next, but in general they do know that their crises will originate either from the economy or from the sky. But McCoy and Mammoth have still another direction from which trouble can be anticipated—deep underground. As if thaws, blizzards, avalanches and Arab oil sheiks aren't enough. Mammoth Mountain happens to be sitting on one of the more restless bits of land in North America. Situated just 200 miles east of the San Andreas Fault, which shudders down the length of California, a wide area of the Sierra Nevada surrounding Mammoth has long been one of the more active earthquake zones in the West. There's a constant shifting of tectonic plates down below. Stresses are pulling subterranean masses east against west in a tug-of-war that sends frequent tremors through the region.
Like most Californians, people around Mammoth Mountain are nonchalant about these little gurglings and rumblings beneath their feet. "I've felt quakes by the hundred," says McCoy. "I've stood in a gully while the ground felt like breaking eggs under my feet, with my eyes fixed up on the cliffs above me. I was like an outfielder, watching rocks coming down on me, running from side to side in that gully, dodging falling rocks, never taking my eyes off them. I'd be lots more afraid of a Midwest flood or a cyclone than I would of an earthquake."
But there's more than just the threat of earthquakes at Mammoth. There are also the volcanoes. Mammoth is in the second most active volcanic zone in the contiguous U.S. The first is the Cascade Range, which includes Mount St. Helens in Washington.
The Mammoth Mountain ski area is located about four miles to the west of the town of Mammoth Lakes (permanent pop. 4,000), which sits at one end of Long Valley, an oval-shaped depression in the mountains that is a caldera, a sunken volcanic crater. The Long Valley caldera is the result of an immense eruption of magma (subterranean molten rock), fire and gases about 700,000 years ago. According to Dr. Alan Ryall, a geophysicist at the University of Nevada at Reno who has scrutinized Long Valley seismic activity for years, "Never in historic time has there been anything like it." Dr. Patrick Muffler, who heads the U.S. Geologic Survey's volcano hazards program in Menlo Park, Calif., speaks even more dramatically: "That was a humongous eruption. It spread a plume of ash over most of the western U.S. It makes anything we've seen in later years look like child's play. It was probably 1,000 times the size of what happened at Mount St. Helens. In the last 2.5 million years there have been only five eruptions in the U.S. close to that size. It was, believe me, an incomprehensibly catastrophic event."
There have been smaller eruptions at Mammoth since then. One of rather significant size occurred 100,000 years ago, a smaller one 50,000 years ago. The last small eruption in the Long Valley caldera came about 500 years ago. There are pools of magma about three miles down under the caldera and steam vents throughout the area, some of which heat the lovely, bubbling hot baths favored by the skiing hedonists of Mammoth. As we shall see, this subterranean plumbing is also part of the unknown—and the unknowable—conditions with which McCoy must contend in running the nation's most popular ski area. But he's a mountain man through and through, and forces of nature that terrify other men are mere breakfast food to him.
The first time McCoy laid eyes on the peaks of the Sierra Nevada was in 1928, when he was 12 and his mother brought him to visit a friend of hers in Bishop. "My mother's friend ran a restaurant," he says. "I tied flies. We didn't stay long, but I could never get the place out of mind." His father and mother had just separated, but even when they'd been together, young Dave had led a strange and fractured existence. "My father was a highway contractor," he says. "I was born in L.A., but we were always moving. Twelve, 13 times a year, we'd move, and I'd be in a different school every month, sometimes twice in a month. It was hard, but there were good things, too. I consider one of my assets today to be my ability to look at a guy and know what he's like. That goes back to all those times I had to fend for myself as a child among strangers."
After graduating from high school, McCoy moved around California, trying various places and jobs. He did some coal mining, some pig farming, but eventually gravitated to that mystical magnet, the eastern Sierra Nevada. "Some power, some force kept holding me near Mammoth," he says. "I don't believe in church, although I certainly am Godfearing. I believe something is done outside our own control sometimes, and we simply do what we have to do."
Among his few possessions at the time was a pair of skis, wooden, of course, which he'd made for himself in the shop of his high school. He had copied the design and dimensions from an illustration in a magazine ad for Northland skis. These were his only skis for years, and they carried him thousands of miles because, as he says, "I loved the snow more than anything in those mountains." He began skiing seriously—and very well. He was handy with machinery, too, and he worked as a mechanic here and there in the area.
