Ask Me Anything – 68 Reader Questions, Answered
Thoughts on resort expansions, multipass evolution, ski-day habits, and much more.
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Last week, I asked readers to send me their questions about anything at all in the world of The Storm or lift-served skiing. More than 100 came in. I could not answer them all – this post has already turned into The Storm: The Novella 2022. There were some particularly good questions around skier safety and on-slope collisions that I just could not find a satisfactory answer for, and a query about RFID that I couldn’t puzzle out. I’ll have to include those in some future newsletter. But here’s what I could answer. Questions have been edited and shortened.
Development and expansion
1) Why aren't we entering a new era of ski resort creation? It feels like there's a need for more resorts. Why not build another Vail or Big Sky? (Alex Rosenfeld)
There are different answers to this question in different parts of the country, though would-be ski area developers face two common obstacles pretty much everywhere: enormous capital start-up costs and a difficult regulatory environment.
Washington, where the need for more skier capacity is probably most acute, has been a no-go-zone for wilderness development for decades. This 1992 Los Angeles Times examination of why the Early Winters ski resort had been stalled since Aspen selected the Northern Cascades site for development in 1974 summarized the roadblocks succinctly:
Developers everywhere cite the same reasons for delayed or aborted projects: a new generation of environmental laws, and a new generation of environmentalists quick to apply the letter of those laws.
“They can literally tie the hands of an operator merely by appealing, regardless of whether there are grounds for their appeal,” said Doug Campbell, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Assn.
This basic situation remains true today, and I don’t see that dynamic changing, no matter how overstuffed the existing Cascades resorts get. East of the coastal states, developers find friendlier regulators, but that leads to the second issue: ski resorts are insanely expensive. Tamarack President Scott Turlington told me recently on the podcast that the resort, built on state land in Idaho, had required $500 million in capital costs – so far. And it’s only half built.
Nonetheless, new resort development continues in one fast-growing western state: Utah. Cherry Peak, a nice little 1,200-footer, opened in 2015. Construction is ongoing at the monster Wasatch Peaks, which will, unfortunately, be a private resort like Montana’s Yellowstone Club. And should developers overcome obvious water, snowfall, and exposure issues, the Mayflower ski area could rise alongside Deer Valley and be larger than its Alterra-owned neighbor.
But there’s only so far we can go with private or state-owned land. Most Western resorts operate on U.S. Forest Service leases, and most of the land most suitable to ski area development probably lies within these holdings. The ski industry should work with the Forest Service to establish a template for future resort development, which could hinge on transit-oriented access, dense and walkable pedestrian base villages, sustainable water sourcing, and clean, onsite energy plants. There are solutions out there if everyone can compromise a little bit.
Elsewhere, the need for new resorts is less urgent. In the Northeast and Midwest, there are probably actually too many ski areas – the perception of New England busyness can largely be explained by the fact that most of the region’s skiers congregate at two dozen or so mega-resorts. The rest are pretty empty, even at peak times.
2) What future ski area expansion are you most excited about? As a Midwesterner, I'm really excited about the Lutsen and Granite Peak expansions. (Alex Conrad)
So many. First, those expansions at Lutsen and Granite Peak are extraordinary proposals. These are already the largest ski areas in Minnesota and Wisconsin, respectively – and not by a little bit. These projects would essentially double each resort’s size. Charles Skinner, who owns both mountains, is one of the true visionaries of Midwest skiing.
In New England, the expansion proposals at Waterville Valley and Gunstock would go a long way toward helping New Hampshire catch up to Vermont, which in general has much larger ski areas. The Gunstock proposal appears to be stalled, as do the very compelling expansion plans at state-owned Mount Sunapee – which will require years of regulatory review – and Ragged, where a whole pod of trails has been cut but liftless for years.
Next door in Maine, Saddleback owns thousands of acres of land adjacent to its existing trail network, and past master plans illustrate the massive expansion potential. General Manager Andy Shephard has told me that updates to that plan are in the works. I’m also intrigued by Sunday River’s so-called Western Reserve terrain, which could double the mountain’s skiable acreage, though that plan is likely years away (we haven’t even seen conceptual trailmaps yet). Fellow Boyne resort Sugarloaf – already the second-largest ski area in the East – will grow by 450 more acres next year with the juicy West Mountain expansion.
In my home state of New York, family-owned West Mountain (not Sugarloaf’s West Mountain) is building some badly needed ski-in ski-out properties and some new terrain to go along with it. Probably the most exciting expansion in New York, however, would be at state-owned Belleayre, which would bring the long-abandoned Highmount ski area back to life.
Out West, I am most amped about Steamboat’s Pioneer Ridge expansion, which should add some incredible freeskiing terrain; the Pandora’s expansion at the top of Aspen Mountain; and the massive proposed expansion of Brian Head in Utah. Last week’s confirmed expansion at Mt. Shasta Ski Park also opens lots of interesting possible futures for what is currently an off-the-radar Indy Pass partner. And while not technically expansions, the gondola connections between the Olympic and Alpine Meadows sides of Palisades Tahoe and between Timberline Lodge and the Summit ski area will introduce more European adventure-style ski-area-to-ski-area rambling to North America.
3) Which existing North American ski areas have the most untapped potential? (James)
Another reader, Alex Conrad, asked a similar question, and offered his own answer: “I think that Kendall Mountain in Silverton, Colorado has a ton of potential to become a fantastic ski area. Their plan to extend the vertical to 3,800 feet would be absolutely incredible, and with Silverton Mountain just a few miles away, make Silverton into an incredible destination.”
It's hard to come up with a better answer than Kendall, but Idaho and Montana, in particular, are filled with large, snowy mountains served by outmoded lift fleets. Turner and Maverick, both in Montana, have vertical drops of around 2,000 feet and are each served by exactly one double chair. Silver Mountain, Idaho claims the longest gondola in North America, but that’s just a ride up from town – skiers navigate the ski area’s 1,600 acres on a fleet of old fixed-grip lifts. Yes, I know Retro Bro, not all of us need fast lifts and mountains the size of Ecuador to enjoy skiing. I like fixed-grip lifts too, but the market for retro ski areas is only so big and these constant encomiums to the virtue of the slow lift are tedious. To bring in more people and ensure long-term survival, most ski areas need to modernize, at least a little bit.
4) I’ve been thinking a lot about how Mt. Hood Meadows (Oregon) will respond to Timberline’s recently-approved master plan. I know they are planning a lift replacement next summer but wonder what else is in store. Their most recent master plan hasn’t been publicly updated since 1997. (Jake Gradwohl)
I reached out to Meadows Vice President of Marketing, Sales, and Communications Dave Tragethon on this question, and he confirmed that the mountain was “still operating under the 1997 Master Plan, and the Mt. Hood Express replacement is a major project that we will be focusing on the next two seasons.” But, hey, how about a gondy connection to Timberline?
5) Setting aside the question of whether the state of New York should be in the skiing business, what do you think about the current expansion plans at Gore Mountain? If you were King of ORDA and didn't have to worry about money or permitting, what would your priorities be at Gore? (Ben L)
This will not be a popular answer among Gore loyalists, but the number one thing I would like to see at Gore is slopeside lodging. It is such a strong mountain, with one of the best glade networks in the Northeast, but the place loses so many potential customers to similarly sized ski areas in Vermont, all of which have little base villages or at least mountainside condos or hotels. I would much rather see that sort of development at the North Creek base than another giant lodge (the giant lodge at the main base is more than adequate). Gore is – or at least it should be – a destination resort, but when I’m choosing where to take my kids for a long weekend, I’m not going to pick the place where I have to wake up and drive 27 miles from Lake George. We do enough early rising and packing on our weekly day-trips. The mountain is large and sprawling enough that even a large number of ski-in, ski-out structures wouldn’t materially dampen the experience.
Raising the dead
6) The forces that are motivating more people to spend more time in the mountains don’t seem to be subsiding, in fact, they seem to be increasing in strength. I am curious to hear your thoughts on opportunities to reopen closed ski areas in the northeastern U.S. (Hamilton Hadden)
There are at least three fully intact, flip-the-switch-and-they’re live ski areas in the Northeast:
Ski Blandford in Massachusetts closed in March 2020 and never re-opened. Butternut, which owns Blandford, told me last year that, while the ski area was not publicly listed for sale, they “would be willing to entertain offers from any interested parties.”
Granite Gorge, New Hampshire: after owner Fred Baybutt died unexpectedly in 2020, the small ski area that he had brought back from the grave never re-opened. The current owner, Baybutt’s brother John, told the local paper last year that he had no interest in re-opening the area for skiing. It could be brought back to life with minimal effort, however.
Plymouth Notch, the former ski club that is by far the largest of the three, with 150 skiable acres on a 1,300-foot vertical drop served by a double chair, is for sale for $6.5 million. The real estate listing claims that the complex offers “an additional 300 acres of skiing capacity” on Salt Ash Mountain, and that an Act 250 permit is in place for residential development.
I also continue to have hope for New Hampshire’s Tenney, a tight-trailed 1,400-footer just off I-93 south of Waterville Valley and Loon. It’s been closed for the past two seasons, but I hear rumblings of a pending comeback.
