Everyone Is a Season Passholder Now – Vail Sells 2.1 Million Epic Passes
“We continue to successfully convert guests from lift tickets to pass products”
Vail’s message is clear: everyone can be a skier
The day after announcing its intention to acquire Pennsylvania’s Seven Springs, Laurel, and Hidden Valley ski areas, Vail Resorts released its first-quarter earnings results for fiscal 2022. The highlight – which Vail neglected to include in the section of the press release titled “highlights” – was that the company had sold an astonishing 2.1 million Epic Passes, 700,000 more than last season. That 47 percent increase equates to a 21 percent jump in sales dollars over 2020-21 sales when accounting for the company’s 20 percent pass price reductions.
Wow. I think this thing is catching on. According to the NSAA, there were 10.5 million snowsports participants last season. Vail did not break out the number of Epic Passes sold in Canada and Australia (and elsewhere), but I think we can safely conclude that approximately 20 percent of U.S. skiers are now Epic passholders.
That is remarkable. Historically, season passes – and these Epic Pass sales do not all represent season passes, which I’ll address below – have not been a mass-market item. They were expensive and good at a single mountain – Stowe’s season pass the year before Vail bought it was $2,313, according to New England Ski History. If you had a season pass there, you were probably a local and you probably never skied anywhere else. Even a weekender with a condo would have had a hard time justifying that purchase – it would have taken 18.7 days of skiing to equal the season-pass outlay.
These days, who doesn’t have a season pass to Stowe? And Okemo, and Vail, and Heavenly, and Crested Butte? Vail did the unthinkable and in doing so created the unstoppable: the mass conversion of the skiing public from visitors to passholders.
The importance of this from a lifestyle point of view cannot be overstated. Are you a skier, or someone who skis? If you’re a passholder, you’re a skier. You feel cool. In a sport that never ceases trying to make its participants feel bad about themselves, that matters. A lot.
Vail has done the sport – and its investors – a tremendous service by driving this shift. Imitators – Ikon, Indy, Mountain Collective – abound. Good. The more people who feel a part of this thing, who have license to go as often as they want and travel widely, the more stable its future will be even as the climate shows less inclination to cooperate with our seasonal calendar.
Not all Epic Pass sales are season pass sales, of course, and a substantial number of these totals are probably Epic Day Passes. “We continue to successfully convert guests from lift tickets to pass products,” CEO Kirsten Lynch said in Vail’s earnings announcement. What that means, essentially, is that anyone who formerly may have booked a four-day ski-and-stay package and purchased lift tickets as part of that vacation now probably instead purchased Epic Day Passes. Vail can count them as Epic passholders. Still, a significant number of skiers likely picked up a season pass for the first time, incentivized by the price drops and ever-increasing number of mountains they could access. Lynch noted, “very strong growth across all of our local markets.” And why not? If you live anywhere near a Vail mountain, it’s almost impossible not to buy some kind of unlimited Epic Pass.
Of course, more passes means more people, and concerns about overcrowding abound. The Epic Lift Lines Instagram account has more than 6,000 followers despite having just six posts.
“[Overcrowding] is a solve-able issue, if they choose to, and they haven’t chosen to solve it yet,” the account’s founder, who goes by the moniker Weird Foothill Guy, told Out of Bounds podcast in a recent episode (which I also appeared on). “Encouraging [Vail] to innovate, because they’re geniuses, is the proper talking point, versus ‘Fuck Vail.’ I think the people yelling, ‘Fuck Vail’ should stop saying ‘Fuck Vail.’ They should get onboard with me and let me tell them what to say, because Vail Resorts is going to accept a challenge because they’re geniuses. They’re not going to listen to people saying, ‘F-you.’ They are going to listen to the grander general public saying, ‘Vail, you’re great. You’ve done great things for skiing. You’ve done great things for mountain communities nationwide. Here is your next quest.’”
The full conversation, which starts at the 1:49 mark, is worth a listen, as it’s the best articulation I’ve heard about overcrowding concerns going into this season.
