The Jaded Local: June Gloom

With June Mountain closing we're losing some of the best lift-accessed skiing in America.

3d Chute (far left), the ramp of Dream Mountain, and Upper Hemlock. Photo: The Jaded Local


Words and Photo: The Jaded Local

“Are you all right? What’s wrong?”
“A great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.”

It’s been a few days since the announcement that June Mountain won’t be open this winter, so I’ve pretty much come to terms with it now. I’ve gone through the Five Stages of Grief identified by Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. And then I went to the Clocktower last night and got drunk on old Scotch with the owner after closing time. If you were walking by around 1 in the morning, you would have heard a high-pitched keening sound like some kind of orphaned baby animal.

Dammit man, not June.

There’s something scary and sacrilegious about the thought of those lifts sitting there all winter while the snow piles up, silent for the first time in 50 years. Great powder skiing, functional chairlifts, a bar with a nice fireplace, the longest sustained lift-served pitch in the state…a classic ski resort all paid for already, and somehow nobody can figure out how to make money with the damn thing.

If the town of June Lakes were in Colorado, it would be Telluride. It’s the most beautiful mountain town in California, the only one in the whole state that’s surrounded by big alpine peaks, lakes, waterfalls, and couloirs. But this is California, so all the rich people would rather go to Telluride and the local ski community could fit in my apartment.

The deepest day I’ve ever had was at June Mountain. February of ’98, right in the middle of an apocalyptic weeklong El Niño storm cycle. Everything was shut down in Mammoth, so we put ‘er in 4-low and beat it up Highway 395 to June, sneaking in just as they were closing the road for avalanches, cutting the little town off from the world.

We didn’t ski anything except the lower mountain, right under the lift, because if you fell into a treewell or even just fell at all and nobody saw it, you’d be gone forever. It was neck-deep, overhead in places. It was somewhere around 6 feet of fresh with constant refills from the wind. They let us keep loading until dark because they had to keep the chair spinning so the lift wouldn’t ice up and seize. When we finally wrapped and went to the Tiger Bar in town, there were people drag-racing snowmobiles down the main street. I’ve forgotten dozens of other deep days in June, but that one will stay with me forever.

And it’s not the reason for the high-pitched keening sounds, or the carpet-bombing campaign on my liver. The Negatives, 3D Chute, Dream Mountain, Hemlock Ridge, Fern Lake Grotto, Four Seasons, Carson Bowl, Devil’s Slide, Pete’s Dream… We’re losing the best lift-assisted backcountry skiing in California. Four thousand feet of couloirs, bowls, techy alpine faces, and some of the finest north-facing old-growth powder skiing in the land. An hour and half skin from the top of Lift Seven puts you on top of Pete’s Dream, a 4,000-foot fall line fantasy run with powder spines and massive exposure. Put a number on that. What’s a Granite Canyon or Bear Creek worth, but with better snow, better tree skiing, no access issues, and nobody dropping in on top of you?

Whenever I’ve written something about the June sidecountry for POWDER, there have always been a couple of local guys who would get all self-righteous and bitch at me like it was going to get invaded by hordes of backcountry skiers and tracked up if I sold out “their” Super Duper Seekrit Stash. Well, you got what you wanted, I guess.

The locals in Mammoth and June are starting to freak out. The town of Mammoth is about to go bankrupt, the ski resort has been laying off long-term employees with a vengeance, we’re one dry winter from boarding up the windows on Main Street, and now June. The place was pretty thoroughly harvested by Intrawest and other purveyors of the housing bubble of the 2000s, and there’s not much left to exploit anymore. But the investment portfolio that owns Mammoth/June now just happens to own a nice chunk of property in June Lakes that, I’m sure, they would very much like to develop with a multi-story pile of Rustic Elegance and Slopeside Investment Opportunity (or at least get all the paperwork out of the way so they can sell a ready-to-build project). The locals declined to change their height-restricted zoning when Intrawest applied for a building permit, but they might be a little more inclined to get with the program after a taste of the lash. Who knows? The various discussions on the street and the Internet are emotional and generally clueless.

