Boxed In and Maxed Out, Crystal Mountain Season Pass Soars $1,000 in Two Years
Is the Washington mountain’s $1,699 season pass a harbinger or an anomaly?
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And somehow we’re right back where we started
Not so long ago, Washington State skiing looked to be reconstituting as Colorado West. Over a three-month period in 2018, Vail bought Stevens Pass, Washington’s oldest ski area, and Alterra acquired Crystal Mountain, the state’s largest. Stevens joined the unlimited tier of Vail’s $669 Epic Local Pass, and Crystal became a no-blackouts member of the inaugural $599 Ikon Base Pass. In the midst of this, 2,000-acre Summit at Snoqualmie followed the rest of Boyne’s portfolio onto the Ikon Pass as a five- or seven-day partner.
Cheap passes, limitless skiing, access to monster destinations rippling over the horizon – a once isolated and overlooked ski region went primetime in an instant. The 4 million-ish residents of metropolitan Seattle had always had easy access to good skiing. All three of these mountains sit within two hours of downtown and suck in an annual average of more than 400 inches of snow. Pre-Ikon and Epic, the passes at all three mountains floated in the $600 to $1,000 range, depending upon when you bought them. They were mostly standalone passes, with some reciprocal benefits. The advent of the Epic and Ikon passes scrambled this calculus, dropping a nationally marketed and irresistible product into a region with an exploding population, massive wealth, and a very small number of ski areas.
The Colorado-based companies that bought Crystal and Stevens, it turned out, had little understanding of, or appreciation for, the Pacific Northwest’s rabid ski culture. The unlimited-all-the-time, cost-of-a-pack-of-smokes passes that had nearly broken Colorado, backing Interstate 70 up to Kansas and stuffing the Summit County ski areas like refugee camps, snapped Washington in half.
Summit at Snoqualmie, which sits directly off Interstate 90 an hour from Seattle, had never been quiet, but the resort parked out for the first time in its history during the 2020-21 ski season, and it became one of the few Ikon Pass partners to institute reservations earlier this year. This season at Stevens Pass has resembled a less-organized version of a Black Friday blowout at a Staten Island Wal-Mart. And last year, Crystal, facing 40-mile-long weekend traffic jams, fled the Ikon Base Pass after three seasons, limiting skiers to five blacked-out days on Alterra’s cheaper pass.
It wasn’t enough. After Crystal’s access change last season, the resort sold more passes than it had for the 2020-21 season, mountain president and Alterra West Region CEO Frank DeBerry told The Storm Skiing Journal last week (Alterra counts any full Ikon Pass sold in Washington State as a Crystal Mountain season pass). When 2022-23 Ikon Passes hit the market last week, they included some big access changes. Alta and Deer Valley fled the Base Pass for the Base Plus, and primo partners Sun Valley, Snowbasin, and Chamonix joined the pass. The biggest change, however, was the loss of Crystal from the $1,079 Ikon Pass’ unlimited tier. Ikon skiers would have to make do with seven Crystal days. Anyone who wanted all-you-can-eat access to Washington’s largest ski area would have to buy a Crystal-only pass. The pricetag: $1,699 for new passholders, $1,599 for returning. Parking would cost an additional $499 (Crystal has since dropped the parking charge for passholders).
So here we are. In just five years, Crystal went from standalone Cascades monster to bargain-bin Ikon add-on and back, this time with a hefty premium attached. A ski area whose unlimited season pass had cost $699 for the 2020-21 season was suddenly selling one of the most expensive lift tickets in America. Only Aspen, Telluride, Deer Valley, Jackson Hole, Sun Valley, and Big Sky sold a more expensive season pass last year. That will likely be true again this year.
“We've got to continue to work on this challenge of overcrowding,” DeBerry said. “We're trying to find a balanced solution. We're not making you buy a $1,700 pass. We're just making you think harder about which pass you want to buy and trying to get our arms around the volume of people that are coming up. Crystal Mountain is too inexpensive, and the number of passes we were selling was just more than we could really accommodate.”
That skier volume, DeBerry said, is mostly a weekend problem, and Crystal will offer a $649 ($599 for renewing passholders), midweek pass for 2022-23. For many skiers, the Ikon Pass will continue to be adequate, DeBerry noted, pointing out that only around 25 percent of Crystal’s passholders skied more than seven days in an average season.
“My confusion is that this system seems to be working well.”
