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Is It Time for Local Governments to Set Ski Area Capacity Limits?
As mountain-town infrastructure reaches its limits, something has to give
“You gonna believe me or your lyin’ eyes?”
Its Stevens Pass debacle buried by the appointment of a new general manager and 232 inches of snow, Vail Resorts continues to face government scrutiny for crowding and shoddy service across its nationwide resort network.
Traffic is the most consistent complaint. Park City residents are blaming Vail for a “traffic disaster.” Long liftlines and two-mile backups on Route 103 leading to New Hampshire’s Mount Sunapee have drawn the scrutiny of Governor Chris Sununu, who operated Waterville Valley before assuming his current role. “They have to keep up,” Sununu said at a recent press conference. Skiers routinely report miles-long backups leading to Vermont’s Stowe and California’s Northstar.
“It feels to me like there’s a general carrying capacity issue,” Park City Councilman Max Doilney said at a recent town meeting, according to Town Lift. “Whether it’s carrying capacity of the resort that they’re not able to handle or a carrying capacity of our community, our infrastructure is stretched.”
Vail officials note in all cases that skier visits are down or even with last year. I am not suggesting they are lying, but, as Park City councilmember Ryan Dickey said at a recent town meeting, “if just kind of doesn’t add up.”
“We live in a community with Alterra operating and Vail operating, a little bit unique we get to experience both,” Dickey continued. “I don’t see Deer Valley having these problems.”
Rather than owning these issues, Vail seems to be vacillating between denying that crowding is present to reframing it as necessary collateral in the company’s drive to increase diversity.
“For an industry that has stagnant visitation over the last 20 years, we do think the sport will need to drastically reconsider how it feels about newcomers – and move away from this narrative about crowding,” Vail Resorts Vice President of Communication Sara Olson told Yahoo Finance. “Vail Resorts believes we should not shut the doors to the outdoors – and that we should all work to be more inclusive and inviting.”
But Vail can, and should, take immediate steps to reduce stress on local infrastructure. Rather than encouraging guests to carpool to Mount Sunapee, as it has been doing, Vail could run buses from remote lots, as Alterra’s Crystal Mountain in Washington immediately began organizing when its access road backed up into a 40-mile-long traffic jam two years ago. Rather than letting skiers fight it out for parking like contestants in a low-rent gameshow, Sunapee could institute a reservation system, as nearby Pats Peak did after a single parked-out day on Jan. 8. “That’s not really what we’re all about,” Pats Peak General Manager Kris Blombeck told New England Ski Journal.
Such a system has already been proven to work in Park City. Deer Valley, which borders Vail’s massive resort, has always limited the number of day tickets it sold, even as the ski area joined the Ikon Pass. Notably, Alterra, which owns the resort, chose to keep the ski area off the Ikon Pass’ unlimited tier, electing instead to limit Ikon Pass holders to five or seven days and continue selling a $2,000-plus season pass for Deer Valley.
Park City, like all Vail Resorts, is unlimited on the Epic Pass, which started at just $783 last year. Vail has a reservation system that worked well last season. Why they flipped it off at the exact same time they dropped pass prices by 20 percent is one of the great mysteries of skiing.
If Vail can’t or won’t act, then local or state governments need to step in. State fire marshals around the country already set capacity limits for buildings of all kinds. While ski resorts are (mostly) outdoors, there is still a good argument to make for resorts operating in a manner that keeps all ski-related activities contained within their boundaries, including parking lots. Once cars spill onto the roads, they begin to blockade emergency services and everyday commerce and movement for non-skiers. So state officials could calculate – based upon parking lot capacity, building capacity, uphill capacity, acreage, and availability of local emergency medical services – how many skiers a given resort could safely and sanely operate on any given day, and punt to the resort how to make that happen.
Chances are that won’t be necessary. Wall Street, the ultimate arbiter of business success, is getting pissy with Vail. “Digest what you have,” wrote Patrick Scholes of Truist Securities, one of 13 investment banks with employees assigned to analyze the company’s stock, according to Ski. “Before [Vail Resorts] starts acquiring any more resorts, we would like to see it get the operational issues straightened out, especially at its more recently acquired resorts. We hope [Vail Resorts] addresses these issues at its upcoming investor day on March 22 and provides an action plan on what they intend to do on staffing issues and employee housing.”
So do I.
Morons leave baby in car while skiing and drinking
OK and then there’s this, from the Rutland Herald:
Two Vermont skiers left their toddler in a car in 28 degree weather so they could hit the slopes at Killington Resort in Vermont, where they were also employed – and were charged with DUI and cruelty to a child after witnesses reported spotting the unattended 2-year-old.
Katelyn Brent, 21, of Hampton, New York, and Cory Ahern, 29, were both charged after the February 8 incident, police said in a release.
… Brent was driving and suspected of intoxication; she was subsequently arrested and charged with DUI along with cruelty to a child. Passenger Ahern was charged with cruelty to a child.
