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11 Moments That Redefined U.S. Skiing in 2021
Skiing proves resilient as investment ramps up, the outdoors boom, and the resort-and-pass shuffle resumes
Welcome to The Storm Skiing Journal’s 2021 year-in-review of skiing in U.S. America*. As with last year’s edition (which focused exclusively on the Northeast), this list is not meant to be definitive or exhaustive, and the items below do not appear in any particular order. I’m sorry that I missed Trevor McHotstuff’s switch 9000 off that 450-foot cliff on Mount Sickness – this is intended to capture the evolution of lift-served U.S. skiing, rather than the progression so doted on at Radbrah Central. The question I am attempting to answer instead: how did the ski areas – where 99 percent of skiers spend 99 percent of their time – and the way skiers access them change in 2021 in ways that are likely to resonate into 2022 and beyond? I welcome feedback and alternate versions. Let’s go:
1) Alterra modifies Ikon Pass access tiers at Crystal Mountain
It was an amazing thing that first year, the 2018-19 debut of the Ikon Pass: $599 for a Base Pass, unlimited Crystal Mountain included. No holiday blackouts. Skip down to Tahoe or Utah or Colorado or Jackson Hole. How does every skier in Washington not buy this? It seemed as though every skier in Washington did, and state highway 410 turned into a 40-mile-long traffic jam for several consecutive weekends following heavy snows in January 2020. The mountain turned off walk-up weekend lift-ticket sales, but it was clear unlimited Base Pass access was unsustainable. When Alterra released its 2021-22 Ikon Pass suite this past March, it shifted Crystal to five days with holiday blackouts on the $729 Base Pass – anyone who wanted unlimited access had to roll with the $999 version. So what? Alterra has adjusted access several times before, bumping Stratton and Sugarbush up to unlimited-with-blackouts on the Ikon Base Pass (from five days with blackouts at each, after Vail added Mount Snow and Okemo to its Epic Local Pass as unlimited-with-blackouts mountains), and removing Aspen and Jackson Hole from the cheaper version altogether. But these ongoing changes signal that Alterra is paying attention to the skier experience and is willing to adjust access tiers to curate a better ski day or make their products more competitive with the Epic Pass. Expect more changes when the company cracks open its 2022-23 pass suite, likely in early March.
2) Vail drops Epic Pass prices by 20 percent – and sells 2.1 million Epic Passes
It seemed like a bizarre move: take the most popular pass product in the history of skiing – one that had redefined the industry’s business model – and put it on sale. $783 for access to Vail’s global empire of 37 owned resorts and approximately as many partners. No blackouts, no restrictions. It felt like putting Super Bowl tickets on the discount rack – like, you know these things are gonna sell anyway, right? But not this many – by the time Vail shut down sales on epicpass.com earlier this month, the company had moved 2.1 million Epic Passes, 700,000 more than last season. Approximately 20 percent of U.S. skiers are now Epic Pass holders. This completes a grand re-ordering of the lift-access hierarchy – season passes, once rare and expensive, accounted for 51 percent of U.S. skier visits last season. Walk-up lift-ticket sales accounted for just 17 percent (a shift largely driven by Covid-era shifts to e-commerce). While many Epic Passes are not season passes but day-limited Epic Day Passes, the psychological impact of folding skiers into this on-mountain cool club cannot be overstated. The issue? It’s no longer a very exclusive club. With Vail lifting its Covid-era reservation system, concerns about overcrowding abound. The company’s proactive measures to tame crowds include limiting holiday lift-ticket sales, reorienting lift lines, and folding lift wait times into its Epic Mix app. Will it be enough? We’ll see. Will Alterra follow Vail and drive Ikon Pass prices lower? Don’t count on it.
3) Rob Katz steps down as Vail Resorts CEO
In 15 years as the King of Skiing, Rob Katz completely re-ordered the industry. It needed it. Stale, unimaginative, dismissive of customers it constantly took for granted: these qualities defined turn-of-the-century lift-served ski operators as much as a joy of the outdoors and a love of snow and dynamic motion upon it. In 2008, Katz rolled his five massive resorts (Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone, Breck, Heavenly) onto a $579 pass, then started stacking up flagship resorts like a contestant scooping ribeyes into the shopping cart on Supermarket Sweep. Northstar, Kirkwood, Park City, oh my God Whistler, oh my double God Stowe. Then the rest of New England. And on and on. If not for Katz, a season pass at Stowe would probably cost $3,000 by now. Instead, it’s the price of a gallon of gas. Skiing still has plenty of problems: high day-ticket prices, congestion on the slopes and the roads leading to them, increasingly unaffordable mountain-town real estate, a growing labor shortage, the persistence of Covid, a lack of diversity, and perceptions of elitism. Vail’s new CEO, Kirsten Lynch, is by all accounts a data-driven executive who will no doubt engage with these myriad issues. But Vail’s – and skiing’s – circa 2006 problems are far different from its 2021 problems, and Katz deserves enormous credit for that.
