Ski Areas Think Skiing Is Better with Fewer Skiers

And they’re right

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Hey Guys go away

Until Saddleback’s feel-good return in December, Magic Mountain was the best story in Northeast skiing. Ping-ponged for decades between owners, closed for long stretches, stripped of much of its infrastructure, the mountain hobbled along until 2016, when a group of investors led by current president Geoff Hatheway took over.

In the five years since, they have rebuilt the mountain, upgraded snowmaking, refurbished the Black Line Tavern, stapled the lift network back together, and returned night skiing to Southern Vermont for the first time in decades. When Covid hit, Hatheway orchestrated one of the most nimble ski area responses in the country, dropping season pass prices and becoming the first in the region to guarantee credits in the event of another shutdown. In August, the mountain became the first in the Northeast to announce a Covid operations plan.

Along the way, something improbable happened: Magic became cool. Not cool like Corvettes or stainless steel appliances or cocaine or other bling manufactured to flex status, but cool like beards or PBR or single-speed bikes or Portland or being a blacksmith. Sort of ironic and sort of not. Cool because of its simplicity and its plod-along pace and its bumpity-bump terrain, but also cool because it’s not Stratton or Mount Snow or Okemo with their high-speed lifts and their Epik liftlines. In a coast-to-coast megapass megaresort kingdom dominated by a pair of Colorado-based titans, Magic is telling a two-hollers-past-the-fork-in-the-road backwoods story that skiers want to be a part of. It’s working: in five years, Magic has quadrupled its passholder base.

And that might be good enough. When Magic released its 2021-22 season pass suite on Thursday, it became the latest ski area to announce a limit on season pass sales.

“It’s about creating the right balance of ski area ‘carrying capacity’/space and maintaining affordability for different customers,” said Hatheway in a statement on the Magic website. The mountain has long limited day-ticket sales and will continue to do so, and will continue as an Indy Pass partner even as it discards its other discount products.

Magic is the first Northeast mountain to do this. Utah’s enormous Powder Mountain and Tahoe’s Sugar Bowl also limit passes, and Arapahoe Basin – long overrun by Front Range Epik Pass holders before ditching Vail for limited partnerships with the Ikon and Mountain Collective Passes – is actually reducing its number of passes by 10 percent for the 2021-22 season. That Magic is following even as the mountain prepares to open its long-stalled summit quad next season underscores the headline here: these ski areas are betting that rationalizing the number of skiers to the amount of terrain creates a better experience, and in turn more loyalty and a stronger brand.

This is perhaps a lesson of capacity-limited Covid-era operations, but it also may be an attempt to differentiate these ski areas’ experiences. All four of them are surrounded by Epic and Ikon resorts, many of which developed liftlines this season that were visible from space. That Vail just transformed the Epic Pass into a permanent Black Friday special should not inspire hope that skiing Mount Snow next Christmas will suddenly become fun. Magic, with what should be less-than five-minute liftlines on holiday weekends with both summit lifts spinning, is going to start looking awfully good, even with a smaller footprint and vertical drop than its more famous neighbor.

Welcome to Snowmass, Montana

When the Ikon Pass debuted for the 2018-19 season, locals in select Western ski towns looked around and said, “Hey, where the hell did all these people come from?” After two seasons, Aspen and Jackson Hole removed themselves from the Base Pass entirely, joining a special “plus” tier for 100 extra dollars.

But there was a third Ikon partner where disgruntled locals slapped “Ikont Wait for You to Leave” stickers on lift towers. The situation in Big Sky deteriorated to the point that resort GM Tyler Middleton penned a stop-being-assholes editorial in the local newspaper. Still, Big Sky – one of nine Boyne resorts on the Ikon Pass – remained a Base Pass partner.

Last week, however, Big Sky quietly announced that Ikon Passes – along with Mountain Collective passes, day tickets, and most season passes – would no longer include access to the Lone Peak Tram. An underwhelming lift set on one of the most dramatic peaks in American skiing, the tram had become as legendary for its queues as the freefalling terrain it accesses.

This, again, is a ski area adapting to reality, sacrificing volume for a better experience. Boyne has promised a bigger tram box. But the current lift, installed in 1995, carries only 15 passengers at a time and 200 per hour. Lines can stretch for hours. But it’s core to the experience. It’s hard to go to Big Sky without riding the tram but it’s also hard to ride. A switch to pay-per-day access – which will likely run from $20 to $80 for all but the highest-grade season passholders – is a worthy experiment to try and solve this.