The skiing and the mechanical talent soon melded: Around 1937, McCoy and some friends built a portable rope tow. They would drive a Model A Ford truck to a likely slope, jack up the rear wheels and hook a length of half-inch rope around the rim of a wheel. Then they would climb the hill and attach the rope and a block and tackle to a tree. The setup would move the rope through a long, thin loop—and would pull the skiers up the hill after each run. Among the friends who worked with McCoy on his early tow was Cortlandt T. Hill, an avid outdoorsman and skier and grandson of the Great Northern Railway baron, James J. Hill. Recalls McCoy, "We put up a tow on McGee Mountain outside Bishop. Corty Hill and I ran it. Mainly it was for the Eastern Sierra Ski Club, and we didn't charge anything."
Eventually, McCoy, Hill and others put up rope tows, some permanent, some portable, all over the area for the ski club. But at that point the tows were only a hobby. McCoy's real job in the late 1930s was as a hydrographer for the city of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Although he had taken correspondence school courses in engineering, he knew little about the scientific subtleties of water circulation systems. Mainly, he was a superb skier and a fearless mountaineer, and those were a hydrographer's major qualifications in the Sierra Nevada. The job involved going deep into the mountains to measure the depth of snow and extrapolate the volume of water that would be available when it melted. Thus the L.A. water department would have some idea of what the supply would be in the coming spring and summer. This kept McCoy in the mountains for many weeks in winter. "I was like a glorified trapper," he says, barely able to conceal the ecstasy that such a life once gave him. "I was like an ancient Indian type, on skis, snow-shoes, making my way by myself in every kind of weather, every kind of natural hazard. Oh, I'll tell you, if I didn't have this job I have now, I'd rather be doing that again than anything else on earth."
But those were hard times. Dave and Roma were married in 1941, and that winter they worked out of a cabin on Lake Crowley, so far into the wilderness that they had to leave their car on a road six miles away and ski to the cabin. And they were poor. Roma recalls one crisis: "We had gotten supplies in Bishop and were skiing back to Lake Crowley at night with our supplies on our backs. The moon was bright and it was wonderful. About a quarter-mile from the house, there was a long, fast downhill run. Dave fell. The groceries went out of his backpack all over the place. All of our eggs broke. We were heartbroken. We could not afford to buy more eggs. So we skied home, got a pan and spoon, climbed up the hill and there in the moonlight, we scooped up the eggs out of the snow."
According to Roma, another crisis of poverty changed their lives: "One weekend we were at the tow on McGee Mountain near Bishop and Dave said to me, 'My paycheck isn't due for four or five days. Why don't you charge people a little money to ride our tow?' I said, 'I have to charge them?' He said, 'Well, someone does. I'm too busy. Make it 50 cents a day, O.K.?' Well, I had a fishing creel, and I put the money in it, and I felt just terrible making people pay to use the tow. But there was $15 in there at the end of the day. I rode up the tow to Dave and I was yelling, 'Come here! Look what we made!' He looked in the creel and said, 'Say, this might turn into a pretty good little business, you know it?' " Soon, they were collecting money in coffee cans and cigar boxes at all of their rope tows.
But McCoy was not only a hydrographer and a budding entrepreneur in those days. He also was a brilliant ski racer—a barn-burner of a downhiller and a slashing, dashing slalomist who took on members of the 1936 U.S. Olympic team, as well as the best racers in the West, and won consistently until one day in '42 when he suffered a horrific skiing injury, a fracture of the left leg in 38 places. Here's what happened, in McCoy's words: "It was spring and I was running a downhill at Sugar Bowl [at Donner Summit] and I was going maybe 60 miles an hour on a steep schuss. Suddenly the snow just caved in. I dropped down, slammed my shin against—I don't know what—solid ice, maybe a rock or stump. I snapped the bone clean, but I was still moving ahead, fast, and wound up going another 100 feet. I saw I was headed for the crowd. I tried to turn. I lost it. I spun around on the skis—a spiral—and that's when the other breaks occurred. Thirty-eight different places. The bone was like gravel."
