Going to Extremes
From California Highway 395, Mammoth Mountain looks much like the rest of the Sierras—stunning in its snow-blanketed splendor, magnificent in all of its 11,053 feet.
It's postcard perfect … and seemingly harmless.
That is, till you're at the peak. From there, more than two miles above sea level, the perilous side of Mammoth comes alive, with its jagged rocks, treacherous chutes and hidden bluffs. Some of its aptly-named ski runs set the scene, like Hangman's Hollow, Wipe Out, and Paranoid Flats.
So, on one hand, Mammoth Mountain, a popular ski resort, is the kind of place you'd love to spend a winter weekend.
On the other hand, it's the kind of place that can hurt you. Bad.
Just ask Natalie and Chris Nelson, who just might be the best snowboarding siblings in America.
Natalie, 20, has the battle scars—from knee surgery—to prove it, not to mention the memories of a broken wrist, a sprained shoulder, and various other injuries.
Chris, 18, has had a few wipeouts and bangups too. And he's seen a few avalanches; his best friend was nearly killed in one while snowboarding.
"He was almost sucked under," says Chris. "He thought he was gonna die."
So Natalie and Chris love and fear Mammoth Mountain at the same time. Mostly, they just respect it.
They have to. After all, they live at its foot in Mammoth Lakes, and they're up on the mountain almost every day—at least 200 days a year, says Natalie.
This brother and sister can do just about anything on a snowboard. They can race down the slopes at blurring speed, catch big air by jumping off bumps and ramps, and perform all kinds of aerial tricks—with names like "rodeo flips," "alley-oop indys" and "McTwisters"—in the halfpipe, their specialty and their favorite event.
Natalie and Chris never forget the risks of their sport. But they're willing to take those risks … to a degree.
"Snowboarding can be dangerous," says Natalie. "But it's so much fun. I love the rush. I love going as fast as I think I can go, feeling the wind rushing past my face, and then pushing the edge a little more. But at the same time, I play it safe.
"Sometimes you see some people going all out, just reckless, and they get hurt so badly. You're like, 'Why didn't you use a little caution there?'"
Chris is a little more of a daredevil than Natalie, but he has his limits.
"I won't go out and blindly jump off stuff without knowing where I'm gonna land," he says. "But you can't afford to be too conservative, either. To get better at this sport, you've got to be willing to take some risks. But I don't take it too far."
Many snowboarders do "take it too far"—not just on the slopes, but in their lifestyles too. While Natalie and Chris say the image of snowboarders is improving, they agree that there's a certain subculture that …
Well, let them explain.
"There's a stereotype that all snowboarders are into sex and drugs and alcohol," says Chris. "Everybody's not into that scene, but a lot of 'em are. It's pretty prevalent."