A story of the
paradoxical European Winter of 98-99
Heres to swimmin
with bow-legged women.
by Bob Mazarei
All Part 1 Photos
by Mark Shapiro
Part 1: The Start....
Quint, Jaws, 1975
Youre gonna need a bigger
Martin Brody, Jaws, 1975
Ive often wondered if I would ever
see a season with too much snow. Too much snow? Well it happened and I feel driven to recount this
season because although most of us had the season of our lives,
Great White lurked. And like the big fish that terrorized seaside
Amityville, the beast struck without warning, taking huge bites
out of whole villages, psyches, and tragically, lives.
It was a season of snowfalls so vast that
avalanche pros, meteorologists, as well as the run-of-the-mill
old-timers, spoke of the snowiest winter in the last 40 or 50
years. Many died and I lived, and things might have gone the
other way round. Thus I feel compelled to do the accounting.This
is the story of the Great White European Winter of 1999.
A Mammoth Start
Dont be tellin me about foot massagesIm
the foot f**kin master.
Given a lot of em?
Shit yeah, I got my technique down man, I dont tickle or
Jules and Vincent, Pulp Fiction,
One Minaret Road, Mammoth Lakes, California.
Back in the mid 40s, the U.S. Forest
Service sent consultants to search out a suitable spot for a
new western ski area. They eventually came upon the dormant volcano
west of Mammoth Lakes but gave it a pass deeming it too high,
too far from a major population area, and a place with too much
But by 1941, Dave McCoy already had a roving
rope tow in the area and he was allowed to set up wherever the
snow was best. Dave, a fervent skier if there ever was one, acquired
the tow by hocking his Harley to the bank where his girlfriend,
Roma, worked. The bank wasnt really interested, but the
precocious Roma threatened to quit if they didnt oblige.
Dave knew those consultants were wrong.
By the mid-50s, after settling on the big elephant, Mammoth
was bringing in more skiers than any other place else in California.
Since then, with Daves nurturing,
Mammoth has grown into one of the finest ski areas in America.
I was back for the opener, Nov. 7, 1998, with all my mates. Fun
opening season conditions dictated beer-a-run madness non-stop
all weekend. It felt like being safely home again with my tribe
after a long pilgrimage. Jacuzzis, frozen chins, Dan-Os
borrowed Steely Dans (those fridge-magnet Volants), and
foot massages on the way back down south (editor's note: yeah,
by the author to my future wife!). It was a greatno,
a Mammothstart to the season, especially so to be hanging
with my bros.
I like two kinds of beer: domestic and
Big Tim Connolly, A Guide To Strife, 1994
Some people ask me if I do it every
I get drunk and tell em its what we do in Verbier.
You get so drunk, you cannot speak and its difficult to
There must be 50 ways to love your liver.
Scotty Hammond & Paul Simon, 50 Ways
To Love Your
I was back in Verbier skiing by mid-November
in nice, but not unusual, conditions. Little snow fell in December
leaving the mid-altitudes fun but average, and the higher altitudes
with fine conditions. As President Clinton (like Jules, a master
foot-man) was getting closer to impeachment, everything was as
normal as could be over here in the Alps.
The first storm of any size hit on the
night of January 2nd, 1999, followed by another a week later
setting up a series of one and two-star powder days (my own personal
stat-man, powder rating scale, with five being the highest. Im
very tough on my ratings, however, as Ive never given a
five yet). The base hadnt thickened at the mid-altitudes
yet so I took advantage of the early-season couloirs with the
snowboard and its inherent floatability. I was also tele-ing
piste with my 223cm Dynastar DH boards a bunch, as January is
uncrowded with room to groove.
The first big day of the season came January
13th. Mountain Guide Hans called me that splendid snowy morning
and by the end we had snowboarded eight Attelas couloirs where
practically every turn was over the head. We would turn and it
would be inside of a ping-pong ball white and we had to time
our breathing so as to not choke. And then we would be spit outlike
being released from the foam-ball at Pipe. Breathe and be covered
up again, turn after turn. Looking back at my notes from this
day, I see that I gave it only two and a half stars. Wow, only
two and a half? Yeah, I guess Im pretty tough with my ratings
(or that I realized that one displaces way more snow on le surf).
