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Beth Howard, Vice President and General Manager of Vail Mountain, Colorado
November 14, 2022
About Vail Mountain
Click here for a mountain stats overview
Owned by: Vail Resorts
Pass affiliations: Epic Pass
Located in: Vail, Colorado
Closest neighboring ski areas: Beaver Creek (20 minutes), Copper Mountain (23 minutes), Ski Cooper (42 minutes), Keystone (42 minutes), Loveland (43 minutes), Arapahoe Basin (47 minutes), Breckenridge (50 minutes) - travel times may vary considerably in winter and heavy traffic.
Base elevation: 8,120 feet
Summit elevation: 11,570 feet
Vertical drop: 3,450 feet
Skiable Acres: 5,317
Front Side: 1,655 Acres
Back Bowls: 3,017 Acres
Blue Sky Basin: 645 Acres
Average annual snowfall: 354 inches
Trail count: 276 (53% advanced/expert, 29% intermediate, 18% beginner)
Lift count: 32 (one 12-passenger gondola, one 10-passenger gondola, 4 six-packs, 14 high-speed quads, 1 fixed-grip quad, 2 triples, 1 T-bar, 3 platters, 5 carpets)
Why I interviewed her
I articulated this as well as I could a couple months ago, in an article about Vail Resorts’ decision to limit lift ticket sales for the coming ski season:
It was a notion quaint and earnest. Simplistic but no less authentic. To start with Vail would have seemed presumptuous. This American place most synonymous with skiing. Three-sided and endless, galloping back into valleys, super-fast lifts shooting in all directions. I wanted to be ready. To feel as though I’d earned it.
My first trip West was in 1995. But I did not ski Vail until 2004. In our megapass-driven, social-media-fueled moshpit of a present, I doubt anyone thinks this way anymore. Vail is a social-media trophy – go seize it. But I proceeded slowly to the big time. Primed on Midwest bumps, anything would have seemed enormous. First, the rounds of Summit County. Then Winter Park. As though skiing were a videogame and I could not pass to the higher levels until I’d completed those that came before.
And then there it was. That first time standing over Sun Down Bowl, the single groomed path winding toward High Noon below. Eleven thousand feet over Colorado. Sliding down the ridges. Powder everywhere. Back to Blue Sky. Laps all day through unmarked glades. Refills from the sky even though it was April. Three thousand feet of up and down. The enormous complexity of it all. The energy. That impossible blend of wild and approachable.
Vail Mountain and – on that same trip – Beaver Creek, were exactly what I needed them to be: the aspirational summit of America’s lift-served skiing food chain. The best mountains I’d ever skied. I won’t say it was The Experience of a Lifetime. But it was the best five days of skiing that I had, up to that point, ever done.
I’m not sure what else I can add to that. Vail Mountain sits at the summit of American lift-served skiing. Yes I know, Backflip Bro: the terrain is not as Rad-Gnar as Snowbird or Jackson Hole or Taos or Palisades Tahoe or Big Sky. It does not get as much snow as Alta or Baker or Wolf Creek or Kirkwood. It does not minimize and mitigate crowds like Telluride or Aspen or Sun Valley.
But Vail Mountain stands out even on that hall-of-fame lineup. Five thousand-plus acres of approachable terrain seated directly off the interstate. The Big Endless: 18 high-speed chairlifts, the Back Bowls™, a bit of rowdy and wild back in Blue Sky, a frenetic base village. If any mountain in Vail Resorts’ sprawling, intercontinental empire is almost guaranteed to deliver The Experience of a Lifetime™, it’s the namesake OG of them all: Vail Mountain. Even after all the growth and change and the Epic Pass atom bomb, Vail Mountain remains one of the greatest ski areas in North America.
It’s also a personal favorite of mine, and one that I’ve been eager to feature on the podcast since I expanded The Storm’s focus from the Northeast to the entire country last year.
What we talked about
Opening weekend at Vail Mountain; staying open until May in 2022 and whether the ski area could do it again; marking Vail’s 60th anniversary; Vail’s founders; building the mountain and the town from raw wilderness; Vail in the ‘80s; Afton Alps; transitioning from food-and-bev to resort leadership; a Colorado-Tahoe comparison; what it means for Vail Mountain to share the Vail Resorts masthead with Whistler; going deep on the Game Creek Express upgrade and the new Sun Down Express lift; how Vail decides between a four- or six-place lift, and why Game Creek got the promotion to sixer; the future of fixed-grip lifts on Vail Mountain; why it was finally time to build the long-proposed Sun Down lift, and how that will change the ski experience and flow around the mountain; how this happened at High Noon Express (in February 2020), and how unusual it was:
How Sun Down may help prevent a repeat; why Vail built Sun Down before the proposed Mongolia Express outlined in the resort’s master plan (see below); thinking through the future of the Eagle Bahn gondola; a potential future portal at West Lionshead and the sorts of lifts we could see there; how Pride Express could evolve up and down the mountain; how the Cascade Village lift could better serve day skiers; the potential for terrain expansion in Blue Sky Basin; the growth and future of snowmaking on Vail Mountain; housing drama with the town at East Vail; why Vail rejected the town’s $12 million offer for the land; how Vail’s housing market has devolved to crisis levels over the decades; what other towns are doing to fix housing and whether any of that could work at Vail; the evolution of two housing markets – one for locals and one at market rate; the potential for Ever Vail; reaction to $275 walk-up lift tickets; and the factors that will go into setting lift ticket limits each day this season.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
I’ve already written extensively about the valiant and courageous VAIL SHEEP DEFENDERS, an elite squadron whose mission is to ensure that local bighorns only have to poop next to rich people. In May, this group of nincompoops – the Vail Town Council – voted to condemn land where Vail Resorts planned to build 165 beds of worker housing on six acres of a 23-acre parcel (the remainder was to be set aside for bighorn habitat). Vail, which had already spent years permitting the project with the previous council, pushed back, and now the whole disaster has been swallowed by the courts, where it will likely remain for years.
