Freedom Pass Returns with 10 Partner Ski Areas

The Storm Skiing Journal apologizes for being fake news

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Well you can’t win them all

No sooner had I declared the Freedom Pass deader than LaserDiscs than it came spiraling back out of the ether last week with an updated 10-partner coalition, each committed to offering three comp tickets to one another’s passholders. There are no blackouts. The Northeast-heavy coalition is being run out of Colorado’s Sunlight ski area, a funky little operation an hour up the road from Aspen.

The Northeast ski areas are Black Mountain, McIntyre, and Whaleback, New Hampshire; Lost Valley, Maine; Yawgoo, Rhode Island; and Greek Peak and Toggenburg, New York. Ski Cooper joins Sunlight in Colorado, and Mont du Lac, Wisconsin rounds out the coalition. Former partners Plattekill, Magic, Bolton Valley, Dartmouth Skiway, and Granite Gorge (which will not operate this season), will not be part of the updated roster.

That the alliance re-formed after losing some of its most substantial partners to a combination of Covid-induced capacity concerns and new pass alternatives suggests that an appetite remains among ski areas for this sort of joint marketing program, even at the short-term cost of lift ticket revenue. The current roster, while not particularly compelling, is nonetheless free for all passholders, the here-you-go-take-these skiing equivalent to the free pound of chicken legs they’ll sometimes throw in if you buy a bunch of steaks online. And maybe you like chicken and maybe you don’t, but they’re free and hey, chicken can be fun on a powder day, or it can just sit in the freezer until LaserDiscs come back in style or the ski season ends – whichever comes first.

Here’s a bit more about what this revived coalition offers, and what its resurrection means:

This is not an Indy Pass alternative in the Northeast

Freedom Pass Twitter for some reason kicked the door open with some kind of ‘tude, warning us in its bio “Don’t fall for #FakeIndy,” a hashtag that mostly seems to resurface years-old missives concerning regional political feuds.

The fact is that the pass’ two best Northeast ski areas – Magic and Bolton Valley – left Freedom Pass a year after joining Indy. It’s not difficult to understand why: Indy Pass pays ski areas a cash redemption for each visit; Freedom Pass does not. While these sorts of reciprocal comp-ticket coalitions can make sense for peer ski areas – see the recent agreement between Jay Peak and Saddleback – they make less sense when large and varied mountains that skiers are likely to travel for are paired with community bumps that are unlikely to attract adventure-seeking day skiers. Plenty of Yawgoo skiers are going to want to trek up to Magic. Probably zero Magic skiers are driving south to Yawgoo.

Still, a pair of notable mid-sized ski areas remains among the Northeast partners: Greek Peak and Black Mountain, both of which are also Indy Pass partners. Both have big, fun trail networks and around a thousand feet of vert. And both sit in crowded local ski markets, which helps to justify whatever extra marketing expense this pass obliges.

The two are seven hours apart, however, and plenty of great ski areas, including Killington, sit between them. That leaves Greek Peak skiers with the smaller but pretty nice Toggenburg as their only ready Freedom Pass option. The mountains are just 40 minutes apart and share ownership – a joint pass is available for $845, which is just $95 more than a standalone Greek Peak pass (Toggenburg’s standalone pass is $550).

Black Mountain skiers are in a less appealing circumstance. McIntyre, with all of 169 vertical feet and 12 acres of skiable terrain, is a two-hour drive. Lost Valley is in Maine and slightly closer drive-time-wise, but has just 240 feet of vert. Whaleback is bigger (though still smaller than Black), and has a 700-foot vertical drop that would be terrific if it weren’t in New Hampshire, which is rippling with ski areas more than twice as tall. Within two hours of Black, you can reach Wildcat, Cranmore, Attitash, Loon, Waterville Valley, Cannon, Bretton Woods, and oh yeah Sunday River. No, the days aren’t free, but the skiing is bigger and, for most circumstances, better.

