Hitting the Slopes on a Mountain Bike
by Ken McApline
It's what you'd expect, peering from a ski lift at 10,000 feet - with one thing amiss. Three hundred and twenty miles southeast of San Francisco, 307 miles northeast of Los Angeles, smack dab in the Sierra Nevada, Mammoth Mountain is one of California's premier ski resorts; 15,000 skiers might swarm the slopes on a weekend, and anyone who has ever strapped on skis knows that all of them will be standing ahead of you in line.
Not today. Ahead empty gondolas swing up to Mammoth's 11,053-foot summit. Below the slopes are bereft of skiers, this being mid-July.
I share the gondola with a goateed, 20-something fellow who doesn't say a word until we roll our mountain bikes out onto the summit. A cool wind whops in our ears. Distant mountain ridges, many of the caps still topped with snow, ring us; they are miles away, but on their slopes you can see individual pines and the detritus of rock slides, every rounded, boughed and fractured detail brought forward in startling clarity by the kind of blue sky you could fall into. Now my fellow adventurer speaks. "Insane," he says.
Had you approached ski resort owners 15 years ago and suggested they open their slopes to mountain bikers in summer, you might have received the same assessment. Not anymore. Mountain biking is booming and ski resorts, hot to turn an offseason profit, are opening their lifts and trails. Currently some 150 resorts, Mammoth included, entertain mountain bikers.
Mammoth hosts professional mountain bike contests and anywhere from 200 to 1,000 recreational riders a day. Bike rangers trained in emergency aid patrol the trails (few serious injuries but lots of scrapes, one of them told me). At the base of the mountain, you can sip cappuccino at the Gearhead Cafe or buy a trail pass, rent a bike, grab a trail map or poke through a stack of glitzy bike gear at the Bike Center next door. All of this is nice. But in my mind, mountain biking's real appeal is the chance to escape this stuff, to explore and see supernatural beauty via two-wheel quiet. With 70-plus miles of groomed singletrack trail lacing 3,500 acres of slope and forest, Mammoth offers plenty of opportunity for that.
Many of the trails can be negotiated by riders with minimal off-road skills, and those that can't are clearly marked in black on the trail map and anointed with telltale names like Skid Marks, Brake Through and Kamikaze - the latter being a legendary teary-eyed, snot-smearing 4.5-mile fallaway from Mammoth Mountain's summit that sees skilled riders hit speeds of 60-plus miles an hour.
It's true that mountain biking was founded by adrenal freaks. But the sport has since been taken up by droves of conventional folk who understand that life insurance policies don't cover freefalling down cornices, and that's mostly who the ski-cum-mountain bike resorts cater to.
Hoping to lure more business, they offer attractive packages, too. I signed up for Mammoth Adventure Connection's two-night mountain bike package, $286 for two nights stay at the Mammoth Mountain Inn (a grand - and in July nearly empty - hotel conveniently located at the foot of the mountain), a Bike Park pass for the day, a rental bike (a spiffy thing with shock absorption) and assorted other incidentals, including two hours with a guide. A transplanted Englishman and one-time member of England's national mountain bike team, it didn't take Chris Hosking long to read my needs and my mind. "Use your brakes as much as you want, and take time to enjoy the views," smiled Hosking when we met in front of the Bike Center on a Wednesday morning. "Go slow, and if you get to something that's too difficult, get off."
It was obvious Hosking knew teaching, too. Rather than sit in front of the Bike Center, we immediately set off down an easy downhill trail called Paper Route so that Hosking might judge his student's prowess.
So it was that in short order Hosking began reviewing basic off road do's and don'ts. Don't jam on the front brake (you'll go over the handlebars), don't attempt sudden directional changes in soft dirt or mid-turn (you'll go down). Do move your butt out over your back tire during steep descents to keep the rear wheel planted firmly on the ground, do scan the trail ahead (unaddressed rocks, tree roots and dropoffs abruptly enliven a ride), do exercise caution.
These things were important and I tried hard to focus on what Hosking was saying, but I must confess I found it hard to pay attention. Singletrack is roughly a foot wide (and often narrower), and most of Mammoth's singletrack was well groomed, at points even cupped into a sort of smooth half-pipe.
Riding Paper Route, a long gradual decline, was like descending a curvy luge track. We swooped down through a tunnel of pine, piercing cool shadows and flickering sunlight. Well, Hosking swooped. But even my liberal use of brakes didn't dilute the magic. Eventually, we found ourselves back up at the base of the mountain. It was time for Chris to go, but before he did he nodded up at the summit and smiled. "Anyone can do it," he said, "and now you know how to use your brakes."
He surveyed the dark clouds planing overhead. "But I'd ride the Kamikaze now. Those clouds are going to build. There's a risk of the gondola being closed because of thunder and lightning."
I squandered as much time as I could, but the weather refused to cooperate. Which is how I found myself standing at the summit with my goateed friend, our noses pointed into a black sign proclaiming "You are at the start of the Kamikaze, the West's Most Outrageous Ride." This only served to heighten Goatee's enthusiasm. "Radical," he grinned.
Mounting up, he adjusted his helmet and nodded. "See you at the bottom," he said. Only if he pitched a tent. Because the important point is this - no hill is terrifying if negotiated properly. And so my descent was only bereft of the shrieking of brakes when I stopped, which I did often. Because the view was shockingly wonderful, a head-spinning 360-degree panorama of mountain crags and glinting lakes and great green valleys, quiltwork squares of pine and forest and grass.
So wonderful that I took the gondola back to the summit first thing the next day. This time, I descended via a tamer route called "Off The Top." I junked the map - Mammoth's trails are well marked with neat wooden signs - and simply rode where my nose led me.
The sun warmed my face, a soft wind moved the pines. I crossed white bright sand and skirted tiny round lakes, the bike's wheels crunching merrily beneath me. I dropped through dark corridors of pine, and stopped to look at empty chairlifts swaying and creaking in the sun. In four hours, I saw five other riders.
Earlier, Chris had told me it would be hard to get lost - but I did, which is how I happened on a lovely trail, soft with pine needles and split by streams edged with purple flowered stalks and forded by mossy wooden footbridges.
Even now, I can't find the trail on the map.
Precisely the point.