The Northeast Multipass Wish List, Part 1

Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island

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It all happened so fast, this multipass proliferation across the Northeast. Rewind four years: Vail owned zero New England mountains. Alterra and its Ikon Pass didn’t exist. Neither did the Indy Pass. Peak Resorts had recently debuted its Peak Pass, which seemed like a miracle with a $999 top price and unlimited access to Hunter, Mount Snow, Wildcat, Attitash, Crotched, and Jack Frost-Big Boulder, but it didn’t offer Western access. The M.A.X. Pass did, with five days each at Winter Park, Steamboat, Big Sky, Crested Butte and others complementing a solid eastern lineup of Whiteface, Gore, Sugarloaf, Sunday River, Killington, Okemo, and Stratton, among others. But it wasn’t a season pass even though it was priced like one at $699. The Freedom Pass offered three reciprocal days for passholders at a shifting roster of ski areas, but the mountains themselves received no revenue for these visits.

Fast forward to today: Vail is arguably the dominant player in Northeast skiing, owning 13 ski areas from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire, all skiable on Epic Passes that, on the pricier tiers, include access to the company’s Western mountains. Alterra’s Ikon Pass grants unlimited access to Sugarbush and Stratton, plus days at Sunday River, Sugarloaf, Killington, Loon, Pico, Windham, and some of North America’s best Western ski areas: Alta-Snowbird, Jackson Hole, Aspen, Taos, Steamboat, Big Sky, Revelstoke, and many others. As Vail ate the Peak Pass and Alterra killed the M.A.X. Pass, the Indy Pass rose as the budget alternative, a can-this-be-real $199 for two days each at more than 50 ski areas, including Jay Peak, Cannon, and Magic Mountain in the Northeast. For passholders at partner ski areas, the pass is a $129 add-on. The Freedom Pass lives on, but most of its larger partners have abandoned the coalition in favor of the Indy Pass.

We’re not done yet. The Northeast is rippling with more than 130 ski areas spread across nine states, and many of the best remain unaffiliated with a national multipass, including Smugglers’ Notch, Mad River Glen, Whiteface, Bretton Woods, and Waterville Valley. As the Epic, Ikon, and Indy passes entrench themselves in the region, they are resetting skier expectations for what a season pass is: keys to their home hill, yes, but also a passport to multiple destinations across the continent. Expensive single-mountain passes are getting difficult to justify. Pressure to join one pass or another is likely to grow as customers demand it.

Not every ski area will join a multipass, and not every ski area should. But most sizeable ski areas – those with more than 1,000 feet of vertical – eventually probably will. Whether that’s one of the big existing national passes or a yet-to-be-imagined regional product is impossible to say for sure, but here are my best guesses as to where the most compelling current free agents would fit best.

Today I’ll cover Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. I’ve left out the western portions of Pennsylvania and New York, as I’m less familiar with those markets, though I’d welcome your insight on which of those mountains would fit where. I’ll cover Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine later this week. I’d love to hear alternate takes on which mountains would best fit which pass, including ski areas I overlooked.

PENNSYLVANIA:

Already on a multipass:

  • Epic Pass: Liberty, Roundtop, Whitetail, Jack Frost, Big Boulder

  • Indy Pass: Blue Knob, Shawnee

Top free agents: Camelback, Montage, Elk, Blue

Elk Mountain

This is the best pure skier’s mountain in Pennsylvania. Bumpy and steep, with 1,000 vertical feet of fall-line skiing, Elk sits north of the frantic Poconos beehives that make skiing in the state such a Times-Square-on-New-Year’s-Eve proposition.

Optimal pass: Indy

Why this pass: Indy already claims the second-best skier’s mountain in Pennsylvania in Blue Knob, but Elk, which sits under three hours from Philadelphia and New York City, is a better anchor mountain for cityfolk looking for solid day trips before trekking north for weekends at Cannon and Jay Peak.

Montage Mountain

Here’s another thousand-footer that is essentially two ski areas stacked atop each other: a meandering blue-and-green field upper mountain and a freefalling lower mountain that includes some of the steepest terrain in the Northeast. This is the standout skier’s mountain of the Poconos.

Optimal pass: Indy

Why this pass: An ideal Indy Pass mountain has a little attitude, a few terrain surprises, and is often hidden in the midst of larger and better-promoted neighbors. In Montage’s case, that’s the Vail duo of Jack Frost-Big Boulder and ubiquitous-in-advertising Camelback. Montage puts up a good fight in the midst of all this, a beefy little bruiser rising on the outskirts of Scranton. Indy Pass would provide an awareness boost, while the mountain would inject the pass with a bit of Poconos attitude alongside tamer Shawnee.

