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The Five Types of Northeast Ski Season Passes
Season passes in 2021: renewal discounts, payment plans, free spring skiing, and pass protections all take hold
This year’s season pass sales arrive without the plagues and asteroids
Next year’s Northeast ski season passes are arriving (I’m tracking them all here), punctuated by Alterra’s release last Thursday of its 2021-22 Ikon Pass suite. They’re here a bit later than in previous years and are, (mostly) a bit more expensive than they were last season, but they also include, in general, a few more perks. Altogether, 2021-22 season passes are available at 42 ski areas across the Northeast. And while several major entities, including Vail and Killington, have yet to release pass details, we have enough information to start extracting some trends. Here’s a look at the 42 ski areas across New England, New York, and Pennsylvania that have passes for sale as of March 8, and what they’re offering skiers as a whole:
32 cost more than the early-bird 2020-21 price – some price increases are normal and expected, particularly after what was by all accounts an extremely strong 2020-21 pass campaign. No one has so far dropped prices.
12 offer a renewal discount – while renewal discounts are not new, they have been rare in the past outside of the largest passes, and the growing number of ski areas – particularly smaller places such as Montage and Camelback – offering them suggests an emerging trend. The discounts are generally modest, and seem like an easy way to thank and acknowledge existing passholders faced with an ever-expanding menu of pass choices.
31 offer skiing for the remainder of the 2020-21 ski season – this is probably an undercount. Most passes offer this and have for several years. It’s an easy recruiting tool for new passholders and more than offsets the fact that these new buyers don’t get the renewal price.
19 offer a payment plan – This was an easy carryover from the Covid era. While payment plans can be a pain from an administrative point of view, passholders love them, particularly for the passes that approach or exceed four digits.
19 offer some pass refund or deferral option – The larger passes – Ikon, New England, NY Ski3 – have for the most part carried their 2020-21 pass protection plans into next season, with in most cases less-generous deadlines. Smaller mountains have in some cases simply included a footnote saying, essentially, “yeah if Covid is a thing again we’ll take care of you.” These mostly seem halfhearted and perfunctory, a promise they know they’ll never have to keep after watching ski season carry on amid the raging pandemic days of this past January. As I’ve written before, we’re more likely to see Kim Jong-un win the Republican nomination for president than see another pandemic-induced ski area shutdown in the United States, so there’s really no reason not to promise everyone a pony if it happens.
13 include access to at least one other ski area – Most of these are existing coalitions, mostly under joint ownership: Labrador and Song, Greek Peak and Toggenburg, Boyne’s three New England mountains, New York’s ORDA ski areas, mountains that use Ikon Pass as their season pass. This number does not include the eight Indy Pass ski areas that will offer passholders a 2021-22 Indy Pass add-on for a nominal fee (last year it was $129). While a new reciprocal partnership has emerged between West Mountain and Greek Peak, Jay Peak and Saddleback have yet to renew their two-day deal, and in general these comp-ticket deals seem to be fizzling in the Northeast. Most of the largest Northeast ski areas – Magic, Bolton Valley, Plattekill – that had been on the reciprocal Freedom Pass fled the coalition last offseason. Meanwhile, the Indy Pass – which pays ski areas for each skier visit – has signed four of New England’s best mountains since last May: Cannon, Jay Peak, Waterville Valley, and Saddleback. As megapasses took hold across the West over the past two decades, independent ski areas have responded by banding together and giving one another’s passholders free tickets. The Northeast appears to be largely rejecting that strategy in favor of the Indy Pass model, which is probably more sustainable over the long term.
So let’s categorize them
As an academic exercise, you may not find a better instance of the free market at work than the adaptations of 130-ish Northeast ski areas to the advent of the Ikon and Epic passes. While we’ve seen nearly as many responses as we have ski areas, we have enough information to sort the available passes into five broad categories:
The cheap small-mountain pass
A season pass at Otis Ridge can be yours for $179. Sister mountain Butternut sells them for $339. McIntyre is $289. Montage is $399 ($349 for renewing passholders). While it only sold 1,000 passes before pulling them off-sale, Mountain Creek briefly sold 2021-22 passes for $279. These ski areas know what they are and what they are worth, and if you want to ski this mountain and only this mountain, well, here you go. They’re too cheap not to buy if you live anywhere near them, affordable enough that purchasing them in addition to an Epic or Ikon Pass is not an absurd proposition. Get your after-work turns at Mt. Local, then buy an Epic for a week in Park City and a few weekends up in Vermont. I’ve owned both a Mountain Creek season pass and some combination of national megapasses for years, and I will continue to do so as long as New Jersey skiing realizes it is New Jersey skiing and offers that product for a low price.