Meanwhile, the VAIL SHEEP DEFENDERS somehow missed the groundbreaking on, among other properties, a nearly $8 million, 5,700-square-foot mansion rising on that same bighorn habitat. This image – provided by Vail Resorts – distills the absurdity of the whole thing pretty well:
In September, I chatted about this with Colorado Sun reporter Jason Blevins, who has lived in Eagle County for decades. He had a much more nuanced view:
“Both sides have completely valid arguments here. Vail Resorts needs housing. They have the property, they went through three years of planning with the previous council to win all the approvals to develop this thing. They created a bighorn sheep management plan … Election came, new council came in, and that new council is more inclined to protect that herd than accommodate with housing. They’ve offered the company different spots in the valley where they could build. But the process has progressed, and it’s along, and Vail is ready to pretty much break ground right now …
“Yes, this is about bighorn. That council 100 percent supports the bighorn herd, and in their heart of hearts they are working to protect the bighorn. … And those bighorn have been there longer than us, and this is their winter habitat. They unquestionably come down in the winter … along the highway there.”
The whole situation, Blevins told me, is reminiscent of the Telluride Valley Floor drama in the late ‘90s, in which the town and a developer took a land dispute all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court (read the court’s full decision here). The town ended up paying $50 million to acquire the land. “Think of all the housing you could have build with $50 million in the early 2000s,” Blevins said.
Unfortunately, Blevins said, “this one is lining up to follow that track. Could this fight go all the way to the Supreme Court? Could the town of Vail end up having a public fundraising campaign with rich residents giving money to support sheep habitat? Will it go that far? With the complaint filed last week, it certainly appears as though this is going to be a protracted legal battle that will end up costing the town millions and millions of dollars if they buy it from Vail Resorts. And the end result is no more new housing. So the true losers on this are the people in this town who need a place to sleep and live in that town.”
You can listen to our full exchange on this topic, including a long discussion of the elusive NIMBY, starting at 56:50:
So the housing drama made the pod timely. But so did the fact that Vail is installing two new chairlifts and celebrating its 60th anniversary. So did the fact that its peak-day lift tickets just hit $275. Really though, I wasn’t sitting around waiting for an excuse to talk about Vail. It’s Vail. One of the greatest ski areas in America. It’s always interesting, always relevant. It’s one of a handful of ski areas that evokes skiing whether you ski 100 days a year or never. Aspen, Telluride, Vail. The podcast was built to score interviews like this: a big-time mountain seated at the heart of our collective lift-served skiing experience. Enjoy.
Questions I wish I’d asked
I would have liked to have explored the impacts of the mountain town housing crisis on employees and the environment a bit more deeply. What does it mean to have a 50- or 60-mile commute through one of America’s most extreme wintertime environments? How does such a setup further exacerbate the I-70 traffic that everyone so loathes? How sustainable and safe is this whole ecosystem?
Last year, Vail Resorts, Alterra, Boyne Resorts, and Powdr – America’s four largest ski area operators – launched “the ski industry’s first unified effort to combat climate change with shared commitments around sustainability and advocacy.” These efforts include portfolio-wide shifts to renewable energy sources, climate advocacy, and “responsible” stewardship of the environment. All admirable and necessary steps toward creating sustainable 21st century businesses.
However. I would propose an additional pillar to this joint pledge: these operators must commit to working with local, state, and national governments to encourage building density, expand mass transit, and limit individual car use wherever possible within the mountains.
It is not just the ski area operators that are missing this. We built modern U.S. America on the premise of unlimited land and unlimited individual, anytime mobility. But this model does not scale up very well. When Congress passed the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, the nation had 156 million residents. It now has around 338 million. Interstate 70 through the Colorado Rockies is a miracle of engineering and one of the most beautiful roads in the world. But this thoroughfare, combined with poor regional planning and a U.S. American mentality that thinks you can shape the Colorado High Country in the same fashion as suburban Atlanta, have delivered Los Angeles-caliber traffic to the otherwise pristine high alpine.