It does, however, introduce other problems. The unlimited gold-tier pass is $1,899 (quantities are limited). The Double Black pass comes with 10 tram days and costs $1,449. The $1,049 Black pass has no tram access. Translation: the tram is for rich people. That’s not a great storyline in a sport that’s already too exclusively upper-middle-class. Perhaps a softer landing – one tram ride per day for Ikon passholders, etc – would have shortened lines without such a dramatic cutoff. A fast-pass style system – where a skier registers and is assigned a designated time to show up for the tram – could also perhaps have worked.

I don’t have any better ideas. For decades, wind-scoured Lone Peak was hike-access only. A lift didn’t seem practical and perhaps it still isn’t. A higher-capacity lift will only introduce more skiers into hostile terrain that most of them probably shouldn’t be on to begin with. But the peak is essential to the resort’s identity. Without it, Big Sky is Snowmass II. With it, it’s American Switzerland, a place apart, distinct and unforgettable. The good thing about access tiers is they can be changed, and tram lines next season will likely dictate whether that happens at Big Sky in the years that follow.

On the other hand, giving away Epic Passes in every box of Cheerios isn’t great either

All of which comes back to Vail. Weeks after the Broomfield conglomerate pledged to ditch its reservation system, it dropped Epic Pass prices to less than the cost of a bowl of chili at the Spruce Saddle Lodge. Nonetheless, Vail CEO Rob Katz told Bloomberg earlier this week that, “We’re not going back to the way we did business before.”

He then seemed to hedge on the reservation promise, saying, “while the reservation system won’t stick around in the same way, it taught us a lot about how to reduce crowding and better manage capacity. Everything this year was constricting because of restrictions on social distancing, but we can put these types of policies in place to improve the experience overall.”

I hope so. I’m not in the habit of doubting Vail just for the sake of doing so. But they do need to do a better job of managing crowds, especially at their busiest mountains during peak periods. There’s a difference between long lift lines and mobs that make you think we may be evacuating the planet. While the reservation system had holes, I actually liked it as a taming mechanism for otherwise thronged mountains. We’re a long way from November, so I’ll withhold judgement, but there’s no point in selling 2 million Epic Passes if everyone hates using them.

Vermont skier visits plummet like a tourist going the wrong way off the Lone Peak tram

Per the Times Union:

As of the end of February, the 2020-21 ski season in Vermont saw a 30 percent overall drop-off in revenue, with losses estimated at $100 million, according to the Vermont Ski Areas Association.

Year-to-year, paid skier visits declined by more than 40 percent, lodging revenues by 60 percent, and food and beverage revenues by 70 percent.

Additionally, “Steep visitation decreases during the three crucial peak periods of Christmas-New Years, the Martin Luther King Weekend and Presidents’ Week had a large impact. Average overall revenues were down by approximately 30 percent, with some ski areas reporting losses of as much as 60 percent,” according to the Association, which represents 19 Alpine ski and snowboard resorts and 30 cross-country areas in the state.

The one fact likely stabilizing Vermont is that most of its largest ski areas – Killington/Pico, Sugarbush, Stratton, Mount Snow, Okemo, Stowe – are owned by out-of-state conglomerates that can partially offset their losses elsewhere. Another two, Jay Peak and Burke, are basically wards of the state and therefore protected (-ish). The rest seem to have made it, but lifting quarantine restrictions just as most of the state was wrapping ski season didn’t do anyone any favors.

The base-to-base gondola and the mystery of the missing six-packs

On Monday, Alterra announced $207 million in 2021 capital improvements, including the long-awaited Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows interconnect, a massive terrain expansion at Steamboat, and lodge and base area upgrades at Deer Valley and Mammoth.

The Squaw-Alpine project is the most compelling of these. The base-to-base gondola will have two base areas and two midstations along a 2.2-mile route. The 16-minute ride replaces a seven-mile drive that, according to the San Francisco Gate, “is often filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic.” That long-stalled project will devour $60 million – more than a quarter of Alterra’s allotted funds, but will unite the two ski areas into one 6,000-acre monster, making it the third-largest resort in North America after Vail’s Whistler and Park City.

The upgrades at Steamboat nearly doubles Alterra’s commitment to the Pioneer Ridge expansion, which will include 650 acres of advanced and expert terrain, increasing the resort’s size by 20 percent. Alterra’s ultimately cancelled 2020 capital plan had committed to 335 acres on Pioneer Ridge, which would be fed by expanded capacity on the Pony Express. It’s unclear if expanded lift capacity will be in place to serve the new terrain next season. Steamboat will also start the redevelopment of Gondola Square, a massive multiyear project that will add a second gondola to the resort.