Still, the new prices landed hard. “I was pretty shocked,” said Charles Rhoads, an administrator of the Step Into Powder Facebook group who skis Crystal up to 40 days per season. “Paying almost as much for Crystal as a pass at Jackson or Sun Valley or any of those places. I mean, I love Crystal, it has potential, but it's not nearly the mountain that those mountains are. It's really frustrating.”
Rhoads, like many skiers I interviewed for this story last week, is uncertain whether he will throw down the $1,700 for a Crystal-only pass (skiers can add an Ikon Pass on for $300 or an Ikon Base Pass for $249).
Many seemed confused by the extremity of the $700 price increase (a full Ikon Pass, with unlimited Crystal access, had debuted at $999 for the 2021-22 ski season), especially after Crystal had taken deliberate steps to manage crowding over the past two seasons, implementing parking reservations and a free shuttle system from Enumclaw, 40 miles up state highway 410 from the mountain.
“I guess my confusion is that this system seems to be working well,” said Mark Allen, a network engineer for T-Mobile who lives in Renton and averages 10 days per season at Crystal. “It just seems like an odd evolution. Back in 2019 or early 2020, when the traffic got really insane, I never went to Crystal on weekends just because I couldn't stand sitting in traffic that long. It was so terrible. This year, without the Covid lift-capacity restrictions from last season, and with the parking reservations, it's been awesome. Traffic has been great since then. I've never had a problem getting a parking reservation. And even on days when Crystal is parked out, once you get there, it's pretty wide open if the terrain is open. Even on parked-out days, you can find lifts with no lines on weekends.”
Others took the large price increase more personally. “It's just a little insulting, right? I mean, it's the same product, right?” said Mike Gray, a federal attorney who lives in Seattle and has been skiing 12 to 15 days per year at Crystal since 2000. “For the same access as this year requires getting the crystal unlimited pass and then the $300 Ikon add-on. The price is double. They haven't done anything to improve the situation on the hill. Could I afford to buy the past for 1,700 bucks? Yeah, I could. But doesn't mean I think it's a worthwhile use of my money. Price is only part of the calculus. There has to be a real value there to feel like you're getting your money's worth, and with that price increase, it just didn't feel that way anymore.”
Gray said he hasn’t yet decided on a pass for next ski season, and he’s waiting on pass options from Summit at Snoqualmie, which is much closer to his home. But he won’t be buying a Crystal pass. “I may get back to Crystal once next year,” he said.
Other frequent Crystal skiers are considering sticking with the Ikon Pass and mixing up their routine. Riley Flynn, who lives in Seattle and switched to the Ikon Pass three years ago after becoming disillusioned with Vail-owned Stevens Pass, estimates he skis 30 to 40 days per year at Crystal. Next year, he may stick with the Ikon Pass and mix in an Indy Pass.
“I can focus on traveling more, taking more trips around the country,” Flynn said.
But some passholders welcomed the new price tiers. “Maybe that will help quell the crowds,” said Owen Gabrielson, a lawyer who runs an independent practice in Enumclaw and has been a Crystal season passholder since 2002. “There’s only so much supply. The Mountain's gotta do what it's gotta do, and if it that thins out the crowds, great.”
Gabrielson plans to buy the unlimited Crystal Pass with the Ikon Pass upgrade for him and his wife ($1,999 each), as well as their 10- and 12-year-old children ($499 each). The family also typically buys a pass for their au pair, and may upgrade one of their passes to the $3,999 Premier Pass, which includes an Ikon Pass and unlimited parking in the A lot, which is right at the foot of the gondola. He views some of the online griping over the price increases as disingenuous.
“I saw someone on the B-Lot Facebook group make some comment, ‘Everyone's gonna be wearing fur coats and fur-lined boots,’” Gabrielson said, referring to an online gathering spot for skiers who park their RVs at the base of Crystal. “And, they’re saying, ‘We're salt of the earth, we're blue collars skiers here.’ But I don't buy that. I know a lot of those B-lot people and those RVs aren't cheap.”
An experiment in hitting the reset button
As much of the rest of America has rapidly embraced the shift to inexpensive multi-mountain season passes, it’s become fist-to-the-face obvious that this model has been a disaster for Washington skiing. The state’s population has exploded from 4.8 million in 1990 to 7.8 million today, and yet the number of ski areas has remained static. Washington is the size of New England, and yet it has just 15 ski areas to New England’s 89.
“Crystal's the one Alterra mountain that is truly exceeding our own capacity on a consistent basis,” said DeBerry. “We've got this product that works for our entire company that has become an important part of our company's business model, but it doesn't work at Crystal. And so we need to start evolving that product. We certainly are not interested in following down the dark path to 40-minute lift lines at our resorts. So we made a decision to put an interim solution just for Crystal, which was to further restrict the access and then put together a pass price that we felt would really be a control point as to how many people really felt that all-access was what they needed.”