The official rationale for the closing, that the mountain was $1.5 million in the red per year, can no doubt be made true in some accounting sense, but how do they factor in use (or value assigned to the option) by the 20,000-plus season pass holders at Mammoth/June? Accounting aside, the recent strategy of maintaining multiple parks and pipes that were being used by tiny numbers of people could have cost millions on it’s own in snowcat time—the mountain was being run like a loss leader, not a profit center. At any rate, just shutting it down is worth more in terms of local political leverage than a sustainable business model for a rinky-dink resort. The group that purchased Mammoth from Dave McCoy is not in the running-ski-resorts business, they are in the investment-maximizing business and that means real estate.

If the people at Starwood (the equity group that now owns Mammoth and June Mountain) were interested in running June at a profit it would be the simplest thing in the world. Spin the lifts, do some light AC on the inbounds terrain, and stock the bar. That’s it. Promote it as the sickest backcountry access in California and sell one-rides for $20. Silverton is making money in the middle of nowhere with a permit that limits them to 130 skiers a day and they only run four days a week up a sketchy frigid canyon in B.F.E. Southwest Colorado.

The real unknown is the Forest Service. The F.S. owns the land and the lease for June, and the local office is probably full of the nervous scuttling sounds of people ducking for bureaucratic cover as fast as they can find it. The last thing anyone wants to do there is make a decision about what they’ll sanction. And who knows what’s going to happen this winter—will the Forest Service close June to uphill travel? Will it become the ultimate Mad Max style snowmobile freakfest? Because if those lifts aren’t spinning I’m taking matters into my own hands—I’ll be there every powder day with a 1000cc paddle-tracked screaming death machine charging people a sixer for a ride up The Face and twelver to the top of Lift Seven so they can go ski the Negatives. It might not be pretty, and it sure won’t save those jobs in June, but what the hell, we can still ski there right?

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  • Jamie

    Great Article – and I will be first in line to pay you the 18 bucks to the top during the first weekend dump! I appreciate you being real about the real estate stuff – mammoth / Dave had that fight for years and the folks in June weren’t having it. If they are really done with it – maybe we can get a back country co-op together and run it as you suggest. No ski school, no major grooming, kill the lifts you don’t need for BC access and make a go of it.

  • David

    Mono and Inyo County small town citizens, businesses & government — shocked at first — are now mobilizing to try to keep June Mountain open, under different business models than Mammoth Mountain has tried. Their goal is to save California’s small town communities and schools, despite the Mammoth Mountain corporation’s sudden unexpected business announcement. Ideas include creating a local community-run operation like Mad River in Vermont, or other models, but only IF the corporation will consider or allow it by doing anything other than just shutting June Mountain immediately.

  • David

    I like your article but you miss one point — the entire June Lake community, and part of Lee Vining and Bridgeport, rely on June Mountain as winter engine to maintain the economic and social fabric. June Mountain has played that social role for 50 years, under very different business models than Mammoth has tried to install. Its not about the jobs for current staff, its about the role of a big corporation in driving the survival of small towns with history and people and schools we value. What’s the role of the people vs. the corporation in maintaining that? Especially when the people are willing to step up, but it looks like the corporation might not let them at this point.

  • http://sccsc.com Mark

    In January 2006 I broke my femur riding the face of June mtn skiers left, popping off a little boulder and wrapping myself around a sneaky little conifer barely protruding from the 3 feet of tasty fresh.

    Five years later during the 2010-2011 season/snowpacolypse, I had the beat day of my life, riding overhead powder with my older brother, who I followed into the sport 16 years ago. It was the most humbling snorklealert, as we popped around off of everything we could find, and my little nemesis Aspen was nowhere to be found. Truly, this tree had changes my life, a freshman in college, and green-horn powder hound when I was unwrapped from its clutches, carted off, and sent home packing.

    This season we had sheit for snow, and I was driving South to catch a flight to whistler, whiteknuckling at 4a.m. down the 395 during our only mid-season dump worth mentioning in late January.