Camelback

Big and busy, with a waterpark anchoring its base, Camelback is a bullseye for New York City skiers who want a compromise between the Catskills’ austerity (Belleayre and Plattekill), and soul-busting busyness (Windham and Hunter). It’s still a frenetically busy place, but 100 percent night skiing helps spread the crowds, and, for families, there’s something to do other than drink at the end of the day.

Optimal pass: Ikon

Why this pass: Frankly, I don’t understand why Camelback is not already an Ikon Pass mountain. KSL Capital Partners, which owns Camelback under its KSL Resorts arm, is the co-owner of Alterra, along with Henry Crown and Company (which in turn owns Aspen-Snowmass). Dropping Camelback onto the Ikon Pass as a five- or seven-day limited partner seems like a no-brainer move that would give Alterra a counterweight to Vail’s Jack Frost-Big Boulder combo just down the road.

Blue Mountain

One of a half dozen or so thousand-foot-ish ski areas floating in the orbit of the Poconos, Blue Mountain is one of the state’s larger ski areas. Roughly equidistant from New York City and Philadelphia, this would be wise addition to any multipass.

Optimal pass: Ikon

Why this pass: If it’s not going to be Camelback, it should be Blue, a Windham-style mid-sized addition that would attract day-tripping city dwellers looking for longer trips north and west. Vail already has five Pennsylvania ski areas and probably doesn’t need more redundancy. Blue would also be a good fit for Indy, though the bland-ish terrain and big-city crowds aren’t a perfect match for Indy’s image of overlooked cage-fighters.

NEW JERSEY:

Top free agents: Mountain Creek

Mountain Creek

I’ll say it over and over: Mountain Creek is a first-rate operation. It’s big, sprawling over two miles along NJ route 94 and rising 1,000 vertical feet. The lift system, thanks to Intrawest’s 1990s largess, is outstanding. The snowmaking team must recruit from Hogwarts, because the geniuses making snow in a place where it never snows anymore (until earlier this month), are absolute wizards. And the season pass is $230 if you buy early enough. Yeah, it’s overrun by bozos and knuckleheads. But welcome to the Northeast. An hour and fifteen minutes from my Brooklyn apartment, it’s where I ski when I don’t have a full day to commit to skiing. Go early, leave early, ski during the week. It’s better than you think if you know how to approach the place, and immersing yourself in its frenetic bluster is going to be better for your soul than telling everyone who will listen how much you hate it.

Former multipass participation: M.A.X. Pass member

Optimal pass: Ikon or Epic

Why this pass: When Intrawest scooped up the motley collection of antique chairlifts known as Vernon Valley-Great Gorge in 1998, they did so primarily because of its proximity to one of the largest ski markets on the planet: metropolitan New York City. The place hasn’t moved, and dropping this bigger-than-you-think mountain onto an Epic or Ikon Pass is very consistent with the hit-em-where-they-live strategy that has skiers in Detroit and Chicago buying Epic Passes to ski their local for a warm-up before flying (or in the case of Midwesterners, driving) West for their big holiday. While Snow Operating – which owns Mountain Creek and the Big Snow indoor snowdome – is unlikely to sell, this would be an easy partnership.

NEW YORK:

Already on a multipass:

  • Epic Pass: Hunter

  • Ikon Pass: Windham

  • Indy Pass: Greek Peak, Catamount, Snow Ridge, Swain

Top free agents: Belleayre, Gore, Whiteface, Plattekill

Belleayre, Gore, Whiteface

This trio of state-owned and Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA)-managed ski areas includes the two best mountains in New York state: Whiteface and Gore. The former has the largest vertical drop in the Northeast, an Olympic legacy, steep fall-line skiing, and the rarely open Slides, one of the finest chunks of on-the-map sidecountry terrain East of Colorado. The latter has a sprawling glade network set across multiple peaks, a good lift system (somewhat offset by a confusing layout), and relatively uncrowded slopes. Belleayre is about as close to a perfect family mountain as exists, with tiered, unintimidating terrain served by a summit gondola, which is the best lift in the state. Too bad all of them average 50-100 fewer inches of snow than they’d need to more consistently take advantage of all that great natural terrain.