Vail, for its part, has taken a few initial steps to relieve crowding. Several new high-capacity lifts are coming online this season, and the company will invest more than $300 million on new lifts in 2022. Vail will also limit lift ticket sales during peak periods, reorient its lift lines, and start syncing liftline wait times to its Epic Mix app. Sellouts appear to be few, so far: Vail Mountain is sold out Dec. 30; Park City Dec. 29 and 30 and Jan. 16; and Stowe Jan. 16. That was a spot check, not an exhaustive search, but it will be interesting to see how many days Vail’s mountains actually sell out.
In the social-media age, the war against crowding may not be winnable. I don’t think a meltdown-proof ski experience exists. Lifts break. Too many people show up. It all gets documented. In our anecdotes-trump-long-term-data world, ski-area operators have a much tougher story to tell following an apocalyptic crowding event.
That doesn’t mean Vail shouldn’t try. They’ve taken good first steps. Better tech will continue to drive improvements, and a willingness to limit ticket sales on holidays can easily be extended to weekends and powder days. When everyone’s a skier, everyone wants to go skiing. Now that Vail has accomplished the first thing, it needs to find a way to deal with the second.
“The most advanced chairlift in the world” opens at Loon
It’s hard to appreciate the scale of Loon Mountain’s sparkling new Kancamagus 8 chairlift until you pull into the parking lot. When I arrived for the opening ceremony on Friday, the building stood towering beneath an iron sky:
The building is cavernous, like a hangar in its vast scale and utilitarian finishes. On one side the lift churns, its titanic Loon-orange bullwheel spinning. One the other side Cats have pushed snow inside. Skiers glide right in. Massive garage-style doors slide open onto what will be a heated patio dotted with picnic tables.
Shortly after 10:00, a brief ceremony began. A Doppelmayr USA representative presented Loon General Manager Jay Scambio with a cowbell. This token, he explained, honors the company’s Swiss heritage and the nation’s tradition of herding its cows high into the Alps for summer grazing. Doppelmayr has presented a similar bell at thousands of lift installations.
To clanging cowbells and cheers from a crowd of skiers, media, and Boyne Resorts’ leadership, Scambio described the Kanc 8 – which replaced the high-speed Kanc Quad that is moving across the mountain to replace the Seven Brothers triple next year – as “the most unique lift experience in North America.” The D-Line lift moves 18 feet per second, carrying 2,500-pound heated bubble chairs, and is powered by “more than 200” technological innovations. Scambio then boarded the lift, cowbell slung shoulderwise like a heavyweight belt, and took the first chair to the top of the mountain.
That loading carpet is an amazing thing, parking eight skiers parallel on a snowbeach, where the chair scoops them up and away. The seats are heated, pleasant, roomy – I rode fully loaded chairs twice and never felt squeezed from either side. The thing absolutely purrs, a joy to ride and to observe from below.
Each chair has a distinct exterior seatback graphic. The carriers are gorgeous, the seats black and etched in orange. It feels like riding in a high-end sports car or the first-class section of an airplane. Unloading, for the most part, was smooth.
The Kanc 8 sits adjacent to the Kissin’ Cousin lift, a 1986 CTEC double, like an iPhone 13 beside a rotary phone. The difference is that stark. Gliding up the mountain, it looks otherworldly and surreal, immensely smooth and powerful, the carriers rising over the incline like alien ships in formation. This thing is glorious, an attraction all its own. The skiing is almost beside the point – it services a mellow pod of mostly blue runs. There will be no foot traffic, at least in wintertime – the carpet would make that impossible – but Kanc 8 is worthwhile even as a thing to simply stare at.
Still, critics abound. I’ll address the most common critiques briefly:
An eight-passenger lift is overkill for this terrain. Maybe. Could a gondola have served this area just as well? Probably. Personally, I hate removing my skis, so I appreciate the chair. Would a six-pack have been sufficient? The Kanc 8 definitely moves more people – 3,500 per hour, as opposed to 3,000 for the Swift Current 6 at Boyne’s Big Sky. It’s important to remember, too, that this lift is, as Scambio said, “the first step” toward big changes for West Basin, which will likely include eventual terrain expansion.
