Dave McCoy and the Mammoth Mountain Plan

Jul 14, 2021

In 1946 experts from the ski industry surveyed California’s Mammoth Mountain and officially declared it a terrible place for skiing. The slopes were too isolated, too windy, too high; they weren’t shaped right, and they had way too much snow.
But nowadays, the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area is one of the best and most successful ski resorts in the world. Dave McCoy is the man that made that happen. Without Dave, Mammoth Mountain would be nothing at all. For fifty years he worked tirelessly to turn Mammoth Mountain into what is today, and along the way he revolutionized the entire ski industry.

Visit Mammoth caught up with documentary filmmaker Tim Ford to talk about his forthcoming film, Dave McCoy and the Mammoth Plan. The film explores how a scrappy kid out of the Great Depression came to the Eastern Sierra and, against all odds, built one of North America’s biggest and most-loved ski areas and the legacy he has left both in the ski industry and in the town of Mammoth Lakes.

Tell us a bit about this documentary. What is it about, other than a guy who built one of the greatest ski areas in North America?

To me, at the heart of the film is a message about being generous, kind, and treating people the way they want to be treated. I’m just using Dave’s story to make that movie.

What specifically attracted you to Dave McCoy’s story?

Even though I love skiing, it isn’t skiing that attracts me to Dave’s story. It’s the values and business ethics Dave stuck to while running the ski area, the foundation, the airline, and every other business or project he’s been involved with.

Because I work in the film industry, where every project you work on is very different, I often think about what the experience of a workplace is, and what it could be. Can a business grow and be profitable, while at the same time still be an awesome place to work? Is money, respect, or fulfillment more important to people?

For example, I’ve had an awesome time working on some projects that only paid me a sandwich and a Coke, while I’ve been miserable for days on end when working on projects that have paid me a ton. Seems to me like a lot of people have had a similar experience.

All of this has led me to a theory: most people in the world don’t have any desire to be ridiculously famous or extravagantly wealthy. Instead, people crave a sense of belonging, they want to be part of a great team that makes good things happen. I admire the way Dave ran his business, how he valued people over money. He recognized that a happy, inspired, and loyal person could help him achieve his dreams quicker than a big pile of money sitting in a bank.

So really, what attracts me to Dave’s story is the opportunity to explore the phenomenon Dave and others created in Mammoth Lakes and learn how they inspired people. My hope for the finished film is that someone could walk away from a screening totally inspired to create a great situation around themselves and see what magic they can make happen in the world.

Of course, as a former ski instructor and a lover of Mammoth Lakes, if I inspire someone to try out skiing or ski Mammoth Mountain for the first time, that’s fun for me too.  

How closely did you end up working with Dave McCoy and members of the Mammoth Lakes community on this project?

Very closely. Everyone in Mammoth Lakes has been a huge help to me, especially Dave McCoy for giving me permission to film the movie in the first place. Gosh, where do I start?

Robin Morning, who did a huge amount of research for her book Tracks of Passion, is a big part of our documentary team and has helped immensely in all manner of ways. Brandon Russell, who has been working with Dave to make a historical photo and video archive that documents the ski area from the beginning, has also been a huge help in numerous ways. It would be impossible for me to have gotten as far as I’ve gotten without, Robin, Brandon, and everyone in Mammoth who’s supported the endeavor and encouraged me to go on.

Seriously there’s like 70 people I could list here that have been a huge help, and continue to be a huge help! This is the toughest question you’ve asked so far because I feel guilty about not listing everyone and thanking them for all the advice, encouragement, and time they’ve given me. Rather than bore the readers I’ll leave it as: THANKS! You know who you are out there.  

While you were putting together this film, what ended up inspiring you the most?

Meeting with Dave has been the most inspiring part of making the film. Just having the chance to spend a few minutes with him every now and then has been incredible. His positive energy is so infectious I think it’s impossible to walk out of his office feeling bad!

For decades Dave has famously had an open-door policy, so I can’t really brag that I’m special because I got to sit across a desk from him. But discussing the documentary with him in his office was an incredible experience that will be meaningful to me for a long time to come. I hope I have that same sort of energy when I’m 99.  

