It’s Not Your Imagination: U.S. Ski Industry Hits Record 61 Million Skier Visits for 2021-22 Season
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The Epkon asteroid finally makes impact
It’s been a weird few years to be a skier. In 2018, the Ikon Pass landed, $599 to streak through Aspen and Jackson Hole and Big Sky like planked-out burners on a snowy Deadhead roadie. The next year, Vail bought Peak Resorts and scaled into the Northeast like kudzu. Then Covid ruined skiing. Then saved it. Vail lowered the cost of an Epic Pass to $5. Something called the Indy Pass showed up. Tourists mostly loved all this. Locals mostly hated it. But one result of these changes was clear: the per-day cost of skiing for frequent skiers had never been lower.
And this meant more skiers. Everywhere, all the time. On roads. In parking lots. In liftlines. On weekends and holidays, yes, but Covid drove midweek visitation to record levels during the 2020-21 ski season. Every ski area that reported such things reported record pass sales. Formerly secret locals’ redoubts such as Berkshire East and White Pass began experiencing long peak-period lines. To anyone who skis more than once in a while, this industry that is supposedly eternally endangered had never appeared healthier.
So I was baffled, each spring, when the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) would publish its skier- visit totals for the season, and they would come in well below totals in the pre-Epkon era. The record-holding season has long been 2010-11 (60.54 million skier visits), followed by 2007-08 (60.502 million), and 2009-10 (59.787 million). The Covid-shortened 2019-20 season will always be asterisked, and no surprise it stands at number 34 all time, but 2018-19 had settled in at number 4 (59.343 million skier visits), and the “outdoor-boom” season of 2020-21 came in at five (59.004 million).
But after Vail sold 2.1 million Epic Passes for 2021-22, Alterra got spooked enough by volume that it tightened access at three crucial Ikon Pass ski areas ahead of next season, and indie resorts like Whitefish, Loveland, Monarch, and Wolf Creek reported record revenue and/or skier visits, it seemed impossible that we couldn’t be witnessing some kind of landmark season.
Yesterday, the NSAA confirmed that we had, indeed, been in the midst of record crowds: U.S. ski areas hit an all-time-high 61 million skier visits for the 2021-22 ski season (which is technically ongoing, but with negligible daily visits). That’s a 3.5 percent increase over 2020-21, and a .75 percent increase over the record 2010-11 season. The new all-time high hit in spite of a mediocre snow year, with an average of 145 inches nationally – 21 inches below the 166-inch 10-year average. The West region (as defined by the NSAA), hit a record 25.2 million skier visits. Visits also increased year-over-year in the Midwest, Northeast, and Southwest, but decreased in the Southeast and Pacific Northwest.
“This record visitation signals that the U.S. ski industry is healthy, and that the demand for outdoor recreation remains strong,” read the NSAA’s press release announcing the record. “There were signs of this during the 2020-21 season as the realities of the Covid-19 pandemic led more people to seek outdoor activities. Strong skier numbers bode well for the long-term health of the sport, especially since participant numbers have been relatively flat over the past decade.”
The NSAA report underscored the crucial role of season passes to driving increased visitation, noting that passholders accounted for 51.9 percent of skier visits, and that “ski areas of all sizes, from small to large, in all regions of the country saw an increase in number of season passes sold.”
I suspect – and I have no way of proving this – that the advent of digital technology partially explains skiing’s lagging numbers up until this season. Folks familiar with RFID technology tell me that some ski area owners were vastly underestimating how frequently season passholders skied until the scanning gates blew their cover. Others were surely overcounting, but until the widespread deployment of scanning technology, the best most ski areas could do was count cars in the parking lot, factor in the number of lift tickets sold that day, and take a wild-ass guess.
As low-cost passes continue to spread their reach and value, I expect visitation numbers to continue to increase. That’s good for all of us. The NSAA noted that capital investment is set to reach $728 million this year, an all-time high. Just look at Lift Blog’s inventory of this summer’s lift projects. Our largest ski areas are, as a whole, in great shape and getting better, and all indications are that this three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar spending spree is not an anomaly, with 31 lift projects already on deck for 2023.
So now what? In the face of rising popularity, skiing faces two big risks: diluting the experience with massive, cheap-pass-driven crowds; or re-plating its resorts in gold and chasing off the proles with a return to $2,000 season passes. So far, we’re seeing something in the middle, as experience-minded ski areas like Arapahoe Basin and Magic Mountain, Vermont limit pass sales and day tickets while keeping them affordable. Vail is staying cheap and wide open, with limited parking experiments to manage some of its most-crowded ski areas, while Alterra aggressively adjusts access tiers to meter Ikon Pass access.
And plenty of capacity remains outside of the big dogs beating their chests from the Epkon marquees. I was shocked to hear from Indy Pass founder Doug Fish that passholders only redeemed 125,000 visits this past season - way off his pre-season prediction of 400,000. Eight of the top 10 resorts were in New England, but Brundage, Tamarack, Red Lodge, Sunlight – there’s still room to roam out there, and skiers who are tired of the traffic seem to be slowly finding them. If the hardcore continue to rearrange their habits around these less-known ski areas, that could just mean bigger numbers in the years ahead.
One other interesting note: the NSAA counted 473 active ski areas this season, up from 463 for the 2020-21 season, which a handful of smaller joints sat out to avoid the agitation of socially distanced skiing. That takes us above 2019-20’s 470 ski areas, but it’s still lower than my count of 481, which I’ve arrived at while compiling the Pass Tracker 5001 and the reciprocal pass chart. I’ll try to reconcile this with the NSAA over the next few weeks (their annual convention is happening for the first time in years as I write this, so I’ll avoid bothering them for a minute), and hopefully publish my full list. Whatever the total ends up being, the number of active ski areas is most certainly trending positive.
Consistency in the newsletter game is hard – here’s one outdoor writer who’s getting it right
The most frustrating aspect of Substack is the unreliable nature of the writer pool. Since I launched The Storm in October 2019, around a dozen skiing-related newsletters have launched and fizzled within a dozen issues. The only one that’s hung around for more than a season is Scott Colesworthy’s Have RV Will Ski, a light-hearted adventure series from a Minnesota retiree.
The newsletter game is tough. Most writers underestimate the time commitment that any sort of consistency demands. So I was impressed when I found Cole’s Climb, a Colorado-based Substack newsletter that has been rolling along on a regular cadence since last July. It’s not a ski newsletter, exactly – the focus is “the outdoor community.” But it’s mountain-centric, and the crossover appeal for readers of this newsletter is obvious.
Nowhere was that more apparent than in the newsletter’s latest post, a podcast exploring the comeback of the long-abandoned Cuchara ski area in Colorado. The conversation, with Panadero Ski Corporation board member Will Pirkey, details the efforts to rehab Lift 4 – a 1981 Riblet – and re-open it by this Christmas.
I’ll have a lot more to say about Cuchara between now and the end of this year. For now, give the pod a listen and subscribe to the newsletter – it’s free, and this is an easy way to support a rising voice in the outdoor media.