Ikon Is Absolutely Crushing Epic in Spring Skiing Access

Ikon skiers can still access 13 mountains. Epic skiers can access one.

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Things get Epik around the third week in April

Last week, The Seattle Times examined the evolution of Washington’s Stevens Pass and Crystal Mountain ski areas since Vail and Alterra, respectively, purchased the resorts in 2018. Primarily based on interviews with local skiers and “seasonlong monitoring of online groups where Pacific Northwest powderhounds congregate,” the story frames Stevens as a mismanaged disaster fomenting the wrath of longtime passholders. Crystal, meanwhile, “provided customers with a premier experience amid tough pandemic conditions” and “appears to have maintained more of its identity.”

The story is well-written and worth a full read. And while it’s debatable whether such broad conclusions can be drawn from anecdotal passholder interviews, one measure of the distinct resort experiences is easy to quantify:

[Crystal’s] culture, Crystal’s fans say, is one devoted to skiing from first snowfall to final spring melt. Crystal seized on this past season’s early winter, opening Nov. 18, and pushed closing to May 9 once the snow piled up. (Stevens Pass opened Dec. 4, planned an early April closing day, then extended to April 18.)

Indeed, Crystal pushes the season. It was one of a handful of U.S. ski areas to re-open following last March’s shutdown, spinning the lifts for a handful of days in June. Lift tickets for this season are on sale through May 9. Stevens, meanwhile, closed as planned on April 18, despite sitting on a 133-inch base after a bomber 601-inch season.

The contrast in Washington reflects a broader reality: Ikon Pass holders in nearly all regions can ski far later into the season than Epic Pass holders. This was on stark display the weekend of April 23 to 24, when Ikoners could choose between Killington, Sugarloaf, Sunday River, Sugarbush, Squaw Valley, Solitude, Winter Park, Mammoth, Crystal Mountain, Sunshine, Lake Louise, Norquay, Snowbird, Alta, Mount Bachelor, Summit Central, Alpental, Copper Mountain, Arapahoe Basin, and Snowmass.

Epic Pass holders could go to Breckenridge or Nakiska.

That’s a 20-2 Ikon-over-Epik lead on the late-spring skiing scorecard. Nakiska and several Ikon mountains closed on Saturday or Sunday, but 13* remain open into this weekend, and several – including Killington, Mammoth, Squaw Valley, and Arapahoe Basin – intend to push through May and, if possible, beyond.

“As you know, we extended the season at number of our resorts this year,” said Vail Resorts Director of Communications and Resort Marketing Quinn Kelsey. “We’re thrilled to have about a month left of skiing at Breck, which has one of the longest ski seasons of any major resort in the country. We look forward to seeing guests back on the slopes next year and are now focused on safely opening many of our resorts for summer operations.”

Vail did indeed extend operations at many of its ski areas, and had intended to keep Whistler open through May 24 before its early Covid-induced shutdown. But Alterra is clearly more committed to the long ski season. The company owns six of the Ikon resorts that remained open last weekend (Sugarbush, Squaw Valley, Solitude, Winter Park, Mammoth, Crystal), and five that are certain to push into May (all but Solitude).

“Extended spring days on the hill means skiers and riders can choose to come back for more sun and great snow, which extends the value of their season and the smile on their face,” said Alterra Vice President of Public Relations Kristin Rust. “As long as we can provide a good experience, we will keep the lifts running.”

Part of this Ikon spring domination is accidental. All of the Ikon mountains listed above have a long history of staying open late into the season. The majority of Vail’s don’t, and I doubt the company intentionally acquired ski areas that zip the lifts shut in early- to mid-April. But Vail certainly has the resources and the knowhow to push a season at will, as they demonstrated when bumping Breck’s annual closing day to Memorial Day (or later) after Arapahoe Basin fled the Epic Pass in 2019.

Summit County, where Breck operates just down the road from A-Basin, is the front lines of skiing’s megapass war, so Vail’s willingness to extend the season there is understandable. But the company could easily designate a late operator for its other competitive regions: Heavenly in Tahoe, Wildcat in the Northeast, Big Boulder in the Mid-Atlantic, perhaps even a smaller Park City footprint in Utah.

Vail seems to be calculating, however, that in most cases April is good enough. And it probably is. Most skiers don’t care about spring skiing, even if the most frequent skiers (most anyone reading this newsletter) care about it quite a bit. The snow is tricky and variable. There are a lot of other things going on off the hill. Most people have had enough of winter, or can’t summon the imagination to believe they can ski when they can’t see snow out their living room window. If skiing is a niche sport, like sailing, then spring skiing – especially deep spring skiing – is a fringe one, like disc golf or axe throwing.