Not everything from last year’s plan made it. Alterra made no mention of the pair of six-packs at Mammoth, a terrain expansion at Tremblant, and improvements at Big Bear, Crystal, and Winter Park. Whatever money had been allotted to those projects appears to have been re-routed to the Squaw-Alpine project.

Man we’d really be better off if a hurricane just leveled this place

One thing you figure out pretty quickly after moving to New York is that this is where big, stupid ideas come to become big stupid expensive realities. From Robert Moses’ cityscape-killing megaprojects to a $4 billion subway station to a football stadium that was still $110 million in taxpayer-funded debt when the state demolished it, New York and New Jersey know how to waste more money more consistently than just about any government entities on planet Earth.

So the American Dream Mall was of course a perfect fit for our shattered built landscape, a multi-billion dollar indoor shopping bonanza opened in late 2019, about 10 years after it became obvious that bricks-and-mortar retail had only a slightly better outlook than the horse-and-buggy trade. Covid of course devoured that carcass like a wake of vultures, and the developer, Triple Five, defaulted on its loan sometime during the pandemic.

All of which is unfortunate, because the mall hosts the only indoor ski area in the United States, Big Snow, which I have called (without sarcasm), the most important ski area in America. Run by the enormously capable team at Snow Operating, which also owns and manages nearby Mountain Creek, Big Snow American Dream is the best imaginable environment in which to learn to ski. It’s affordable. Snow conditions are always perfect. It’s close to 20 million people. Packages include gear, warm clothes, lift tickets, and, crucially, lessons, based upon the Terrain Based Learning system that Snow Operating has contracted out to dozens of ski resorts.  

Ultimately, Big Snow may meet death by proximity. The team that runs the mall seems to have entered the “fuck it” stage of PR. “It would have been much better if American Dream had burned down or a hurricane had hit it,” American Dream senior vice president of development Kurt Hagen told Forbes recently. “Financially, we would have been covered by insurance, but this pandemic that we did not see coming has not been covered, and it is the worst scenario possible.”

When you find yourself in a circumstance in which a preferable outcome is annihilation by hurricane, it’s safe to assume that you’ve breached the event horizon and you’ll soon be swallowed by infinite space.

The dumbest thing I read all week award goes to…

This article that compared a 12-year-old’s tragic death after skiing into a tree to “a similar freak accident,” which was a 22-year-old Maryland woman who “died after she got stuck in a Florida hotel window.”

Elsewhere

New York Ski Blog hits Gore and explores the emerging park scene upstate via the Snow Ridge railjam. The New York Times documents a skier surge in Gulmarg, Kashmir, which recorded 10 times its skier visits from last year (the photos are incredible). Woods Valley promises “two major lift projects” over the next couple of years. The ban on J-1 and H2-B visas expires. Berkshire East and Catamount owner and Goggles for Docs founder Jon Schaefer earns one of this year’s four SAMMY Leadership Awards. Alterra names Mark Brownlie chief operating officer and Vail promotes James O’Donnell to president of its mountain division as Patricia Campbell steps down. Slopefillers with a nice breakdown of Magic’s Confessions from the Red Chair series:

This week in skiing

Wednesday, April 7 – Hunter

Hunter midwinter can be a nightmare, an untenable collision of all things terrible about East Coast skiing: crowds, ice, high prices, straightlining coats-open skiers unaware of their mortality. But springtime Hunter is a different thing altogether. It’s sunny and soft and empty. Its station just over two hours north of the city morphs from liability to its greatest asset, and you can throttle endless runs off the frontside six-pack. This is what I did on Wednesday, whooshing 1,500-foot corn laps in 70-degree sunshine on an empty mountain. A half dozen summit-to-base routes remained, but the entrance to three of them was off this run:

Friday, April 9 – Hunter

Friday was a replay of Wednesday but this time I had all day to ski and that’s all I did:

Conditions had deteriorated fantastically in just two days and only three top-to-bottom routes remained: White Cloud, Belt Parkway, and Hellgate to a bunch of blues. It was thin and slushy and bumpy and gutted in places, red clay bleeding through the snow and seeming to devour it from beneath. Most skiers would have hated these conditions but I loved them because I love soft snow and empty mountains and skiing without a jacket and this was one of my favorite days of the season.