There are several more projects in the works that could in one way or another expand the Northeast ski roster. The most exciting of these is up at Big Squaw, Maine, where new owners – if they can ever get the deal done – would at long last re-open the dormant upper mountain (and rename the ski area), increasing the vertical drop from its current 600 feet to 1,700. Les Otten continues his quest to re-open the former Wilderness ski area as The Balsams and transform it into the largest resort in New England. It looks amazing:
Hickory, the old-school New York surface-lift, natural-snow-only bomber, is very likely to return next season, pending lift inspections. Last year, a local amusement park owner bought the abandoned Waterbury ski area in Connecticut, and hopes to re-open it for skiing in 2023.
Other than that, the old Birdseye ski area in Vermont is currently for sale for $1.9 million. It’s redevelopment as a ski area is highly improbable, as I outline here. A more likely Vermont resurrection would be snowy Snow Valley, a favorite among the skinning set that is for sale for $4.95 million and could be re-imagined as a New England version of Colorado’s Bluebird Backcountry. Brodie, Massachusetts, recently sold after 20 years dormant, though the owners of nearby Jiminy Peak long ago attached a restriction to the deed saying it could never be redeveloped as a commercial ski area.
Those are just the most obvious possibilities. There are hundreds of abandoned ski areas scattered around the region. Many of them, like Big Tupper New York, seem tantalizing but have been stripped of their snowmaking and face countless regulatory and legal obstacles. We will see more comebacks in the East, but we will see more failures too, and, long-term, I don’t see the sheer number of ski areas in the region growing in any net material way.
7) Have you heard any rumors about the new owner (recent buyer) of the former Sugar Loaf Ski Resort in Michigan planning to redevelop this once-cool resort? I loved skiing there back in the 70s and 80s – and thought it was the best place in lower Michigan. (David Potter)
Nothing surprised me more than the sudden shutdown of Sugar Loaf in 2000. At 500 vertical feet, it was tied with Boyne Mountain for second-tallest ski area in Michigan’s low-rise Lower Peninsula. The terrain was fun and varied, with dramatic bay-and-lake views parked along the horizon.
Unfortunately, the last owner, Jeff Katofsky, insisted Sugar Loaf could only be resurrected as some kind of luxury resort, and went to great expense to strip the five old double chairs before selling the place in late 2020 to a mysterious “private buyer.” That owner, “known only as SPV 45 LLC,” according to the Traverse City Record Eagle, finally tore down the derelict base buildings late last year. Their intentions beyond that are unclear.
As a thought exercise, Waterville Valley General Manager, former Sugar Loaf ski patroller, and Traverse City native Tim Smith and I exchanged emails last February on what a minimalist Sugar Loaf could look like if approached with skiing-first intentions:
Stuart: I'm really curious about your point of view on Sugarloaf, since you've been in skiing so long and really understand what it takes to bring a mountain back to life, and you seem to have a knack for making things happen. How much would it take to bring a minimum level of skiing back to Sugarloaf? Like let's say you sent [Waterville Valley’s retiring] Sunnyside Triple there and strung it base to summit up Awful Awful and brought in some mobile snow guns - would that be enough? I'm probably over-simplifying it, but I feel like the current owner has it in his head that skiing needs to be uber luxurious before you sell a lift ticket. But you look at Mount Bohemia in the UP, and the guy basically opened the place with some yurts, a base lodge, and a lift.
Tim: Your simplification is pretty spot on. Minimum infrastructure to get going again would be a new/used lift, say $2 million will cover that with installation. For snowmaking pipe/pond/pumps/electrical for the frontside (Round About, Nastar, Waful, k2 and Awful Awful) 25 acres or so (that’s twice the size of Waterville Valley’s high country) feed that with 2,000 gpm giving an acre foot of snow every 1.33 hours, so 33 hours at full blast to cover the area with a foot of snow. To blast that type of snow the area would need at least 20 guns but I would recommend 40 as maxing out requires extreme cold. That’s 500k in guns, 500k in pumping, $1.5M for pipe, hydrants, electrical (bit of a WAG as I don’t know what is still there for primary electrical). A steel building lodge like Crotched runs about $2.5 but a yurt village would be doable for a few 100k so let say $1M for now. Parking is still in OK shape but I think the thing that would kill the project is the demo of the old lodge, but the county or state may help as it is a public nuisance at this point, so let’s say the fire department does a controlled burn 🔥 All said and done on a shoe string $5M should get it up and running. But if it was me I would go all in as I think the area could support a higher end resort, just need the right money man 😎. This is off the top of my head, some day it would be fun to run these numbers down and see if something could really work.
Smith wrote that to me before the new owner demolished the old lodge. So what do you say, whoever you are? Can we bring skiing back to the Loaf?
8) I've always been curious about Norway Mountain in Michigan. Is it for sale, sold? Why hasn't it been snatched up? Seems like a major area, still in good shape just wasting away. (Djheckler)
I asked a seasoned Midwest operator about Norway, and his response can be summarized this way: it is a nice little hill, but it’s too close to a competitor (Pine Mountain), too far from a population center (Green Bay is 97 miles away), and, unlike its cousins in the lake-effect bands to the north, it just doesn’t get that much snow: an annual average of just 60 inches. So while the 165-acre ski area indeed appears to be for sale for $795,000, and the three chairlifts, three tows, and “newly remodeled chalet” are intact, Norway faces a tough rehab. A full comeback would likely require a moneybucks investor who didn’t mind losing money for five or 10 years while they modernized the place and figured out how to get more people up there. I’m fairly pessimistic about Norway’s prospects, unfortunately.
The crystal ball
9) My question would be around which resorts are most exposed to potential impacts of climate change. And I mean this more from a multi-decade view. Would investors always back a doorway investment that could last decades at a resort exposed to climate impacts? Will you need to steadily invest more in snowmaking infrastructure to compensate? (Michael Brookes)
It took me a moment to process: snowguns blasting on the little knolls off Alta’s Collins chair. Snowmaking at Alta? With its 540 inches of average annual snowfall and 8,530-foot base elevation? It turns out that even America’s third-snowiest ski area (behind Alyeska and Mt. Baker, which both average around 640 inches), needs a little weather insurance.
There are a few dozen chairlift-equipped ski areas in America that still lack snowmaking, mostly in the West. I believe they will all need it, eventually, if for no other reason than to guarantee an opening date. Travis Seeholzer, the third-generation owner of Beaver Mountain, Utah, which averages more than 400 of snow per season, admitted as much to me on the podcast last month, saying that some sort of system was inevitable after 83 years of making do without. The biggest problem most of them will likely face is not investment – snowmaking as a stabilizing business factor is a proven concept – but access to water, which is an endemic issue in much of the West.
But, in general, I believe the existential threat of climate change to the long-term viability of skiing as a business tends to be somewhat overstated. Lift-served skiing thrives in many parts of the country where marginal conditions – vast temperature swings, little or no snow, lots of rain – would seem to preclude its possibility: lower New England, the Poconos, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri. I explored this disparity earlier this month:
Which takes us back to Northeast Pennsylvania, which looks an awful lot like the worst-case-scenario futureworlds often conjured in such articles as the setting in which skiing will curdle and die. The Poconos is not supposed to be a place where industrial-scale skiing makes sense. In some ways, it doesn’t. Conditions are often atrocious. The rain, the refreezes, the sheer bullrun of horrid skiers – having skiing is not the same thing as having great skiing. But the mountains lend themselves to snowsports, with long runs and decent fall-lines, and so generations of operators have figured out how to hack a season out of impossible-seeming circumstances.
The cornerstone is snowmaking: Blue, Camelback, Jack Frost, Big Boulder, Montage, and Shawnee all have 100 percent coverage. Because of this, they are often among the first ski areas in the Northeast to fully open, beating out the colder and snowier resorts in New England.
None of this is to say that climate change will not be enormously disruptive to the industry in the coming decades. It will be, of course. But the most vulnerable regions have already shown us how to manage it. They may, ironically, be the first to go down - anything less than about a three-month season makes skiing tough to rationalize as a business. But they will fight, and I like their odds.
10) What do you think will come of the “regional destinations” in the Midwest? Places like the Porkies, Big Powderhorn, Big Snow (Indianhead and Blackjack), Whitecap, Giants Ridge, Ski Brule, and Searchmont, Ontario. I got to talk with the manager of Mont Ripley earlier this winter and he said the only ski areas with a growing number of skiers are Ripley and Bohemia. With a lot of the others in the UP not having new investments since about the 70s, how will they adapt to succeed when they're beat in terrain by Boho, lifts by Granite Peak, and size by Lutsen? Will they adapt, go out of business, or get acquired by a bigger company (besides Searchmont, which is already owned by Wisconsin Resorts)? (Alex Conrad)
The drive-to, Midwest mini-destination market is a tough gig, no doubt, especially in the era of cheap air travel and cheaper Rocky Mountain skiing. Rick Schmitz, who owns three small Wisconsin ski areas, laid this out in stark terms on my podcast recently. He recalled his years owning and operating Blackjack, a 638-foot bomber in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that averages 200 inches of snowfall per season, in this way: “the better ski area is not always the better business.” With its fleet of Riblet doubles, the ski area is a time capsule to 1977. New lifts run multiple millions of dollars, and the return-on-investment for such a venture seemed questionable, so Schmitz eventually sold.