“With the assistance of Killington Resort management, it was determined both Ahern and Brent accessed loading lift gates 10 times during the day” in question, police said, adding that “ both ultimately admitted their involvement in leaving their child alone in their vehicle while skiing” but “checked on the child immediately after each ‘run’.”
First: don’t do this. Second: a trip back to the parking lot after each run at Killington would require a level of patience and organization typically reserved for space missions or deep-sea treasure hunts. Third: is anyone surprised this dude is holding a fish in his Facebook profile picture? Fourth: Skis-With-A-Baby-In-His-Backpack Bro may be a giant nerd and performatively super-parenty, but at least he’s not a lowlife dirtball like these two idiots. Fifth: Killington offers affordable daycare. Sixth: leaving a two-year-old alone in a temperature-controlled room for more than nine seconds with nothing more than a stuffed animal and a spoon is bound to result in an emergency-room visit, so what do you think will happen when you store them next to the ice cream? Seventh: what the actual fuck is this world coming to?
Reached for comment, Killington representatives declined to comment on whether these two morons were still employed at their resort.
No Hickory after all
Everything seemed to be coming together. Ski Patrol training. An outline of rates and operations. An optimism absent for years. When Hickory, New York shareholders corporation president David Cronheim joined me on The Storm Skiing Podcast last month, he laid out the novel plan that seemed as though it could resuscitate this gnarly, 1,200-foot, all-natural snow monster for good. All they were waiting for was snow and lift certifications. While they eventually got the former, the latter stalled in New York’s impossible bureaucracy. Earlier this week, the ski area posted this note to their Facebook page:
For all of you who are holding your breath for Hickory to open, exhale. Father Time is marching on and unfortunately has dealt us a blow for this season. As you may or may not know, ski areas need a special insurance policy to operate. We have been working hard in collaboration with NYS DOL to get our lifts inspected and permitted to allow us to purchase this insurance. The effort has been underway since July. Permits cannot be issued until the ski insurance carrier inspects prior to issuing a policy. Right now the insurance inspectors are scheduling appointments 4-5 weeks out, and need another 2-3 weeks to issue a policy.
Bottom line no lift-serviced skiing this season. And we are going to be ahead of the game for next season. Uphill mountain access will remain available via the kiosk service. We appreciate all the enthusiasm and all the support everyone has provided. We are looking forward to a busy spring, summer and fall hosting public and private events, hikers and mountain bikers and boarders. Stay in touch, we'll keep you up to date on our progress.
Well dang. I am still optimistic. Why? Because the plan Cronheim laid out is capital-light, both for the ski area itself and for the folks asked to prop it up. We’re talking about 200 people each putting up $300 for the right to buy lift tickets. In an era of nostalgia and big-mountain burnout, this should be as hard to find as a pothole in Manhattan. Hickory is a priceless cultural artifact – there is no building another one – and a lot of people have a very strong interest in seeing this kind of skiing persist for as long as possible. Hickory will be back, just not this year.
Lift Blog completes inventory of every ski lift in the United States
I have always been a little suspect of the team, preferring individual sports such as skiing, running, and bike-riding. Sometimes teams are great, but unless the calibration is just right, they get in their own way far more often than not.
That, I suppose, is why The Storm is mostly a one-man operation (though my wife edits the podcasts – no small task). I don’t know that it will stay that way forever, and I could surely use an editor (for the writing). But I do believe that one person, acting alone and with a strong senses of mission and organization, can achieve astonishing things.
Peter Landsman, founder and editor of Lift Blog, just dropped an exclamation point on that, finishing his several-years-long effort to document every ski lift in America. Yes, every one. Go ahead, check your local bump, or that out-of-the-way joint that “no one’s ever heard of” on the ass-end of nowhere. It’s there. They’re all there – approximately 2,500 chairlifts, gondolas, T-bars, platters, and trams. With pictures, capacity, type of lift, year built, vertical rise, length, line speed, number of towers, details on drive and tension, and ride time.
It is an astonishing feat and an invaluable resource. Mountain managers I interview are frequently impressed by how much I know about their chairlifts. I don’t know anything about chairlifts, I tell them – I get everything from Lift Blog.
Fifty people could not have done a more complete job. If you follow Lift Blog on Twitter – and you should – you’ll see how relentless his schedule is. Landsman is based in Jackson Hole, but he travels more than an airline pilot.
“It sure has been a hustle to get it all done,” Landsman told me via Twitter DM. “I’m pumped to have finished, but also a little exhausted. No rest though, heading to Ontario next week!”
Landsman, who has been inventorying lifts since he started a Washington State lift database at age 10, has already documented hundreds of lifts in Canada, mostly in the West. “I don’t think I can realistically do Canada unless I quit my job,” he said. “The country is just so huge with way fewer airports.”