Current multipass participation: The three ski areas share the NY SKI3 Pass

Former multipass participation: Former M.A.X. Pass member

Optimal pass: Ikon or Indy Pass

Why this pass: Any pass deal would likely be all-or-nothing, and the pass partner would be getting a lot: Belleayre is just two-and-a-half day-trippable hours from New York City, and Gore and Whiteface sit just outside of the resort towns of Lake George and Lake Placid, respectively. Terrain-wise, Whiteface and Gore can rival the best Vermont ski areas when conditions are right. The Ikon Pass would make sense given the trio’s history on the M.A.X. Pass, which was built off the same base coalition of Powdr, Boyne, and Intrawest (which Alterra absorbed). It felt like a scandalous oversight when Alterra left this New York trio out of the Ikon party. Three years later and there are no signs that Ikon is interested, and since ORDA’s SKI3 Pass seems to be selling well, an Indy Pass partnership that offered two days at each mountain, rather than Ikon’s five or seven, would perhaps be less likely to cannibalize pass sales. Unless, of course, Ikon lumped the three mountains together as a “destination” with five or seven days between them, as it’s done for the four Aspen mountains and neighboring Alta and Snowbird.

Plattekill

I skied Hunter and Plattekill on the same Saturday last season, and moving from one to the other was as close as you’ll get to time travel. Hunter was mobbed and frenetic, a high-speed node in Vail’s expansive empire. Forty minutes away, Plattekill’s fixed-grip lifts churned with no liftlines and spare slopes. Plattekill is always a downshift, manageable even on powder days and holidays, with beastly terrain and the most snow in the Catskills. What you lose in vertical drop compared to its neighbors you make up for in atmosphere and cost. This is a family-owned place and a good one. Not familiar with Plattekill? New York Ski Blog has been blaring the bullhorn on this one for years. Owners Danielle and Laszlo Vajtay joined me on The Storm Skiing Podcast last year.

Former multipass participation: Freedom Pass

Optimal pass: Indy Pass

Why this pass: Plattekill, with no lodging or flimflam, wouldn’t fit anywhere else. But it fits the Indy Pass perfectly: when current owners Danielle and Laszlo Vajtay bought the place in the early 90s, nearly a dozen ski areas dotted the Catskills. Today, they are the last independent operation left, improbable survivors in a perpetual fistfight with their larger and better-capitalized neighbors: Hunter (owned by Vail), Belleayre (owned by the State of New York), and Windham (owned by an investment group). Joining the Indy Pass would multiply Plattekill’s marketing power exponentially, introducing the ski area to otherwise oblivious day-trippers in the New York City metro area.

CONNECTICUT:

Already on a multipass:

  • Indy Pass: Mohawk Mountain

Top free agent: Ski Sundown

Ski Sundown

Here it is, a terrific little skier’s mountain where you think one couldn’t possibly exist. Steep and bumpy Satan’s Stairway highlights a foursome of frontside black diamonds that run most of the way down Sundown’s 625 feet of vertical. There’s plenty of meandering good stuff for families too, including the Sunnyside learning pod, which has a pair of magic carpets and a triple chair that are completely isolated from the gnar spilling off the summit.

Optimal pass: Epic Pass

Why this pass: Vail has two kinds of mountains: the kind you’ll fly around the world to ski and the kind you won’t drive more than 30 miles to ski*. Those in the latter category tend to be small-ish operations on the outskirts of major population centers such as Mt. Brighton (Detroit) and Wilmot (Chicago) that have been folded into the Vail portfolio as local Epic Pass billboards: ski with the kids here on weekends and plan that big trip out to Beaver Creek for spring break, all on one pass. Ski Sundown, situated just outside large-ish Hartford, capital of tony Connecticut, fits this template perfectly. Vail’s history of smaller acquisitions suggests it is more willing to buy a place like Sundown than Alterra, and neither would likely bother with a limited-day partnership with such a small ski area. This actually wouldn’t be a bad Indy Pass mountain, but the presence of competitor Mohawk Mountain, just 25 miles down the road, makes such a partnership unlikely.

*The addition of Northeast mountains to Vail’s portfolio added a third category of weekender mountains such as Okemo or Mount Snow, which skiers are likely to drive several hours to ski for a day or a weekend or even a week, but are less likely to fly from, say, Switzerland to ski.

RHODE ISLAND:

Top free agent: Yawgoo

Yawgoo

The indomitable Yawgoo is the last ski area in a state that shouldn’t logically have one. But decades of experience thriving in the margins of a warm coastal climate have made this 245-vertical-foot bump a fact of Northeast skiing. It’s small, busy, and wild, an urban ski area sitting just south of Providence that introduces countless new skiers to the sport.

Former multipass participation: Freedom Pass

Optimal pass: Epic Pass

Why this pass: The logic here is the same as it is with Ski Sundown – Yawgoo is a well-run, cash- and people-adjacent ski area seated in the heart of a passionate ski region. It’s a potential Epic Pass goldmine, likely prodding every skier in the state to buy some version of the product. Hit Yawgoo for some after-work turns, float up to Mount Snow or Attitash or Okemo on the weekend. While the spirit is there, the ski area may be a bit small for Indy Pass, which tends to favor partners with actual terrain to offset their lack of big-marketing awareness.


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