4) Consolidation re-ignites with ski area sales across the country
When Covid turned the world off in March 2020, the Great Ski Industry Consolidation shut down with it. While new owners took control of Sundance and Brundage in late 2020, neither were folded into multi-resort families. Then, in May, KSL Capital, owners of Pennsylvania’s Camelback (and parent company of Alterra), bought nearby Blue Mountain. In August, Southern California’s Mountain High bought Dodge Ridge, 400 miles to its north in the Sierras. Michigan-based Wisconsin Resorts soon expanded its portfolio to six ski areas with the acquisition of Alpine Valley, a bump serving the masses of suburban Detroit. Then the big players re-activated the tractor beams, with Boyne Resorts scooping up Maine’s Shawnee Peak and Vail Resorts ingesting the Pennsylvania trio of Seven Springs, Laurel, and Hidden Valley. In the midst of all this, Washington’s Mission Ridge bought Montana’s Blacktail and quickly added it to the Indy Pass. While these sales likely signal a period of continued stability and investment for these ski areas, not all purchases did: when the owner of New York’s Song and Labrador mountains bought nearby Toggenburg, he quickly closed it, zipping shut a 68-year history. Multipass implications from these sales abound: Dodge Ridge combined its pass with Mountain High’s and joined the Powder Alliance; all six Wisconsin Resorts are on a single pass; and Blacktail passholders get extensive access to Mission Ridge, while Mission Ridge passholders get unlimited access to Blacktail. Vail will surely add its new Pennsylvania mountains to many of its 2022-23 Epic Passes, and I expect Shawnee Peak to emerge on both the New England and Ikon passes for next season. Camelback and Blue only combined their senior passes for this season, but KSL should consider converting all passes into dual-mountain access products and adding both mountains to the Ikon Pass. Whatever happens with pass additions, consolidation is likely to continue into 2022.
5) New era of capital investment and expansion arrives
Widespread Covid fallout did not freeze capital investment as tightly as it did acquisitions, but it did delay a lot of projects in 2020. Mammoth deferred two planned six-packs. Loon put off its spectacular Kanc 8 lift for a year. Big Sky’s Swift Current six-pack sat in storage. Vail cancelled all lift construction. And while 28 new lifts went in across North America in 2020, that was the lowest total number installed in at least 15 years. That era of frugal caution appears to be over – not only did most of those projects go in over the summer of 2021, but ski areas announced hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of additional expansions and upgrades. A $60 million base-to-base gondola connecting the two sides of Palisades Tahoe headlined Alterra’s $207 million 2021 capital plan. Boyne Resorts will drop eight-packs onto Boyne Mountain and Sunday River next year, setting up an expansion that could double the size of the already expansive Maine Resort. Vail will pump more than $300 million into 21 new lifts across 14 mountains. Indie ski areas are planning investments as well (though not necessarily in 2022): Telluride will build four new lifts; Taos wants to build seven; Gunstock aims to install four new lifts and expand in three directions. Ski areas have been modernizing for decades, of course, but there is an urgency to this flurry of upgrades, a signaling that the ski industry sees itself in a war for guests and market share. This is what a healthy marketplace looks like, and it’s partial proof that skiing hasn’t consolidated itself into a state of inertia.
