Spring Skiing Scorecard: Epic Steps Up, But Ikon Retains Huge Advantage
21-9 is still a blowout but it’s not as embarrassing as 20-2
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Vail shows stronger commitment to spring skiing in the West, remains outgunned in New England
Last year, under the admittedly incendiary headline Ikon Is Absolutely Crushing Epic in Spring Skiing Access, I inventoried the embarrassing contrast between late-April access on the two biggest ski passes:
Ikon Pass holders in nearly all regions can ski far later into the season than Epic Pass holders. This was on stark display the weekend of April 23 to 24, when Ikoners could choose between Killington, Sugarloaf, Sunday River, Sugarbush, Squaw Valley, Solitude, Winter Park, Mammoth, Crystal Mountain, Sunshine, Lake Louise, Norquay, Snowbird, Alta, Mount Bachelor, Summit Central, Alpental, Copper Mountain, Arapahoe Basin, and Snowmass.
Epic Pass holders could go to Breckenridge or Nakiska.
That’s a 20-2 Ikon-over-Epik lead on the late-spring skiing scorecard. Nakiska and several Ikon mountains closed on Saturday or Sunday, but 13 remain open into this weekend, and several – including Killington, Mammoth, Squaw Valley, and Arapahoe Basin – intend to push through May and, if possible, beyond.
Part of this disparity, I’ll point out, was not Vail’s fault, as public health orders had shuttered Whistler early for a second year in a row. But even if their alpha dog had remained open, the access disparity between the Epic and Ikon passes would have been enormous.
This year, Vail and the Epic Pass are showing up a lot stronger:
And it’s a good thing, since Tahoe just got hit with one of its nine-foot snowstorms or whatever (kinda sad that Northstar is just sitting there empty, but so are most other Tahoe resorts). The late openings had nothing to do with that storm, however – Vail announced extended closing dates at seven of its ski areas in early March, including Vail Mountain (May 1), Kirkwood (May 1), Heavenly (April 24), and Stevens Pass (May 1).
In a season in which labor shortages reduced many of Vail’s Midwest and New Hampshire ski areas to husks, this – along with $175 million investment in labor for 2022-23 – was a good-faith signal that skiers could hope for a full-send season on their Epic Passes next year (even if they didn’t happen to live within driving distance of Breckenridge, Vail’s long-time late-season designate).
It’s a good start. 21-9 is a better showing than 20-2, but Vail could still do better. Epic Pass holders are skunked in Utah even as all four Cottonwoods resorts are still lit up. It’s hard to believe that there aren’t a few pods of terrain among Park City’s 330 trails that can’t be kept live into May. Vail’s efforts throughout the remainder of its western footprint are strong, but the company could do a lot better in the east. There are still three ski areas open in New York – why is Hunter closed? It has one of the best snowmaking systems anywhere, and the mountain should always compete with the state-owned ski areas (Gore, Belleayre, and Whiteface, all of which remain open), for last-to-close honors.
In New England, Mount Snow is a terrible choice for a late closer. It’s a nice mountain, and it may have the best snowmaking system on the planet, but it’s too far south to compete against Vermont’s other late-season operators: Killington, Sugarbush, and Jay Peak, which have 49, 22, and 49 trails open today, respectively, to Snow’s five. Why not Stowe, which claimed 225 inches this season, to Mount Snow’s 95 inches? Northern Vermont has a far more established ski-bum culture, and locals skin and ski Stowe for weeks after it closes. Yes, I know, Explains Why Everything Is Impossible Bro (my least-favorite bro, BTW), Stowe has been closing the third weekend in April since dinosaurs walked the earth. Who cares? Vail changes things at its mountains all the time. It could easily pivot Stowe to late-operator status. The company could also reinvigorate Wildcat, which was once a proud late-season reacher that has wilted in countless ways under Vail’s ownership.
Late-season operations don’t always make obvious fiscal sense. Operators are unlikely to tally a clear profit on the day, as the majority of skiers that show up are probably going to be passholders and are probably not going to spend $90 on lunch (though they may drink their weight in beer). But these passholders, who made a good-faith, very large purchase more than a year in advance, will either be a ski area’s most forceful advocates or most strident detractors, depending upon their perception of how well they were treated when snow still existed to be skied. Steve Wright, who has guided Jay Peak through its six-year receivership limbo with a deftness bordering on zen, articulated the most human side of this in an April 12 open letter to his community:
Our present plan is to operate with terrain and lifts on both sides of the mountain through April 24th (which is longer than usual for Tramside), close midweek April 25th-29th, then reopen Stateside lifts for the weekend of April 30th and May 1st. Additionally, and caveated by saying ‘with what we’re seeing for weather now’ there’s an outside chance we’d be able to reopen again, after closing midweek May 2nd-6th, for the weekend of May 7th-8th.
We may shut down lodging for that May stretch, and the waterpark will be closed for deep cleaning, but if we’re able to run a lift, offer some advanced terrain and maybe a grilled hot dog, then we’ll do it. It’s obvious we won’t make any money as most day trippers have done tripped, but our Season Passholders who have already given us their dough, deserve the show, so we’ll do what we can [emphasis mine].
Jay has been for sale for years. The ring-ding of the rumor mill suggests a sale may be close. I have a good sense of who won’t buy it, but no real idea of who will. If I had a vote, I’d say just give the place to Steve and make him king of Jay Peak for life. Frankly, though, he probably has bigger jobs waiting for him after keeping this plane in the air for six years.
The long season is one of the best parts of skiing. Everyone other than the very hardcore stop caring. They go ride bikes or watch baseball or plant flowers. Apparently there is something called “golf.” For the select few of us still hanging around – and we are the ones, by the way, who guide the pass choices of dozens of our friends, from five-day Frank to seven-day Suzie to two-day Tim – it is the greatest show on snow. The raw explosive talent on display below the Superstar quad on a May weekend afternoon is astonishing. And the skiing. Big bumps, soft snow, T-shirts – all of it impossible, glorious. I still love Boyne Mountain because they, alone among the Lower Peninsula’s ski areas in the 90s (and even today, sometimes), would push the season into May, spinning that big expensive six-pack for almost no one so I could lap slush bumps on Idiot’s Delight.
Boyne surely lost money on those long-ago days. But here it is, 26 years later, and I’m still talking about it. Sometimes the value in a thing is intangible, not something readily explainable to shareholders. That doesn’t mean it’s not a thing worth doing. I mean there’s a reason everybody loves the current version of Killington, and why they do this year after year:
A few years ago, New York Ski Blog interviewed Killington GM Mike Solimano, who had this to say about the whole thing:
“Yes, the extended season is here to stay. It’s part of our culture. Long ago we stopped trying to figure out if it’s justified, so there’s not much calculation that goes into it.”
Below the subscriber jump: Stowe and Park City implement paid parking; indie ski areas are crushing it; ORDA will spend $38 million on new lifts as New York’s independent ski areas upgrade 53-year-old lifts with 38-year-old lifts; scapegoating sheep to kill affordable housing in Vail; and much more.