Michigan-Based Wisconsin Resorts, Owner of Alpine Valley, Wisconsin, Buys Alpine Valley, Michigan

So many Alpine Valleys

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From the majesty of the summit, skiers can see the Wal-Mart shopping carts glimmering in the distance

Alpine Valley, seated among the 4.3 million residents of Southeast Michigan, resembles many suburban Midwest ski areas. It has the vertical drop of a backyard Slip N’ Slide. It has approximately 400 chairlifts, all of which predate the birth of Jesus. It sits within a triangle of land anchored on its three corners by a Meijer super-center, a Kohl’s, and a housing development segmented by the curlicuing lanes of America’s endless sprawl.

But, like the other three ski areas dotted around Detroit – Pine Knob, Mount Holly, and Mt. Brighton – it is good enough. In Michigan, there is no shortage of water and no shortage of cold. Alpine Valley has a great park. It has night skiing. And that’s all it needs. Like most of its peers, it is mobbed at all times with beginners, with kids, with park studs, with skiers too stubborn and proud to think they’re too good for skiing of a certain size.

Yesterday, Alpine Valley officially joined Pine Knob and Mount Holly as part of Wisconsin Resorts (WR), a mini-conglomerate that now owns six ski areas – Bittersweet in Michigan; Searchmont, just across Michigan’s northern border with Canada; and, uh, Alpine Valley in Wisconsin are the other three. Skiers will be able to access all six with one $620 season pass that went on sale yesterday.

Whether this is a good deal or not depends on your point of view. The fourth metro Detroit ski area, Vail Resort’s Mt. Brighton, is unlimited on both the $479 Northeast Value Pass and the $583 Epic Local Pass. Both deliver deep New England access to places like Stowe and Okemo, and the latter adds the Western wonderlands of Colorado, Utah, Tahoe, and Whistler. For anyone who intends to float out of the region mid-winter, WR’s multipass looks overpriced and too limiting.

But you have to understand Michigan. The addition of Searchmont, a legitimate can’t-see-the-bottom-from-the-top 700-footer that WR bought from a non-profit community group in 2018, added a regional destination resort to the portfolio. The option to bounce around three suburban bumps – which all sit within half an hour of one another – during the week and then coast the five or six hours up to the gnarly and interesting Searchmont on the weekends is a compelling offering. And for a lot of Michigan skiers, that’s good enough to be their season.

The portfolio loses some value as you move farther from Detroit. Bittersweet sits alone on Michigan’s west side, but still works well with Searchmont – for Michiganders, a five- to six-hour drive is hardly an obstacle to recreation. Alpine Valley in Wisconsin, however, is far from its sister resorts – nearly eight hours from Searchmont. Granite Peak – larger and more modern than Searchmont – is only three hours north, and it sits on the Indy Pass, which a Milwaukee skier can tack onto a $369 season pass at Alpine Valley competitor Little Switzerland for $209. Indy would also give them access to more than a dozen other Midwest resorts, including a pair of large-ish ski areas that butt up against Wisconsin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Wilmot – again, owned by Vail – is also nearby, and is of course unlimited on a variety of Epic Passes.

But that may not be the point here. I don’t know if creating a cohesive hub-and-spoke portfolio is WR’s game – they may just recognize the value of high-volume urban ski areas. These are good businesses. That’s why there are so many of them, even though they are widely ridiculed by the Radbrah community. “A 200-foot ski area? Brah I wouldn’t even bother skiing off a cliff that small without building like a mega-dope kicker at the top Brah. That’s so dumb Brah. Let’s spend an hour talking about weed instead.”

But WR must see some value in bunching these mountains together. The company set its single-mountain pass prices at ridiculous levels: $524 for Alpine Valley, Wisconsin; $528 for Alpine Valley, Michigan and Mt. Holly; $450 for Bittersweet. The incentive to buy up to the $620 all-access pass is great. And WR seems to be experimenting with Pine Knob, which has no individual pass – its season pass is the multipass, a common attribute of Alterra- or Vail-owned mountains on the Ikon or Epic Passes.

Whatever WR’s intentions, this is interesting to watch. The company has done a good job managing high-volume ski areas seated in marginal, low-snow environments. It’s close to where the people are. If WR continues to deliberately acquire regional destination ski areas within driving distance of its big-city speedbumps, it could build something special.

