Mammoth Biathlon a success, but ... 'We need a permanent venue' Karch says

The Mammoth Biathlon this year was an unqualified success, its coordinator said this week, but the annual event still lacks one critical piece.

“We clearly need a permanent range,” said Dr. Mike Karch, who on Tuesday appeared before the Mammoth Lakes Recreation Commission.

It is, he said, a big problem, saying the lack of a permanent home has forced his group to create a new course every year, with the help of 200 volunteers—an unsustainable model.

“A permanent range would attract people year-round, not just for the winter season,” he said in an interview after his presentation to the commission.

“We’re attracting people for three days. That’s it. That’s all we can do when we build (a course) on a Friday and tear it down on a Sunday. That was the big takeaway,” Karch said.

“The potential’s there, no question about it, but we need a venue. This town needs venue locations, and it’s not just biathlon. We need venues for lots of things.”

Karch made his remarks following an appearance in which he presented to the commission a feasibility study for biathlon’s future in Mammoth.  

It is a detailed, 96-page study prepared by Vermont-based Morton Trails in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, the Mammoth Tourism Bureau, the Mammoth Lakes Trails and Public Access (MLTPA), and the town’s Measure R steering committee.

The study identified three areas where a permanent facility could be placed:

The Shady Rest Area and Campground

Panorama Dome, in the vicinity of Tamarack Lodge off of Lake Mary Road

Inyo Craters, off of the Mammoth Scenic Loop Road. 

All three have their advantages, according to the Morton study, and all three have their drawbacks.

But according to Danna Stroud, of the volunteer Mammoth Biathlon group and former director of the town’s tourism and recreation departments, the project should receive the attention in deserves, wherever it eventually ends up.

“With the venue being discussed, we can hold year-round events, whether it’s a mountain bike race, a concert or a cross country run,” Stroud said after the commission meeting. “It can be a venue for people to go to for an event, and for other activities. This area is recreation driven. To have a spot for this allows for that recreation activity to take off.

“That’s what Karch is looking at,” she said. “It goes just beyond the biathlon. Certainly it enhances it. Imagine people coming to town in the winter to go play out there on a biathlon spot and train out there, that’s not just a weekend activity. When we start to talk about U.S. and international training that comes in pre-season, post-season or to cap off of their training effort, this venue serves that purpose also.”

Karch said a permanent venue could go beyond sport at times, and he used Park City’s Soldier Hollow as an example.

“They do corporate retreats there and they shoot biathlon guns,” he said. “They bond. We need a venue like that.”

But, he said, finding a perfect spot is not easy in Mammoth, in spite of its (usually) prodigious snowfall and its growing reputation as a high-altitude training area for all types of athletes.

The Morton study identified Panorama Dome and Inyo Craters as having the most potential for a world-class biathlon and Nordic competition and training venue.

“Both of these sites have favorable topography and terrain, reliable snow, outstanding views, minimized potential for conflicts of uses, and sufficient area to support trails, supporting facilities, and parking that would meet international standards for biathlon and Nordic ski events,” the study reported.

As for the costs, the Morton study said initial capital costs for a facility range from $300,000 to $2.3 million—the lowest amount (“Basic Level”) based on development of the trails and basic facilities at the Panorama Dome site ($300,000 for Panorama Dome and $400,000 for Inyo Craters) 

The larger amount (“Premium Level”) assumes a higher level of supporting facilities (such as a day lodge) at the Inyo Craters site ($2.3 million at Inyo Craters and $1.6 million at Panorama Dome). 

“The major differences in costs between the two sites are associated with the relative remoteness and undeveloped character of the Inyo Craters location compared to the proximity of the Panorama Dome location to the existing Tamarack Lodge cross country facilities and operations,” the study reported, adding that the estimates are “preliminary and not based on any detailed engineering analysis.”

The payoff, the Morton study said, is attractive. 

“A Biathlon/Nordic facility has the potential to generate significant economic impacts to the Mammoth Lakes and Mono County region. Depending on the level of investment and extent, between 13 and 66 new jobs (full-time equivalents) and between $600,000 and $3.3 million in economic output (annually) would be directly associated with the facilities. 

“Other less quantifiable impacts would also accrue to the region including potential increases in real estate values (particularly near the trail systems), attraction of new residents to the area as a direct result of the enhanced trails, human and social capital benefits, and increased health, educational, and employee productivity benefits. 

“Compared to the costs of development, there is a six-month to four-year payback between capital investment and direct economic benefits.”

Shady Rest, meanwhile, was identified as the least attractive of the three finalists in the study, based mostly on its relatively flat terrain.

Other sites that the Morton Group examined included Sherwin Creek Campground and Obsidian Dome, but those were rejected because of their distance away from town. Also, the group considered Sierra Star, the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area’s tubing area, Sierra Meadows, Twin Lakes, and the high school football field.

This past season, the two-day biathlon was at Red’s Lake at Mammoth Mountain, but that site, too, was rejected in the study because “accessibility is a problem,” and the site was just a little too high in altitude.