Mammoth Lakes, CA
Age Range: Teens +
Recommendations: Advanced skiers and riders only. Avoid after a heavy snowfall. Go with someone experienced in the backcountry.
My first “backcountry” experience many years ago was a trip through Hole in the Wall on the backside of Mammoth Mountain. It is just barely out-of-bounds, but it offers some challenging terrain, great scenery and a really unique chance to ski through a cave. Not bad at all! My favorite time to ski it is late morning in the spring when the snow softens into classic Sierra Nevada corn – smooth and silky.
Start your adventure by riding the gondola to the summit. From there, hang a left and head for Dave’s Run. There really isn’t a single route to Hole in the Wall, but I prefer to ski out toward Dragons Back before dropping off the backside. Since it is Forest Service land, out-of-bounds skiing and boarding are legal, but it is always nice to side-step over the ski area boundary to let the patrol know you meant to go out-of-bounds. The terrain is not especially challenging depending on where you drop in, but don’t let that fool you as you need to be an advanced skier or boarder to negotiate the chute leading into the cave safely. Avoid this area after heavy snowfall as the chute could be a real trap if it slides. Be sure to bring a camera as the views are spectacular. The ridge where Hole in the Wall is located is deeply eroded and forms some nice photo ops.
Once you duck the ropes, you are on your own. Even though the resort is right over the ridge, this area is not patrolled. The terrain leading to the hole varies quite a bit. Near the top there are places with really fun roller coaster rollers and the trees are spaced well for some great tree skiing. As you proceed down, an obvious craggy ridge will appear below you. If you have never been there before, go with someone who knows the way. The hole is actually an old lava tube through the ridge, so if you miss the mark you could end up in some dicey terrain with unmarked cliffs. The entrance is quite steep and narrow as you approach the opening. Ski with care here as a fall could end in a high-speed slide into the rocks. The snow leading into the hole is usually pretty good, but it is not unusual to find bulletproof snow in the tube itself. On warmer days, the snow on the ridge melts and drips into the cave. Since the snow gets little sunlight, it freezes pretty hard at night and can stay that way even on warmer days. The actual run through the hole only lasts a few seconds but it is worth the effort just for the novelty of skiing through a lava tube.
It is worth noting that there is another chute to skiers left that in my opinion offers better skiing. We call it Wall Chute but I am not sure if that is the official name or not. It is pretty much right up against the main rock buttress to your left. It does not provide the unique experience of skiing through a cave, but it is a lot of fun and cuts a little bit off the traverse back to the resort.
Once you get through, you have a couple of options. If you stay high and skirt the ridge to skiers left, you can get back to the Cloud 9 lift with some manageable slogging and climbing. I have done the loop from the top of the gondola back to the bottom of Chair 9 in just over an hour on tele gear. The other option is to ski it all the way out to Tamarack Lodge. From there you can bum a ride back to the Eagle Express lift in town to return to the resort. This is likely to take a bit longer and you have to rely on the kindness of strangers, but it requires minimal physical effort.
While this is hardly an epic backcountry skiing adventure, it is a really enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours beyond the ropes. Highly recommended!