Words: Gabe Taylor | Photography: Chris Wellhausen | Filming: Greg Weaver and Brian Seizer
"Tastes like blood."
Frank Knab was loudly smacking his mouth as though he had peanut butter stuck to the roof of it. We were skinning straight up a 2,000-foot bowl. So far, every waking moment of the day had been spent in motion. Whether flying down open faces, needling through narrow couloirs, skinning across miles and miles of wild Sierra mountainscapes, or hiking a kicker, we were moving. The sun would be setting soon. Must move faster...
Having chased Frank over hill and dale for the last 10 hours, I was getting tired of staring at his ass. I slowed the shuffling of my feet for a minute and tried to acknowledge his "blood" comment. "Yeah, I've got a metal taste in mine as well." Nodding, coughing, and wheezing in agreement, I knew well the flavors associated with ferocious aerobic exertion.
There's something magical about traversing a chunk of mountains. Making your way from point A to B under your own power carries with it a sense of accomplishment. Add the power you feel from scaling mountains and snowboarding down them, and you've pretty much found the pinnacle backcountry experience. Our goal was to shred the piss out of every face, bowl, couloir, and feature that we could. In one day. A tough proposition given the sizable distance and constraints of sunlight and physical energy.
Mammoth Mountain opened in 1953 and June Mountain soon after. Mammoth didn't buy June, however, until 1986. In an effort to share his love of skiing, Mammoth visionary Dave McCoy's dream was to connect the two resorts with a series of lifts and lodges scattered along the 13-mile San Joaquin Ridge, creating a mega-resort similar to what you'd find in Europe. Logistically, the plan made sense; it was just a big chunk of mountains to navigate.
I moved here in 1998 and heard about this connecting of the two mountains soon thereafter. Rumor was that Mammoth was going to build a gondola between the two resorts, maybe with a lodge at the halfway mark. It seemed cool, but without any idea of what lay between the two, getting out there didn't make it to the top of my priority list. As I'd soon find out, that was a fail on my part. My curiosity of the San Joaquin Ridge rose after following a friend off the backside of June Mountain. The Negatives are a fairly popular backcountry destination easily accessed from the top of June, and after climbing up the Hourglass Couloir, I got a glimpse of what was actually in between the two resorts: some of the more magical bowls, chutes, spines, and faces I had ever seen.
Not to be forgotten, Mammoth Mountain has incredible lift-accessed backcountry off its south side. Take the gondola up, scoot across the top of Dave's run, and voilà, what you see is a veritable smorgasbord of everything I enjoy riding on a snowboard. It just depends on how far you want to venture down the Sierra Crest and what you're looking to ride for the day. All told, the Mammoth Crest including the San Joaquin Ridge is a 15-mile-wide, 2,000-plus-foot-tall rideable slope.
"It'd be so much easier if there was a lift here," Frank lamented. He was so right; we were still trudging our way toward the top of another epic bowl we had just finished riding. Our legs were far beyond spent, lungs searing, feet blistered. Mesmerized by the terrain surrounding us, it was difficult not to stop and drool. Months prior, sitting in the confines of my office, I asked longtime Mammoth Mountain employee Bill Erb, "How close were we to building that gondola to June Mountain?" As keeper of the documentation that outlined this particular project, he knew a bit about it.
"Check it out," Bill began to explain while pointing to an old notebook dated 1979. "It wasn't just a gondola; there were plans to put in 19 lifts between here and June, another six or so on The Sherwins, and a bunch more out on The Crest."
"Holy shit." I examined the preliminary study and realized they'd done their homework. Equations were presented on how many users each proposed area could accommodate, where water and power would come from, and maps outlined exactly where each lift would be constructed. "What happened?" I asked.
"Ah, Dave's golden goose. It was a bit of a pipe dream." Bill was sitting at my desk, reminiscing about the "Invisible Gondola." As a 40-year employee of the resort, he has seen a few castles in the sky.
"But what isn't a dream when you're talking about the Sierras? These mountains will beat down the strongest wills on earth; they'll also light a fire inside you unlike anything you've felt before." He was making good sense.
As it turns out, the US Congress turned San Joaquin Ridge and its eastern drainages into a wilderness area in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. This made construction of any lifts out of the question. It would've taken only one lift to change the whole thing, but nobody had gotten their ducks in a row, so the gondola will remain invisible, possibly forever. What would the communities of June and Mammoth have been like if these expansions would've happened?