I still believe, however, that there is potential here. The examples cited above are instructive: Granite Peak has one of the newest lift fleets in America. Lutsen is big, interesting, ever-evolving. It certainly helps that Mt. Bohemia offers Crested Butte-quality radness and the highest lift-served vertical drop in the 1,592-mile span between Bristol and Terry Peak, but it’s one of the most remote ski areas in the lower 48 – from the Detroit airport, it is the same distance to Boho as it is to New York City. The place is thriving though, because it threw down a compelling story: no grooming, no greenies, no ropes or saying “no.” Welcome to our Fuck The World double-middle-fingers-to-the-sky ski experience.
Eventually, someone is going to figure out the potential at some of these other places (not all of which are struggling in their present configurations). The big players don’t seem interested – when Blackjack, which is now combined with neighboring Indianhead under the “Big Snow” umbrella, went up for sale last year, the eventual buyer was a small entity based in the Lower Peninsula. Even Boyne, which is anchored in Michigan, seems to have no appetite for expansion within the region. But the network effect could be strong here: imagine a version of the Epic Pass that draws a direct line from Wilmot or Afton Alps up to a modernized Big Snow, with Indianhead and Blackjack at last connected via chairlift and modern quads in place of the current Riblet museum. There is no rule that says remote ski areas can’t work. Telluride, Crested Butte, Taos all sit at the literal end of the road. A little imagination and investment – and an owner who can wait out the gap between spending and earning money – could secure the future of these places for a very long time.
11) Would love to hear your take on what Homewood is doing by partnering with HOAs in their community to become semi-private in an attempt to combat the stresses of the IKONEPICINDY passes. (Andrew Walter)
Homewood, for those readers not acquainted, is a glorious little spot rising 1,840 feet directly off the shores of Lake Tahoe. As I outlined in this post for paid subscribers earlier this month, it is one of the few rad indies that is struggling in the megapass era, mostly due to an unfortunate location shut out by growing traffic around Northstar and Palisades Tahoe. To fight this, Homewood’s owners are moving ahead with “a hybrid, semi-private model that will restrict access to season passes to people who buy new Homewood residences as well as full-time residents of several West Shore homeowners associations.” My take is unchanged from what I said in that post, which is basically the old cliché that if you can’t beat them, join them: “Why not keep the ski area semi-public through an Indy Pass partnership? Skier traffic stays light as local passholders stake out their turf, while the Indy Pass provides a guaranteed revenue stream from intrepid day-trippers willing to chalkboard their way around the traffic obstacles (maybe it’s a midweek partnership).”
12) Question: How much does a ski area make in concessions, average? (Andrew Dennison)
Enough that I never, ever buy them. It’s an interesting question, and one that I’m not equipped to answer. Instead, I’ll give you this story: six years ago, my wife and I were skiing in Italy. We came across a stone-walled mid-mountain building that appeared to predate the Mayflower by several centuries. Inside, we found bowls of fresh pasta and carafes of wine. The entire lunch cost less than a brownie at Killington’s K1 Lodge. This is a crucial difference between general culture in U.S. America and Europe. If you are in a museum or at a beach or in a tourist piazza in Europe, the food and drinks will not generally cost more than they would five or 10 blocks away, in a regular residential neighborhood. In large parts of Europe, you can buy a beer out of a vending machine for one Euro. Not so in our beloved homeland, where we have normalized 1,200 percent markups in environments sealed off from competition. Because of this American avarice, I have spent several decades smuggling bootleg Junior Mints and whisky-filled flasks into movie theaters, stadiums, and ski lodges. Try and stop me jerks. Or just price your stuff like you’re not a set for a movie that takes place in the year 2093, where a hotdog costs $27 but the real shocker is that it’s cooked by a bionic dog named Rascal since all non-human mammalian life was carried away by the aliens when they mysteriously disappeared after the Fourth Intergalactic Council in 2057.
13) What can small ski areas (Detroit Mountain) do to address the labor issue? My local ski area was short staffed all season, which significantly affected their hours of operation. Paying more is the obvious answer, but can they even compete for youth when they can work indoors at Burger King (kinda nice in northern Minnesota in December-January-February) for higher pay? It seems like they tried just about everything this winter to no avail. (Matthew Davis)
Caberfae Peaks, Michigan, has a lot in common with Detroit Mountain. Both are on the Indy Pass, both are a ways off the interstate, and both are near small cities of around 10,000 residents (Cadillac, Michigan and Detroit Lakes, Minnesota). Over the years, I’ve noticed that the lifties at Caberfae tend to be lifers, jovial and in constant dialogue with the skiers. I emailed Pete Meyer, who, with his cousin Tim, owns and operates the ski area, to ask him why:
Honestly, the best answer I can give for having a high employee retention rate is that Tim and I try to treat our employees well. We are a kind, humble and understanding resort, and our employees resonate this in most cases. It does help that Tim and I are here every day in the winter and are available for feedback or to quickly address any potential issues. Last, we make it a point to pay a fair and just wage and try to reward those that deserve wage adjustments in a timely manner.
You may be tempted by cynicism here. I would be too, if I hadn’t witnessed the results for myself over the past 25 years. They are doing a lot of things right at Caberfae, and it’s a place worth paying attention to. My podcast interview with Tim Meyer is one of my favorites of the nearly 100 I’ve recorded so far.
14) In your opinion, for our industry, what will be the most important consumer experiences driving repeat business in 2030 and what should operators be doing now to prepare? (Bill Stritzler - owner of Smugglers’ Notch)
A good experience draws repeat skiers. There are many ways to deliver this. In the Northeast or Midwest, it means steady and unrelenting investment in snowmaking. Providing slopeside lodging is also crucial to attracting and retaining families. The top factors that will drive repeat business, however, are reasonable liftlines and uncrowded trails. Waiting longer than about five minutes to board a lift feels tedious under almost any circumstances. Playing dodge-em on the way down is not only unpleasant, but dangerous. The best move operators can make is to meter access based upon this lift and trail capacity, which means moving most, if not all, lift ticket purchases to an advanced, online system, and installing reservation systems for multi-pass skiers, at least on peak days.
The other thing that I’m seeing many community-oriented ski areas do well is establish a bond with their skiers via constant, frank over-communication. Among the best of these is Geoff Hatheway’s Alpine Update emails at Magic Mountain, Vermont, where he celebrates the ski area’s wins and owns its problems. Win Smith’s Win’s Word, while now mostly dormant as Smith has stepped away from his leadership roles at Sugarbush, is another excellent example. If a lift breaks down, tell people why. If trails are closed after a two-foot storm, tell people why. If parking will be limited this weekend, warn people. Then warn them again. Then do it again. You really can’t say too much or say it often enough, and all of social media and your email accounts are there to help you do it.
Maintenance and capital investments
15) There's been running jokes at Sugarbush about the unreliable lifts - they're constantly breaking down or getting rebooted in diesel mode. They even stripped parts off Slide Brook to maintain another lift - literally robbing Peter to pay Paul. Alterra allocated a massive percentage of their capital improvement budgets out west - why not Sugarbush, allegedly their pillar mountain of the East? What is Sugarbush Ops' plan to address?
I reached out to John Bleh, Sugarbush PR and communications manager, on this one:
As you know, Slide Brook didn't open this year due to staffing (although conditions/snowpack would have allowed for minimal use anyway). So we did end up pulling parts in two circumstances for emergencies. Yes parts have been tough to get this year, but this was really more a convenience thing since the lift wasn't operating anyway, and with the parts right here we could fix those other lifts much faster than ordering parts. One was for a battery on Gate House, the other was for some electrical issues on Super Bravo. Next year we fully anticipate running Slide Brook along all our other lifts, so this shouldn't be construed as we're taking apart Slide Brook! In fact we have a lot of lift maintenance and capital budgeted for it (and a lot of other lifts) this summer.
I address Alterra’s eastern strategy a bit more in the question below.
16) As a regular at Stratton, it appears that the mountain is highly profitable for Alterra, but management is diverting working capital to other Alterra-owned properties. Stratton needs a lot of deferred maintenance and regulars are upset with a perceived lack of investment. (James Raved)
I reached out to Alterra for comment here, but some key folks were out this week, so I’ll give you my observations. Most of the company’s capital expenditures, for now, seem focused on evolving their western ski areas into Super Resorts on par with Vail or Park City. The two most obvious examples are the monster gondola projects tying together the two sides of Palisades Tahoe and the various peaks at Steamboat (plus a terrain expansion at the latter that will transform it into the second-largest ski area in Colorado). The company is also focused on ramping up out-of-base capacity, upgrading two quads to six-packs on Mammoth’s Broadway and swapping the fixed-grip Red Dog triple at Palisades Tahoe with a sixer.
Stratton, like any heavily used resort in the Northeast, no doubt needs some work, and I’m not sure if Palisades Tahoe needed two new lifts (neither of which was strictly necessary), before the east got any material investment. My personal irritation point is Stratton’s gondola, which goes on wind hold when a pigeon flies by a mile overhead. I’m not sure who decided this lift needed to run 300 feet off the snow. The commute from parking lots 1 and 2 to the lifts is also abysmal. The Sun Bowl lodge feels small on weekends. But the mountain did get a new detach quad just four years ago, and its network of four six-packs is very efficient (though frankly I avoid the place on weekends). Alterra clearly sees the value of the Northeast, and its network in New England is the strongest of any multi-mountain pass, but the lack of deliberate investment in Vermont is becoming conspicuous, even if I believe they will get there eventually.
