Mammoth Lakes: Made for Adventure

The Eastern Sierras' adrenaline capital rejuvenates even the 'Old Gang'

Matt Hale

The 12,000-plus-foot Minarets, as viewed from Minaret Overlook above Mammoth Lakes.

It all began in 1996, when I traveled to Las Vegas on assignment for Men’s Journal to cover the Adult Entertainment Expo, the Academy Awards of porn. It was a mild January, and along with the allure of scores of flesh-baring starlets, I was enticed by Red Rocks, the massif of ruddy sandstone looming just twenty miles west of town. When I couldn’t persuade Jenna Jameson or Juli Ashton to go rock climbing with me, I called up my buddy Ed Ward and told him to get on the next plane.

Ed and I enjoyed a week of halcyon climbing, repeated during subsequent years with the other four members of what we were already calling the Old Gang: Matt Hale, Chris Gulick, Chris Wejchert and Jon Krakauer. In various permutations, we had climbed together since 1962 in New England, the West, Alaska, Canada and the Alps.

With its hundreds of great routes, Red Rocks sufficed for half a dozen years, until we decided to branch out into other mini-paradises of solid rock. We hit City of Rocks in Idaho, the Uintas in Utah, Tuolumne in California, Skaha in British Columbia, Smith Rock in Oregon, and even the Italian Dolomites and the French Calanques.

Then last September, as a speaker at the Outdoor Writers Association of California, I discovered Mammoth Lakes. It took no more than a hint to my cronies to lure them to a week of self-indulgence on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada. Ranging in age from our mid-50s to 70, we had by now indubitably earned our title as the Old Gang. This June, all of us showed up except Krakauer, who was off on Denali avenging an inexplicable failure to summit in 1987.

Mammoth Lakes owes its fame as an adventure resort to the ski area first developed in 1953. But the semi-secret of the place is that it’s as fine a locus for summer outdoor antics as any place in the country. We spent our week rock climbing, but we could have had every bit as good a holiday with a smorgasbord of mountain biking, fly fishing (on world-class stretches of the Owens River and Hot Creek), hiking the endless network of sylvan trails, playing golf on the town’s two cunning and lovely courses, or for that matter, using Mammoth as a base to backpack into the Minarets, a small range of jagged 12,000-foot peaks northwest of the resort, offering some of the finest alpine mountaineering in the contiguous United States.

The Minarets from Minarets overlook in Mammoth Lakes (Matt Hale)

On several of the Old Gang’s rendezvous, we’ve camped out. This June, we couldn’t resist the appeal of a pair of condos at Snowcreek Resort, where we sat on the deck sipping wine and, in Callimachus’s immortal words, “tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky”; cooked up barbecues and assembled gourmet salads in the spacious kitchen and dining areas, then devoured them, one hand wielding fork, the other fingering the guidebook as we planned the next day’s ramble; or trundled off to any of several dozen excellent restaurants located within a five-minute drive. Chris Wejchert and I managed to fit in a round on the serpentine nine-hole Snowcreek Golf Course, a links that would have gladdened the heart of Old Tom Morris. The condos cleverly space the bedrooms far enough apart so that on only one occasion did a member of our eight-person team disturb another with his well-fed and -lubricated snoring.

Ed Ward climbs at Owens River Gorge (Matt Hale)

Seven straight days of climbing on four different kinds of rock: granite, tuff, basalt and quartz monzonite. The crags on which we cavorted have innocuous-sounding names: Iris Slab, the Warming Wall, Area 13, Junk Food Rock, Horseshoe Slabs . . . . But the route names give a taste of zanier play: Too Many Princesses, Mobetta Fogetta, This Ain’t No Weenie Roast, Ghetto Blaster, Crazy Bald Head and the like. Some lines that we didn’t tackle hinted at darker pleasures. On Psycho Killer Rock alone loom Caligula, Hillside Strangler and Psycho Chicken. On Gong Show Crag: Alpine Fracture Clinic, Wages of Skin and Man Overboard.