The reduced pass demand, DeBerry said, may allow the resort to begin selling peak-season Saturday lift tickets again, after abandoning the practice as a crowd-control measure for the past several seasons. That could include the return of discounted advanced-sales tickets, DeBerry said.
“Maybe somebody who hasn't been able to get up here at all will have the ability to come up and ski,” DeBerry said. He added that the ski area would consider adjusting prices and Ikon access tiers if it turns out that they overcorrected this season.
Indeed, Crystal, under DeBerry, has been more aggressive about adapting to multi-pass crowding and traffic challenges than any resort in North America, implementing a stream of ever-evolving changes around parking, shuttles, and reservations. Between the time we spoke last Friday and today, Crystal dropped paid parking for season and Ikon pass holders “after a deeper look at the season pass plan for next winter.”
That’s as far as I expect Crystal to go. The pass price won’t likely go down – at least this year. Which leaves Summit at Snoqualmie and Stevens Pass in a very interesting spot. Both are already maxed out. Becoming Washington’s budget mountain is not an option. Boyne has, in general, resisted heavy pass discounting across its portfolio, and prices on its New England and Michigan passes grew 10 percent or more for the 2022-23 season, and so I expect Summit’s pass to tick somewhat higher than this year’s offering. While Vail has yet to release next season’s Epic Pass suite, the company would be insane to keep Stevens Pass unlimited on the Epic Local Pass, which debuted at just $583 last year.
Unfortunately, Vail, facing mutiny after the rough start to this season, has already guaranteed current passholders a $385 Stevens season pass for next year. Why they guaranteed that is impossible to fathom. There’s no putting that toothpaste back in the tube, but Vail should, at a minimum, restrict unlimited Stevens access to a full Epic Pass when passes go on sale later this month.
Long term, I don’t see anywhere for Washington pass prices to go but up. We’re more likely to see Vladimir Putin be awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor than we are to see a new ski area built in Washington State. The failure of the multi-pass model in the Cascades may be good for skier experience, but it’s likely bad for skier access.
“We’re heading back to the good ol’ days of affluence and wealth exclusivity,” said Steve Koddenberg who has skied Crystal for 15 years and has decided not to renew after the “sticker shock” of last week’s announcement, which, according to his calculations, pushed the price of unlimited Crystal access plus full Ikon Pass access from $952.54 (with insurance), to $1,952.94. “A 105 percent increase (on top of the bump from 2020/’21), and the bump is now a thump. You may see the cost as ‘still a bargain’ for what you can have in a season, but I’m on the sidelines next year. I’ll try to figure out a softer landing for next year’s plans.”
“This is really bad, the monies that they took were never their monies.”
Two years after the pandemic abruptly closed down America, ski areas are finally getting payouts from Liftopia, the one-time online lift-ticket powerhouse that misplaced several million dollars in the shutdown’s immediate aftermath. In June of that year, Aspen, Alterra, Arapahoe Basin, and Boyne’s Cypress ski area tried to force the company into involuntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy, claiming Liftopia owed them, collectively, more than $3 million. A judge dismissed the appeal after Liftopia successfully argued that the operators had overstated the amounts owed by a total of $85,000. Skitude, a European company, eventually purchased Liftopia, which reconstituted its point-of-sale platform as Catalate and promised to use proceeds from the sale to “pay creditors.”
Then, nothing happened for a long time. Last week, however, reports began flowing in from independent operators that Catalate had finally sent them a portion of their missing funds. Payouts averaged around 40 percent of what they were owed. Plattekill, a family-owned ski area in New York’s Catskills, received $6,500 of the $17,000 outstanding. Magic Mountain, Vermont, received $10,400 of the $27,000 it was owed. Other independent operators confirmed to The Storm Skiing Journal that they had received payouts at a similar ratio.
Of the four parties that participated in the attempt at forced bankruptcy, Alterra and Boyne declined to confirm whether they had been paid, and Arapahoe Basin did not respond to a request for comment. Todd Burnette, program director of the Mountain Collective (which Aspen represented in the court filing), sent the following statement:
“Mountain Collective has received funds from Liftopia as was required by the legal process. We did not receive all of the funds we were owed but we believe that all creditors received the same percentage and we consider the matter closed.”