17) What do you say about lifts that are always subject to wind hold? I mean there are several resorts in New England that have a high percentage of their lifts closed due to wind issues throughout the season, some more than others. I wonder who determined where to place said lifts on the mountain. Do they research “typical weather/wind” patterns prior to doing so? There are some lifts that head straight up the mountain facing a north-northwest wind all the time and they tend to be to the best terrain and more times than not down, due to wind. (David Brennan)
Since I’m barely smart enough to understand a thermometer, let alone any more complex element of weather, I turned this one over to Herb Stevens, AKA The Skiing Weatherman, who has been reporting on skiing and weather for decades:
In answer to your question, the lift closures are a necessary evil, I am afraid, for they are a tradeoff for the northeast exposure that most ski areas in this part of the world have in order to maximize the snowfall when a coastal Nor'easter comes along. In addition, that exposure minimizes the direct sunshine that the trails get, which will limit the melting through the season, but also can be a major detrimental effect in the low sun angles of December and early January. There are exceptions to the northeast exposure rule...Cranmore, Bromley, Montage...but they are notorious for early spring conditions ahead of the pack in most years. Magic is another exception, as it faces northwest, which causes a lot of the snow that they receive in coastal storms to get blown off the trails and into the woods. When a coastal storm moves away into the Maritimes, the counter-clockwise flow around the low center leads to a northwesterly wind across the Northeast, which is perpendicular to most liftlines, leading to the common "backside" lift issues after a major storm. One of the factors that leads to coastal storms becoming blockbusters is a blocking pattern over the north Atlantic, where an upper-level ridge slows the departure of the storm. When that happens, the snow stops, but the winds stay a problem for a couple of days.
Again, the northeastern aspect of most trail networks is necessary at this latitude and altitude in order to preserve snow, but it definitely makes those lifts susceptible to wind issues in the aftermath of the stronger storms.
18) It was always difficult to get a few powder runs on the East Coast, but with the increase in skinning it is essentially impossible, even when it is just a fresh 5 and not a big dump. Where I ski at Stowe, there can be 200-300 people skinning up before the lifts open some days. Why do they give away the best experience to people who are not paying? As a long-time pass holder and somebody who spends money with two trips to a Vail resort each season in addition to my 50 days at Stowe, shouldn’t I get some perks like I do from American Airlines? No, I have to hear it in the bar from some guy bragging about all his powder runs this year and that he does not have a pass because Vail sucks and ruined his ski town. (Jeff Herman)
A Vail Resorts spokesman confirmed that skinning Stowe is currently free. The easiest solution here would be for Vail to implement an uphill pass, as so many other resorts have done. This would, of course, be controversial among locals, who are already on edge. “We remain open to any and all possibilities for improving the guest experience, always,” wrote the spokesman, Adam White, who is based at Stowe.
19) Something that has crossed my mind over the years is how many Midwest ski areas have not kept up with having good mogul runs. Yes moguls are probably some of the hardest runs at the resort but are really important to have to help make us all better. The ability to handle a mogul run in the Midwest allows you to go out West and enjoy any kind of terrain. (Henry Hofman)
The lack of terrain diversity is a maddening aspect of Midwest skiing. It was far worse before the advent of terrain parks and the mainstreaming of glade skiing, as you would often turn up and find nothing but a hundred acres of corduroy. While this is perhaps the mainstream skier’s dream, it bores me into the grave after about four runs. This is not just a Midwestern problem, but also a Northeast problem, and after running this newsletter for two-plus years, I understand a bit better why: the freeze-thaw cycles endemic to low-altitude regions (read: anywhere not in the Rockies), turn moguls into concrete. They are great in fresh snow and great in slushy snow, but when the mercury drops back below freezing, that slush turns to pavement. Still, operators in both regions are, in general, too quick to groom their entire ski areas, and I really wish more of them would commit to creating a more balanced mountain.
20) What can small ski areas with limited available terrain do to keep the mountain "fresh" for frequent skiers? My family lost some interest in skiing when it was really cold this winter because our local hill isn't the most exciting. (Matthew Davis)
As a teenage skier navigating the clear-cut hillsides of lower Michigan in the days when terrain parks were off limits to skiers, I had a lot of time to consider this very question. A series of jumps of various size can transform your whole day. Trails are also a lot more interesting to ski than a denuded hillside. Finally, let at least one trail – or at least one side of one trail – bump up (see above).
21) When did “No Jumping” signs disappear and why? An insurance thing? (Brad Jarman)
I tease the Radbrah set a lot, but we really owe them a hella high-five here. The advent of the 1990s “snowboard park,” and the freeskiing boom that built off that, made the “no jumping” signs as effective as a Manhattan crosswalk signal. And so down they went.
22) So after several very crowded seasons in my opinion, when will some resorts offer lift reservations as a permanent feature? Or maximum numbers per day, first-come first-served. I feel that the quality of skiing as a whole has deteriorated over the last 20 years, mostly due to putting more people on fast lifts and in turn over-saturated trails. The Deer Valley experience is a model in my opinion needed in more destinations. I visited several mid-sized ski areas this season and really enjoyed the lack of lines and obnoxious guests. (Matt Newman)
This is already happening. When Jackson Hole required Ikon Pass and Mountain Collective reservations for the past two seasons, “lift lines almost vanished,” Freeskier wrote recently. Between that and limiting lift ticket sales and requiring them all in advance, “it seems the resort has figured out a solution to the overcrowding problem.” Seven ski areas will require Ikon Pass reservations next season: Aspen Snowmass, Jackson Hole, Big Sky, The Summit at Snoqualmie, Loon, Taos, and Brighton. Nine Indy Pass partners required reservations this year: Berkshire East, Cannon, Castle, Magic, Mohawk, Pat’s Peak, Powder Mountain, and Silver Mountain. I expect this to continue to evolve, with one exception: the industry has more or less reached consensus that season pass holders should not have to make reservations. There will be some exceptions, such as the weekend parking reservation requirement for Crystal next year, but for the most part, reservation-free access is becoming a perk for resorts’ very best customers.
23) What percentage of Colorado skiers are out-of-staters? I live in Kansas, grew up in Kansas, and have skied at least one to two times per year since I was 10. All our friends have done the same: a 12-hour drive from Kansas you make one or two times in winter and again in summer. Distances are big here so we're used to it. Anyway, driving on I-70 and in the parking lots of resorts I see sooooo many Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas license plates. I specifically notice this at smaller resorts (Granby, Sunlight, Wolf Creek, Monarch, etc.). It seems that like us, for many that only can ski a few days a year, the price point of an annual pass/day tickets is just too high, so we often go to independent places. (Jared Tremblay)
Interesting question. I reached out to Ski Colorado Communications and Social Media Manager Tim Sullivan, and he told me the most recent figures – recorded pre-pandemic – were 45/55 percent in-state versus out-of-state, “but can easily fall closer to 50/50 in any given year.” This surprised me, as I thought the in-state number would run much higher.
24) How does the economics of these reciprocal passes work from a ski area perspective? Epic is all one owner, but Ikon, Indy etc. are not. (George Sauter)
Ski area operators are fairly secretive about their finances, but the basic structure is this: every time you swipe your Ikon or Epic or Indy or Mountain Collective Pass at Schweitzer or Telluride or Jay Peak or Grand Targhee, the mountain gets a payout. This payout, or “yield” is a percentage of the so-called “rack rate,” or walk-up lift ticket price. Several sources with knowledge of the machinery behind these things have indicated to me that Mountain Collective and Indy tend to pay the highest yields. Indy Pass founder Doug Fish told me last week that Powder Mountain received “near rack rate” for weekend redemptions this season. Telluride’s then-CEO Bill Jensen said a few years back that each Epic Pass swipe yielded roughly the same payout as a guest buying a multi-day lift ticket (though I can’t seem to locate that article). Reciprocal lift tickets of the sort you find on Ski Cooper’s season pass are a whole different thing. When Ski Cooper and Holiday Valley agree to give one another’s passholders three lift tickets each, no money is exchanged between resorts. They are just comp tickets.
25) I’m really intrigued by the increasing divergence between the two major pass products. When Ikon was born several years back, these were two similarly priced offerings with somewhat similar restrictions. Some years later we see the divergence. Epic Pass is way cheaper and simpler to use. Skiers don’t need to count their days or commit in April to the lowest price. Ikon is much more expensive, the price goes up much earlier, and its original two-pass “simplicity” has evolved to a 3-tier system with extra confusing elements like the Alta/Snowbird split and an ever-changing mix of unlimited/five-day/seven-day access. And Ikon has additional restrictions: it excludes the Lone Peak tram, and requires reservations at a smattering of destinations. This makes the Ikon passholder feel like a second-class visitor compared to local passholders.
On the other hand: Vail’s mountains are obviously too busy. Cheap passes and no reservations have downsides. With Snowbasin’s defection, Vail had a serious hole in Utah. Park City isn’t enough, and Ikon dominates the rest. This really matters to us east coasters seeking quick weekend trips where it’s too time consuming or weather-risky to get to Colorado for 2-3 quick days.
