Mammoth Mountain, one of the largest ski resorts in the Western US, does not owe its existence to snow, but rather, strangely enough, to fire. Approximately 200,000 years ago, a series of eruptions along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada range led to the creation of the massive peak, which stands 11,025 feet above sea level and 325 miles north of Los Angeles. Today, in what can only be described as a California take on extreme sports, more than a million people a year ski down the slopes of an extinct volcano.
Long after the lava subsided, the town of Mammoth was settled in the 1850s after a group of German miners became lost in the surrounding mountains and accidentally discovered gold. Despite a rapid population boom over the next 30 years, the area eventually succumbed to the fate of so many other gold-rush settlements: by the 1890s, Mammoth, which got its name from one of the region's most prominent mining companies, was as extinct as the surrounding volcanoes.
Soon enough, however, the area was rediscovered as a destination spot for summertime fishing and hiking and in 1945, Dave McCoy, who had been skiing Mammoth for years, built the first permanent tow rope on the mountain. Sixty years and 28 chairlifts later, Mammoth has become the country's second most popular ski destination. (Only Vail, in Colorado, hosted more skiers in 2004).
Yet the threat of volcanic activity has not entirely gone the way of the wooden ski. In the early 1980s, a series of earthquakes— and the lingering memory of Mt. St. Helens—led the US Geological Survey to issue a lowlevel volcano warning. A few years later, an additional set of earthquakes released enough carbon dioxide to kill off around 100 acres of trees.
But perhaps the biggest shock to this mountain community came last October when Starwood Capital acquired a majority stake in the ski resort with plans to develop high-end residences, hotels and restaurants. Local residents have publicly worried that their rustic, alpine village—more John Muir than John Travolta—will become the next Aspen.
Though Mammoth's slopes haven't yet been inundated with Hollywood A-listers, the area has still seen its fair share of stars over the years. Certain scenes from both Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the Eddie Murphy-vehicle The Golden Child were filmed on the mountain. And the nearby Tamarack Lodge, now owned by the resort, was featured in the 1955 Bob Hope movie, The Seven Little Foys.
And while Starwood may be the region's most well-known opportunity fund, it isn't the first. Barrow Street Capital, the private equity real estate arm of publicly traded investment bank Greenhill & Co, is currently developing a high-end private residence club at the base of the mountain.