Indy Pass Signs Saddleback, Waterville Valley
Partnerships transform Indy Pass into destination product in the Northeast
The Indy Pass today announced partnerships with Maine’s Saddleback and New Hampshire’s Waterville Valley, two of the largest independent New England ski areas that had remained unaffiliated with a national multipass.
The deals are effective immediately, granting Indy Pass holders two unrestricted days at each mountain through the end of the 2020-21 ski season. Saddleback will charge passholders an additional $10 for each visit. Both mountains will also join Indy’s roster for the 2021-22 season, and Saddleback will drop the $10 charge. The two additions give the Indy Pass 63 partner ski areas in North America and 12 in New England. The pass remains on sale for $259, and a spring pass, which adds blackout dates at previously unrestricted Bolton Valley, Magic, and Cannon, will go on sale for $149 and $69 for kids under 12 beginning March 1.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of these partnerships for Indy Pass. In signing Saddleback and Waterville Valley to a roster that already includes Jay Peak and Cannon, the pass has locked in four Northeast headliners, establishing Indy as a destination product that is a viable and steeply discounted alternative to the Epik and Ikon Passes. The deal also signals to the remaining large independents that Team Indy is a viable coalition, with the kind of national marketing heft and affiliation with a broad roster of peer mountains that’s difficult to summon as a standalone entity.
Here’s a bit more on what this announcement means for Indy Pass, Saddleback, Waterville Valley, and Northeast skiing as a whole.
Indy Pass becomes a destination product, taking the ski family off the endangered species list
A common how-I-became-a-skier narrative recalls the bygone working-class accessibility of skiing’s K-Mart-coat and stocking-cap past. My dad worked on the line at the sock factory but every weekend he piled me and my nine brothers and sisters into the station wagon and took us up to Mount Shredly where we skied in hand-me-down overalls and gardening gloves. Then Vail bought the mountain and put in a 400-passenger space shuttle lift and now lift tickets are $1,200 a day and no one skis there but trust-funders and Saudi princes.
Or something like that. While plenty of affordable community ski areas remain, lift ticket prices at the aspirational destination resorts have largely crept out of the working-class wage tier. Day tickets hitting $170, on top of gear and food and finding a place to stay? Forget it.
The Indy Pass is changing that calculus. Saddleback and Waterville Valley are large and interesting mountains with substantial and growing bed bases. Their additions transform Indy Pass into a true destination product, at least in the Northeast. A married couple with two little kids living in Massachusetts could pick up four passes for less than $600 (2020-21 prices) – less than the price of an adult Ikon Base Pass. They could then plan weekend day trips to Berkshire East, Catamount, Magic, and Pats Peak, then weekend trips throughout the season to Bolton Valley, Jay Peak, Waterville Valley, Cannon, and Saddleback. This does not solve the obvious problems of gear, transportation, and – the big one – lodging, but it does provide access to a hell of a lot of skiing for a price that would seem reasonable to anyone who’s realized that it’s no longer 1945 and the 50-cent backyard ropetow is not coming back.
For the vast majority of skiers, whose attention is focused on the two dozen or so big-time Northeast ski areas with the size and marketing budget to command it, it was easy to dismiss the Indy Pass’ inaugural season roster. Magic is right next to Stratton and Bolton Valley is right down the road from Stowe and even though these are spectacular mountains they’re served by old, slow lifts and have slightly smaller vertical drops. Skiers often prioritize size and technology over character and atmosphere, however unfair that may be.
That perception of Indy as a second-tier product began to change last May when the pass hammered out a partnership with Cannon, a 2,100-vertical-foot monster that’s one of the largest ski areas in a rabid ski state. The October addition of Jay Peak, the best ski area in Vermont, made the pass an indisputable must-buy, but the mountain still seemed like an outlier, the only true resort in the New England lineup (Cannon, part of a state park, lacks onsite lodging). But both Saddleback and Waterville Valley qualify as destination resorts. Skiers seeking variety, quality, and size no longer need an Epik or Ikon Pass to achieve that. The Indy Pass is, if not their equal, an acceptable and far more affordable alternative.