Which doesn’t make those of us who love it any less enamored of T-shirt turns on 70-degree days. I love spring skiing as much as I love powder or storm skiing (and I had some incredible spring skiing days at Hunter, whose efforts to stay open despite successive melt-offs were downright heroic). Vail will probably win a lot of skiers with its recent 20 percent price cuts on Epic Passes. Region by region, the pass stacks up to Ikon, and Vail is crushing Alterra on price. But the price does not represent the full value of a pass. Part of that calculation is how much you can actually use it. And for most skiers in most parts of the country, you can use an Ikon Pass long after your local Epic mountain shuts down. To some skiers, that’s going to be a decisive factor when choosing which pass to buy.

*Ikon Pass ski areas that intend to remain open for at least part of the weekend of May 1 and 2 or beyond are Killington, Sugarbush, Squaw Valley, Winter Park, Mammoth, Crystal Mountain, Sunshine, Lake Louise, Norquay, Snowbird, Mount Bachelor, Alpental, and Arapahoe Basin.

Are reciprocal pass coalitions dying? Or growing?

As Schweitzer joined the Ikon Pass last week, they quietly slipped out of the Powder Alliance, a reciprocal coalition that grants season passholders at member resorts free tickets to all partners.

“For 7 years, we were a part of the Powder Alliance and the most visited resort out of all 18 areas that were members,” reads an FAQ on Schweitzer’s website. “Powder Alliance generated about 5,000 visits across the season…”

This points to two big problems with reciprocal partnerships that multipasses are quickly resolving. The first is that the biggest, baddest mountains end up with the most redemptions. Bolton Valley President Lindsay DesLauriers told me on The Storm Skiing Podcast in January that this was the exact reason she yanked her mountain off the similar Freedom Pass coalition. She traded that membership for the Indy Pass (Bolton was on both for the 2019-20 season), which, like the Ikon Pass, pays their partners per visit, meaning no one is subsidizing someone else’s lunch.

The second is… 5,000 comp tickets in a season. Midweek lift tickets at Schweitzer ran $89 this past season. Weekends and holidays were $95. Even at the midweek rate, that adds up to $445,000 in evaporated revenue. And while it’s true that the Powder Alliance benefits likely acted as a powerful incentive to season passholders, driving at least some front-end revenue, Schweitzer’s new $999 Voyager season pass now includes an Ikon Base Pass (retail value $729), and all the mind-blowing Squaw-Snowbird-Alta-Snowmass-Big-Sky access that that comes with. That’s a great deal for passholders. And now Schweitzer will get a check from Alterra for every single Ikon Pass visit.

Still, Schweitzer is retaining reciprocal partnerships with Whitewater, Mount Hood Meadows, Sugar Bowl, Castle, Bridger Bowl, Loveland, Whitefish, Powder Mountain, and Grand Targhee. There are lots of conditions and exceptions and blackouts, but the mountain must see some value in retaining these relationships for its passholders.

Schweitzer is not alone. The Freedom Pass, which was on life support after Bolton Valley, Plattekill, Magic and others fled following the Covid asteroid, just added four new members: Cherry Peak and Eagle Point, Utah; Red River, New Mexico; and Snow Valley, California. Statistically, these look like good little mountains:

They’re all good adds, more or less equal in size and stature to the Freedom Pass’ Colorado duo of Ski Cooper and Sunlight. I don’t know how many passes these partnerships sell for any one partner, but it does illustrate the growing imperative among independent ski areas to latch onto some larger coalition.

Or more than one. Many Indy Pass resorts – China Peak, Silver, Mission Ridge, White Pass – remain on the Powder Alliance. The reciprocal coalitions must have some pull besides indie resort bonhomie. But there is mixing even among the paid coalitions - the crossover between the Ikon Pass and Mountain Collective is thick enough to inspire good questions about why both still exist.

All of which is a long way of saying that no one (except maybe Vail, which acts mostly alone) has this whole megapass thing figured out yet. The trend is toward consolidation under one banner, if not necessarily one ownership group. This is quietly accelerating even as the office park set moves $600 from the “Epic Pass” column of their annual budget spreadsheet to their “Save for New Riding Mower” column.

Yes Mr. Water Park Developer you seem perfectly suited to restore a decrepit ski resort

Maine’s biggest little ski area jumped a few more bureaucratic hurdles toward its overdue restoration last week. Per New England Ski Industry News:

At a meeting last week, Finance Authority of Maine (FAME) voted to approve up to $135 million in financing for the Moosehead Lake Ski Resort project. Yesterday, the Piscataquis County Commissioners approved a tax increment finance (TIF) district for the project. The TIF would be in place for thirty years, matching the avoided taxes with the expected term of the bonds.

Big Lake Development Company, LLC is operated by Perry Williams of Spruce Head, Maine. Williams was previously employed by Majella in 2017 during its initial efforts to reopen Saddleback Mountain Resort. Provident Resources Group of Baton Rouge, Louisiana is working with Big Lake Development to procure funding for the once-estimated $75 million development. Provident has been primarily involved in educational and senior living developments. Though it does not have any ski development experience, it does claim to have facilitated the development of water parks.