What are your thoughts about this ongoing evolution and divergence in major pass products? It’s been interesting to observe and a little frustrating that Alterra basically forces you to make a decision in April of the previous year if you want the best price. (Jacob Levenfeld)
When the Ikon Pass came together, no one really knew what would happen. They just thought it would be fun to gang up and get into a fight with Vail. They didn’t think about the fact that they were also about to get into a fight with their own passholders, who were really rather fond, it turned out, of not being Vail. The Ikon Pass worked too well. The Base Pass debuted at just $599 in 2018. The lineup was obscene: Jackson, Mammoth, Alta-Snowbird, Taos, Big Sky, Revelstoke. Five days at each with some blackouts. Who cares? At $200 a lift ticket, this thing is a freaking steal.
It was not sustainable. Aspen and Jackson bailed on the Ikon Base after two years. Alta and Deer Valley followed this year. Crystal got all kinds of messed up. But no one has left the pass. That, I think, leads to the headline here: Alterra adapted to preserve the ski experience and to preserve the partner network. Vail owns 40 mountains and only has one U.S. partner – Telluride – to keep happy. Alterra, with its 15 mountains, just doesn’t have the scale to offer a meaningful competitor to the Epic Pass without partners, so it had to make access to some of them more expensive to meter crowds and help its partners repel mutiny.
I agree that Vail’s pass is easier to use, that a tiered on-mountain ski experience is frustrating (we could also mention Powdr Corp’s rich-guy lanes at Copper, Snowbird, etc.), and that Alterra’s shorter purchase window is a touch aggressive. But I prefer Ikon’s traffic-metering approach to Vail’s trick of throwing more lifts on the mountain. This means a messier pass grid and a bit more pre-planning and thought, but I’ll take that trade-off if it means a less-crowded mountain when I get there.
26) Have you considered doing a piece on the differing business models of the mega-ski corporations out there, particularly in light of the process of new acquisitions? I feel like there's a lot of Epic=bad, Ikon=good talk out there, but nobody ever takes a deep dive into why the discrepancy exists. (Jack Cannon)
Alterra made a pretty brilliant out-of-the-gate move back in 2018, which I wrote about a couple years ago:
[Not offering refundable Ikon Passes in the face of Covid uncertainty] was the company’s first public blunder since its triumphant burst from the carcass of Intrawest two years ago. From the moment it materialized, Alterra has successfully positioned itself as the anti-Vail, a corporation that wasn’t corporate, a hey-let’s-just-go-fucking-ski-Man bar buddy with enough rootin’ tootin’ swagger that even Jackson Hole and Revelstoke wanted to hang out with them. People fed up with what they saw as Vail’s arrogance, with its $200 day tickets and its supposed assembly line approach to ski area development, wanted a ride in this slick and affordable new sports car. Alterra gave them a lineup of ski areas that was just as strong, a pass that was just as cheap, and a place to belong that was headed not by a gun-running former private equity slickster, but a football player-turned liftie who went on to run Mammoth Mountain for two decades. From day one, the Ikon Pass was revered by all but the salty locals in a handful of Western ski towns.
The all-sales-are-final fiasco somewhat punctured this carefully drawn Caped Crusader of the Rockies act. That persona was brilliant marketing, but it was never actually true. Not because Alterra wasn’t doing its best to make a solid and necessary product, but because Vail was never actually that bad. Anyone who has skied their mountains knows there’s nothing generic about them, terrain-wise. Vail has done more to drive season pass prices to mortally achievable levels than any entity in skiing’s long history. And the CEO is more philanthropist than supervillain. But stick $200 lift tickets in the headlines and you will get a line of back-in-my-day haters stretching the length of I-70. Alterra, smartly, pounced on that perception and presented itself as Not-That-Guy.
But there’s a greater dynamic at work here than Alterra’s marketing muscle. You’re correct: the Epic=bad, Ikon=good narrative is more durable than iron ore, impervious to any market adjustment. The Ikon Pass is $238 more than the Epic Pass. It doesn’t matter. Next week, when price rises, it will be $338 more. It won’t matter. Steamboat and Deer Valley, not Vail and Beaver Creek, posted the highest walk-up lift ticket prices for the 2021-22 ski season. It doesn’t matter. Vail is dropping 21 new lifts on 14 mountains this season. It doesn’t matter. The narrative remains.
Part of this, I think, goes back to the fact that Alterra only owns 15 of the 50-ish Ikon Pass “destinations.” They benefit from the association with rowdy Snowbird, Taos, and Revelstoke. Alterra has no power to sculpt these ski areas even if it wanted to. Its influence is limited, and in fact, many of its partners – Alta, Jackson Hole, Aspen – have staked we-care-about-quality-over-crowds campaigns largely on their rejection of the Ikon Base Pass.
Which leads us to another reality: this Vail-Alterra dichotomy exists mostly in the online dens of very hardcore skiers who don’t actually live near skiing. In the resort towns themselves, locals tend to hate all passes equally. I get plenty of emails about how Ikon ruined [Deer Valley/Alta/Steamboat/Palisades Tahoe/Mammoth]. But both Epic and Ikon should continue to grow indefinitely - Vail sold 2.1 million Epic Pass “products” for this season, and it will likely sell more for next season. Anything you hear otherwise is just noise. These passes are the interstate highway system of skiing: revolutionary, profoundly disruptive to the communities they pass through, but absolutely adored by people on the move.
27) Is the increased corporate consolidation in the ski industry (Vail, Alterra) and the move into mega-passes (Epic, Ikon) ultimately good or bad -- over the long run -- for skiing in North America? I get that a mega-pass can be a great deal for someone who skis a lot. I had an Ikon pass this year and got to ski several big and great mountains in Utah, California, Oregon, Maine, and Vermont for under $30 a day, but I worry that existence of Epic and Ikon passes will encourage further homogenization of U.S. ski areas and ultimately lead to the demise and closure of many small-to-medium-size areas. I have skied at more than 250 different areas (mostly in North America, with a few European trips and a couple of southern hemisphere trips). I love many of the really big resort areas but I have also had many great, memorable days at some of the small-to-medium-size places -- and I would hate to see many of those ski hills shut out of the market. (Pete Fontaine)
As megapasses grow in scale and reach, small ski areas (with some notable exceptions, see Homewood question above) seem to be doing just fine. Beaver Mountain, Utah owner Travis Seeholzer told me on the podcast last month that his ski area was stuffed to the summit with Wasatch refugees escaping the Park City and Cottonwoods crowds. Ski Cooper GM Dan Torsell told me in October that business had increased every season for years, even though the ski area sits between the twin monsters of Vail and Copper Mountain. As the big passes have normalized a volume-over-quality business model, it’s given the little guys a powerful story to tell. Little Magic Mountain, Vermont, a 1,400-vertical-foot operation with a 50-year-old summit double chair, is surrounded by the much bigger and better equipped Stratton (Alterra), Mount Snow (Vail), and Okemo (Vail). Its existence has been so precarious in the past that it sat abandoned for half the ‘90s. And yet, under the leadership of relentless marketer Geoff Hatheway, the place has quadrupled season pass sales in five years. How? Hatheway creates a story of indie grit and resilience, an anti-corporate narrative that people want to be a part of. The megapass model is also very easy to scale down, as demonstrated by the multi-mountain pass offerings of jointly owned Berkshire East and Catamount or 49 Degrees North and Silver Mountain or Lutsen and Granite Peak – all Indy Pass partners, which grants them the power of a national marketing network and a generous perk for their passholders. A lot of people love the big passes, but not everyone needs or wants them or the hassles that come along with them.
28) What is the reasoning behind some ski resorts that are decently isolated and not next to massive metropolitan areas still refusing to join any mega-passes or having many reciprocals? Big White and Silver Star in BC Canada, Alyeska in Alaska, or Whitefish in Montana come to mind. That's an interesting mystery to me. (Pacific Northwest Dude)
I think it’s precisely because they’re isolated that they don’t feel compelled to join a big pass. There’s no competition. And they seem to be doing just fine on their own. Whitefish President Nick Polumbus told me last year that annual skier visits had grown 50 percent in the past 15 years, even as they remain the largest ski area in the United States without triple-digit single-day lift tickets. That said, I do expect Silver Star to join the Ikon Pass as soon as Powdr figures out what to do with it. All four of their other big ski areas – Killington, Snowbird, Bachelor, Copper – are staples on the pass. I’m kind of surprised Alyeska hasn’t joined yet, as they were part of M.A.X. Pass and didn’t migrate to Ikon for whatever reason. Big White I don’t think is real. Let’s see: 2,550 feet of vert. 2,765 inbounds acres and another 4,500 out of bounds. Sixteen lifts, including four high-speed quads, a sixer, and an eight-passenger gondy. Yup, definitely fake. That will never join any pass because it isn’t real. Thanks for nothing, Bro.
29) Why haven't some resorts joined the Indy Pass even if they could use more visitors and are in a logical location for an Indy Pass resort? Willamette Pass and Anthony Lakes in Oregon, and Bluewood and Loup Loup in Washington come to mind. (Pacific Northwest Dude)
An Indy Pass partnership is a two-way agreement. Not only does the mountain have to want on the Indy Pass, but Indy Pass has to want the mountain. There are many reasons they may say no: if the place is too small, too remote, too poorly managed, or if there is too much overlap in the region already. Density sells Indy Passes. Too much density kills it, since too many visits would drive the per-visit yield (explained above) too low to make the best resorts stick around. That’s why Indy isn’t adding much in the Northeast and Midwest. Density means something different in the Pacific Northwest, however. Bluewood and Loup Loup are both pretty remote. Willamette Pass, however, would fit great, hanging out off I-5 between current Indy partners Hoodoo and Ashland. A nice 1,560 feet of vert and 375 inches of snow. Anthony Lakes, too, is probably a bit too far out there, though the Cat skiing operation could offer some really intriguing partnership options.
