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Our View: Rough Day

March 2, 2012

We’re getting used to bad news by now.

Even so, the layoffs at Mammoth Mountain Wednesday were shocking and sad.
 
More than 20 percent of the 359 year-round employees lost their jobs, including two vice-presidents and other mid-level executives. Those who are left took pay cuts.
 
We haven’t seen anything quite like this before. To quote CEO Rusty Gregory, this has been “an aberrationally bad year.”
 
Too little snow fell, and that was all across the country—from the Rocky Mountain West to New England. California resorts at Tahoe took an even bigger hit than we did. Our artificial snowmaking bailed out Mammoth for a good long while.
 
But there’s something else going on, too. It’s under the surface and no one really wants to talk about it. Skiing, as an industry, is slowly fading away. Sometimes, those of us who love the sport feel as if we’re whistling past the graveyard.
 
Mammoth Mountain has done as well as just about anyone to keep the stoke alive. To do it, it has targeted the young, Southern California snowboarding market. That has paid off. We’d say the Mammoth Mountain terrain parks are as good as any resort can offer. This weekend’s Grand Prix (which also features freestyle skiing) is proof enough of that.
 
But there will never be the mad energy of the 1970s and 1980s when it comes to skiing itself. To help itself out of this particular muddle, the ski area has aimed its sights on the high-end market, with mixed results.
 
Overall, it hasn’t gone so well, and it’s been like that for a long time. 
 
At the most optimistic, we can say that the industry is “flat.” At the other end of the spectrum, we’d say it’s in a slow, inexorable nosedive.
 
Skiing has gotten too expensive for most of the recession-addled population. Equipment costs alone bend the mind.
 
Lift tickets are too expensive. The food is too expensive. Everything’s too expensive, and blah-blah-blah.
 
A pal of ours back in the Midwest was cruising Barnes & Noble last week, looking for a ski magazine in advance of a trip to Telluride. He had a hard time finding one, although the snowboarding mags were plentiful.
 
To throw a bad snow season on top of all this is almost cruel for those of us who love sliding down the mountainsides, knee-deep in powder or carving lovely turns on impeccably groomed corduroy.
 
We have a hunch that Mammoth will pull itself out of this pattern, although a lot of it is beyond our control.
 
Remember the 2008-09 season? There was decent enough snow and the season lasted forever.
 
But nobody was buying anything then. All of us, everywhere, were scared. We had the money jitters, and rightly so. The next year, the Great Recession happened, as it still is.
 
“We weren’t even buying bubble gum that year,” said Gregory in one of his very few, light-hearted comments this week.
 
Probably the backcountry skiers have had it right all along. As long as you can attach a pair of skins to your Telemark skis or randonnée gear, the mountains will always be there for us. 
 
The mountains, magnificent and magnetic, have never laid off anybody.
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