6) The Caldor Fire smashes Sierra-at-Tahoe, and climate change becomes an all-seasons problem
It stormed over the granite cliffs and into the Lake Tahoe basin like an invading horde, just the second fire to ever jump the crest of the Sierras. The late-summer Caldor Fire torched more than 220,000 acres and 900 buildings, but it also gutted large parts of Sierra-at-Tahoe ski area, including the haul-rope for the Grandview Express, the primary upper-mountain hauler. The entire 1,417-foot West Bowl area will be closed this winter, as will many glade-skiing areas, which make up a huge proportion of the 2,000-acre resort. The ski area has yet to announce an opening date. Up until now, climate change’s existential threat to the ski industry has been framed mostly as a winter-time problem: warmer temperatures equaled rising snowlines, unpredictable weather, and shorter seasons. But as the scale and ferocity of fires continues to intensify across the Western mountains upon which most of America’s largest ski areas sit, it’s becoming increasingly clear that lift-served skiing faces year-round, climate-based threats. Sierra-at-Tahoe is likely to recover, and nearby Heavenly and Kirkwood fended off similar devastation, but it seems increasingly likely that fire will wipe out a major ski area at some point.
7) Squaw Valley changes its name to “Palisades Tahoe”
Alterra positioned itself from the outset as a sort-of anti-Vail, a swaggering Western cowboy sublimating its corporate brand for the sake of individual resort identity. But that license-to-rad-out had its limits. Shortly after Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory issued a pledge to increase diversity both within the company and among its customers, the resort known for 71 years as “Squaw Valley” (and later, “Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows”), announced that it would change its name. The resort had waffled on this topic for years, periodically meeting with Native American groups who found the word “squaw” derogatory and ultimately maintaining the status quo. Then, suddenly, Alterra, it seemed, had had enough. Likely sensing a brewing PR disaster in the racial-issues reckoning of 2020, the company acted quickly and decisively to signal its intentions: the name was going. “Please recognize that our decision was made and we are not looking back,” then-resort President Ron Cohen said at the time. In September, the resort’s name officially became “Palisades Tahoe.” While a huge media push (wisely) accompanied the initial announcement, Alterra and the ski area have since resisted any chest-beating urge to boast about doing the right thing. The old name – likely the most prominent remaining use of the word “squaw” anywhere in the United States – is gone, and it’s not returning. That sends an important signal about Alterra’s values and intentions, and they’re wise to let that speak for itself.
8) Powdr Corp shows us how to do everything wrong with fumbled Fast Tracks rollout
Watching Powdr Corp fumble around is like watching Skiing: The Cartoon. You can see them approaching the tripwire that will send an anvil crashing into their head, but no matter how loud you scream at the TV, they just can’t resist the booby-trapped treasure chest planted as bait. Whether it’s aggressive lawsuits to avoid inheriting lifetime season passes or transforming The Beast of The East into The Kitten by forcing it to close in April, the company that fashions itself as an “adventure lifestyle brand” too often seems hostile to the people trying to actually join it for an adventure. This should surprise no one – this is, after all, the same outfit that lost its most-important ski resort due to bureaucratic ineptitude. Still, the oblivious tone of Powdr’s October announcement that it would install “Fast Tracks” lanes at four of its largest resorts – Snowbird, Mount Bachelor, Copper, and Killington – was amazing. The company positioned the pay-by-the-day add-on product – which started at $49 – as a totally radically awesome idea that would allow skiers to “maximize the on-mountain experience.” That this announcement came six months after Powdr’s season passes went on sale infuriated passholders, who were quite certain when they threw down approximately $1,000 for a Killington or Snowbird season pass that they were “maximizing their on-mountain experience.” While Powdr later offered to refund season passes, the fumbled rollout was an avoidable public-relations fiasco that hopefully everyone else in the ski industry can learn from. Humility, deference to your best customers by offering some sort of concession, and acknowledging this was a big and – for many – unwelcome change, would have gone a hell of a long way to a peace agreement here.
9) Walk-up lift ticket prices creep toward the $300 mark
Take a deep breath I-Remember-Skiing-on-a-Barnyard-Ropetow-for-a-Nickel Guy:
This is, pardon my language, fucking insane. When the Aspen Times interviewed a chap who had just laid out $92 for a Vail Mountain lift ticket in 2007, he called the price “outrageous.” Fourteen years later, we are charging toward a $300 day ticket like Powdr Corp toward a pot of gold planted atop a blanket drawn over a spike-lined pit. Does anyone doubt we’ll get there? It would be harder to dream up a bigger public-relations problem (OK, Powdr Corp, I’ll hold your beer). Yet the big industry players seem oblivious to this issue at best, and hostile to it at worst. They view high and ever-climbing lift-ticket prices as a genius incentive to buy their bargain-basement megapasses. And it works – but at what cost? It is a little like stripping wood from your house to keep the fire burning – eventually, you run out of fuel. And while a combination of increased pass purchases and Covid-era shifts to e-commerce helped drive walk-up ticket sales to just 17 percent of skier days last season, according to the NSAA, I maintain that the single-day lift ticket is a profoundly broken product that needs to be rethought from the ground up, lest the industry scare away potential skiers who see these prices and say, “no thanks.” Jay Peak and Whitefish indicate that a different future is possible, as I outlined last month.