Saddleback finds its place in a changed Northeast
For decades Saddleback was a rusty backwoods monster, laced with killer terrain served by an antique lift system that made beartrap bindings look like the iPhone 12. The previous owners began to change that with a decade-long, $40 million investment spree that left the trailmap stacked but the mountain insolvent, and they ran out of energy and money before they could replace the problematic Rangeley Double, a lift that was five years old when Americans landed on the moon.
The new owners, Arctaris Impact Fund, resuscitated the ski area after a five-year hibernation and replaced that lift with a high-speed quad so smooth it would embarrass a Maserati. And while they are unlikely to be long-term owners and the mountain has the heft to eventually land in the Vail or Alterra portfolio, it is far from ready.
Which left Saddleback with a problem. The Northeast ski scene it left five years ago is extinct, replaced by a frenetic megapass ecosystem. And the mountain struggled to attract skiers then. Replacing an old lift only solves part of that problem. The enormous Sunday River looms to the south and Sugarloaf, the best mountain in the Northeast, sits to the north. Both are Ikon Pass mountains. What to do?
The Indy Pass is part of the answer. Waffling potential season passholders can tack the Indy Pass onto their $699 Saddleback pass for just $129 (prices 2020-21), allowing them to proceed without FOMO that they will be skiing ice balls when it storms to the south or west.
In turn, Saddleback, a lone mountain perched in the Maine wildlands, is now part of a regional and national coalition of standout ski areas. Indy Pass holders unfamiliar with the ski area might swoop into this amazing mountain on a checklist roadtrip and find a new home. From a terrain-and-challenge point of view, Saddleback is one of the best ski areas in New England, the rare peer to Mad River Glen, Sugarbush, Killington, Stowe, Jay Peak, Sugarloaf, and maybe a few others. It is a must-ski for anyone who’s doing this for the rush and the fear and the exhilaration, and the mountain’s addition to Indy Pass makes it a stomper’s must-have.
The pass also re-establishes Indy Pass in Maine, a great ski state without a lot of great ski areas. Indy had been temporarily left without a presence in Maine after Mt. Abram dropped off the roster prior to the 2020-21 ski season, but Saddleback is substantially larger than its downstate neighbor, with a terrain mix and depth that makes it a legitimate alternative to Ikon Pass anchors Sunday River and Sugarloaf. Shawnee and Black are the state’s only large-ish ski areas that remain unaffiliated with a pass, and Indy would be a nice home for them.
Waterville Valley signals that Indy Pass is ready
No ski area in the Northeast is evolving more aggressively than Waterville Valley, an already large ski area that last year announced a 10-year, 140-acre, multi-lift expansion project that will at last connect its pedestrian village to its trail network. The mountain will also replace, relocate, or decommission several old lifts on its existing footprint.
I’ll admit this signing surprised me. When I speculated in December on where the remaining unaffiliated Northeast mountains would end up pass-wise, I saw Waterville Valley as a more logical fit for the Epik or Ikon passes. It seemed to better fit Vail and Alterra’s template of established, built-up, popular resorts. No one in the Northeast saw this article’s headline and thought, “where’s this Waterville Valley place?” In a state stuffed with great ski areas, this is one of the best, and it has been for a very long time.
The partnership, then, sends a powerful signal to the remaining built-up independents – Bretton Woods especially – that the Indy Pass is brand-compatible with their burnished images. Later today, I’ll release a podcast conversation with Waterville Valley President and General Manager Tim Smith, who will provide more insight into why he thought Indy was a good fit for the ski area.
For a ski multipass to grow, it needs to continually surprise us. No one saw Vail reaching out of Colorado, first to Tahoe and then to Utah and then to Whistler, but the company really shocked us by purchasing a trio of Midwest ski areas that wouldn’t be visible over the parking garages in Vail Village. Then it barnstormed the Northeast. It takes vision to assemble seemingly incompatible ski areas into a coalition with broad popular appeal, but it’s time to start describing Indy Pass founder Doug Fish in exactly those terms. What do Waterville Valley and Mohawk Mountain, Connecticut have in common? They’re both on the Indy Pass. No one saw that coming, but as a feeder-to-resort strategy, it makes a hell of a lot of sense, for skiers and for ski areas that had no way to challenge Vail or Alterra on their own.