This is not sustainable. It was a dumb way to build a country. Sprawl and our car-centric culture are environmental and human disasters, the invisible antagonists to all our high-minded climate goals. Ski area operators and the municipalities they operate in have an incredible opportunity to showcase a different sort of America: a transit-oriented, weather-resilient, human-centered built ecosystem in which employees walk or ride a bus (or, God help us, a gondola) to work from hubs close to or on the mountain; the great mass of skiers arrive via transport other than a personal vehicle; and a Saturday on Interstate 70 does not resemble a wartime evacuation.
For those of you fearful that this means Manhattan-in-the-mountains, that’s not what I’m proposing here. Nor am I suggesting a Zermatt-style ban on individual automobiles. Just a better transit and housing mix so people who don’t want the expense and hassle of wintertime commuting can avoid it. We actually have a pretty good model for this: the college town. Most students live, without cars, in dorms on or close to campus. Free and frequent shuttlebuses port them around town. A dense and walkable university center gives way to successive waves of less-dense housing, for more established employees or those with families. Some commuting occurs, but it is minimal. The university is a self-contained world that absorbs as much impact as it can from the problems it creates by concentrating many humans on a small footprint.
The fact that the Town of Vail cannot accommodate 165 humans on 23 acres of land is pathetic. Their willingness to invest $12 million into ensuring people cannot live on this parcel crystalizes how unserious they are, long term, about creating a more sustainable, livable Vail. Rather than fighting Vail Resorts, the town ought to be partnering with them – as the previous council did on permitting this project – to see if the company could shrink the six acres down to three or four, and bump the 165 beds up 30 or 40 percent, with select units reserved for employees who agree to live car-free and use a shuttle system instead. The town’s current, combative posture is only going to push the employees that could have lived in East Vail farther out into the mountains and into daily, likely solo commutes in a car, all of which will further degrade the mountain environment the town claims to treasure. This project could have been a model for cooperation and imaginative development. Instead, it’s turned into a spectacle, a disappointment, the most predictable and U.S. American thing imaginable.
What I got wrong
I pronounced Vail Mountain founder Pete Siebert’s name as “See-bert,” rather than “Cy-ber.” We also discussed Vail Mountain’s remaining fixed-grip lifts, putting that total at just one. However, the ski area still has three fixed-grip chairlifts: the Cascade Village quad, the Gopher Hill triple rising out of Vail Village, and the Little Eagle triple at the top of Eagle’s Nest.
Why you should ski Vail Mountain
There’s a lot of pressure on Vail Resorts’ flagship. While it’s fairly easy to get to and navigate, Vail Mountain, for most skiers, is big, far, and exotic; a thing of myth, considered with reverence; less vacation destination than fantasy. It’s work to get there, and no one wants to work without reward. Ride to your New England or Wisconsin or North Carolina local on a Saturday, and you’ll cope with whatever mess they came up with. Arrive at Vail, and you expect the best skiing of your life.
Vail can give you that. Yes, I know, Wasatch Bro, “Vail is great. Everyone should go there.” Sick burn, Bro. Original and hilarious. I’m not saying it’s better than Utah or Tahoe or Aspen or Winter Park, but I am saying that the skiing at Vail Mountain is usually very good, often spectacular, rarely bad. It is big enough that there are always uncrowded bits somewhere. And since such a large percentage of the skiers here are tourists, and since most tourists are allergic to anything off-piste – and since only a small percentage of a 5,317-acre resort can be groomed at any one time – you can ride the ungroomed all day, most days, in relative isolation (meaning you’re not speed-checking every four seconds at Fort Meyers Freddy arcs edge-to-edge turns over the fall line).
I’ve often wondered how many skiers there are on Vail Mountain on any given Saturday. They won’t tell me, but I’m guessing it’s the population of a small city – 30,000 people? While the sorts of liftline nightmares profiled above do occasionally happen, they are, as Blevins (a Vail local) said in our interview, pretty rare, and pretty short-lived. The ski area moves people around really well.
Everyone should ski Vail Mountain at least once. There is a sense of awe in being there. It is one of the best pure ski areas on the continent. Great terrain for (nearly) all abilities (sorry Backflip Bro, but you can hike over to East Vail). A terrific little town. Easy to get into and out of (off peak, at least). Affordable if you have enough sense to purchase an Epic Pass in advance. There are bigger and emptier and snowier ski areas out there, but Vail is going to give most skiers just about everything they want and a lot more than they need. The high expectations are earned, and, nearly always, met.
Howard and I talked quite a bit about elements of Vail Mountain’s 2018 masterplan. Here’s where new lifts could run on the frontside:
And here’s where they could run on the backside. You can also see potential new trails in Blue Sky Basin and Teacup Bowl:
Vail is also aggressively building out snowmaking on the front of the mountain. Here’s what that system could look like at full build-out:
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