    With all negativity, and all of the talk about how terrible things were, praying for freahies february, and miracle march, who would have even thought the face woyld open… well, we were there when it did, and for the 30 people that day, waiting for the go ahead as ski patrol signalled us to “duck the rope and go,” it couldnt have felt better, like coming home to a warm fire with friends and cracking a cold one after a long day of slaying pow.

    June mountain will always be prime. Snow or not, lifts spinning or rusting, this place warms the heart, brings friends together, and has one of the most spectacular backdrops you can lay eyes on. One can only imagine the playground Dave McCoy had in mind, spanning the ridges from Mammoth to this gem.

    A true diamond left in the rough, just the way you want it.

    RIP June Mountain… for now.

    {MAKE FRIENDS ON A POWDERDAY}

  • Robohip

    Even if ‘they’ don’t allow you to access the BC through June Mtn you’ll still be able to ski up via Yost & Fern Creek. Just a lot longer skin……probably keep the meek away.
    Just brainstorming ideas, but……
    Go public with an IPO-like model of the Green Bay Packers. Shareholders get a deal on a ‘cheap’ pass and visitors can buy a daily pass at prevailing rates (have ticket prices vary for day visitors like the airlines vary prices). Any profits plowed back into the mountain facilities. Keep it more spartan and maintain the small family atmosphere. Work with the FS to actually realize Dave’s vision of eventually connecting June with Mammoth via the San Joaquin Ridge and build that warming hut up on Deadman’s Creek providing a world class touring opportunity between the resorts. People could start off in Mammoth, skin along the San Joaquin Ridge, with a break at the Deadman’s Hut (wouldn’t have to much more than a yurt) and over to June. Then spend the night in town at a lodge/motel, doing whatever, and get up the next morning and go back over to Mammoth.
    Some people ask, “Why?” I ask “Why not?”

  • http://thewavejournal.com Biddick

    So a real estate company wants to flip the town and resort of June. Drive the prices down so they can buy more and control more. Classic move. I can’t wait to buy my first home here after they almost have to give me one. Sorry to my friends who already own homes here. Maybe they’ll go up after they can build their Hotel. But don’t blame Starwood, blame your real estate broker who took the commission but never had any clue about starwood.
    All good things must come to an end, and June was so good, I knew it couldn’t last. I’d love to see a community come together and run it, but in my opinion, starwood would be foolish to let that happen, because I also believe that money talks in this case in point, and starwood has money… June residents do not. At least I don’t.
    I love you June Mountain. I guess now I can do something else with my life besides ride all day everyday. I ain’t going to Mammoth! That’s like living and surfing in Indo, and moving to Encinitas or Huntington to fill your surf fix. Not gonna work!

  • Dave

    Corporations are people too, and just like people they can be selfish Bas#@4ds. Sure a corporation is in the business to make money, but there is a social cost to that, and destroying a town and region is just too high a price to pay to maintain their bottom line.

    As mentioned, there are many ways to maintain a classic ski hill like June operating at a small profit. Let us home some cooler heads will choose to do just that and keep a hill, town and region from being destroyed.

    Is that a sixer of PBR, or does it take a premium brew to catch a ride up?

  • Zack

    No way on earth that it will stay closed for any long period of time. Some rich billionaire who has always had the dream of owning a ski resort will come in at some point and swoop it up.

  • http://monicaprelle.com Monica

    Well said amigo. I’ll be looking for a ride up to j7, what flavor of beer is it that you prefer?

  • Paul Fleymik

    I get Powder because it is THE skier’s mag. It’s full of fun and as I read, page by page, I anticipate the laughs the Jaded Local’s piece will provide. That dude (ette) nails it time and again with great humor! This past Ja Lo June Mountain editorial is top notch even though I didn’t crack a smile the whole time. I wanna hug you brother. Great writing. This land is your land, this land is my land unless you are a castrated public agency acting on behalf of wealthy special interests. Snow to yer nose, man!

  • Mike

    Just take it easy there bud. Let everyone freak about it. Sure June will be closed. But haven’t you ever wanted to be locked in an amusement park over night with all of the rides running? No need to panic. Just grab the sleds, some bros, and your beacons and go handle business. Those big wigs will never even know that you were there. SSSHHHHhhh…

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