10) Covid ignites an outdoor boom
No one knew what would happen when the lifts started spinning in fall of 2020, seven-ish months after the ski industry’s abrupt March shutdown. Would people come? Would they mask up? Would ski areas be able to find a viable business model with capacity restrictions and modifications to food and beverage sales? Well, yes to all of that. The industry recorded 59 million skier visits in 2020-21, making it the fifth-best season on record, according to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA). The average ski area was open for 112 days, weekday visitation boomed, and 78 percent of ski-area operators said the season exceeded their expectations. What drove this? Well, there wasn’t anything else to do. Before Covid vaccines arrived, anxious Americans were discouraged from doing anything indoors. Theaters, restaurants, and other indoor venues remained closed across much of the country. As a result, interest in outdoor activities boomed. Whether this urge-to-Outdoor was a Covid-era blip or a catalyst for future growth remains to be seen, though early-season crowds and robust season-pass sales industry-wide suggest we’ve got a lot of new friends on the slopes.
11) The 2020-21 ski season ends without a single Covid-related shutdown
Credit a unified industry response behind the NSAA’s Ski Well Be Well guidelines; credit cooperative skiers who just wanted to avoid another rug-yanking and were willing to tolerate any inconvenience to make sure it didn’t happen; credit luck that last winter’s Covid surge mostly dodged ski states - a lot of factors contributed to the remarkable fact that the 2020-21 ski season ended on our terms, without a single Covid-related ski-area shutdown in the United States, even as their counterparts in Canada, South America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand endured wave after wave of government dictates. But probably no single thing contributed more to the remarkable fact of shutdown-free Covid skiing than the fact that U.S. Americans will no longer tolerate them. I don’t care if bubonic plague unites with Feral Raccoon Syndrome, goes airborne, and wipes out 10 million Americans on live TV – you will not see another stay-at-home order issued in U.S. America in the lifetime of anyone reading this. So ski on, dudes, and stay safe in 2022.
The Storm had a good year. The numbers of email newsletter subscribers and Twitter followers increased exponentially. This is the 100th Storm article of 2021 – 36 of those were podcasts. I also expanded The Storm’s scope nationally, joined the North American Snowsports Journalists Association, and started an Instapost account. Next year, I will be focused on finding a more sustainable model for this whole operation, including partnering with new sponsors and introducing a paywall for select content. I can’t, and won’t, do this completely for free forever. I appreciate everyone who has read, listened to, shared, supported, or debated The Storm in 2021. I hope you will stick with me in 2022 and beyond as I continue to search for skiing’s brains. Have a safe and happy new year.
*U.S. America, for the purposes of The Storm Skiing Journal, refers to any person, trait, or activity that deeply embodies a cartoonish aspect of modern-day America. Examples include driving to your mailbox, owning a pet tiger, decorating your vehicle with decals, referring to Halloween or Valentine’s Day as “holidays,” spending all of your disposable income on 20 versions of the same thing (skis, guns, motorcycles), bragging about how many hours you work, talking about how much you “make,” drinking soda for breakfast, thinking Puerto Rico is a foreign country, not using cruise control, spending all winter waiting for summer and then sitting in the air-conditioning for the entire season, buying a house for a family of four that is large enough to shelter the population of sub-Saharan Africa, owning a four-wheel-drive truck while living in a city where it hasn’t snowed in 75 years, referring to Snackwells as “health food,” thinking that it’s clever and funny when you recite movie quotes, sending thoughts and prayers to help out in a crisis, having a storage unit, owning more vehicles than people who live in your home to drive them, naming your biceps, checking your phone between reps at the gym, being vociferously opposed to any sort of new real-estate or public-works development, using a cliche like “think outside the box” to tell people what an original thinker you are, and going to outlandish trouble and expense to make things like bread or ice cream that are widely and cheaply available at any supermarket. And yes, it is all a nod to this poor girl, who got caught up in the blender at exactly the wrong moment in history:
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