15 Developments That Defined Lift-Served U.S. Skiing in 2023
Indy Pass evolves, Utah defies, consolidation stabilizes, Jackson stays independent, $300 lift tickets, and more
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Among the many things that the Brobots and I disagree on is what matters to skiers. Plenty of ski media headlines focus on things like “Can Stank Woodley Pull off the Double Upside-Down Helicopter in the World Freeride Kamikaze Championships?” or “What Is The Most Virtuous Act: Saving 50 Orphans From a Fire, Curing Cancer, or Owning Snow Tires?” or “The 10 Raddest Breakfast Burritos in Tahoe.” But I don’t care about any of that stuff. What I’m focused on is how we access lift-served ski areas, and what we find on the mountain when we get there.
Covering America’s 506 ski areas (and some in Canada) is a big beat, and a wiley one. Over the course of any given year, 506 stories unfold amidst dozens of larger narratives. Multimountain passes, consolidation, demographic shifts, climate uncertainty, technological advances, complex and aging infrastructure, and macroeconomics all intersect, in varying and unpredictable ways, at these crazy little ski centers across the continent. I’ve published, so far, 112 articles in 2023 documenting, as best I’m able, this impossible swirl.
But not all things matter equally, and many little things overlap over the course of a year to tell a larger tale. Here, in no particular order, are 15 developments that will resonate well beyond 2023 when we consider the story of lift-served skiing as a whole.
1) Indy Pass sells – and rebrands as a ski area savior…
The Indy Pass, in its simplest interpretation, is a marketing product, a punchcard sampler pack that attracts skiers who may have otherwise overlooked Mt. Medium. This is a mission both noble and useful, as it lends left-behind family-owned bumps national marketing clout (along with a nice paycheck), and gives ambitious skiers an alternative – or complement – to the big-mountain, mass-market Epic and Ikon Passes. In just four-and-a-half years, a heretofore little-known marketing careerist named Doug Fish conjured this thing out of the ether, assembling a staggering 186 ski areas onto a single ski pass, all at an early-bird rate ($279 for renewals), that is less than the peak-day walk-up lift ticket rate at Vail Mountain.
If the only thing Indy Pass ever became was a hell of a ski pass, 100 percent of us could support the product. But in March, Entabeni Systems, led by founder Erik Mogensen, acquired Indy Pass. I’d known Mogensen for some time, but it took me several months to appreciate both the extent of his ambitions and his almost typecast fit for the job of permanent Indy steward. Young, tireless, relentless, ambitious, and overflowing with ideas, Mogensen carries a messianic commitment to guiding independent ski areas into a sustainable future. This conviction birthed Entabeni, which provides operating software to independent ski areas (often, upfront, for free), to help them meet consumers where they live their entire lives: on their Pet Rectangles.
But Mogensen barely owned Indy Pass for a month before news broke that he had helped orchestrate a reorganization of the board at long-troubled Antelope Butte, a gorgeous but remote thousand-footer in northern Wyoming. Acting as treasurer, he slashed season pass prices and coordinated the hire of a new general manager, the highly respected longtime GM of Cannon Mountain, New Hampshire. Without these interventions, Mogensen told me, the ski area “absolutely” would have failed to re-open this winter.
That, it turned out, was merely an opening act. When longtime Indy Pass partner Black Mountain, a New Hampshire staple that had been in continuous operation for 88 years, announced in October that it would not open for the coming ski season, Mogensen assembled an army to prevent that from happening. Within a week, he’d secured an agreement with longtime owner John Fichera to operate for a bridge season while Mogensen worked with Andy Shepard – who’d helped save at least four Maine ski areas, including Saddleback – to identify a new owner. Then, earlier this month, Indy teamed up with Unofficial Networks to help re-open long-dormant Hickory, New York, a no-snowmaking throwback that had struggled for years to secure insurance.
These three interventions unite around a theme Mogensen has discussed often: many independent U.S. ski areas, if they are to survive, need what he described to SAM as “another ownership solution.” While he doesn’t (yet) seem interested in purchasing ski areas outright, it’s clear that Mogensen intends to use Indy Pass as a vehicle to re-imagine the business of owning and operating a small ski area.
2) … While testing the limits of reciprocal megapasses
While the Indy Pass continued to grow – adding 54 new partners in a single October announcement - Mogensen’s first year as Indy owner also included some controversial decisions.
Some, like suspending Indy Pass sales from April to October (to prevent the sort of overcrowding that has become synonymous with the larger ski passes, Indy officials said), were internal matters, even if they impacted stranded passholders and partner resorts, many of whom told me they’d like Indy to sell as many passes as possible.
Other moves hit more broadly – none more than Indy’s July ultimatum that its partners choose between membership in its pass or that of Ski Cooper, a Colorado bump with a $379 season pass that had built a nationwide reciprocal network nearly as large as Indy’s. While the vast majority of mountains chose Indy and its per-visit payout to their free-for-free deal with Cooper, the offensive damaged the pass’ reputation among a righteous sect of passholders and left enormous questions around the future of reciprocal deals, long a feature of season passes in the chummy ski industry.
Dozens of Indy Pass mountains promote these arrangements as season passholder incentives, and some – Eaglecrest, Sunlight, Little Switzerland – maintain enormous reciprocal networks. How will Indy define which reciprocal arrangements are acceptable and which compromise its business? What about its 12 partners that are members of the Powder Alliance, or the 13 on Freedom Pass, both of which guarantee three free lift tickets to season passholders from any member mountain? What about its partners that have forged reciprocal agreements with Mount Bohemia, Michigan, with its $109 season pass? Or Mont du Lac’s $99.99 (early-bird) season pass, which delivers free days or discounts to dozens of ski areas, including many Indy partners.
Indy officials suggest that all of these questions will be answered in 2024, and clarified their unwillingness to share partners with revenue-generating passes by chasing Whaleback and Dartmouth Skiway off the nascent No Boundaries Pass this fall (Indy upgraded both from Allied members to full partners soon thereafter).
My take: I don’t understand the logic of reciprocal partners. Five years ago, when megapass membership – and the steady paychecks that attend it – was reserved for Ye Mountains of Great Esteem, reciprocals made sense as a sort of backdoor hack into the multi-mountain pass world. But Indy came along with a better idea: get paid for every visit (85 percent of Indy revenues go back to its partners in the form of per-visit payouts, which are calculated as a percentage of a ski area’s walk-up lift ticket rate). It’s like your buddy who still maintains that wall of DVDs, even though you can now find and stream anything in existence in under 15 seconds. Like, Brah, there’s a better way. And you’re never going to get a girlfriend by flexing allegiance to 25-year-old technology. Let’s move it along.
3) Utah hates everything
With 500 inches of floofy white jamming the canyons, a dozen world-class ski areas, and a ski season that often stretches into July, Utah ought to be the happiest ski state in the goddamn solar system. Instead, a small but highly vocal population orients itself around reflexive opposition to pretty much everything.
Below the paid subscriber jump: consolidation stabilizes, private mountains gain momentum, small ski areas step up big, skier visits soar, Ikon Base sinks, and much more.