I am an unrepentant fan of small ski areas, and believe that all skiers ought to consider supporting the one closest to them with a season pass or at least an occasional visit. But the sorts of skiers who pick up season passes at Greek Peak or Black are probably looking for a more expansive ski experience when they venture beyond their home mountain, and an Indy Pass, which is just a $129 add-on to their season pass, will deliver that with two days at Cannon, Jay Peak, Magic, Bolton Valley, and many others.

The big benefit here for Northeast skiers is Colorado access

Unless you live out West or are some kind of ski area obsessive, you’re probably not super familiar with Sunlight or Cooper, the Freedom Pass’ two Colorado ski areas. I haven’t personally visited either, so I’ll tap my favorite ski area-descriptor site, Skibum.net, to tell you about them:

Cooper: Some people call this their favorite ski area on the planet. It’s certainly one of mine. The Coop is a bit hickish for most vacationers…no cutesy clocktower village or fireworks shows. It’s also a mid-sized area — small by Colorado standards — so the crowds pooh-pooh it. That leaves Cooper to the locals, a few Texans, and a handful of Easterners who get lost and stumble upon it. The terrain at Cooper isn’t tough, the lifts aren’t fast, but the conditions and uncrowded slopes are fabulous. Excellent for occasional skiers who like to swoop and glide, camp in no-frills motels and throw down a few drafts at a fraction of the cost of Aspen/Vail/Summit etc. The trails are meticulously groomed and largely gentle; a few are left ungroomed but are not overly steep. No snowmaking here, so the snow underfoot is usually incredible. On some days you could easily ski the Coop and leave your metal edges at home. Think about that. Snowcat skiing is a special treat, and opens up some wild bowl skiing for the well-heeled skier. Most of us can’t afford the snowcat, but with so many options in-bounds, we really don’t need it. 4-5 minute lift lines sometimes form on weekends, only because the equipment is a bit dated. If you’re into skiing, being real, and don’t need a mint on your pillow, think Cooper. Probably the least touristy ski destination in the state. Hotshots will find a few challenges, but no audience to stroke the ego. Wanderers will be positively thrilled; despite Cooper’s (relatively) modest size there are plenty of hidden glades, countless crossovers, and endless meadows. Families or any skiers seeking a quiet, unstressed experience will find Cooper hard to beat. This is one of those places where, when they close the lifts down at 4:00 pm, you wonder where the time went. If I don’t make it back to Breckenridge…eh. If I don’t make it back to Cooper…now THAT would suck.

Sunlight: One of the “smaller” big mountains, but certainly no slouch. The knock on Sunlight is the older lift system, and that you have to combine lifts to reach the summit. But the stepped lift setup somehow keeps things moving, keeps lines short, and gives the place a sense of having more runs than it actually does. Other than the lifts, Sunlight is terrific. No pretense here — this is no Aspen or Vail. Plenty of good terrain…novice and intermediates are king at Sunlight, but there is some nasty, nasty stuff for the hotshot. The wanderer can spend a day here and not be bored at all. Beginners have a separate area. Excellent all-around.

As is often the case, either of these – particularly Sunlight – would be considered substantial ski areas were they to be airlifted to New England. That they’re locals alternatives to Aspen and Vail means that they’re a little lost on the national ski-dar. It doesn’t matter. If you’re a passholder at any of the Northeast Freedom Pass mountains, a six-day Colorado jaunt through these two Rocky Mountain ski areas sounds like a worthwhile adventure.

So what’s in it for Colorado passholders?

It seems unlikely that passholders at either of the Colorado mountains would be inspired to take an Eastern curiosity tour to check out their less-snowy partners across the continent, but the ski areas are just a couple hours apart, so passholders at one can easily day-trip to another. Also, a dig into each mountain’s season pass perks page reveals that the Freedom Pass represents just a tiny fraction of the reciprocal ski days available to their passholders, suggesting that joining the coalition is just part of a broader strategy to build out their partner networks as extensively as possible, anchoring themselves in the national independent ski scene and drawing visitors from all over.

