Mammoth Mountain, early February. The dawn light that brightened a foot-deep carpet of white has given way to afternoon sun and blue skies, and the pristine helixes of the first and second runs are long gone. The hill goes from untracked to tracked and then beyond tracked-all the loose snow is tamped down so you can no longer make tracks-and the tourists flee forthe groomed. Some have thrown in the towel, but I'm licking my chops: Despite appearances, there's plenty of fresh snow left. All around Mammoth-and, indeed, at every mountain-there are secret spots where snow lies untouched, where you can find brief moments of glory amid the chaos of a consumed hill. Tucked in the trees, guarded by ridges or shadows or hikes, are the stashes. They're one of the most hallowed and mystical elements in all of skiing.
Stashes hide among the folds of topography, small pockets of snow that are forgotten, undiscovered, or overlooked-bits of paradise that hold fresh crystal long after the rest of the mountain has been hammered. They might lie deep in the woods or just a few feet off a busy trail. They can take the form of an obscure line or a long corridor reached only by ducking through a thick barrier of branches. Regardless, they are consistent: Storm after storm, powder day after powder day, season after season, the stash proves itself and becomes a reliable friend.
Stashes have a powerful allure for skiers, and not just because of the promise of additional untouched. They reinforce the distinction between information and knowledge, that there are treasures not everyone knows, and not everyone should know. Stashes exist as rewards for extra effort, for commitment, for trust, and for an attitude of not just skiing where the lifts and marked runs take you. They're prizes for digging deeper and not accepting the status quo.
Knowledge of stashes reflects a familiarity with the mountain that goes beyond the typical resort experience. I've always claimed that the life of a skier is one of apprenticeship, that you indenture yourself to the mountains. Discovering a stash represents a budding of that relationship. Mountains are so much more than ski areas, and whether you find a stash on your own or are led there by others, familiarity with one says that your skiing is growing in new dimensions, that you're becoming a part of the mountain's secret life.
As a visitor to many mountains, I have been entrusted with countless stashes and have sworn many vows of silence. I understand that preserving a stash's secrecy is of utmost importance. Once its cover is blown, it's blown for good. But not all stashes are worthy of complete protection; over the years, I've found three levels of classification. First are general-public stashes, which are available to impress visitors without violating any kind of communal code. Next come secret stashes, lesser-known, higher quality, and worthy of revealing only to your inner circle. Last are the holiest-of-the-holy stashes, revealed to no one, savored and cherished and used by you and you alone.
Maybe I shouldn't worry so much about secrecy. Even the loosest lips somehow remain mum where stashes are concerned. Stashes survive in a world of overly excited skids, dirtbags, and Red Bull addicts because skiing is a particularly selfish sport-"there are no friends on a powder day," etc. But still, whatever the motivation, whatever the result, it's vital that most stashes be kept not just for personal use but also for the common good. Certainly, it's sweet to know where you can always find untracked, but just as important is the idea of stashes. The knowledge that these things exist under our very noses, like some alternative universe or extra dimension, reminds us that skiing is different from every other sport.
At Mammoth I make one last run down the Paranoids and venture left under Star Chute, sacrificing vertical for the joys of a little thicker crud, and mach some wide-open turns before heading across the hill. I ride a couple chairs, slip into the trees, poke around, and then I find it-again. Loyal as an old dog, the stash offers a dozen turns of light, flawless snow-on a Saturday afternoon in February with half of Los Angeles in town for the weekend. It feels like I'm the only guy on the hill-it is special, priceless. My stash. I wouldn't give it up for anything.