There are plenty of candidates. The large-ish Norway Mountain, planted on the Wisconsin-Michigan border, is just four hours north of Alpine Valley, Wisconsin. That mountain has been abandoned for a few years, but it’s still intact and for sale. Another pair of large UP ski areas – Blackjack and Indianhead – sold recently to undisclosed owners. It’s not unusual for new ski area operators to suddenly realize they dove into a 12-foot pool without knowing how to swim. If these mountains – jointly known as Big Snow Resort – come up for sale again, WR should pursue it. For those of you desperately hoping WR will acquire Alpine Valley, Ohio and rename the whole operation The Big Alpine Valley Resort Amazing Good Time Ski Company, I am sorry to report that no such union is likely – Vail owns it.

But there are nearly 100 ski areas across the Upper Midwest, making the number of potential combinations almost infinite. None of the large ski area operators outside of Boyne understands the region’s value as anything other than a feeder to the towering hinterlands – Vail and Alterra left the region wide open for Indy Pass to stroll right in and loot the shop. But Indy doesn’t own any resorts, and it probably never will. WR can keep building its portfolio – and its pass offerings – indefinitely.

Tahoe trio, aiming snowguns outward like medieval cannons, set template for saving large resorts from inferno

The notion of California-as-ski-mecca runs counter to America’s Official Version of the place: oceans and palm trees, vast freeway-laced cities, a flash-and-cash hub of entertainment and vice. But we all know better: the dozen ski areas ringing Tahoe, together with Mammoth, vault the state into the top half-dozen or so global ski hubs. Terrain beyond imagining, storms that could bury Manhattan, skiing on the Fourth of July. These are not anomalies of California skiing – these things are California skiing. We can thank the rugged, abrupt mountains thrusting skyward along the state’s western flank for stamping out the high-altitude basecamps where skiing can exist, absurdly, an hour from the eternal springtime of the L.A. coastline and adjacent to the vast Western deserts.

But there are problems. That snow when it comes is disaster-movie epic, but it’s erratic. That’s always been true, but the middle of the last decade got especially bleak, when just 100 to 200 inches of snow fell for three consecutive winters. The snow line has crept uphill by as much as 1,500-feet in recent years. Climate change is hell for Tahoe winters.

And this is, I guess, how we most often associate climate change and skiing: less snow, more rain, freeze-thaw cycles that morph our powder into cinderblocks. But this week in South Tahoe exposed our collective failure of imagination: as the monster Caldor Fire surrounded Sierra-at-Tahoe and crept toward Kirkwood and Heavenly, it became obvious that the West’s climate-change-driven fire problem was a big-time skiing problem. From The New York Times:

The blazes in Sierra forests have exposed the domino effects of climate change on firefighting challenges: Frequent heat waves and overall higher temperatures have desiccated West Coast flora, making it more vulnerable to large fires. Droughts have weakened trees, encouraging insect infestations that have contributed to the deaths of close to 150 million trees. This creates more fuel for fires.

Scientists say there is also a correlation between global warming and the increased wind conditions that have fanned fierce wildfires across the state. And they point to a need for better forest management, thinning out some of the thickest woods.

It is within these sorts of vast forests, beetle-eaten and long mismanaged, climbing up and over the most rugged terrain imaginable, that nearly all of America’s Western ski resorts exist. And while no major ski resort has yet suffered complete immolation, the risk is enormous (a fire last year destroyed lifts and other infrastructure at mid-sized Soldier Mountain, Idaho). The fires are already becoming more persistent, bigger and faster, and more alarming in frequency and duration.

This summer’s fires have been particularly humbling:

On Monday, propelled by strong winds, the fire crested a granite ridge that officials had hoped would serve as a natural barrier. Embers leapfrogged past firefighting crews and descended toward the valley floor just miles from South Lake Tahoe. By early Tuesday, the fire had taken hold in the Tahoe basin. Stands of pine ignited by flying embers were fully engulfed in flames, casting a bright orange glow into the night sky.

It was only the second time, officials said, that a wildfire that began on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada crossed into the eastern side. The first was also this summer: the Dixie fire, the second largest in California history. No deaths have been reported in either fire.