Sunlight passholders get three days at more than a dozen ski areas, including lesser-known regional bombers like Brundage, Idaho; Loveland, Colorado; Mt. Bohemia, Michigan; and Snow King, Wyoming. Cooper’s list is shockingly enormous, nearly as large as the Indy Pass, with 53 partner mountains, including the amazing Powder Mountain, Utah (albeit with a convoluted redemption process). A large number of these partners are in the Northeast, including Tussey, Blue Mountain, Seven Springs, Laurel, and Hidden Valley, Pennsylvania; Plattekill and Holiday Valley, New York; and Dartmouth Skiway, New Hampshire, in addition to the aforementioned Freedom Pass partners.

These passes are (for adults) just $529 and $449, respectively, and are typical of non-Epik/Ikon mountains throughout the west: inexpensive and with expansive reciprocal partner benefits. This is what the season pass landscape looks like in a region that has been battling the reality of cheap Epic Passes for more than a decade. The Northeast, which is really only entering its third season of Megapass Fight Club with Epik/Ikon Passes that are often cheaper than many ski area’s single-mountain pass and act as an affordable gateway to the West, is still figuring out how to adapt. This western model of forming expansive partner networks is one possible outcome. As the Indy Pass – which only lost one Northeast partner this offseason (Maine’s Mt. Abram), in spite of concerns about capacity in the Covid era and the fact that it only (so far) signs one-year contracts with its ski areas – continues to grow in the region, it offers a second model, one that generates revenue instead of write-offs. However, with pass sales up across much of the Northeast this offseason, substantive changes may take a while.

So how did you screw this up so bad?

I’ve been watching the Freedom Pass with some concern for months, since any mention of the benefit disappeared from Plattekill’s season pass page in March or April. After the owners confirmed to me that the coalition, which had formerly been run out of Bolton Valley, seemed to be in disarray, I reached out several times to what more than one former partner told me was the new administrator: McIntyre. These messages went unanswered, and mentions of the benefit gradually disappeared from successive partner pages. Last Thursday, when only Whaleback still explicitly mentioned the benefit, I published a piece titled “Freedom Pass Dissolves – at Least for This Season,” after Lost Valley, Maine, posted that “The Freedom Pass has been cancelled for 2020/2021 due to Covid-19” (the page has since been updated.) The next day, I learned via a Lift Blog email that the coalition had reformed.

So what could I have done different? One of the hazards of the current Storm Skiing Journal operating model is that I mostly analyze what already exists, rather than conducting a lot of independent reporting. This newsletter, much as I enjoy it, is, at least for now, more hobby than vocation. I have a rather demanding full-time job that I need to, uh, pay my mortgage in New York City. There is an alternative future world in which I activate a subscription model for this newsletter that would thereby justify (and necessitate) a greater time commitment, including more robust original reporting (I have done some, including around Liftopia’s failure to pay select partners for spring sales and for most podcast episodes).

Still, I got it wrong, and I’ll own that. I could have poked around the existing partners a bit more via email. I could have double-searched Twitter, where a new Freedom Pass account had been making posts since Oct. 19, stating explicitly that a relaunch was pending. But this was not a high-profile endeavor – none of the partner ski areas, so far as I can tell, supported this messaging (outside of managing partner Sunlight itself, which retweeted a post teasing the relaunch on Oct. 19), and the account had 14 followers as of this writing, including me.


Ski reservations are the new concert tickets

When Vail released details of its reservation system in August, I wrote that skiing had entered a stadium era, in which capacity was constrained in the same way it may be for an event locked into a building with a set number of seats. We got a bit more of a sense of what that may look like when Killington released details of its parking reservation system a few days ago.