This is where the Northeast is going
The Indy Pass has struggled to anchor itself in the more mature Western multipass markets of Colorado, Utah, and California, where independent ski areas have spent two decades knitting together byzantine reciprocal coalitions for their passholders to fend off increasingly sophisticated and inexpensive megaresort megapasses. While ski areas such as Colorado’s Loveland have so far shown little appetite for unwinding these alliances in favor of Indy’s pay-per-visit model, Northeast ski areas are facing starkly different circumstances.
It’s only been four years since Vail bought Stowe, kicking the door down on a Northeast skiing universe where expensive single-mountain passes dominated. A season pass to Okemo – unquestionably the most boring large mountain in North America – ran $1,619 at full price (the mountain likely offered early-bird discounts, and the pass also included access to Mount Sunapee and probably Crested Butte, which were all jointly owned by Triple Peaks at the time). It took another two seasons before the Epik Pass reached critical mass in the region with the purchases of Triple Peaks and Peak Resorts, which owned 17 ski areas, including Mount Snow in Vermont and Wildcat in New Hampshire. In the midst of all this, the Ikon Pass landed with an absolutely crushing lineup of Killington, Sugarbush, Sunday River, and Sugarloaf, plus Stratton and Loon and later Pico and Windham. Some version of either of these passes – which also include substantial Western access - was available for less than $700 for early birds.
For roving skiers not anchored to a home mountain by a condo or a kid’s racing program, these passes offer an impossibly compelling value. Until the Indy Pass arrived, Northeast operators struggled for a response. Single-mountain pass prices ticked downward at some mountains but remained high at others. The reciprocal, Northeast-centric Freedom Pass coalition had suffered from inconsistent and uneven membership, with too many small mountains sending passholders to more substantial operations like Magic and Bolton Valley. Ikon’s predecessor, The MAX Pass, had included smaller independent operations like New Jersey’s Mountain Creek, Massachusetts’ Wachusett, and New York’s trio of Whiteface, Belleayre, and Gore, but it dissolved when Ikon arrived.
The Indy Pass stepped into this vacuum with a compelling alternative for ski areas: a national coalition, a payout for each skier visit, and a two-day limit that would not cannibalize season pass sales. And as of this season, a powerful incentive for skiers to stick with a ski area’s more expensive season pass: an Indy Pass add-on option for just $129. You want variety? Here you go. You want Western access? Here you go. You want to bomb up to Jay Peak when it snows two feet but the ground is barren in Massachusetts? Here you go. For Northeast operators too small or too proud to board the Epik or Ikon mothership, Indy gives them a marketing vehicle that’s a powerful if not exactly equal alternative.
There’s a reason even Jackson Hole and Telluride have joined multipass coalitions – as marketing and destination-building tools, they work. Indy is offering this on a smaller scale with a different vibe, but the concept, and the outcome in driving skier visits, are the same.
If you live in the Northeast, you have to buy this
The Indy Pass has built three regions of strength: the Pacific Northwest/Upper Rockies, the Upper Midwest, and the Northeast. Vail and Alterra have largely ceded the first two regions, with limited or tepid offerings. The Northeast is different. Dense with skiers and ski areas and home to substantial wealth and disposable income, New England, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania were inevitable targets for the Epik and Ikon Passes, and they have collectively swarmed the region, gobbling up some of the largest and best ski areas.
But not all of them. There are approximately 115 ski areas within a five-hour drive of my Brooklyn apartment. Some of them are quite good. All of them are survivors – substantially more ski areas have failed than not in the Northeast, and the ones that remain know what they’re doing (for the most part). The Indy Pass has assembled some of the best of these, a roster that ought to be a checklist of standout operations for any Northeast skier.
