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5 million people + 1 ski area = $309 lift tickets
Well at least I won’t get them all wrong. Eleven days after I predicted that some U.S. American ski resort would blow past the $300 single-day lift ticket mark, it happened. And it happened at a place that I never expected:
It happened because 5 million people live in metropolitan Phoenix and this is the only place to ski. It happened because Elk Ridge, the nearby beginner bump owned by Snowbowl parent company Mountain Capital Partners (MCP) has been idle for years as local interest groups bicker, shuttering a potential relief valve. It happened because MCP pumped tens of millions into the joint, standing up four new chairlifts in the past eight years and running a Rube Goldberg snowmaking system five miles and 3,000 vertical feet up into the mountains from Flagstaff. It happened because lift tickets have become a niche product reserved for the ignorant and the unprepared. And it happened because in a country where Big Pharmaceutical can crank the price of lifesaving drugs up thousands of percentage points on a whim, we’ve all developed callouses against ostentatious consumer pricetags.
Three hundred and nine dollars for one day of skiing. Once more than two decades ago when I was very drunk and it was past the two a.m. sales cutoff, I gave a hesitant 7-11 clerk $50 to walk out of the store with a case of Miller Lite (sorry Craft Beer Bro). I was out of options and I wanted more beer (we proceeded to chuck several bottles across the parking lot). This was dumb and didn’t make any sense, but it happened.
People will do dumb things when they’re out of options, is my point here. Right now, anyone who wants to ski last minute is kind of out of options. And the ski industry is acting a little recklessly in response, by doing things like charging $309 for a day of skiing. “You do realize that this is a capitalist economy, right?” Yes, I do. Thanks for that, Free Market Bro. I’m so glad someone invented social media to give you a global megaphone over which to betray your inhumane and simplistic worldview. Here are a few factors that complicate that argument:
Arizona Snowbowl, like most ski areas peddling $200-plus lift tickets, operates on U.S. Forest Service land. So it’s not like, “oh here’s some strapping individualist who built this whole operation with a handsaw and a kegerator.” This is land that we all collectively own and that a private developer is allowed to improve for public use. Do the landowners have no say in how pricing is set? The Forest Service has to approve everything else, from the placement of lifts to snowmaking infrastructure to new buildings and parking lots – why doesn’t the agency get to approve pricing?
Every ski area on Federal land has what’s called a comfortable carrying capacity (CCC). This is a suggestion, but it should be a hard limit. Ski industry folks are fond of saying, “well you don’t show up to an airport to buy an airplane ticket” as a way of justifying insane walk-up lift-ticket prices. But a 737 holds 189 people. If an extra hundred people show up, they don’t just charge them 10 times more and make them stand in the aisles.
It looks terrible. Why does everyone hate U.S. drug companies? Because they charge far more than they should while dumping out excuses from the Jargonator 5000 about “innovation” and “customer choice.” Skiing is doing the same thing. If the goal is to get everyone to perceive skiing as elitist and unattainable, it’s working.
Arizona Snowbowl doesn’t have to do this. The ski area can simply say it’s sold out after it sells whatever number of lift tickets plus whatever estimated number of season passholders will show up equals its CCC. The funny thing is that I don’t even think $309 is the ceiling – tickets start as low as $19, and appear to increase at increments forever. I asked an MCP representative if Snowbowl limited the number of lift tickets it sold.
“No,” the rep, Kyle Sawatzke, said. “We believe in giving everyone the freedom to ski and providing everyone with the opportunity to ski. Our prices are deeply discounted for those who purchase online and in advance, and as more people buy on select dates, ticket prices will begin to increase.”
Which I think means we could blow right through $309 if the mountain sells enough passes at that price point. Sawatzke declined to indicate whether anyone had actually purchased a $309 lift ticket.
I think the mountain could achieve this freedom in another way. MCP offers an excellent multi-mountain product called the Power Pass. The lowest-cost version of this product is still on sale for $699 (it debuted in the spring for just $299) and includes four days to use across Snowbowl, Purgatory, and Brian Head (along with unlimited or near-unlimited access to MCP’s other mountains). The company has an opportunity for a big upsell here: “We’re sorry, Snowbowl is sold out of daily lift tickets for Saturday, but you can still ski with the purchase of a Power Pass for $699.”
While $309 lift tickets are a bad look for Snowbowl, which should really be getting all positive attention as U.S. America’s most-improved ski area of the twenty-teens, a deeper look at the mountain’s lift ticket prices reveals a more nuanced story. While lift tickets again hit $309 for this Saturday, they drop to $54 next Tuesday. You can book a lift ticket for any Saturday in April (Snowbowl stays open into May many years), for just $29. You can still get a free – free – Power Pass for kids 12 and under. This is not the Vail-Alterra model, the “oh you didn’t buy a season pass six months ago, sucks to be you – here’s a $259 lift ticket to ski on a Tuesday” ticket-window sucker punch. It is, like MCP itself, a bit quirky and different, an outlier. Snowbowl’s upcoming ticket prices:
I still wish they’d stop doing this surge-price thing or however you want to describe it. A central theme of The Storm is that you can ski a hell of a lot for not a lot of money if you use your brain and read this newsletter, and stories like this are really fucking up my narrative. Friends and acquaintances who don’t ski often ask me all the time: where should I go skiing? My answer, were they to put that question to me at this moment, is some version of “2024, after you buy your passes two months from now.”
A new dimension to The Storm
This newsletter is and always will be focused on the lift-served ski experience. There’s a lot to the ski life, however, aside from lifts and terrain and passes, as we all know. Storm Skiing Podcast editor Patricia is more into the apres and the whole lifestyle dimension of skiing than the actual skiing, and she’s documenting our off-the-slope, skiing-adjacent adventures on a new Storm Instagram account:
Below the paid subscriber jump: a lost ski area re-opens, a Midwest monster just keeps growing, a possible new chairlift for a Colorado legend, a Freedom Pass addition, an industry legend passes, and much more.