The system more or less mirrors Vail’s in that skiers can book up to seven advance days throughout the season, in addition to the seven days directly ahead of them. Reservations can be made day-of, but are required even for drop-offs and rental cars. They’re not required if you’re staying at the Killington Grand or a condo and plan to walk or shuttle to the lifts, but if you’re driving to the parking lots anyway, you’ll need a reservation. Reservations are blind to your pass type of number of people in your party – if you’re rocking an Econoline van with 12 people and half of them have season passes and three have Ikon Passes and three bought day tickets online, you just need one reservation. There’s no charge for any of this.

One loophole to be aware of: the reservations are “per guest,” and the resort’s FAQ explicitly says that you can reserve seven separate days for each member of your party. This appears to be true even if you are using the same vehicle each time (the tracking system requires a license plate number), as the mountain uses the example of a skier with a spouse and two kids each making seven advance reservations. It is unclear if there is any kind of safeguard against making reservations for non-existent children. Yes, yes, you see I have six kids but I only bring two of them each week, as the others are busy churning butter and milking the pigs back on my farmstead. It takes an army to shuck corn, you know, but someone has to do the skiing meanwhile.

You can begin making reservations at 10 a.m. ET on Thursday, Nov. 5.

Elsewhere

Oops I accidentally dropped last season’s Ski magazine Top 20 in The East list into the newsletter a few weeks ago and said it was this year’s. Here’s the 2021 list (which will still look odd to anyone who has skied all of these mountains, but it’s a reader poll so whatever). Here’s the Western list. In case you haven’t noticed, outdoor recreation is exploding in the age of Covid, suggesting we will have plenty of company on the slopes this winter. If, you know, the resorts stay open. New York Ski Blog visits Big Snow. Details on the new Attitash GM, Greg Gavrilets. Vail is learning from its Epik Pass meltdown in Australia as it prepares to activate its reservation system on Friday, Nov. 6. After failing to open last season, all-natural-snow Mt. Jefferson, Maine plans to open for the 2020-21 ski season. The suspension of the J-1 visa program hasn’t harmed ski areas ability to staff up. Was anyone else disappointed with this season’s first issue of Freeskier, which was just one giant gear catalogue with no editorial content to speak of? Out of Bounds podcast talks to Protect Our Winters. And oh yeah there’s outdoor skiing going on like right now man:

This week in not skiing

So I don’t know about you but I’m looking forward to this week’s election like a crash test dummy looks forward to its next trip at 135 miles an hour into a brick wall. As Covid infection and death rates march up up and away like some kind of demented cackling supervillain raising a giant mallet over our society we’ve collectively decided to say fuck it, we’re sick and tired of being inconvenienced by all this inconvenience and there is no number of people dying short of all of them that could force us to reconsider this position. And now we enter an election day which will likely turn into weeks or months of high drama that could possibly break the country and that will determine if this not-giving-a-shit becomes national policy or if we decide to actually, um, do something about it. If not then well I hate to say that my outlook on the coming ski season is grim. Resorts are already closing across Europe as cases spike there, and should skiers flout Vermont’s travel restrictions, which it appears from social media as though they have every intention of doing either through ignorance or insouciance, and if Covid cases spike and Vermont turns off the lights on its ski industry – which they are probably more likely to do than any other state in New England – then the ripple effects throughout the rest of the Northeast would likely be too much for the system to bear, forcing cascading ski resort shutdowns across neighboring states. And then we’re back to Not Skiing. Maybe. Maybe not. My crystal ball is lying shattered on my living room floor beside a crates-worth of empty whisky fifths and cigarette butts and pizza boxes and a passed-out guy with face tattoos that either map out the Battle of Gettysburg or contain a treasure map to the lost city of Paititi. I’m not really sure how this happened and it was all just here when I woke up Officer, so if you can excuse me for just being alive right now because there isn’t really a whole hell of a lot I can do about it, and what I’d like right now is a time machine not back to the past to prevent all of this but to the future where it’s all known and better yet forgotten.


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