Matt Hale

Besides our five charter members of the Old Gang, we hung out with three relative youngsters. Anne-Laure Treny, an engineer based in Miami but born in France, had a way of gliding up sequences that elicited grunts and curses from us elders. She also unfailingly saluted the accomplishments, however feeble, of her companions. Maria José Giménez, a Venezuelan-born poet and professional translator, used Mammoth to venture onto some of her first trad leads, an exploratory jump she performed with aplomb. And Michael Wejchert (Chris’s son), at 27 one of New England’s leading big-range mountaineers, basked shirtless in the sun as he nonchalanted his way up 5.10s and, with slightly greater effort, nailed a couple of 5.12s, despite having badly sprained his ankle in a pickup soccer game two days before our trip. (“I told you team sports were dangerous!” Wejchert père admonished his wayward son.)

Owens River Gorge (Matt Hale)

One day we plunged into Owens River Gorge, about 25 miles southeast of Mammoth, to do battle with a strange cliff that felt like a precipice out of a mini-Black Canyon of the Gunnison. And on another day, Ed and Michael headed up to Tuolumne Meadows to swap leads on the 12-pitch Regular Route on Fairview Dome, one of the great classic rock climbs in all the West. (See Michael’s amusing blog post about our trip here.)

The standard training advice for geezers the age of Ed and me (69 and 70) is, Don’t ever climb more than two days in a row. But we were having too much fun to take a single rest day. And the fact that none of us suffered so much as a blister or a twinge of tendinitis confirmed our suspicion: pickup soccer (not to mention getting out of bed) is far more hazardous than rock climbing.

Everybody in Mammoth is alarmingly fit. You look both ways at intersections so as not to collide with mountain bikers and runners training for marathons. The waiters who brought our plates in chic restaurants were rock climbers in their spare time. Hikers outnumbered picnickers by ten to one. Even the golfers looked as trim as Camilo Villegas.

One of Mammoth's unofficial mascots (Matt Hale)

It is not surprising, then, that the unofficial mascot of the town is the black bear. These creatures so regularly invade the streets that every dumpster is bear-proofed. But Mammoth embraces its furry visitors, celebrating them in an art form that could be dubbed Postmodern Ursine Kitsch. One restaurant is fronted with a wooden statue of a bear holding a trout by its tail, like some angler posing for the family album. The Sierra Nevada Resort boasts a soaring archway depicting six wooden bears climbing vertical trees like the four-footed predators that long ago learned how to rob the food caches climbers used to hang at Camp 4 in Yosemite. The ball washers on the Sierra Star golf course (the highest layout in California, at 8,000 feet) are statues of bears. I was delighted, in fact, on a solo round on the course the previous September to find a fresh deposit of bear poop on the second fairway—a first for me in decades of whacking the dimpled ball across hinterlands ranging from Scotland to Florida.

Monica Prelle. Tack that name to your bulletin board. A writer living in Mammoth Lakes, she had met me the previous September as we traded freelance war stories. To support her habit, she works at the Westin hotel as the wine director (though she prefers to call herself the “Captain of Fun”).

Monica’s a champion snowboarder, and when she pointed out some of the couloirs she’d flashed in winter, all of us shuddered. But she’d never really rock climbed before. Timidly accepting our invitation to Area 13, she tied in, started up in borrowed shoes—and fell off, shrieking like a girl spooked by spiders.

False harbinger! By the fourth day, Monica was cruising 5.9s and getting up the odd 5.10. I’d never seen a beginner make such leaps. Hooked, she squandered her Westin wages on a harness and rock shoes, then on a rope and a set of quick draws. In the weeks after our departure, she climbed routes that even Ed and Michael would have been happy to add to their tick lists.

Radar alert: Monica Prelle. Did we help make it happen, or was she a late-blooming climbing prodigy waiting to be born?

Michael Wejchert belays Maria José Giménez on Iris Slab (Matt Hale)

Why was it such a perfect week? The weather, vintage California, favored our intrusion—sun every day, temps from the 60s to the 80s, breezes wafting the pine sap. We renewed ancient friendships and made new ones. After each evening’s requisite bottles of wine, we told stories that may or may not have been true.

Our hosts—Mammoth Lakes Tourism and Snowcreek Resort—could not have been more gracious or enthusiastic. In the bonhomie of our escape from our so-called “real lives,” we relaxed into the personae we fancied ourselves to be at our most charismatic. We climbed and climbed until our fingers were raw, but the crags of Mammoth whispered their siren song—“Come back. We’ll still be here.”

Hiking out from Horseshoe Slabs (Matt Hale)


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