All of the operators I spoke with remained mystified with Liftopia’s actions. After years-long relationships – Plattekill says it was Liftopia’s first customer – the once-respected ticket broker misplaced millions of dollars without explanation or apology. A sense of betrayal was palpable with everyone I spoke to. The collective sentiment was best articulated in a statement to The Storm Skiing Journal by Spencer Montgomery, the co-owner of New York’s West Mountain, who confirmed he received approximately 40 percent of what Liftopia owed the business:
“This is really bad, the monies that they took were never their monies. They were selling our products on our behalf and entitled only to a small transactional percentage fee. They had a legal fiduciary responsibility to turn our monies over to us and had no right to use, keep or otherwise do anything with the collected funds from our patrons, other than the aforementioned transactional fee. It is akin to them simply taking the funds from our bank account.
“I had a pointed call with their CFO and other controlling parties of Liftopia where they outright admitted to commingling our funds with theirs and also admitted to using our funds for their/Liftopia’s expenses, and worse, it is believed continued to do so after they knew they were insolvent, which really takes this up a notch on the severity scale.
“Obviously, there are a lot of rumors circulating about the potential of civil or criminal charges, but I have no direct knowledge of the validity of those. I have heard from other industry individuals that there were lavish and opulent parties being thrown by Liftopia in San Francisco at their offices but I did not receive an invite and so again cannot confirm or deny. This, in my opinion was a very brazen and in-your-face heist with no remorse or fear of reprisal, legal or otherwise. I obviously feel badly for us at West Mountain but also for all of the other ski areas that were taken.”
This is an especially harsh assessment coming from Montgomery, who is normally reserved in his public statements. Evan Reece, the CEO of Liftopia and Catalate, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this article or others written about the company’s fallout.
As I wrote back in 2020, Liftopia’s missed opportunity here was substantial. What was once skiing’s dominant e-commerce platform lost its customers’ trust at the exact moment Covid-19 forced the industry online en masse. Catalate remains part of the industry, but its footprint and influence are diminished, its reputation shattered. Its former customers have moved on.
“We now partner with getskitickets.com,” Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway said. “The money goes straight into our bank account and then we pay them.”
Bogus Basin, Little Switzerland, Nordic Mountain, The Rock Snowpark join Freedom Pass
Sixteen months after I declared it dead, the rejuvenated Freedom Pass coalition just keeps adding partners. In just the past two weeks, the monster Bogus Basin in Idaho and the Wisconsin trio of Little Switzerland, Nordic Mountain, and The Rock Snowpark have joined the partnership, which grants season pass holders at any of the partner resorts three unrestricted lift tickets at any of the others.
Many of the Freedom Pass partners are quite small – Yawgoo in Rhode Island, Lost Valley in Maine, and McIntyre in New Hampshire – but Bogus Basin is a real standout: 1,800 vertical feet on 2,600 acres served by 4 high-speed quads. While I expected such reciprocal (read, comp-ticket) programs to fade once the Indy Pass established its pay-per-visit model, they have proven resilient.
“We have not considered the Indy Pass,” Bogus Basin Director of Innovation and Marketing Austin Smith wrote in an email to The Storm Skiing Journal. “The Indy pass is a product that must be purchased in addition to your mountain’s season pass or can be purchased as a stand-alone pass-like-product. Our goal is to offer additional benefits as part of our True Bogus season pass. It requires a bit of work on our end to form so many individual agreements, but in exchange it allows us to provide greater access to the outdoors at no extra cost to our top- tier season pass holders.”
The Freedom Pass partnership fills out what is one of the most impressive reciprocal rosters in U.S. skiing. The $629 True Bogus Pass (which went on flash sale in the spring for just $479), also includes three days each at 15 Powder Alliance resorts, as well as Bridger Bowl, Diamond Peak, Great Divide, Lee Canyon, Monarch, Mt. Bohemia, Mt. Ashland, Pebble Creek, Powderhorn Colorado, Red River, Seven Oaks, Sleeping Giant, Soldier Mountain, Spirit Mountain, and Tamarack. That is one hell of a lineup.
Little Switzerland, Nordic Mountain, and The Rock are something different – 200-foot Midwest bumps whose passholders may be tempted by a trip to Colorado or Idaho. “I read your article on Ski Cooper’s reciprocal pass partnerships, and I said, this is awesome,” the mountains’ co-owner, Rick Schmitz, told me in a phone call over the weekend, referring to a Storm Skiing Journal article last summer that broke down the Colorado ski area’s massive partner network and $299 pass. “I went to my marketing guy and I said, ‘call all of them.’ Once we connected with the folks at Freedom Pass, we were signed up in about 15 minutes.”