This takes us back to Sierra-at-Tahoe, which stacked its snowgun arsenal in battlefield formation as Caldor approached on Sunday:

The underdog resort - overlooked because of its towering corporate neighbors but a substantial mountain with 2,000 acres of terrain on a 2,200-foot vert – seemed to have held off a worst-case outcome. From The San Jose Mercury News:

At the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort, the fire burned through on Monday. But most facilities, including the lodge, administration building and gear shop were saved, said Mike Reitzell, president of Ski California, an industry organization. A maintenance building burned, and the condition of the forest around the resort is unknown, he said, adding that snow-making machines, along with private fire crews provided by AIG Insurance, the resort’s carrier, helped firefighters stave off more damage.

That, The Mercury News reported, left the fire barreling toward Kirkwood and Heavenly:

But only a few miles inland from the famed alpine lake, firefighters struggled to keep the 204,000-acre blaze — still just 20% contained — from destroying hundreds of homes and two of California’s most famous ski resorts, Heavenly and Kirkwood.

At both resorts in the hills south of Lake Tahoe’s shores, workers ran dozens of machines normally used for snow-making around the clock, pumping out millions of gallons of water to soak buildings, ski lifts and forests in a high-stakes attempt to halt the advancing fire and even raise the humidity levels around the imperiled areas.

Bill Clark, the snowmaking supervisor at Heavenly, worked all night Tuesday into Wednesday morning with several co-workers, setting up and maintaining the machines along the side of the mountain.

“We have been working around the clock with emergency fire responders to do everything we can to prepare and protect our resorts,” said Quinn Kelsey, director of communications and resort marketing at Vail Resorts, which owns Heavenly and Kirkwood. “Our snowmaking systems are up and running, we have established fan guns that are spraying critical buildings and lifts, and we have snowmaking hydrants pressurized and ready, with hoses spread over Heavenly for the firefighters to use. We have also ensured our facilities, from lifts to parking lots, have been available for emergency personnel.”

At Kirkwood, meanwhile:

… embers from the main fire reached the property Wednesday. About 25 firefighters from both San Mateo County and Cal Fire grabbed maps as Battalion Chief Jake Pelk briefed them on the long day ahead.

A sprinkler sprayed water in two directions at the base of Kirkwood Village near a ski lift, while snowmakers shot mist in the air that gusty winds pushed back into the hillside.

“As this continues to be a rapidly evolving situation, we are in constant communication with Cal Fire, the United States Forest Service fire team, the local Fire Department and other local organizations,” Kelsey said. “Also I do want to convey that while our property and structures are important, our people remain our top priority. We have taken steps to ensure team members were evacuated and have the emergency support services they need. Through our EpicPromise Employee Foundation, we are working diligently to coordinate assistance for our employees and their families. We’ve made direct grants available for those currently under an extended mandatory evacuation and are prioritizing resources for food, shelter, and mental health support.”

The good news here is that Heavenly, Kirkwood, and Sierra-at-Tahoe are drawing a blueprint for how to hold the perimeter against a fierce and enormous fire. The bad news is that this will surely not be the last time a massive wildfire swamps a densely built constellation of ski areas. Not all Western resorts have the resources of Vail-owned Kirkwood and Heavenly. Many – especially in the Pacific Northwest – have no snowmaking at all. As fire suppression budgets suffer and firefighters struggle to stay ahead of the flames, a disaster is almost inevitable.

The mountain where a season pass costs $14 more than a day ticket

If Silverton didn’t exist, I would say unequivocally that Mount Bohemia is the most unique lift-served ski area in the country. It is a wild ungroomed kingdom, every inch gladed and not a single inch groomed. There is no beginner terrain, no snowmaking. Stamped on the trailmap is a warning: “NO BEGINNERS ALLOWED.”

If Bohemia is overlooked and underappreciated, it’s because, A) it’s in Michigan, and, B) it’s vert is a humble 900 feet – the tallest in the Midwest, but a midget most anywhere else. But, goddamn, does this look like Michigan to you?

Bohemia is one of the newest mountains in the country: it erupted out of the Michigan wilderness in 2000, a new ski area in a state that had no shortage of them. Little about it made sense. It was close to nothing, nine-and-a-half hours from Detroit, an area that almost no one could ski in a state defined by groomed boulevards. It didn’t matter. Pedal to the floor, it never stopped growing, adding new terrain almost annually and opening a Cat-skiing operation next door.