This is an absurdly expensive showpiece. So? Running a ski resort is a fierce game, especially in New Hampshire, where a dozen similarly sized resorts cage-match each other for share of the Boston market. Installing trophy lifts that are not strictly necessary has been a Boyne Resorts hallmark since the 1960s, when they dropped the world’s first triple and quad chairlifts on their Michigan ski areas. Boyne brought the first six-pack lift to North America in 1992 at 500-vertical-foot Boyne Mountain, and installed the continent’s first eight-pack at Big Sky in 2018. It’s what they do. It’s a market differentiator, and I like it. I asked Scambio how much the lift cost, and he wouldn’t say. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. Boyne built something amazing that anyone with a lift ticket can ride. Enjoy it.
“I’d take the lifts at Mad River Glen or Magic over this any day.” You have to love Fixed-Grip Lift Bro. He’s not falling for all this malarky about cellphones and color TVs either. He probably still poops in an outhouse and cooks on a woodstove. Or maybe not. Look, I like fixed-grip lifts too. The single chair at Mad River Glen is one of America’s iconic ski experiences. When I wrapped up my morning at Loon, I drove an hour up to Attitash and lapped their hated Summit Triple – and actually liked it. The quirky and differentiated lift fleets are one of the main things that make lift-served skiing such a dynamic and interesting world. And it’s OK to appreciate these different experiences for what they are. This is not Yankees-Red Sox, where you have to pick a side.
They should have upgraded the gondola first. I agree.
Aren’t you the same guy constantly harping about high lift-ticket prices? Guilty. And yes, expensive lifts probably do contribute to higher lift-ticket costs. However, New England is far from reaching the $200-plus walk-up ticket prices we are seeing out West. Loon’s maximum 2021-22 single-day ticket price is projected to be $120, the highest in the state. Vail-owned Wildcat and Attitash will top out at $99. Upper New England – Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont – houses 71 ski areas, a density of competition that should hold prices in check for the foreseeable future.
Will Loon start a cascade of eight-packs among New England ski resorts? I doubt it. The region could accommodate maybe a dozen of them, and only the big players can afford them. Boyne is installing another eight-pack on Sunday River’s Jordan Peak next year, and I would not be at all surprised to see them replace Sugarloaf’s congested Super Quad with another. Where else could we see one? The most obvious candidate to me is Stowe’s Fourunner Quad. Killington could certainly afford one, though there’s no obvious place to put one other than maybe Superstar. I would suggest Super Bravo at Sugarbush, but that resort doesn’t even have a single six-pack, and they seem philosophically committed to not overloading the slopes. Maybe the Bonaventure Quad at Jay Peak? We’ll see. In all likelihood, Boyne is going to own New England’s eight-passenger chairlift marketing for some years to come.
Snow Tires Bro would like to step outside
Lately I’ve found myself in various online fistfights over the subject of snow tires. I don’t have them. Snow Tires Bro does not approve. While this essential conflict predates The Storm, it annoyed me enough that I addressed the issue in the second-ever mailing of this newsletter in 2019, in a post titled The 10 People You Meet on the Ski the East Facebook Group:
Snow Tires Guy wants you to know that he prepared for winter. He equipped his car with snow tires. Did you? Oh, you didn’t? Well, Snow Tires Guy is not mad at you, necessarily. But he is disappointed. And he has one question for you: can you please itemize which other basic vehicle maintenance tasks you have neglected, so that he can compensate for your reckless and irresponsible behavior as he shuttles himself and his passengers over the snowy roads of wintertime New England?
Snow Tires Guy is a more organized version of everyone’s suburban dad. Snow Tires Guy tunes his own skis. Snow Tires Guy mows his lawn every Thursday in the summertime. Snow Tires Guy upgrades his lightbulbs before they burn out. Snow Tires Guy prepped for 18 months in advance of Y2K. And we made it, no thanks to you.
Snow Tires Guy understands that not everyone is as organized, prepared, and, frankly, as intelligent as he is. But he wants you to know that you are ruining it for the rest of us. He also wants you to know that you’re a little bit stupid. Snow Tires Guy knows there’s nothing he can do to make you put snow tires on your car, though, and ultimately he feels a little bit sorry for you.
