From a rope tow to a world-class resort.
At 93, Dave McCoy seems as sturdy as the mountain on which he built his life and fortune. McCoy founded California's Mammoth Mountain ski resort, if founded adequately describes extraordinary feats of engineering performed on a shoestring in ferocious weather at elevations of more than 11,000 feet. One of the country's top ski resorts, Mammoth covers 3,500 acres and employs 2,600 people during ski season. In 2005, McCoy and other investors sold a majority stake in the resort to Starwood Capital Group in a deal that valued Mammoth at $365 million. McCoy's retirement, like his career, is taking place mostly outdoors, in the snow and under the sun.
As told to Leigh Buchanan
I was born in 1915 and spent the first few years in El Segundo, California. When I was 6, my dad quit his job at Standard Oil and got into the paving business, helping to build some of California's main highways. My mother and I traveled around with him. If he was working near a town, we'd rent a house. If the location was more remote, we'd stay in tent camps. I didn't stay in any one school more than a few months.
In 1928, my mother took me to visit friends in Independence, on the eastern side of the Sierras. I'd never seen anything like it. I loved the snow: I started dreaming about it. I said, "This is where I am going to spend my life."
When I was in eighth grade, my folks separated. It was during the Depression, and so my mom and I got on a Greyhound bus and went to meet my father's parents in Wilkeson, Washington. We got acquainted, and she left me there. I stuck around for two and a half months, but I didn't like the rain, so I took my knapsack and headed back to California. I rode with the bums on the trains, ate at their campfires at night, and listened to their stories. It was the best possible education.
I kept hitchhiking between Washington and California. When I wasn't in school, I'd take jobs on pig farms or picking fruit. I made my first pair of skis in high school shop class. After graduation, I hitchhiked back to Independence and got a job at Jim's Place, a restaurant where my mom was working. I waited tables, washed dishes, and cleaned up after it closed. That's where I met Roma -- she and her friends were cheerleaders who came in one day. She meant everything to me then. Still does. We've been married 67 years. Six children. Eighteen grandchildren. Twenty great-grandchildren.
Skiing was getting really popular, and some friends and I built portable rope tows on the north side of Mammoth Mountain. I wasn't thinking about business. I did it because it was fun.
I wanted to set up a rope tow on McGee Mountain, which was right on the highway and had good snowfall. I needed to buy parts, so I went to a bank and asked for a loan of $85, using my motorcycle as collateral. The bank manager turned me down, because he didn't think I looked responsible. But Roma was his secretary, and she said, "If you don't give him the loan, I'm quitting." She ended up quitting anyway after we got married.
I got a job as a hydrographer with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, measuring snow in the winter so they could predict how much water would be available in the spring and summer. Some days I would ski 50 miles for work.
On weekends, we would set up rope tows and let people use them for free. I was still working for the water department; Roma and I barely had enough money for food. So one day I asked Roma to put out a cigarette box and get skiers to donate whatever they could. We made $15 that first day -- a lot of money for the time.
The Forest Service asked for bids to develop Mammoth into a ski area. I took a piece of paper and drew three lines, which were for chairlifts. That was the business plan. They gave me a permit that let me put lifts wherever I wanted in a 40- or 50-mile area of the Eastern Sierras.
This was right after World War II, and I was able to buy four military amphibious-type vehicles -- called Weasels -- at auction. We'd load people into them, and others would hang on to ropes coming off the back, and we'd haul them over the snow to the tows. Everyone would be singing and laughing and having a good time.
I wanted a chairlift, but the banks wouldn't lend me the money. Then Walter Martignoni of United Tramway offered me one of three lifts he had built. I told him I didn't have any money, and he said, "You can give it to me when you get it working." Then I said, "I don't even have money for installation." He said, "I'll help you with that." He was a man of his word.
We built the ski lodge in '53. People would just show up here and work for free, because they loved the place as much as I did. I got most of my ideas from the employees and from the public. I'd stand in line with skiers at the lifts, and they'd tell me what they wanted.
We kept reinvesting profits -- adding lifts and expanding the lodge. In 1965, I decided to go to the top of the mountain. You couldn't use a chairlift, because it was too exposed to the elements; I needed a gondola. I bought one from a Swiss company: millions of dollars and we just shook hands. The gondola started at 9,000 feet and went up to 11,050 feet.
In 1991, we had to lay off 150 people, because we had six years of very light snow. Instead of keeping all the best people, I looked at the people that were really able to take care of themselves and let them go first. It worked out, because they ended up doing greater things than they had been doing. It may not have been wise, but that's the way it is with me.
I acquired property in the town of Mammoth Lakes and practically gave it away to people who wanted to come and build a motel or a restaurant or whatever. Our family helped start the hospital and the fire department and the schools. Now we've built a college.
I enjoyed running the business as long as we could do the planning and the building and permits were easy to get. But it got to where there were too many regulations and politicians telling you how to do things. All that got in my hair. I managed to make it to 2005, then I sold.
My hobby now is taking pictures: wildflowers and mountains, rocks and trees. I still ride a motorcycle. I had my knees replaced five months ago, so I hope I'll be skiing again this year.
There's no way to understand my life unless you see where I've spent it. When it's clear and calm on the mountain, there's no more beautiful place in the world.