Doctors told McCoy there was no choice but to amputate. He refused and so they put him in a hospital bed, with the leg hung in a sling. "It turned fat and black," says McCoy, "and the pain was constant. After a month it wasn't getting better. The doc said, 'We have to take it off, Dave.' I said, 'No.' " Subsequently, the doctors operated for 5½ hours on the leg. They drilled tiny holes, and inserted a Chinese puzzle of wires, screws, bolts and nuts. The bone healed badly. Months went by. Then the doctors tried another operation. "They took a nine-inch length of bone out of my right leg and another nine-inch strip out of the weak one," says McCoy. "That was all chips and junk so they compressed it into something relatively solid and put it in the healthy right leg. The good bone, they put in the left. It took five years to heal. I was on crutches. I wore a leather brace. I could ski all right, oddly enough, but walking was very difficult. Sometimes in the mountains, I could ski to within a few yards from where I had to make water measurements, but then I'd have to crawl on my hands and knees because walking was so painful."
He still limps when he walks: The left leg is three quarters of an inch shorter than the right. But when he skis there's no sign of injury. He is, amazingly, still racing and just last year won the National Masters downhill title in his age group.
After his recovery McCoy turned to coaching and produced some of the best U.S. racers of the 1950s and 1960s. In '49 he coached his first national champion, U.S. junior slalom titlist Charlotte Zumstein, and one of his star students, Jean Saubert, won two medals in the '64 Olympics. Saubert later said, "Dave was by far the best coach I ever had." In all, he sent 17 racers from Mammoth Mountain to Olympic or world-class competition—including his daughter, Penny, now 35, and his son, Pancho, now 39. McCoy himself might still be coaching, but in the late '60s and early '70s there was so much cheap politics in the U.S. Ski Team that he washed his hands of the whole operation.
When World War II ended, and good times returned to the U.S., Americans went looking for ways to have fun, and here were these lovely mountains with rope tows on them and lodges at the bottom. McCoy and others were in business here and there through the Sierra, though it was small potatoes. Don Redmon, 62, safety director at Mammoth, began working with McCoy in 1946. "We had three tows on Mammoth and we used weasels, those war surplus tracked vehicles, to bring people up from town," Redmon says. "If we had 350 skiers on a weekend, we were inundated!" But it was business and it was on federal land. McCoy recalls, "Finally, someone from the Forest Service came by and said, 'Hey, Dave, we better get some kind of a permit in writing. You know, something that says you hold the government faultless or harmless or something if someone is hurt?' I didn't mind. They gave me what they called a 'roving permit,' which allowed me to operate tows, portable and otherwise, on three or four mountains for exactly one dollar a year."
It was a bargain, of course. But it worked both ways. Almost forty years later, the Forest Service swears that there has been no better tenant on their land than McCoy. While other ski areas have fought like cougars with the authorities over expansion plans and environmental conflicts, McCoy and the Inyo National Forest administration have arrived at a marriage almost as warm as his and Roma's. Indeed, McCoy has been so conscious of the fragility of the terrain and the ecology around him that he has drawn almost no fire from such environmental watchdogs as the Sierra Club.
McCoy increased his number of tows, until by 1950 he was able to handle 1,800 skiers an hour—which was more than the capacity of Squaw Valley with its chair lift. Skiing was growing rapidly, and Angelenos were beginning to find Mammoth Mountain. A star or two had turned up in the old days, notably Tyrone Power and Ginger Rogers, when Roma was collecting tow fees in her fishing creel, but now the ski business was beginning to look like big business.
Thus, in 1953, the Forest Service solicited big-buck entrepreneurs to develop new ski terrain in the Sierra Nevada. There was interest among several millionaires, including McCoy's pal, Hill. As for McCoy himself, "I wasn't considered a likely prospect to develop anything. I had six kids, no extra money. I was still working for the city of Los Angeles. There were plenty of others, though, and they flew up and down the range, making studies of everything you could think of—vertical drop, snowfall, average temperatures, accessibility. Strangely enough, no one liked the looks of Mammoth. Even Corty Hill told me it wouldn't work. Everything was wrong, he said. It was too stormbound, had too much snow, was too wet and was way too high. The base where my tows began at Mammoth was at the same altitude as the peak is at Squaw Valley, you know."
So as the surveys went on, Mammoth Mountain became anathema to all the would-be builders; finally the Forest Service turned to McCoy and suggested that maybe he'd like to take on the project. "The trouble was," says McCoy, "I had nothing. I had no hope of getting enough to develop the place the way the Forest Service prospectus required." Then a most unlikely angel appeared, Walter Martignoni, a wealthy ship salvager. As fate would have it, Martignoni had gotten fascinated with the ski business and now he came to McCoy and said that he had built a chair lift. "I told him I didn't have a dime to finance it. I had no credit," says McCoy, "but he said he didn't care. He'd built the lift with his own money and I could pay him back when—well, whenever I could."