Well Snow Tires Guy, whom I have since rebranded as Snow Tires Bro*, has evolved his thinking, which currently stands as some version of this: if you don’t throw down for snow tires, you are a selfish asshole, as odious as an anti-vax flat-earther reposting Q-Anon conspiracy memes denouncing Barack Obama as a time-traveling supervillain.
We really live in an impossible age, where absolutism reigns. Don’t have snow tires? You are selfish and perhaps evil. This is partisan extremism, born in our political arenas, creeping into places where nuance is helpful.
Let me start here: I live in Brooklyn. Where do you suggest I store this extra set of tires? I barely have room for a toaster. Second: in an average ski season, I’ll drive 20,000 miles. Maybe – maybe – 1,000 of those miles – five percent – are over snowy roads. Far fewer are through blizzard-type conditions. But most of the time I am on dry-ass pavement, which would quickly chew snow tires to death.
Buying snow tires was frankly something I never thought about until the advent of the ski-enthusiast Facebook group, which has elevated this issue into something of a religious dictate among a subset of its most aggressive commentors. I grew up in a snowy area of Michigan, driving an unweighted rear-wheel-drive Ford Ranger down unplowed roads five months per year. I didn’t know anyone who owned snow tires. I never even heard anyone discuss them. Starting at age 17, I owned a series of front-wheel drive Ford Probes and Mercury Cougars. I drove these things all over the country, including up and over the Colorado death corridor of I-70, often through heavy snowfall, ice, blizzards. Sometimes I rented cars in Salt Lake or Denver – I remember driving a Pontiac Sunfire up Little Cottonwood Canyon in 2009. I did this not out of defiance – I simply never considered snow an obstacle worthy of a vehicle upgrade. Last year I drove a rented front-wheel-drive SUV from Steamboat to Beaver Creek down an unplowed Colorado State highway 131 in an early-morning blizzard. I am sorry to report to Snow Tires Bro that I made it intact and had a great day. Again, I was not angling for Most Hated Guy In Colorado status. I tried to rent a winter-tire-equipped car, but no such option was available. So I didn’t.
I have a hundred stories like that. Wintertime, basic vehicle, no mishaps, still alive. There is a method and an art to wintertime driving that we have somewhat ceded to technology. Driving on snow, after all, is not that hard: slow down, lay off the gas, tap the breaks, steer into the skid if you lose it. Stick shift, which I had until last year, helped – the slow down without braking is amazing; you and the clutch, like Luke flying gunner into the Death Star. I admit that having features such as four- or all-wheel drive, traction control, or snow tires would have been better than not having them. When I bought a new car last year, I paid up to get one with all-wheel drive. It’s nice. But in the absence of these things sometimes you just have to slow down and adjust.
If you think I’m an asshole for this take, you have a lot of company. But if you agree with everything I say, then there’s no reason to publish this newsletter. The Storm is not an echo chamber for popular opinions. But let’s take me out of it. If your position is that anyone, anywhere in America, who has the statistical likelihood of driving on more than one millimeter of snow this winter must invest between $600 and $1,200 for an extra set of tires, then, respectfully, I disagree with you.
Never mind that most of these people will never ski. The essential argument, for skiing purposes, is that a baseline investment for skiing is not just tending to the outrageous outlays for gear, warm clothes, and lift tickets, but also to overhaul your vehicle in a manner that is frankly beyond the means of many Americans. It is this sort of economic elitism and chest-thumping bro-think that contributes to skiing’s perceived high barrier to entry.
If you have snow tires, good for you. If I lived in Tahoe or Utah or Colorado or even the Catskills, I would surely have them too. But I don’t. I live in New York City. And millions of skier visits – the ones that, frankly, support this industry – come from cityfolk in their citycars trudging up to the mountains. If your position is to rage until every one of these people bow to your snow-tires demands, then you have a lot of work ahead of you. Good luck. A better option, in my opinion, would be to advocate for increased mass transit to resorts locked in snowy passes – the Little Cottonwood gondola, which is surely doomed, is a good example of this. So is Winter Park’s excellent Denver-based snow train. But this is U.S. America, and a transit revolution is unlikely. Barring extensive traction laws (of which there are plenty) and aggressive enforcement (of which there is less), we’re going to have to find a pragmatic middle-ground here.