The scrappy anti-Epik pass
Berkshire East is the best New England mountain you’ve never skied, a burly and interesting swath of gladed steeps that commandeers the snowy weather patterns of Southern Vermont, a Massachusetts gem that does not feel at all like Massachusetts skiing. A season pass to this little bruiser is just $499. That’s a great deal, but it also includes unlimited access to Catamount, the alt-Catskills 1,000-footer straddling the New York-Massachusetts border, and the tamer Bousquet. A Sunday-through-Friday pass is $399. A weekday pass just $269. Nights only: $169. Cheap as it is, a payment plan is available. And it’s an Indy Pass mountain, meaning skiers will be able to add two days at Jay, Magic, Saddleback, Cannon, Waterville Valley, and dozens of other mountains for a nominal fee (it was $129 last year). What was, a few years ago, an overlooked and isolated mountain in a forgotten ski state has stepped into the brutal megapass landscape with a fearless energy and swagger, providing skiers with a compelling alternative to Epik and Ikonik shock-and-awe. Will you be able to ski Whistler or Jackson Hole? No. But do you get more skiing – and more good skiing – than you could ever use for less than the cost of either of them? Yes. In New York, we see Greek Peak – a lake-effect beneficiary with ever-more interesting terrain – headed in the same direction, launching a joint pass with sister mountain Toggenburg and joining both the Freedom Pass and Indy Pass coalitions. These mountains are creating knockout products with huge access at attractive price points, and in doing so they’re showing how to thrive in a ski world increasingly dominated by a pair of Colorado mega companies.
The alt megapass
Vail could add every mountain in the country onto the Epic Pass except Gore and Whiteface and people would still buy a pass to ski Gore and Whiteface. The two state-owned mountains tower over their neighbors. They are big and complex and interesting, with dense lift networks and sprawling trail footprints. They (usually) open early in the season and close well into April. Together with their smaller but beloved Catskills little buddy Belleayre, they make a compelling combination, well worth the $809 price tag ($759 for renewals) on their shared Ski3 Pass, even without any of the Western access available on the slightly cheaper Ikon Base Pass. Could the three mountains join the Ikon Pass? Sure. Do they need to? No. This regional pass will continue to sell just fine. It is one of many across the Northeast that retains its cache even as the Colorado-based megapasses strengthen their offerings. Boyne’s trio of Sugarloaf, Sunday River, and Loon can similarly justify their $1,199 New England Pass price (renewals are $1,149). It’s the most expensive pass in the region, but the mountains are spectacular, and the pass includes lift tickets at Boyne’s Western ski areas, including Big Sky. For $300 more, the Platinum version of the pass includes an Ikon Base Pass. The $1,099 White Mountain Super Pass, with no-blackout access to Cannon, Bretton Woods, Waterville Valley, and Cranmore, feels similarly limitless, and for a certain type of skier, worth the $100 premium over a $999 Ikon Pass.
The “la-la-la Vail-never-bought-Stowe-it’s-still-2016” pass
Mount Southington, Connecticut has a 425-foot vertical drop and 14 trails, none of them remotely challenging. You can ski the entire mountain in an hour. Last week, it put 2021-22 season passes on sale for $650. The pass provides no access to or discounts at any ski area other than Mount Southington, and yet it is just $79 cheaper than an Ikon Base Pass, which delivers access to 44 destinations, including many of the best in New England. Even worse, kids and senior passes are $600. For context, a child’s Ikon Base Pass is $179 with the purchase of an adult pass. This is one of many ski areas frozen in the pre-Epic Pass days of 2016, when season passes to the large Vermont ski areas approached $2,000 and the passes for southern molehills were proportionally smaller. These days, the price doesn’t make sense even in the context of its neighbors: Powder Ridge, similarly sized and just 16 miles away, priced its 2021-22 adult pass at $456 and its senior pass at $173. Mohawk mountain, less than an hour north, is an Indy Pass partner, meaning its passholders can at least opt into multi-mountain access for a small fee. What likely explains Mount Southington’s ongoing pricing power is a captive audience in the form of youth race programs. However, its passholders will likely eventually demand some sort of concession, either in increased access or reduced price.
Most pass breakdowns will ignore all of the categories above and present skiers with two options: Ikon or Epic. The impulse is disappointing but understandable - these passes are spectacular. Affordable, with multiple access tiers and price options, both are passports to a rambling winter of variety and adventure. It is impossible to say which pass is better. Between them, Vail and Alterra have locked down access to most of the largest mountains on the continent. Would you rather ski Stowe all year and take a trip to Whistler on the Epic Pass, or make Sugarbush your home base and spend a week at Snowbird on the Ikon? Does it matter? There’s no such thing as a bad choice here. The one thing working against these passes is that they are actually too good and too cheap, drawing what feels like ever-larger crowds to a few rarified locales. Overall, however, more skiers skiing more often is a good thing, and if the pass war between these two Colorado titans ends up being the catalyst for a more sustainable business model in skiing, then that’s good for everyone who loves the sport.
If you’re looking for the greatest idea Greek Peak has ever had, this is it
One of my favorite things in skiing is the long season. An improbable and glorious thing, an act of defiance against nature, T-shirt skiing on a sunny May afternoon puts an exclamation point on a long and weary winter. Michigan’s Boyne Mountain remains one of my all-time favorite ski areas because of their 1990s commitment to spinning their big six-pack as long as the snow held.