Schmitz said that he was still working out exact access details, and that he would finalize them prior to the start of next season, when the partnerships activate.
More spring passes:
Recently, I laid out details for a selection of unlimited spring passes across the country: Killington ($349), Berkshire East and Catamount ($129), Mount Hood Meadows ($249), Mount Bachelor ($309), Blacktail ($110), and Mission Ridge ($249), as well as the two-days-per-ski-area Indy Pass ($189). A bunch more have popped up since then, including Schweitzer ($199); Bogus Basin ($109); Crystal Mountain, Washington ($299; $199 for a season passholder at any ski resort in the state); Summit at Snoqualmie ($249; drops to $139 on March 28); 49 Degrees North ($189); Timberline Lodge, Oregon ($237); Sunrise Park, Arizona ($149); Bristol, New York ($299); Bretton Woods, New Hampshire ($299); and Crystal Mountain, Michigan ($159). If you know of any others, send them my way.
Vail extends season at seven ski areas
There are a dozen or two ski areas across North America that regularly push their seasons into May and beyond. Of those, only Whistler and Breckenridge are owned by Vail, and the latter only began pushing the season when perennial summer-striver Arapahoe Basin bailed on the Epic Pass in 2019. While Heavenly has occasionally made a run for May, no one has been able to count on it. Vail has just never seemed very interested in corn and T-shirt skiing, even as Alterra collected half of North America’s spring-skiing mainstays onto its Ikon Pass.
So I was pretty happy to see Vail make an unexpected commitment to an extended season at seven of its ski areas earlier this week:
Vail Mountain: May 1 (previously April 24)
Kirkwood: May 1 (previously April 10)
Heavenly: April 24 (previously April 17)
Stevens Pass: May 1 (previously April 17)
Hunter: April 10 (previously April 3)
Mount Snow: Carinthia open until April 24 (previously April 17)
Boston Mills: March 20 (previously March 13)
The Hunter date is not special – the Catskills ski area has an enormously powerful snowmaking system, and is usually one of the last ski areas in New York to close, usually in mid- to late-April. Mount Snow is interesting, as Wildcat has previously been the former Peak Resorts ski area to push the season late. Given the countless millions funneled into Mount Snow’s snowmaking plant and Wildcat’s considerable struggles this season, that shift is unsurprising.
The real story here is the May 1 closing targets at Vail, Kirkwood, and Stevens Pass. This will be the first time in its nearly 60 years that Vail Mountain has stayed open into May, Vail said. The late closing at Kirkwood fits that mountain’s vibe as a freewheeling locals haunt. And the Stevens closing can be viewed as a consolation prize for diehard locals frustrated by that mountain’s early-season struggles and the decision to close last April 18 with 133-inch base on the ground.
Vail has always been an aggressive early-season operator, spinning Keystone’s lifts at the crack of October and opening the rest of its portfolio as early as possible (at least until this season, when Vail’s competitors beat it to open in nearly every Midwest and Northeast market except, notably, Pennsylvania). Its blasé attitude toward extending the season was puzzling and frustrating. Let’s hope that these changes are the start of a permanent philosophical shift.
The Storm in the media: Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory, a two-time guest on The Storm Skiing Podcast, gives the pod an unsolicited endorsement. The New York Times interviewed me for this story about the endangered paper trailmap. Also this:
Passes: Jay Peak and Burke will no longer offer a combo pass – “Just a matter of separating the mountains in preparation for a sale,” Jay General Manager Steve Wright told me.
Business: Jay Peak has two active buyers still. Big Snow will re-open by Memorial Day. Alpine-X, which intends to open America’s second indoor ski center in Virginia, is already planning a second facility in Texas. Big Squaw owner ordered to pay nearly $4 million to repair dilapidated ski area, which is in the midst of a protracted sales process. Gunstock’s master plan is on hold.
Lifts: Lift Blog’s Peter Landsman does a Q&A with Jason Blevins about his completed quest to document every chairlift in America. The Snowbird tram is getting some rad new cabins. Alterra will invest $344 million in capital projects for next season, including a pair of six-packs at Mammoth, the completion of the base-to-base gondola at Palisades Tahoe, and phase one of Steamboat’s monster Wild Blue Gondola.
Covid: Vail is pretty much done with masks, but not vaccine requirements.
Correction: an earlier version of this article referred to Crystal’s pre-Ikon pass price as $1,200. The exact price is difficult to nail down, but was surely less expensive than that in most instances.