Bohemia didn’t operate like anyone else on the hill, or, as it turned out, off it. It’s long been the home of the $99 season pass*, a product too cheap to believe for the quality of the experience. The pass – which is, by the way, only $14 more than a day ticket – comes, unbelievably, with more than a dozen reciprocal tickets. A two-year pass is just $162. For a long time, the mountain offered a 10-year pass for $610.

Last week, Bohemia announced two more initiatives: 1) the ski area would not sell lift tickets on Saturdays. They would be reserved for passholders only. 2) 100 Skiers would be able to purchase a lifetime season pass – good for 75 years – for $1,299.

First: Saturday restrictions. Saturdays are a problem. Everywhere. I almost never ski them. Lines and idiots, everywhere. Nowhere to sit down for lunch. It sucks. Reserving those days for your best customers is a reward for almost everyone – staff and skiers – who will likely have a far calmer and more civilized experience.

It is, however, a tactic that’s sure to alienate casual skiers, who are already spooked by the costs and logistical hassles of skiing. I don’t think this strategy would work many places. Bohemia can say, “Yeah actually go ski Mont Ripley,” and it probably enhances its brand. Most ski areas – which aren’t lodged in the ass-end of nowhere and have to cater to the intermediate-and-below crowd – would probably go under in a year if they tried that. A better tactic is probably to meter down passholder use on weekends with a variety of midweek and blackout passes. Vail’s $359 Northeast Midweek Epic Pass is one of the best examples of this: want big mountains without the crowds? Here you go.

Second: The lifetime pass. Well, that went poorly at Killington, when Powdr Corp refused to honor lifetime passes issued by the resort’s original owner starting in the 1950s. Bohemia insists it would build safeguards to protect the purchases into any sales contract, and frankly the ski area seems unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. And even if the whole thing blows up, how many years do you need to slice Bohemia glades to feel as though you’ve gotten some value out of your investment? Probably not many.

*As the Bohemians will no doubt point out, the resort tacks $30 in fees onto this, so the pass is actually $128. But, like, who gives a shit?

This is the most obvious megapass resort addition in North America

Hey, here’s a question for Alterra Mountain Company and Powdr: why isn’t the badass Silver Star, British Columbia on the Ikon Pass?

Powdr bought this monster in 2019. I expected it to follow the company’s other alpha resorts – Killington, Snowbird, Mount Bachelor (which joined in 2020) – onto the Ikon Pass. Nearly two years later – nothing.

Why not? It would be a perfect Ikon addition. It sits between current Ikon partners Red and Revelstoke, not quite on the Powder Highway but close enough. It has an incredible lift fleet serving 3,200 acres of terrain on a 2,500-foot vertical drop. This is the biggest no-brainer megapass addition in American skiing. Make it happen.

Elsewhere

Some awesome pics in this roundup of New England summer lift construction. Court blocks Squaw-Alpine’s expansion plans. This should not affect the resort’s base-to-base gondola project. At this rate, I think Burke may go up for sale around mid-century. If Aspen can’t proceed with its Pandora expansion, it may build residences on top of Aspen Mountain instead. Potential expansions at Targhee and Snow King also face resistance. Out of Bounds podcast with The Powell Movement host Mike Powell. Freeskier’s annual roundup of ski movie trailers.

This week in not skiing

The New York Times headline this morning is “State of Emergency as Record Rainfall Wallops New York City.” The opener:

The New York City area was under a state of emergency on Thursday after the remnants of Hurricane Ida barreled into the region with furious, wind-driven rain that led to at least eight deaths and all but halted subway service, destroyed homes in New Jersey and resulted in a tornado warning for the Bronx.

The rain on Wednesday night — 3.1 inches in Central Park in an hour — shattered a record set only last week, when 1.94 inches of rain fell in the park during Tropical Storm Henri. The National Weather Service issued a flash flood emergency in New York City for the first time.

From that perspective, my night wasn’t so bad – a knock on the door at 10 p.m., the neighbor wide-eyed. “The basement is flooding.” Water like a stream beneath a locked utility door, a scramble for the key, a burst pipe volcanic and relentless in its anger. A desperate examination of the bent-pipe wonderworld as onlookers stand around with rolls of Saran Wrap. Yes, that should fix it. There’s a reason people like us live in the city – to not have to deal with bullshit like this. It finds us anyway.

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