30) Is there a scenario you envision (soon or down the road) in which Vail would buy a property from Alterra outright, or vice versa? What circumstances do you believe could lead to such a transaction taking place? (Aaron Gordon)
The only way I could see this happening is if the Justice Department forced a divestiture, as it did when Vail – then the owner of just two resorts – attempted to buy Keystone, Breckenridge, and Arapahoe Basin from Ralston-Purina in 1997. That directive seems quaint now, as Vail owns eight of 22 ski areas in Pennsylvania, and 36 total in the United States. Since the feds seem satisfied with the current distribution of ski area ownership, it would take a major acquisition to trigger this sort of exchange. Say Vail tried to buy Mountain Capital Partners’ seven Southwestern resorts. Would Purgatory be too many on top of Vail’s five existing in-state properties? If so, Justice may say “sell this one,” and Alterra would be able to bid. It would take such an extreme set of circumstances – or a major philosophical change in modern anti-trust law – to trigger such a chain of events that I’m having a hard time even envisioning it. As we’ve seen with the relentless consolidation in the airline industry (and concomitant drop in service and rise in infuriating policies), the current version of U.S. America doesn’t really give a damn if four or five companies own everything.
31) What’s stopping a giant like Vail from beefing up their geographic footprint by snapping up a Taos or Telluride or Targhee? Surely they have the financial ability to do it, and such a pickup could be an offensive/defensive move. (Aaron Gordon) COMBINED WITH: Why hasn't Alterra purchase Ragged to compete with Sunapee? Or Alterra/Vail purchased Nashoba/Wachusett simply as a volume play? (anonymous)
For the same reason no one’s bought my Brooklyn condo even though I get five pamphlets per week from grimy real estate agents: I’m not selling. These are all private businesses, and even big, bad Vail can’t force anyone to sell something they don’t want to (though they might swipe it if you forget to sign your lease). Ragged is itself owned by a mini ski conglomerate called Pacific Resorts Group, which owns four more North American ski areas (Wisp, Maryland; Wintergreen, Virginia; Powderhorn, Colorado; and Mt. Washington Alpine, British Columbia). In a weird twist, the consolidation era may have decreased the likelihood that any of the remaining big independents will feel forced to sell, as each of them has latched onto a megapass and its steady drip of per-visit payouts. When Crystal and Sugarbush sold to Alterra in 2018 and ’19, respectively, their former owners cited the crush of megapass competition as one of their motives. That notion seems quaint now. As pedigreed indies Jackson Hole, Alta, Aspen, Snowbasin, and Sun Valley back themselves off the Ikon Base Pass, they’re sending us a message: we’re doing just fine on our own.
32) I noticed that Camelback Mountain in Tannersville, Pennsylvania was sold to a big group. Do you know when and what year that happened? (Nancy Synder)
KSL Capital has owned Camelback since 2019, and, last year, also purchased nearby Blue Mountain. Its KSL Resorts division manages both properties. Curiously, KSL Capital is, along with Aspen owners Henry Crown, a co-owner of Alterra Mountain Company, overlord of the Ikon Pass. KSL reportedly stuck their Poconos mountains under the purview of their luxury resort manager, rather than Alterra, because they were “too small,” which is nonsense. Vail owns at least a dozen resorts smaller than Camelback. Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory did, however, tell me on the podcast last year that we could see Camelback (and, hopefully, by extension, Blue), on the Ikon Pass at some point. Although when Boyne opted to keep its new Shawnee Peak ski area off the pass for next season, it signaled, along with Ikon’s dramatic access changes, that volume management is crucial to the pass’ self-image at the moment. While I don’t expect to see Camelback and Blue on Ikon anytime soon, they could, and should, at least launch a joint season pass, as the two ski areas are only 30 miles apart.
33) The well-known multi-regional “mid-majors” are Boyne Resorts and Powdr. Do you think James Coleman’s Mountain Capital Partners will expand into other regions? (Meimei Ma)
I don’t know if MCP will expand outside of the Southwest, but I know that they could. And should. And I hope they do. Coleman’s template – dump cash into snowmaking and other infrastructure and prioritize the skiing above all else – works. Though he operates in the West, many of his ski areas – Sipapu, Pajarito, Hesperus – get snowfall more reminiscent of New Hampshire than the Rockies, so he understands how to work on the margins. And unlike the big four conglomerates, which tend to buy fully functional resorts, MCP and Coleman don’t seem to mind taking chances on fix-up jobs. In 2017, they purchased tiny Elk Ridge, Arizona, which had been (and remains) closed for years as the ski area works through permitting issues. The company wants to transform tiny Brian Head, Utah into a major resort and has proposed blowing 283-vertical-foot Kendall Mountain, Colorado into a 3,800-foot monster. The United States is filled with run-down, under-developed, and recently abandoned ski areas that are waiting for a hero to swoop in and teleport them to the 21st Century, many of which are discussed above. Coleman, that’s your cue.
34) Where should I ski in the next month for good spring skiing? (Luke Carmichael)
Pretty much anything open in the spring should be fairly enjoyable, as the same ski areas tend to extend the season year after year, and they’re very attuned to the unique demands of late-spring operations. These are:
In the East: Jay and Killington are still around 50 percent open, and Killington has built an absolute snow fortress on top of Superstar. It should, again, be last to close. Sunday River, Sugarloaf, and Sugarbush also tend to aim for May, and Mount Snow anticipates staying open until April 24.
In the Midwest: Granite Peak and Lutsen, which share an owner, are the last ski areas open in Wisconsin and Minnesota, respectively. Boyne Mountain and Mount Bohemia are again fighting it out for last-to-close honors (the loser donates $1,000 to the winner’s charity of choice), and always-reliable Ski Brule is still spinning lifts on weekends.
In the West: All the usuals should run as close as they can to June: A-Basin, Snowbird, Mammoth, Timberline, Mt. Hood Meadows, Bachelor, Crystal. Winter Park seems to be aiming for a later and later close every year, promising that “if there is snow, we will be skiing and riding!” Solitude and Vail Mountain are, for the first time, aiming for May 1, as is Stevens Pass. Alpental, part of Boyne’s sprawling Summit at Snoqualmie complex, also tends to run far into May. There will likley be a few others, especially given the recent Western nuke job, but those are the reliables.
35) For very good reasons, ski areas (and ski writers) put a lot of emphasis on Sweet Baby James terrain (deep greens and blues are the colors I choose) and the gnarliest of the gnar (what do you mean, Goat is too icy to open today, Patrol dude?). Go ahead and judge, but what if I want miles and miles of legit single blacks? Steep but wide, glades with room for error, lots of vert and enough variety to fill a day. What would be the top 10 list for that kind of terrain? I'd say I'm asking for a friend, but no, they're all either having a two-hour lunch on the deck or waiting in the tram line for the triple blacks. (Ari)
By no means a definitive list, but any of these will suit you (in no particular order): Mammoth, Sun Valley, Deer Valley, Snowmass, Copper, Breckenridge, Beaver Creek, Snowbasin, Big Sky, and Heavenly. In the east: Sunday River, Sugarloaf, Killington, Sugarbush, Whiteface.
THAT’S A BUMMER
36) My question. I have $500 in Liftopia gift cards. I know about bankruptcy and difficult times. But frustrated—the web site is still open, my money still there…but it is ridiculous how few offerings are there, at least in Northeast. Will it ever get better, or is there a way to redeem my gift cards for cash or something else I can use? (Brett Budis)
Probably not. Considering how badly Liftopia short-changed long-time partners from Aspen to family-owned Titus and West, it is unlikely that many ski areas will ever revive their partnerships. Many ski resort operators have told me as much in private. This article has some cool ideas about what to do with unwanted gift cards, including posting them to sites such as GiftDeals.com, which “will enable you to sell your gift cards for something very close to its face value.” The other option is to just cash the money in on whichever ski areas remain (Saddleback tickets are available), and just consider it free skiing.
37) Resorts have greatly reduced the lodging availability and discounts provided to group trip providers. A local longtime bus trip provider in PA, Banchi Tours, has nearly been put out of business. How do you think this will affect the ski industry? (Josh Willis)
I punted this one to Rich Grasso, president of New York City’s Diamond Dogs Ski Club, which I have joined for four trips over the years:
The passes have definitely changed things. Many clubs now arrange their trips around passes, i.e. they are doing an Ikon year or an Epic year and their members know to buy that pass. We have not gone in that direction yet but we may in the future.
Providing an option for our members to opt out of a group pass if they have Ikon or Epic is not really a big deal. It is not different from offering a land-only package for those with airline miles. In my opinion the effect these passes have had on ski travel is broader. It has significantly increased the cost of buying a one-day lift pass at the window, which then trickles down to increasing the cost of a group pass, if it is even offered. On two of our trips last year, there was no option to include a group pass in our package. Instead, we were offered a local Epic Pass of short duration. That pass was not obtained through us or the tour operator, but instead a link was provided for the traveler to obtain the pass directly through epicpass.com.