It was more of the same for the next week
where we worked it in stages. This is one of my favorite things
about skiing and boarding at such a large ski area like Verbier:
they open up terrain in stages after snowstormseach with
its own characteristics and fat chunks of acreage. Normally,
Ruinettes at 2100m would open first, the trees below this altitude
helping with storm related visibility that is the bane and pain
above tree line during whiteouts. Perhaps the snow is blanketed
down to the village of Le Châble below Verbieras
it usually is part of every seasonallowing wonderfully
varied skiing next to summer chalets and farmers ancient granges;
where we would shoot through left opened sections of barbed wire
fences in knee deep powder (or spring snow), jumping rough stone
walls then slipping cleanly onto the summer road cranking a hard
left, dropping in wherever the next section of field looks good.
(Yo, watch the stump on the right and that piece of rebar
sticking out down below! Manhole? Naw, thats a silo covermissile
silo!) Then we would finally get down to Châble at
820m, cross the railroad tracks and jump back on the télécabine,
but not before we would stop for a coffee and croissant, or maybe
just a petite dèlice and a beer.
Afterwards it would clear some and the
patroilleursalso working in stages control-bombing would
give the thumbs-up to open to Attelas clearing the way to ski
the front range. Then Tortin, Gentiane etc. until
finally, the Mont Fort at 3330m, would open. Skiing from Mont
Fort to Le Châble is one of my favorite things to do when
it is happeninga run of over an hour and 8200 vertical
feet. (Yes Marge, thats a Mammoth on top of a Whistler!
But Mabel, I like both kinds of music, Country and Western!)
Although lacking in overall average
altitude, it is, acreage-wise, the largest ski region in the
world, boasting numerous villages and 265 ski lifts. We had just
a taste of the pleasures of the Portes that day, but, like honey-bees
in a new field of flowers, we knew there would be a lot more
pow-pollen to be transferred on our ski boots during subsequent
visits. The problem is that I have only one lifetime.
Yep, working it in stages, a concept that
stems from the reality that its the only way a place like
Verbier can practically and reasonably control safety on such
a scale. (It is far from foolproof, however, as many parts within
the ski area are for all intents and purposes backcountry
or at least backcountry-like, and impossible to completely control.)
What the stage scenario means to you and me is: powder today,
powder tomorrow, and powder next week, stress-free. Usually.
The Alpine snowpack got my mates and I into an exploring mood
and we ended up skiing at two ski stations that I had never been
to before. The first was Champèry, a beautiful village
and ski station tucked in under the shadow of the magnificent
peaks of the Dents du Midi. Champèry is one of the interconnected
villages in a ski region known collectively as the Portes du
Soleilhalf of which lay in Switzerland and the other half
in France (it is wise to ski with your passport, tucked somewhere
The day after Champèry, we visited
the ritzy Swiss ski station of Gstaad. Gstaad! Güsuntheit!
Yes, Gstaad, second home to the rich and, fur coat wearing, famous.
It is actually a very fun, albeit cruisy, station where we had
a blast bombing the perfect, DV-like (Deer Valley) pistes, and
Hula-Hoop-ing the small bumps under the lifts in between comments
like, Dieters down! Hurry, double Gspray him! Gshut
up and go Gski over there. Gstop it, already.
Tuesday, January 26th started out as a
normal sunny day and as General Grant from Aspen had just arrived
in town, Big Tom and I decided on the classic Four Valleys tour.
We start in Verbier, ride up and ski down
and repeat until we finally get to the farthest reach of the
interconnected region, the funky family-oriented station of Thyon
2000 which affords views of the beautiful Val dHérémence
and the Rhone River valley simultaneously. Then hang at Thyon
for a bit
and ski the bump runs or maybe one of the
steep couloirs off the ridge if the snow looks good. The obligatory
bomb down the FIS downhill piste de lOurs (the Bear run-nicely!)
to the village of Veysonnaz would follow next, then a variation
run through the trees
well, you get the idea. (The main
thing with the Four Valleys tour is to keep an eye on the time
to make sure you make it back to where you started. Big Tim and
I missed the last Tortin lift once and got stuck in the village
of Nendaz. We had to call my wife Fabienne to come pick us up.
She didnt appreciate having to drive an hour and 20 minutes
each way after work just because we missed the last lift by 15
minutes). Anyway, by the time we hit Tortin again it was snowing
hard and continued, with just a couple of short breaks, like
this for the next four days. Then it really started.
All Great White
Part 1 ski photos are by Mark Shapiro. Skier: Bob Mazarei
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Great White Part 2, "White Death February", page 2