Maybe you can change my mind on this. I was a late holdout on helmets, finally strapping one on in 2016. I’m convince-able on most topics. I’m done hurling social-media hand grenades on this particular subject, but I’ll respond to non-hysterical direct emails. If the response is good, I’ll put together a recap – so keep in mind that your email may appear in this newsletter. I’ll even start with this concession: if I fly out West, I will rent a winter-tire equipped car if one is available.
*A “bro,” as used in this newsletter, is an individual who is so certain of their opinion on a particular issue that there is no room for debate, compromise, or reason. Free Market Bro, for example, is typically a bro indoctrinated in his business school 101 classes with the idea that markets are self-correcting entities that perfectly serve every human need if left untouched by the state. This is supposed to be a starting point, but Free Market Bro absorbs it as religion and denounces any human corrective as “socialism.” I am someone who has a stock-investing hobby and appreciates capitalism in general, but Free Market Bro is a blockhead. So are all bros, who earn the “bro” title by being self-assured to the point of parody. I would currently label myself, for example, as Snow Tires Bro Sucks Bro, so annoyed am I with this particular bro at the moment.
Passes: Indy Pass will add a new partner on Tuesday – I’ll have a full write-up in the newsletter. Ski Cooper is now open, meaning skiers can redeem their reciprocal tickets with the mountain’s massive partner network. I will go ahead and guarantee that this will be the last year Seven Springs, Laurel, and Hidden Valley partner with Ski Cooper, for obvious reasons. Powder Alliance partners Bogus Basin, China Peak, Dodge Ridge, Mission Ridge, Mountain High, and Timberline are offering Sierra-at-Tahoe passholders unlimited Monday through Friday non-holiday access until the resort, which suffered heavy damage in this summer’s Caldor Fire, re-opens. Boyne Resorts is giving Shawnee Peak employees access to Sunday River, Sugarloaf, and Loon on their season passes.
Business: I wish every ski area put out a winter update note like this excellent one from Berkshire East and Catamount owner Jon Schaefer. Big Snow American Dream’s shop re-opens – no update yet on when the ski area will follow. Les Otten is not giving up on The Balsams. Elsewhere in New Hampshire, Granite Gorge is likely to join the list of lost ski areas.
Infrastructure: Vail added two new lift upgrades to its 2022 list: Jack Frost will replace the East and West double-doubles with a fixed-grip quad, giving it three new lifts next season; Big Boulder will get a fixed-grip quad to replace the Merry Widow double-doubles. Big Rock looks to install a 929-vertical-foot fixed-grip Doppelmayr quad. Sugarloaf skiers are trying to figure out why Big Sky’s Swift Current high-speed quad has been delivered to the Maine ski area. Alpine-X releases a trailmap for its Virginia facility. Elk Mountain, Pennsylvania joins the long list of resorts installing RFID gates this season, including fellow eastern PA mountains Montage and Camelback. I did a breakdown of Snow Ridge’s new trailmap (click):
Kids: Tamarack, Idaho’s Discovery lift will be free this season.
Stoke: The Best Skiing in the World.
This week in skiing
Loon: Covered above. But worth adding that it snowed heavily all morning on more-crowded-than-usual-for-weekdays trails, skiers drawn by the weather and the chairlift-opening ceremony. The trails never felt crowded. The snow stayed nice. Near noon the skies cleared and you could see the Whites humping up out of the landscape all around.
Attitash: New Hampshire is amazing. Driving the hour from Loon to Attitash I passed Cannon and Bretton Woods, their lifts spinning in the lonesome afternoon. From the summit of Attitash you can see the trail networks of Black and Cranmore threading white through the forest. It was Attitash’s opening day, empty by the time I got there, the snow remarkably preserved. I liked the Summit Triple, the way it crawled up the incline and over the Flying Yankee quad, at one point sharing a lift tower. If you hate my snow tires take you are going to hate my #SaveTheAttTriple campaign even more.