Group travel in general has changed:
Group air no longer guarantees a better fare. The airline's ability to re-price quickly in response to fluctuations in inventory and the willingness to cancel and consolidate flights that do not fill reduces their incentive to pre-book blocks of seats at a lower price in order to guarantee revenue at the cost of margin.
Hotels are far less flexible with allowing clubs to adjust the number of rooms they hold. In the past we could release rooms as close as 30 days out. Now we are lucky if we do not have to commit to 90 percent of what we hold 120 days out.
My final thought is that group ski travel has become less about a good deal and more about ease of planning and camaraderie.
38) As a fellow New Yorker, young guy, and a largely independent skier, what clubs, groups, companies, forums, message boards, etc, can you recommend or promote that are active post-Covid and helpful to making local skier connections and facilitating more access to skiing from our area? I'm aware of some ski bus and tour companies, but am looking for a more personal and durable group experience. Also, have you ever participated in a ski clinic or retreat? (David Andrew)
I’ve taken many trips with the Diamond Dogs Ski Club (mentioned above), which does about a half dozen trips per year, and hosted monthly happy hours pre-Covid. There are lots of Facebook groups focused on skiing, most of which are dominated by irredeemable assholes who have stumbled backwards into this historical moment when they can actualize their true selves to the eye-rolling masses beyond. But there are a few mostly positive and supportive groups that focus on the Northeast: Stokeville, Love of Skiing and Snowboarding: Eastern Edition, and Friends of Magic Mountain. I’ve never done a clinic or retreat myself, but most who do them seem to have great experiences.
THE STORM SKIING PODCAST
39) You’ve interviewed many GMs, Mountain Managers, COOs - what are a few traits shared by these leaders? Any through lines to their success on the job? Any advice for someone hoping to keep growing in the ski area industry? (Joe DeMoor)
Running a ski area is really an impossible job, hyper-sensitive to the vagaries of weather and the economy, all-consuming and relentless. It’s no place for a skier, and I want no part in it. However, I obviously admire the folks who commit their lives to this, and I’d say there are a few near-universal traits I’ve observed: an even temperament, an outsized work ethic, a willingness to delegate, a diplomatic lean, and limitless wells of patience: with the weather, with skiers, with regulators, with local governments, with workers, and, yes, with journalists. If someone’s reach goal is to entrench themselves in this madness, there are many paths there. Jay Peak GM Steve Wright was an English major who came up through marketing. Nordic Mountain, Wisconsin owner Rick Schmitz cobbled together the down payment in his early 20s, having never worked at a ski area. Beaver Creek COO Nadia Guerriero began her career as an agent for snowsports athletes, transitioned to the resort world, and worked her way up. Good luck getting there. I’ll have an invitation to the podcast waiting when you arrive.
40) As a resident of Canada, I always appreciate hearing about Canadian resorts (Blue Mountain, ON springs to mind). Would be great if you could sprinkle in a bit more (Quebec, the Rockies, BC interior, lots to choose from!) (Lorenzo Nicolet)
Extending my coverage into Canada is, I think, inevitable. It’s right there, there’s no language barrier (other than in Quebec), and the climate, terrain, and mountain-management philosophies are incredibly similar to America’s. I imagine I’ll move with the podcast first, and that will probably happen this year. The newsletter is going to be a bigger lift, as incorporating the vastness of the lift-served Canadian ski universe is essentially the equivalent of adding another America. It’s a lot to cover, and I have a lot to learn. There’s a reason I focused The Storm almost exclusively on the Northeast for its first two years: I wanted to make sure I could cover one region in a comprehensive way before scaling out to the entire country. I just made the transition to national in September. It’s gone better – far better – than I could have imagined, but I’m still digesting it, and I would say that full-scale coverage of Canada is still several years out.
41) Any opportunities of getting resorts that are in Europe on the show? With the overseas expansion of Ikon/Epic it would be great to hear from some of those mountain resorts. (Jonathan Edin)
At this point, there are still hundreds of tremendous mountains in North America that I haven’t connected with, and those are the leaders that I’m actively seeking out. However, I wouldn’t say no if the leader of a European ski area wanted to come on the podcast. That’s essentially how Mt. Buller, Australia GM Laurie Blampied ended up on The Storm. I am open to pitches from any ski area manager anywhere on Earth.
42) The interview with Rob Katz was a surprise. I know you prepared a lot so I can't imagine they sprung it on you at the last minute. So: was a condition of the interview that you not publicize it in advance? Just curious about the backstory. (Robert Norheim)
There weren’t any conditions around the interview. Given the extremely high number of reflexively anti-Vail knuckleheads on the internet, we agreed that advanced promotion wouldn’t add anything to the conversation. I did send questions in advance, but I nearly always do this, as a courtesy to my guests. Vail did not ask me to edit or change any questions. Rob gave me way more time than we’d scheduled. While the actual interview came together rather quickly, we’d been discussing a potential conversation for nearly two years, and I had a very good sense of what I wanted to discuss.
43) I'm relocating (in retirement) from Seattle to Whitefish this month. They sure are an outlier, being a big resort but reasonable pass and day-ticket prices. I'm sure you've reached out to them; any chance they will be on the podcast sometime? (Robert Norheim)
I agree that Whitefish is telling one of the most compelling stories in skiing. I interviewed president and incoming CEO Nick Polumbus on this very topic last year, and we discussed a potential future podcast. With the mountain in the midst of a leadership transition, I thought it was best to push it into the future a bit. I would expect this one in the fall at the soonest.
44) I'd love to hear an interview with an adaptive skiing program. Our son is 13 and has cerebral palsy, I took him to Vermont Adaptive for the first time 4 years ago. They taught me how to ski with him, we then bought a bi-ski and it has been great for our family to do together, total freedom when we're skiing. Most programs operate year-round and have many charitable functions, which they rely on. It would be great for more people to hear the story of a program and look locally to help out. (Clayton Berry)
There is about a 100 percent chance that this will happen at some point. I did host Vail Veterans Program founder Cheryl Jensen on the podcast a couple years ago, but it’s probably time for another installment.
45) Lately you’ve been mostly focused on ski areas, and in the early days I remember a bit more variety (the Doppelmayr lift person, for example). (Brad Jarman)
It took me a while to really form The Storm’s identity. I originally intended it to be more of a variety show, and perhaps even include conversations with pro skiers. But I listened to myself and I listened to my audience – what did I enjoy, and what were they reacting to? The answer was: conversations with people who ran ski areas, with the occasional exploration of said ski areas with the journalists who cover them. That said, I will certainly have more conversations with lift manufacturers in the future, as lifts are so central to every one of my conversations.
46) Could you get an interview with one of the equity research analysts that follow Vail? Would be interesting to see their view on the landscape. (Michael Brookes)
While I haven’t hosted an equity analyst on the podcast, I interviewed Bank of America’s Shaun Kelly for The Storm’s retrospective on Rob Katz’s legacy last year. I would certainly entertain this idea in the future.
47) What interviews do you have planned next on The Storm? What is your interview wish-list? (Pacific Northwest Dude)
Here’s the upcoming schedule – week of:
April 18: Summit at Snoqualmie GM Guy Lawrence
April 28: Ragged GM Erik Barnes
May 2: Indy Pass President and founder Doug Fish makes his third Storm appearance
May 11: Real Skiers founder Jackson Hogen
May 25: Paul Bunyan, Wisconsin owners TJ and Wendy Kerscher
Penciled in for fall: Sun Valley GM Pete Sonntag and Brundage GM Ken Rider
My wish list is anyone anywhere in the world who runs or owns a ski resort. If that’s you, find me and we’ll make it happen.
48) Why did you choose your “classic rock” theme song? Is it a Michigan/Bob Seger thing? (Brad Jarman)
My wife, who is a well-known and highly respected television editor, does all the production work on the podcast, and she sourced and chose the music. I wish it had a cooler story, but she gave me some options and I picked the one that annoyed me the least.
THE STORM SKIING NEWSLETTER
49) My suggestion is as you grow your subscription base is to create a community of subscribers to allow like-minded ski enthusiasts to connect with each other. This could be geographically, ski/snowboard, families/children, industry/management, etc. (Paul Tefft)
This is a good idea. I would have to build it in a way that took exactly zero effort to build or maintain, which probably means a Facebook group. My one absolute conviction with The Storm is that it must always be about the content above all else, and so any additions to the project must be subordinate to the writing and not interfere with the newsletter’s momentum.
50) Do you ever envision The Storm growing to a point you'll need an editor or more writers? Or will it still remain entirely a solo project? (Although I am aware your wife helps with Podcast editing and the eventual merch). (Pacific Northwest Dude)
I won’t dismiss the idea out of hand, but I’ll say that adding additional writers is not likely to happen anytime soon. I could use an editor (everyone could), but it’s not in the budget or workflow at the moment. People approach me all the time about potential collaborations. Maybe I’m traumatized by my years in corporate communications, where every memo or press release or executive quote is collaborated into the writing equivalent of a piece of cardboard, but the truth is that I really like working alone and building this thing however I feel like it.