After a call with Chris Wellhausen from TransWorld, my idea of riding the resort that never was began to take shape. Without much time to assemble a crew, I reached out to those I knew would be eager for an experience like this. Frank Knab and Jimmy Goodman are mellow dudes who've pushed their love of backcountry snowboarding to the summits of some of the rowdiest terrain in North America. Both burgeoning professionals, these two were a lock. Videographer Greg Weaver was down, and everyone's good bro and Volcom Brothers Skatepark builder Brian Sizer was in town and more than up to tackle some classic Sierra terrain. Chris created the cornerstone of our crew.
It's unbelievable how one can score perfect weather and snow when shooting a piece like this in a tight window. Well, it could have happened like that, but this is the Sierra. We were given what we were given, weather-wise, which was a shit ton of wind, variable snow, and a mixture of clouds and sun. On one of our first days scoping out a zone behind June, we were fighting 100-plus mile per hour gusts of wind on top of an exposed ridge. They had closed the mountain for the day, so we had to skin up underneath the lift to access our objective. Most crews probably would've called it in the parking lot but not this group.
The day of our big traverse dawned flawless. We started from the top of June Mountain in near darkness and continued skinning up the Hourglass Couloir and onto the right flank of San Joaquin mountain. It was at this point that June Lake legend Nick Schneider caught us. He saw our skin track, figured "why the hell not," picked up his pace, and joined up. The odd thing was, this wasn't odd at all, knowing Nick. We heard skin steps behind us, turned around, and there he was.
"What's up, Nick? We're heading to Mammoth today. Want to join?" I asked.
"Uh, yeah, sure. I've always wanted to do that," he answered.
I returned to wrestling my snowboard, split into skis, up the never-ending N Ridge of San Joaquin Mountain.
San Joaquin Mountain isn't a classic Sierra Summit. It is without the exposure and drama many of its brothers and sisters possess, but at 11,600 feet, it is, no doubt, big. The lack of sheer granite and other violent, mountainous features make it a pleasure to shred down, so we took our time and sessioned a number of windlips while meandering through chunks of rock best described as 100-foot-tall dingleberries.
Skiing up to our second objective of the day, Two Teats, there were a few features that immediately caught our attention. Frank was eyeing up some windlips with Nick, while I had my sights on a chundery-looking chute on the edge of a cliff.
On a long tour, it's best to conserve energy and climb within your limits. Don't waste energy doing dumb things. I kept this in mind while skinning up to my objective. "Smooth and steady, smooth and steady," I kept reminding myself. As I approached the last fi ve feet of snow before gaining the ridge, it became apparent how steep the slope was. A ski slipped. I secured my poles in the snow to arrest myself. Gingerly, I stood up and started to side-step up the slope.
Crack! The snow below my lower ski crumbled.
"FUCK!" My skis slipped out again, and I slid 30 feet below where I had started. I'd made it this far, so what's another few feet? Note for file: It's everything. Only after dry-humping the slope inch-by-inch, skis splayed out like a Jerry of the Day victim, did I manage to drag myself up the last pitch. So back to my lesson. When it starts to get steep, stop, unstrap, and bootpack up the remaining pitch.
Soaking with sweat, snow, and the Gatorade dripping out of my CamelBak, I made it up to the small drop-in area I'd eyed from below. Nick was hitting some natty windlips 700 feet below me, and Frank was way off on another peak doing yoga and bagging some of the coolest images of the trip. My chute was just as sketchy as I’d thought. After throwing a bunch of snowballs, I was still into it, so I got on the radios and went through the pre-drop-in ritual I've become accustomed to. My happy place was located, and I enjoyed the hell out of some Sierra weirdness.
As daylight waned, Frank and I were once again trudging up a massive bowl, racing the sun for the chance to session one last jump before descending the ridge to Mammoth's Main Lodge. No doubt, this would've been another ideal spot to put a lift. But after topping out to see the Minarets, Ritter, and Banner backlit and glowing in the late afternoon sun, I couldn't help but feel a sense of pride in earning what we'd ridden. Maybe I was looking at this all wrong. There's a lifetime of terrain out there that's now protected to ride in its natural state, if you're willing to burn a few calories.
The Phantom Lifts proposed across the Eastern Sierra would've made it a hell of a lot easier to ride the Mammoth Crest, San Joaquin Ridge, and other currently remote areas surrounding the Mammoth and June Ski Resorts. But as our crew is increasingly becoming aware, easy isn't always better. The Sierra gave us another peep under her skirt on this journey--the same look hundreds before us have become intoxicated by. Somebody once told me: "Open your eyes; you'll see better." My only problem is every time I do that I realize how much more there is to see.
Watch the video, filmed by Greg Weaver and Brian Seizer, from the June to Mammoth adventures here: