2020-21 Ski Season Winds Down – On Our Terms

This year’s shutdown looks a whole lot different than 2020

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We did it

After weeks of sporadic warm-ups and rain, Pennsylvania and southern New England are about done. Camelback, Seven Springs, Berkshire East, Wachusett, and Mohawk are all that remain of the 40-ish ski areas stretching across the Northeast’s southern tier, and they’re guaranteeing nothing, all five posting “we’ll-open-this-weekend-if-we-can” notes. Another dozen each hang on in New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire, while Maine winds down to the as-expected Sunday River, Sugarloaf, Saddleback, and Shawnee. I’m tracking them all here if you care.

There are a few surprises and feel-good stories here. That little Mohawk and Thunder Ridge are hanging on for possible weekend opens is impressive, especially after some of their much better-funded neighbors surrendered to the weather. Greek Peak still appears to be aiming for an improbable May 1 close. Jay Peak has said to hell with it we’re staying open as long as we can. Killington is still doing this:

But the headline here is that, as the 2020-21 ski season winds toward its conclusion, it’s in the usual way. With freeze-thaws and downpours and big winds and then six inches of snow that turns to Elmer’s by 11 a.m. the next day. Occasionally in the midst of all that we get glory, sunshine and 60, corn midmorning, beers and grills in the parking lot. It’s ending and we all know it, but the wind-down stretches for months, Killington pushing us as far toward summer as technology and stubborn willpower allow.

Not like last year, when over one cataclysmic March week every ski area in the region switched off. They would sit idle until November. One day we had months of skiing left and the next day we had no skiing, our little turny-turn hobby a shard of our smashed civilization vacuumed up by the black hole of Covid.

This had never happened before. A stunned industry simultaneously grappled with the loss of spring revenue while retrofitting its hills for plague operations. Skiers, some scared, some angry, all cautious, demanded season pass protections. Ski areas, for the most part, delivered. When skiing - finally, haltingly, maddeningly - returned to the region in the weeks leading up to Christmas, we all braced ourselves for another March, for more cascading shutdowns and confusion and conflict between never-closers and STAY HOME purists.

It never happened. The worst inconvenience most of the region’s skiers had to contend with was Vermont’s stringent quarantine rules. Ski areas in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and New England didn’t have a single shutdown, voluntary or forced. The industry’s sometimes elaborate pass-credit plans will go unused. The 2020-21 ski season is ending in the same boring and infuriating way all Northeast ski seasons end.

The psychological victory here is huge. This is the worst thing skiing ever faced and skiing survived. Only one large ski area in the region went idle for the season, and that was Tenney, the Detroit Lions of skiing, the outfit that can never seem to get it right. Everyone else figured it out. They did it with in most cases huge reductions in revenue from food and booze and ski school. Pass sales were by all accounts enormous but government and self-imposed capacity restrictions likely limited day ticket sales. Vail lost a lot of money and probably many other operations did too. They can’t do this forever but they did it for a season and that matters.

Ski area operators learned a lot this year. This forced reset of operations gave them cover to change how skiers used the baselodge or booked tickets, rentals and lessons. It made the ski areas themselves better manage liftlines and showed them the experiential value of managing capacity. Covid showed a stubborn industry how to change, and many of those changes will not change back when the pandemic lifts.

Skiers changed too. As a group we had grown entitled to skiing early and often and whenever we wanted. Then it ended and there was nothing we could do about it. One year ago every chairlift in the region hung idle. When skiing came back it was different, with masks and long lines and what felt like so many more people. But it was skiing and we were grateful.

Today ski areas are closing by the dozens each weekend, thanking us for a great season on social media. Typically angsty skiers seem unbothered by this, satisfied to see things shutting down in the usual hail of meltdowns and rainstorms rather than in a whole new terrible way. That we had a great six-week-ish run from the MLK holiday through the end of February was a tremendous uplift for skiers across the nine-state region.

It wasn’t great everywhere, of course. Shutdowns in Ontario and Europe shortened or cancelled skiing for a lot of people. The U.S.-Canadian border closure lingers. Pandemic skiing is a little lame. And it isn’t over yet – things have recently gone sideways in Brazil and Covid has proven unpredictable. It’s hard to say long-term what the ultimate consequences of the pandemic will be on skiing.

But, for now, for the 2020-21 ski season, it looks like we made it. No one in the Northeast has collapsed, business-wise. All the ski areas you expect to be open in April will be open in April. Those last selfies from Superstar in May or June are probably on their way. We didn’t know if we’d get here. But we did it. Good job.

Season pass season shapes up

With Vail’s release of its 2021-22 Epic Pass offerings last week, you can now buy season passes at 89 Northeast ski areas. I’m tracking them all here. There are a few major holdouts, Mad River Glen and Smuggs being the most notable. Wachusett has told me they’re in no hurry. Magic will release their pass suite on April 15.

But with passes to most major ski areas now available, it’s a good time to compile another by-the-numbers look at the Northeast season pass landscape. Of the 89 ski areas* where you can now buy a 2021-22 pass:

  • 53 cost more than they did at the beginning of the 2020-21 season pass sales period, 19 cost the same, 17 decreased.

  • 35 offer some sort of deferral or refund option.

  • 30 provide access to at least one other ski area; 17 more offer add-on options that include an Indy, Ikon, or other premium pass (some offer both automatic free days and the add-on option).