What was the most surprising thing you learned about McCoy?

The most surprising thing I learned was definitely Dave’s plan to link the Mammoth and June ski areas across the San Joaquin ridge, creating a giant “alps style” ski area. I had no idea about that endeavor at the outset of this project. I’m completely fascinated with that idea– I’d collect the trading cards if they ever made any.

Obviously Dave’s dream didn’t quite become a reality, but I’ve heard a few tidbits of Dave’s master plan (or maybe just his musings) from some of the people I’ve interviewed and I love to speculate about where the lifts and lodges would have been. It’s an interesting alternative history to think about, the way California and the community would have been affected if that had all played out Dave’s way.  

What was the most surprising thing you learned about Mammoth Lakes?

When I started this project I had no idea how many really talented and smart people live in Mammoth Lakes. The people I’ve meet and the conversations I’ve had with them have been spectacular. If there was a movie studio in Mammoth Lakes I’d move up in a heartbeat.

Of course, I’m always surprised by the natural beauty of the area. It seems like you always forget just how great it is when you’re not there, then you’re back and BAM! It hits you.  

In what ways has McCoy shaped Mammoth Lakes and vice versa?

When you say “shaped” it makes me think of the mountain itself. A lot of people don’t realize how much dirt Dave moved and rock he blasted as he carved that mountain into such a great ski resort. When you ski there now the fall line always takes you where you want to go, you think, “man – what a natural ski hill”, but it was really a ton of work over the years shaping that mountain so it flowed the way Dave wanted. I saw one old picture taken before they built Chair 3 that showed the Saddle as a craggy place covered in boulders, but of course today it’s smooth and perfect. He was quite an artist shaping that mountain so skiers at all levels could have a fun time.

I know that wasn’t exactly what you asked, but because Dave knew what he was doing up there on the mountain, people were drawn to the area, and so the town formed around the mountain. Of course, he could have stopped there and just kept to his ski area, but more than anyone else I’ve ever meet Dave embodies the word “neighborly.” Dave definitely appreciates the community and the good things that happen when people come together to help each other, so anytime anyone was trying to make something special in the town and needed something or other Dave wouldn’t hesitate to help out. I’ve spoken to so many people grateful to Dave for lending them some giant piece of equipment from the ski area– backhoe, tractor, cement truck– just the same as if he was letting them borrow a rake.

He provided that neighborly energy and other people returned it and were inspired by it. That spread out through Mammoth Lakes and made it the town we see today.  

Aside from Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, what will be McCoy’s most lasting legacy?

TF: That’s easy: His positive attitude. I hope Dave will always be remembered and honored by the people who’ve been touched by that magical Dave McCoy optimism. Like I said earlier, I’ve only spent a handful of days with him over the last few years, but they’re experiences I’ll never forget.

This is really the inspiration for the movie–if you ask most people who know Dave, I don’t think they would say building the mountain or skiing was the most important memory they have of him. Dave’s legacy to them is the chance to work with him, know him, talk with him on a lift, and just having a plain old’ fashioned good time with the guy.

Now that I’ve been working on this project for a while I don’t think of Dave McCoy as a guy with a lot of money or a guy who made a giant ski mountain. I think of him as a guy with a lot of friends.  

What can McCoy teach modern skiers and snowboarders about a life well spent?

That it’s OK to make mistakes because mistakes are the way you learn. That’s a big part of Dave’s philosophy and a big part of what made Mammoth like it is today. They wouldn’t have finished half of the incredible things they’ve built up there if everyone had been afraid to make a mistake.

I’ve heard incredible stories of people screwing up all sorts of things— like knocking a lift tower over with a snowcat for example– and in each case, Dave comes out, doesn’t yell at anyone, and right away gets excited about coming up with a solution for the problem. If that doesn’t make him the best boss ever, then what does?

This is a very important part of the story for me and part of the reason working on this film is so inspiring to me. I agree with Dave that you just have to go out and try things or you’re never going to learn how to do what you want to do. Trust me, no film would ever get made if people were too scared of making mistakes. 

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