This kept McCoy in the ski business. As with so much else at Mammoth, he sees a cosmic power behind it. "Without that credit line, I could have done nothing," he says. "It was almost mystical, somehow religious. But it has happened time and again; when I have needed something so desperately that I would fail without it, it has come through."
Chair One was opened on Thanksgiving Day 1955, and word of Mammoth's easy new way up the slopes had spread so widely there were more than 2,000 skiers clotted together in one of the first—and worst—lift-line snarls in the mountain's history. "People waited two, even three hours for a ride," says McCoy.
That glut could only be considered a golden omen. From there, Mammoth has grown and grown, and McCoy is probably the richest mountain man around. But how did he avoid being devoured by the Ralston Purinas and the Apex Oils? "I've always been patient," he says. "I've been willing to expand slowly, step by step, logically and gradually. Others try and do everything with splash and flash. That's how you lose your shirt. By going slowly, we've been careful to avoid high interest charges and we've kept the money we borrowed on extremely short-term loans. They say, you know, that every man has his price. But I haven't heard one yet that has even tempted me, and I've heard some beauties. No, I plan a continuance of this operation just as it is—with my family and me in charge—for just as long as this mountain is here, if that's possible."
Well, yes, as long as the mountain is there. How long will that be? Perhaps another 20 million years or so. But probably not. There was some doubt about that not long ago. On May 25, 1982 the U.S. Geological Survey declared a volcano hazard "notice" in the area. The term "notice" was used to indicate the lowest level of danger in a three-tiered volcano warning system. "Watch" and "warning" were the other two classifications in the system, which the USGS did away with a year ago.
Low-key though the USGS warning was, the Survey was roundly scorched for being alarmist—particularly by homeowners, developers and real-estate agents in Mammoth Lakes who saw their property values take a dive. Some skeptics accused the agency of issuing the warning for the express purpose of attempting to increase its budget at a time when the Reagan Administration was cutting funds. This was hotly denied by USGS scientists. The shrillest alarms came from the TV news and newspapers in Los Angeles. There was talk of lava running in the streets of Mammoth Lakes. TV anchormen delivered portentous reports of volcanic action beneath the Mammoth Mountain region in front of photographs of the fearsome billowing eruption of Mount St. Helens, which had blown its top two years earlier. TV cameramen taped steaming hot springs that had been burbling for years and shot old cracks in the asphalt pavement of Mammoth Lakes as if they had just appeared. There was talk of evacuating the town, and a couple of tour buses actually turned around and fled the region. But none of this foolishness lasted very long.
The Mammoth Lakes area of California has long been full of seismic activity, a fascinating area for geologists, seismologists and volcanologists. Rudimentary seismic measurements have been recorded in the region since the 1880s, fairly sophisticated stuff since about 1948. So there are some patterns scientists can follow. Until the mid 1970s there were the usual garden variety quakes in the region. Then in '77 came a strange period of quiet. "This tipped us off that something might be in the works," says Ryall. Sure enough, in the fall of '78 a remarkable series of new rumblings began, what scientists call "swarms" of earthquakes—dozens, hundreds', as many as 1,000 little shocks in a single day. Rarely were they even of a 5.0 magnitude on the Richter scale. (A 5 is medium low, a 6 moderate, above 7 gets serious. An 8.3 wrecked San Francisco in 1906.)
Then on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens roared up, blasting forth an enormous amount of magma, killing 36 people—including a USGS scientist—and leaving another 23 missing. One week later, the Mammoth Lakes area was rocked by four quakes of a 6 magnitude or greater within a period of 48 hours. No previously measured patterns had included such a heavy series of shocks. After that, there were more quake swarms, with the center about two miles east of Mammoth Lakes. Gradually, according to Ryall, the source of the quakes seemed to be getting shallower, closer to the earth's surface. It was deduced that rising pools of magma might have generated these quakes.
This changing of pressures and forces in the reservoirs of molten rock, three or four miles under the caldera, might have caused the earthquakes. Or the pressure changes might have been caused by earthquakes. No one knows. Nevertheless, a crew surveying in the caldera along Route 395 found that a section about 10 miles by six miles had begun to bulge upward slightly. It was then about 10 inches higher than it was thought to have been in 1979. Today it has bulged to about 18 inches higher than it was in '79. Says Muffler, "The molten rock is being pressured by the earth movements around it, and it swells and rises. It's like squeezing a balloon."