  • 13 offer a renewal discount.

  • 35 offered free skiing for the rest of this season (though many of those are now closed).

  • 43 offer a payment plan (if you count Vail’s “$50 down and pay the rest in September” deal as a payment plan).

Side note: it looks as though Toggenburg dropped off the Freedom Pass. Sister resort Greek Peak remains.

I’ll continue to update the chart as prices increase and more ski areas release their offerings. I’m not, however, going to do weekly or monthly pass updates this offseason, as I don’t anticipate the landscape continuing to evolve at its warp-speed 2020 pace. I’ll continue to monitor notable changes, however, like Vail’s announcement last week that a day ticket at Vail mountain will soon cost less than a season of Epic Passes for a family of four.

*All number represent an individual resort, not a pass. So while, for example, the Ikon Pass covers season passes at both Stratton and Sugarbush, the mountains are counted individually in the numbers above.

A correction on Vail Resorts’ credit policy

In last week’s breakdown of Vail’s 2021-22 Epic Pass suite, I stated that, “One thing Vail did not include is any sort of concession for passholders who were unable to use their passes in the ways they had expected due to state-to-state travel restrictions.”

This, it turns out, is untrue. The previous week, Vail had emailed individual passholders who, according to WCVB5, “did not use their pass at all this season and had priority reservations at a resort that was subject to a state quarantine,” issuing them a full credit to apply to a 2021-22 Epic Pass.

This was the right move, and it addressed one big hole in the monstrous and byzantine pass protection program that Vail released after last year’s shutdowns. Alterra – which simply gave all 2020-21 Ikon Pass holders the ability to defer unused passes by April 11 – did something similar last year, quietly rolling unused Ikon Passes over to this season at no charge. I can see why neither company advertised these moves – this likely leaves anyone who used their pass once or twice resentful and bitter. They were trying to get some value out of the pass and instead got nothing and it’s like, “Thanks for that, Chief.” That’s why I think a metered-credit plan, of the sort Vail used to compensate 2019-20 passholders between 20 and 80 percent after the truncated season, is more fair. It is also, however, incredibly complicated, and, by extension, expensive, and I guess this was their comprimise.

Anyway, I regret the oversight. If you’re a passholder at any mountain and you receive an update that’s only for passholders, please share it with me. There are so many passes and so many nuances that crowdsourcing is one of the most valuable tools I have for getting things right.

Why do we make easy things hard?

I cancelled three credit cards last week. We all started living in the future a long time ago and we all know virtually anything can be accomplished with a button click on a smartphone. And yet credit card companies still insist upon a phone call to complete this transaction. The reason why is sometimes obvious: when I tried cancelling a fourth card, the very distraught agent begged me seven different ways to reconsider before saying, “Hey how about 15,000 free Delta miles?” and I was like “OK I’ll keep the stupid card.” The other three, however, just told me they were oh so sorry to see me go and I’m sure it was a big topic of conversation around their dinner tables that evening.

Contrast this to my decision two weeks ago to defer my family’s Ikon Passes to next season. I mentally prepared myself for what I assumed would be an enormous chore, involving repeat phone calls and forms and assurances to the operators that it was nothing personal and I still loved Alterra and the Ikon Pass, it’s just well Vermont is closed and I didn’t go out West so I’ll just pay for my Windham tickets and call it a season.

It took under 10 seconds. A button click on the My Account section of the Ikon Pass website. Alterra made an easy thing easy. In a year that has not been easy, I think we can all appreciate that.

“Guaranteed” we will have more Ikon Pass partners before next season

We had a big moment in The Storm last week when Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory made his second appearance on The Storm Skiing Podcast. He “guaranteed” we’d see more Ikon Pass partners for the 2021-22 ski season, and said that “the market will tell us” if Ikon Passes aren’t priced correctly following Vail’s big 20 percent pass price drop last week. He also talked extensively about Mammoth Mountain founder Dave McCoy, who died last year at age 104 and whom Gregory worked with for decades. Listen here if you haven’t already.

Elsewhere

New York Ski Blog at Mohawk, Plattekill, and Snow Ridge. Sutner does an early lap at Tuckerman. A moving detachable quad chair loaded with a man and two children fell from the lift at Camelback last week. Someone please buy Jay Peak before it implodes. I don’t have the patience of Lift Blog’s Peter Landsman, but he promises that somewhere in this 248-page document it says that Whiteface wants to replace the Bear Double with a fixed-grip quad. Since he’s always right, I believe him. An update on the Big Squaw sale. If you have a hill and consistent snow in your backyard, buy one of these. Now is a good time to start getting excited about Lift Blog’s list of to-be-constructed lifts for next season. New Wintry Mix podcast. Out of Bounds Podcast host Adam Jaber joins Low Pressure Podcast for an episode.

This week in skiing

I had five days of skiing planned and two of those were rained out and life drama eliminated another which left me with two days at Mountain Creek. Both were spring skiing days, the snow soft, no one there, the liftlines of midwinter evaporated. Big jumps and rollers everywhere. Sun beaming. Lap after lap off the high-speed lifts at Bear and South. T-shirt skiing. No goggles. No helmet. When this kind of skiing arrives each spring I want it to ramble on like this forever so pleasant is the experience of no-effort warmth and snowskiing fused. But of course it can’t and Mountain Creek abruptly closed for the season Sunday despite a still-deep base on many trails and so it’s ever-further north for me from here.