According to the Piscataquis Observer, a new chairlift is expected to be installed for the 2021-22 season, with a hotel and lodge to follow for the 2022-23 season. The new development would be called Moosehead Lake Ski Resort, recalling its early 1990s Moosehead Resort name.

I’m not trying to be a hater and I always want ski area revitalization projects to succeed, but a couple of these aspirations seem overly ambitious:

  1. $135 million? Is this a mid-sized ski resort that needs a chairlift or a Superfund site buried in 50 meters of toxic sludge? The estimate to turn the once-decrepit Saddleback right-side-up is $38 million (albeit after the previous owners dumped $50 million into the place). While the ambition at Big Squaw is enormous and includes a hotel, base lodge, marina, brew pub, and based on the price tag I’m guessing a SpaceX launch pad, a more conservative, skiing-focused approach seems like a wiser first step for a middle-of-nowhere resort that’s been managed within an inch of oblivion for the past two and a half decades.

  2. A new chairlift installed for the 2021-22 season? Like, the 2021-22 ski season that starts this year? Look, I’m not saying it can’t be done, but just across the state, Boyne has been working for years to put a new lift up West Mountain, and we’re still one year minimum from seeing anything hoisted up the mountainside. And Boyne knows a few things about chairlifts.

Not to worry. No one can possibly screw this place up worse than current owner James Confalone, who would be the biggest knucklehead in Northeast skiing if it wasn’t for the cartoonish schemings of Jay Peak and “Q Burke” former owner Ariel Quiros. Hopefully it will all go just as planned. I’m sure it’s just like building a water park.

Big Squaw’s 2007 trailmap. The upper mountain has been without lift access since a 2004 chairlift accident. The restored ski area would have a vertical drop of nearly 1,700 feet.

This just in: Vail buys Northstar

In last week’s write-up breaking down Schweitzer’s addition to the Ikon Pass, I made the unfortunate observation that Northstar was among the large remaining free agents of North American skiing, and that “Indy Pass would be lucky to have any or all of them, particularly Northstar, which would help the pass fill the giant Tahoe-shaped hole in its roster.” [I’ve updated the story to delete this text.]

As about 500 of you immediately pointed out, Vail has in fact owned Northstar since 2010. I did actually know this. But I “know” it in the same way that I know that Michael Jordan played two seasons for the Washington Wizards after he won six championships with the Bulls, and I often crumple this information up and toss it in some wastebin in my brain because I can’t process it. In the case of MJ, I’m too attached to The Last Dance and all that goes with it to accept this addendum. In the case of Northstar, I enter this state of too-many-resorts confusion because I’ve never been there and because it used to be called Northstar at Tahoe a long time ago and I often get it confused with another large Tahoe ski area I’ve never been to which is Sierra at Tahoe. And the confusion persists to this day and Sierra at Tahoe is the ski area I had meant to drop into that paragraph. But I wrote this post quickly the day before I was set to go on a five-day off-the-grid vacation, knowing only that Ikon was adding a new partner but uncertain even who it was and just guessing on a hunch and a tip that it was Schweitzer, and when Alterra confirmed that it was indeed Schweitzer I sent the post from a Burger King parking lot in Ohio without even proofreading it because I just had to keep driving. My normal process is to at least fact-check myself but I did not do that in this case and whatever bullcrap excuses I have I got it wrong and I’m sorry. But I felt like shit about it for a few days afterward and there’s really nothing I can do about it now except issue this clarification and try to do better next time.

Elsewhere

Waterville Valley will build New Hampshire’s first six-pack bubble, which will replace the White Peaks Express quad for the 2022-23 ski season. Construction on Loon’s Kanc 8 is well underway as the resort confirms the Kanc 4 express quad will replace the Seven Brothers Triple following the 2021-22 season. Cranmore and Bousquet will build new lodges. Big Snow American Dream appoints Snow Operating veteran Mark Dobrowolski as its new general manager following the death of former GM Jim Haas. Investment continues at Saddleback. More on Vermont’s big losses this season. After mostly sitting out the winter season, some European resorts will open for summer glacier skiing. Slopefillers compiles Covid lessons-learned from 13 ski area GMs and marketers.

This week in skiing

Friday, April 16 – Mount Snow

I thought we were all done with powder. All through January and February it had snowed daily but in March the storms stopped and the sun came out and within weeks more than 100 Northeast ski areas had closed. By the second full week of April, only nine remained.

And that’s when it snowed. And not a dusting. This tremendous blizzard materialized out of the ether on April 15:

I hadn’t been to Vermont all season, but I was vaccinated and it was time to go. It was a memorable day on forgettable terrain. I wrote all about it for New York Ski Blog, and you can read the full write-up here. Thanks Vail, for a great day of midwinter skiing in spring.