The interpretation was that the magma had been forced slightly upward and was pushing up against the earth's crust, bloating it ever so slightly. This doming action, like the rising of bread dough, seems to be present before any volcano erupts. But the action in Long Valley is almost infinitesimal, certainly when compared to Mount St. Helens, which bulged five feet a day for two weeks before it burst.
The quakes in May 1982 which led to the USGS hazard "notice" were as much as 4.2 in magnitude and "spasmic," as Ryall describes them. He says, "People from St. Helens were very alarmed....
"The USGS was ready to go overboard, and I think they overreacted with the warning. But they had been burned—figuratively and literally—at St. Helens and you really can't blame them."
"We were damned if we did and damned if we didn't," says Muffler. "But what if something had happened and we hadn't said anything? If the 1982 events had led to an eruption we'd have been canonized instead of castigated. Our job is to let people know when a hazard exists, yet the minute we mention hazard, we are alarmists."
So where do things stand now? Ryall says, "You can't predict volcanic eruptions, you simply cannot do it. You can only track patterns with timetables, and there are no exact records of the past. No one thinks Long Valley is going to sail into the sky in a plume of fire, but there is an increase in steam on the surface, there are the earthquakes and there is uplift in the dome. All of this indicates activity." Dr. David Hill, the USGS scientist directing the Mammoth Lakes monitoring project, says, "Sure, an eruption might be a possibility, but the last one was 500 or 600 years ago. There's activity, but we are monitoring it as tightly as any area we have ever studied."
The alarm has subsided in the area. Real-estate prices are up again, and McCoy actually sees something positive in the scare. "We've enjoyed a tremendous amount of publicity over the volcanoes," he says. "Everyone knows where Mammoth is now, where the best skiing is. We have all kinds of new instruments to measure quakes and volcanoes. We are safer here now than we've ever been. We go on as we always have."
There is a splendid case in point: Nov. 23, 1984 was the Friday after Thanksgiving, a dazzling day at Mammoth Mountain, with snow as smooth as ice cream and the largest crowd in history swarming over the mountain. Lines were heavy at the chair lifts and the hills were dense with zooming skiers. There were 20,300 people there—breaking the previous single-day record of 18,300.
Suddenly, at 10:08 a.m., there was a rumbling in the ground and, yes, the earth moved a little. The shock was from a 5.7-magnitude quake in the Bishop area, yet it shook and rattled things enough on Mammoth Mountain that operators shut down the chair lifts. There was a moment of silence, then a surprised shout that went up everywhere. What next? Panic? A crazed stampede of skiers hurtling downhill to safety? Masses of people and cars thronging to the exit roads?
Not on your life. This was California. This was Mammoth Mountain. Nothing happened. The chair lifts began to run again in a matter of minutes, people continued to ski, and the day proceeded placidly. "There's plenty to worry about in these mountains," says Dave McCoy, the Mammoth Mountain man, "but you can get used to it. It's not frightening, it's not even dangerous as long as you take the trouble to understand what's happening."
That's how a man talks when he has a mountain for a best friend.
A man of many parts: The 69-year-old McCoy skis a mean downhill race, bicycles in the Sierra, hits the trail on his motocross bike and still has time to enjoy the pool at home with Roma.
This cross section shows how the pressure of the magma may have pushed up the ground in a "resurgent dome." Mammoth Mountain is located five miles west of the dome, i.e., toward the reader.
The eruption at Mount St. Helens may have caused undue alarm at Mammoth.
Skiers make for the moguls on Dave's Run, a tough trail that's named for the real McCoy.
On a perfect weekend, some 17,000 skiers may jam the slopes of Mammoth, making lift lines (above) a trial, even for laid-back Californians.
PAUL J. PUGLIESE
The "epicentral site" marks the focus of the earthquake swarms noted in the last five years.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
LONG VALLY CALDERA
MOMMOTH MTN. SKI AREA
San Joaquin River
"Burned" by Mount St. Helens, Ryall says that the USGS issued a "notice" for Mammoth.
The USGS's Bill Ellsworth (left) and David Hill examine a satellite photo of the Long Valley area.
In a scene out of snowy sci-fi, machines groom Fascination Run at twilight.