THE STORM SKIER
51) What’s your favorite ski hill in the US? (Joe DeMoor)
Man it is really, really, really hard to say anything other than Alta-Snowbird from a pure skiing point of view. My wife and I really appreciate the total experience (terrain variety, food, atmosphere) in Aspen. And I love a week bouncing between Vail and Beaver Creek. So vast and so much good terrain.
52) Just one Q: How’s your situation with recovery? (Tom Bishop)
Many of you asked some version of this question, and I greatly appreciate that. The healing is slow, but that was expected. The doctor said three months on crutches, and we’re right around two, and I’m a ways from PT yet. As any subscriber knows, I’ve been staying busy – and I have quite a bit going on outside of The Storm. As a writer/reader/introvert retreating from the world is my natural state, so this time sequestered to the couch has been easier for me than I suspect it would have been for many others.
53) I wondered if you ever speak to audiences? (Winthrop Ruml)
Yes. Just not until the leg heals up. Unless you want to do a Zoom thing. If you ask me to travel, please do it during ski season and at a mountain so that it can double as a ski trip.
54) What's your favorite terrain to ski? Glades? Bumps? Groomers? Bowls? (Alex Conrad)
Glades all day. If the trees are live and it’s not a powder day, I won’t ski anything else (unless I’m with my kids). I love bumps second of all, because they present such an interesting puzzle and because most other skiers stay out of them. Groomers are fun until about 10 a.m., then I’m bored. For a lot of reasons, I really dislike skiing above treeline. It’s a fun novelty, but I find it very disconcerting for the most part. This is why I don’t ski Europe much.
55) What do you think about other internet ski news sites? I wrote a few articles for Unofficial Networks and while it was fun to write about that stuff, the fast-paced journalism there where they pump out a ton of articles isn't as much my speed. Lift Blog I absolutely love and think Peter Landsman has become an incredible source of information. (Alex Conrad)
Peter is absolutely crushing it. What he’s built at Lift Blog is one of the most impressive feats in modern skiing, and the lift database is one of the most comprehensive, useful, and valuable resources available. Vitally, Peter knows exactly what the site is and what he wants to focus on. It’s simple yet comprehensive, with an unbelievably thorough lift database, an inventory of upcoming lifts, and a news section focused always and only on ski lifts. There are a lot of other good sources out there, but many of them have a scattered focus, bouncing between gear (don’t care), uphill and/or backcountry (don’t care), parks (don’t care), radbrahs (don’t care), food (don’t care), events (don’t care), and competitions (don’t care). The world of lift-served, recreational skiing, where 99 percent of skiers spend 99 percent of their time, gets like five percent of the coverage. I started The Storm to focus only and always on that (to me) fascinating landscape.
56) When are you gonna get up to Mt. Bohemia? (Alex Conrad)
Not soon enough
57) Hey, what is your preferred brand of skis and bindings, why? How often do you buy a new pair? (David Brennan)
My man I appreciate the question and the trust, but I am not the person to ask about gear, as demonstrated when I busted my leg in half by skiing on 12-year-old sticks with non-functional bindings. Which is why I’m having Jackson Hogen on the pod soon to talk us through it. But I will say I’m on my third pair of Blizzard Rustler 10s (which I was not using when I broke my leg). I’m not sure what kind of bindings I have on there. I don’t even know what kind of boots I own (I just went to a reputable boot fitter in Hunter and told him what I liked to ski; they seem great).
58) What are your top five ski resorts you've never been to but want to go to? (Pacific Northwest Dude)
Arizona Snowbowl: 3,000 feet of vert in Arizona? I just don’t get it.
Mt. Baker: it seems about as real as Narnia
Wolf Creek: same
Sugar Mountain: Something about the idea of North Carolina skiing is just amazing to me
Cloudmont: It’s one thing to see how stunned people are when you tell them there’s skiing in Alabama; it must be another thing altogether to actually ski there
59) You've told me about your favorite ski resorts, like Aspen/Snowmass, Snowbird/Alta, Smuggs, Jay Peak, etc. Do you have any LEAST favorite resorts? Ones that generally disappointed and/or frustrated you and left you with no desire to return? (Pacific Northwest Dude)
I really left Ski Ward earlier this season feeling like shit about myself and the world. I’ve never encountered bigger jerks working at a ski area. I felt bad about myself not because a liftie yelled at me, but because I let him pull me in and barked back at him. I felt bad about the world because these idiots were screaming at little kids all night about minor safety-bar violations. That place has a profoundly broken customer service culture and I really dislike it a lot.
60) What inspired you to try skiing for the first time, living in the Midwest and not having grown up with it? If I remember correctly, you started skiing as a teenager. (Pacific Northwest Dude)
We all have that one friend who’s annoyingly competent at every sport and activity. For me, that friend is a guy named Travis, who I’ve known since kindergarten. He talked me into taking the night bus up to a now-extinguished 200-footer called Mott Mountain in Farwell Michigan. I was really quite terrible (Trav took to it instantly). I tried again two years later (again, at Trav’s urging), and this time it stuck. I was 16 and I guess I’d grown into my body a bit more. I asked for a setup for the next Christmas, and it was pretty much over from there.
61) Are there any "Bros" that you yourself personally identify with? What "Bro" is Stuart Winchester? (Pacific Northwest Dude)
Lots: Day-Counting Bro, Ski App Bro, Megapass Bro, Tourist Bro, Trailmap Bro, Tree-Skiing Bro, Basic Beer Bro, Minivan Bro. I mean each of us is a minimum of eight to 26 Bros, and I’m probably on the high end of that.
62) Do you prefer a beautiful bluebird day with decent snow, or a deep powder day with somewhat low visibility? (Pacific Northwest Dude)
The “Storm Skiing” name wasn’t just because it sounded cool. I really do love being out there when it’s dumping. Free refills and far fewer skiers.
63) Do you listen to music when skiing, or do you prefer the ambience of the sport? (Pacific Northwest Dude)
No music. I’d like to say it’s because of some wistful need for harmony with the mountains, but really I’m just thinking about my next tweet.
64) Are you a beer, wine or liquor guy off the slopes? What about on the slopes? Are you a sober rider or a Booze Cruiser on the mountain? (Pacific Northwest Dude)
I am very non-discriminatory in my drinking and enjoy them all. Though I will say my go-to is large quantities of mass-market beer. Sorry to disappoint you Craft Beer Bro (actually I’m not). I don’t drink while skiing, though. I end up having to pee every five minutes and, well, it’s kind of a bad idea anyway for a lot of reasons.
65) Is there any hike-to terrain that you frequent? (Pacific Northwest Dude)
No. I am way too lazy/unprepared/stupid. There is one little hike-in section I do at Alta called Catherine’s. It’s like a five-foot hike but it exhausts me and Cottonwood Bro is laughing his ass off right now. Which is a fact that I’m entirely OK with.
66) What is the most terrifying skiing experience you've had in your life? (Pacific Northwest Dude)
67) Would you rather ski in Utah, Colorado or the Canadian Rockies? (Pacific Northwest Dude)
A Powder Highway run looms enormous in my imagination.
68) What is the best piece of advice you have ever heard? (Pacific Northwest Dude)
For skiing: never stop turning (Lito Tejada-Flores)
For writing: if you’ve heard it before, don’t use it (Delta College professor John Augustine)
For email: never send an angry one
For the stock market: find the future and get there as soon as possible; the best holding period is forever; don’t try to time the market (Motley Fool)
For eating: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. (Michael Pollan, via Mark Bitman)
That was fun. Let’s do it again sometime. But not too soon, because frankly that was a lot of work.
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This was excellent. Thank you.
Great read. The points on MCP / James Coleman were of particular interest. Would love if he made it on the podcast. If he could build out his partner network he would make a more compelling case for skiers in AZ, Vegas and NM, all states which he could effectively own if he landed a few partnerships with some bigger flagships in his regions.
With regards to expansions, here's one not a lot of people are tracking. Taos operates almost entirely on Forest Service land. Right across the street from Taos is 1300 Acres of Private Land historically held by the Pattinson Trust. This known to the public as Northside at Taos Ski Valley. To the extent that it operates at all, it's currently a fee restricted private land downhill mountain bike park. However, per Village of Taos Ski Valley's 2017 Master Plan, " the Pattison Trust has presented a master development plan for the potential future development of a ski resort and accompanying retail and residential development." The stats are pretty impressive on it. 2800' Vert, 12,150' Peak (Just across the street at the resort Kachina is around 12'500). This land is capital S steep. The village has cut out no less than three Avy chutes through it to protect their infrastructure. The road to get up there could generously be called a goat trail. In the winter, it's basically dead. Taos backcountry guys (to the extent they exist) really don't tour here in favor of the terrain around Lake Fork Peak. In the summer it's also pretty dead as the fairly mild ski resort at Angel Fire transforms into a top quality lift served bike resort. There are many obstacles which make either a new resort, or an expansion of TSV onto this terrain improbable (Taos does not have a 'lacking steep terrain problem', No easy way to tie it into lift system, snowmaking would be required, terrain is not amenable to a minimalist Bohemia or Beartooth Basin or Bluebird Backcountry type resort, etc.) However, the facts that you have a ski area sized chunk of private land, adjacent to one of the best resorts in the US, masterplan submitted to become it's own resort and ownership willing to allow fee based access to the land are pretty neat.