The eight days at Jay, Cannon, Waterville Valley, and Saddleback alone sell this pass. But don’t overlook the rest of the lineup. Magic is lost between Stratton, Mount Snow, and Okemo, but it has better terrain than all but Stratton and a fraction of the crowds. Berkshire East has the kind of interesting glade-and-bump terrain that is rare in Massachusetts. Catamount is closer to New York City than the Catskills yet remains uncrowded and unknown by the hordes tearing down sanity at Hunter. Shawnee in Pennsylvania has some of the gentlest and longest beginner terrain in the region.
Even if you go Team Epik or Team Ikon or have a pass at your local, Indy offers enough value and interesting terrain to tack on, especially at the absurdly cheap $199 early-bird price (this season). If you’re already a Cannon or Jay or Saddleback or Berkshire East/Catamount passholder, the $129 add-on (again, this season’s price) is impossible to ignore. But a broad look at the offerings throughout the region – 12 New England mountains, three more in New York, two in Pennsylvania – reveal that this could be a legitimate season pass alternative for adventurous variety-loving skiers seeking flexibility on the cheap.
And on a holiday weekend, when liftlines at Mount Snow are backed up to New Hampshire, most of these places will remain relatively uncrowded. On MLK day, I visited Indy partner Snow Ridge in Upstate New York, a beautiful little 500-vertical-foot bomber that was utterly empty, snow-choked and wonderful. That is not how anyone described that day at Hunter Mountain.
Clear the area. This thing is about to explode.
In its inaugural 2019-20 season, Indy Pass accounted for approximately 9,000 skier visits. For context, Whistler’s uphill lift capacity is around 70,000 skiers. Per hour. U.S. skier visits totaled 51.1 million last season. Indy’s numbers equal a rounding error.
But Indy Pass expects to hit nearly 80,000 skier visits this season. And that’s with many Northeast skiers boxed into their home states and unable to easily skate into Vermont or New Hampshire. For years skiers have openly dreamed on forums and social media groups that Jay would join Epik or Ikon. But now it’s on a multipass along with an explosively interesting group of teammates. For most skiers, two days at each of these is sufficient, and as the various online ski communities lock into this thing as a no-brainer pickup, the network effects should multiply.
That’s already happened in the Midwest, where skiers have far fewer legitimate multipass options and Indy locked in headliners Lutsen, Granite Peak, Caberfae, Crystal, and more. The pass has reported booming Midwest sales, indicating that the appetite for megapasses is not limited to resorts with 900 lifts and 42 miles of back bowls. Sometimes people just want to ski a lot and ski all over, and Indy gives them a way to do that.
The growing number of partners – and the increasing quality and size of those mountains – also sends an important signal to the industry that this is a legitimate coalition. As my podcast interview subjects repeatedly tell me, skiing is a small industry. If Indy Pass were a shell game, it would be quickly exposed and resorts would flee. We are seeing the opposite happen, as when two additional Idaho ski areas joined the three already on the pass earlier this month – operators are looking at the potential and examining the results, and they are seeing a team worth joining. This is good for skiers, and it’s good for ski areas, and that’s the kind of thing that’s going to hang around, and grow, for a long time to come.
It’s Indymania time on The Storm Skiing Podcast!
Listen to podcast episodes with Indy Pass Founder Doug Fish and these Indy Pass partners: Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway, Berkshire East and Catamount Owner and GM Jon Schaefer, Cannon GM John DeVivo, Jay Peak GM Steve Wright, Saddleback CEO and GM Andy Shepard, and Bolton Valley President Lindsay DesLauriers! Later today, Waterville Valley President and General Manager Tim Smith! Coming soon: Granite Peak, Wisconsin GM Greg Fisher!
"If Indy Pass were a shell game, it would be quickly exposed and resorts would flee. We are seeing the opposite happen ... operators are looking at the potential and examining the results, and they are seeing a team worth joining."
Nice work as always.
For years, I was part of the clamor for Alterra to buy Jay. But the Indy Pass expansion and my experience on Ikon the last two years changes that. There's soul at Jay still, and soul at the other Indy Pass hills. Tacking on the Indy to a Jay, Magic, Cannon, or Saddleback season pass feels like the only way to go for a certain type of skier. Me among them.