I’m confident he’ll find a way. In the meantime, the U.S. database is never truly finished, and Landsman adds new lifts as they come online. Sometimes he has to return to a mountain several times to fully capture its fleet. That was the case with the frequently closed Kachina Peak triple at Taos. “It doesn’t open some seasons, so one summer I flew to Albuquerque just to hike from the base all the way to 12,450. I had already photographed all the other lifts,” Landsman said.
Ober Gatlinburg, the only ski area in Tennessee, presented its own challenges. “Their different lifts all operate for different purposes in different seasons, so I had to go once in winter, once in spring, once in summer, and once in fall,” he told me.
His inventory is not limited to ski lifts – he includes amusement park gondolas and chairlifts such as those at Disney World. Landsman does not document ropetows or carpet lifts.
“Truthfully I don’t find them very interesting,” Landsman says. “Conveyors get moved around a lot so they would be tough to track. Ropetows are often built in-house so there aren’t good manufacturer records.”
I was so impressed by Landsman’s work that I hosted him on the podcast shortly after launch (it’s episode number six). At that time (November 2019), his database was mostly focused on the West and New England. The rate at which he’s added content since then is stupefying. I ran into Landsman at Titus in far upstate New York last winter, during one of his lightning tours. He said he’d been to four ski areas in one day earlier that week – it doesn’t take long to capture photos. But just because something is possible on paper doesn’t mean it’s practical for most people to do. Landsman is a special guy, inexhaustible, it seems, and capable of logistical gymnastics and feats of endurance well beyond that of the average Ski Bro.
In his website bio, Landsman notes that he skis 130-plus days per year. That’s cool, but not extraordinary – anyone who lives in Jackson can do that. What he’s done with Lift Blog is extraordinary. He has single-handedly created a priceless common resource for the ski industry and an artifact for future civilization. There are very few people on the planet who could have summoned the passion, time, resources, commitment, and background knowledge to do what Landsman has done. Send him some gratitude. He’s earned it. (Also, sign up for his email newsletter. His Friday news updates are consistent and invaluable, and he puts together comprehensive write-ups of every new lift project in the country).
Newsletters: Here’s a cool little free ski newsletter I recently found: Fresh Powder out of the UK. Sign up here.
Passes: The Indy Spring Pass will go on sale for $189 on March 1 – includes the same 82 resorts as the regular Indy Pass. Killington’s spring pass goes on sale Feb. 24 for $349 (a substantial increase from last season), and grants unlimited Beast and Pico access from March 18 through the end of their seasons. Season passes are beginning to go on sale: $389 at Timberline, West Virginia; $499 at Sunlight (includes March 1 to the end of this season) - look for an updated Pass Tracker 5000 soon. Berkshire East now requires Indy Pass reservations, and Mohawk Mountain is not guaranteeing Indy tickets if its regular tickets sell out. Tamarack is giving two free days to anyone with an Epic or Ikon Pass through the end of this season. L.L. Bean continues to expand its discounted lift ticket program throughout Maine: $15 Thursdays at Big Rock; $15 Thursdays and $25 Fridays at Black Mountain; $20 Tuesdays at Lost Valley; $30 Friday evenings at Shawnee Peak; $49 Thursdays at Saddleback; and $35 Sundays at Mt. Abram.
Business: More on new Attitash GM Brandon Swartz. The New York Times features Ascutney’s improbable survival. The Times also writes a story that tries to be about both diversity and crowding. The wind turbine, which provides 100 percent of the power to Berkshire East, is broken. More delays at Big Squaw. Sandia Peak will not open for skiing this year. New Hampshire ropetow bump Mt. Prospect will not operate this winter. Scott’s Bowl is finally back online at Park City.
Lifts: Cannon is looking likely to get its new tram. Sugar Mountain will install its third high-speed quad for next season. Sierra-at-Tahoe gets the comms line back on its Grandview Express, one of 12 such repairs on seven lifts that will be required following damage from last year’s Caldor Fire. A cool list of 11 top lifts in the West. State investigation into the cartoonish Beech Mountain hydrant explosion made public.
Maps: New trailmaps (best viewed on desktop):
Housing and labor: Aspen is bumping starting pay up to $20 an hour. Hansmen with an excellent breakdown on the impossible housing situation in ski towns and what that could mean for the rest of U.S. America.
Climate: A Washington Post feature on climate change and skiing.
People: New England Ski Journal does a Q&A with Ragged GM Erik Barnes. Skier dies after crashing into tree at Snowbasin.
Stoke: Blevins on how a Breckenridge avalanche re-ordered the whole calculus of Western skiing. New England Ski Journal at Pats Peak. New York Ski Blog visits Cazenovia Ski Club, Catamount, Magic, Gore, McCauley, and Kissing Bridge. A recap of Last Skier Standing at Black Mountain, New Hampshire. A nice rundown of top New York ski areas, though it ignores Central and Western New York, which is home to plenty of great ski areas, including Holiday Valley, Bristol, Greek Peak, and Song.
This Week in Skiing
This newsletter got too long, so I’ll be back with a special edition of This Week in Skiing, including details on how my season ended early with a broken leg.