There are a half-dozen Northeast ski areas that have traditionally reached for May skiing. Unfortunately, none of them are in New York. Whiteface did make it to May a few years back, but that was more circumstantial than deliberate. It snowed a lot so they stayed open. Fine. But I can’t recall any New York ski area intentionally striving for May, until now:
Greek Peak has so much momentum right now. See the anti-Epik section above. Everything about this ski area says “we are trying to be an awesome ski area.” And Goddamnit it’s working. If Greek Peak is open May 1, I will be skiing Greek Peak on May 1. And if you’re the sort of person who’s going to scoff at this and list all the reasons it won’t or shouldn’t happen please keep your poop out of my ice cream. I’ve been waiting for spring skiing for two years and this would be a fairly spectacular finish to that and I’m going to keep believing it can happen until it doesn’t.
Big Snow American Dream GM Jim Haas passed away “due to complications caused by Covid-19.” Spring skiing will feel different, but at least it will be back. Some cool photos of the Whites. Let’s fight about words. How Vermont skiing started. New York Ski Blog at Swain, Royal, and Willard (I wrote the Willard one). Out of Bounds podcast interviews competitors from Last Skier Standing, who skinned and skied Black Mountain, New Hampshire for 60 hours straight.
This week in skiing
Thursday, Feb. 25 – Mount Southington
Connecticut skiing may be small and busy and throttled with surly teenagers but I love all skiing and I will ski anywhere. So I spent an evening on this little bump with its across-the-street parking lot and its million chairlifts and its bunches of children floating downhill as though lashed together on some invisible raft, moving always as a rambunctious and ever-yelping unit. At dusk the sun set spectacularly in the distance and the snow hardened into a substance that could have been used to fuse broken bones and having skied every trail twice I left.
Friday, Feb. 26 – Hunt Hollow and Swain
I had never thought much about Hunt Hollow or even considered skiing there since it’s a private club but once I read on Lift Blog that Snowbird’s old Little Cloud double had been relocated there in 2013 I became obsessed with the place. Turns out the ski area is open to the public on weekdays and so I woke up at 4 and drove out there and just stood in the snow looking up at this lift. And I don’t know why this is such a fascinating fact to me that a chairlift that had been stapled to a Utah mountainside for three decades is now sitting in New York but I could not stop thinking about it. I’d actually ridden that lift at Snowbird more than a decade ago and I still remember the conversation I had with the local I’d ridden up with who told me all about how he went into work at noon every day so he could ski all morning and it was too bad I’d come out now because the snow sucked and it was windy as hell and the lift kept stopping and it was a long-ass ride on a double with a stranger but obviously it resonated with me in some way. Unfortunately the lift wasn’t spinning that day at Hunt Hollow just their slow-ass triple. So I skied every run and the mountain is really nice actually with solid grooming and some great tree skiing but the trees were skunked after a refreeze so I left around noon.
Swain sits on a long ridge with an assortment of quirky quad chairs tottering up the mountainside. The sun had been baking the series of straightline groomers beneath the lifts all morning and the temperature had risen above freezing and so I took several fast laps carving deep long arcs down the incline. There are eight or 10 of these runs bunched at the center of the ski area and then the shoulders at either end of the mountain hold clusters of twisty narrow runs ambling through the forest. The snow in these was garbage but the trails were so interesting and varied and mazelike that I kept venturing back in. The place was absolutely empty all day and at sundown the families materialized and the snow refroze and I got the hell out of there and drove six hours home.
Friday, March 5 – Gore, Indian Lake, Newcomb, Schroon Lake Ski Tow
After exploring every 600-vertical-foot bump between Syracuse and Vermont the amazing endless labyrinth of Gore Mountain felt spectacular beyond description. Unfortunately the snow could be easily described and it was terrible. In the no-man’s land off the top of the Adirondack Express someone seemed to have swapped out the snowguns with cement mixers and while I have never been to Mars I imagine its rocky surface would somewhat resemble what I encountered last Friday at Gore. The trees were unskiable and the trails were shaved of anything resembling snow by 2 p.m. and so I left.
Where I went next was to a series of closed-for-the-evening town tows scattered across the southern Adirondacks, none of them more than probably 200 vertical feet. It’s a story I’ve already told on Twitter so here you go:
Sunday, March 7 – Shawnee, Pennsylvania
I have been skiing a lot alone so on Sunday we loaded up the family in the family minivan and drove the hour and a half out to Shawnee (not that Shawnee). As far as family mountains go there really aren’t any better ones, the terrain gentle from the top down and a beginner area isolated from the cascading trails above. Unfortunately the liftlines made Covid vaccine queues look reasonable by comparison and the ski area inexplicably had two lifts idle. This is the sort of thing that makes me reasonably certain I’ll never return at least not on a weekend with my family. I mean I get it labor is tight and lifts break but this is your business man and at some point you’ve got to get your shit together.