Well The Mountain Wouldn’t Be So Crowded If All This Damn Snow Would Stop

The Crystal Mountain Meltdown and the Future of the Ikon Base Pass

Good snow, cheap season passes, and an exploding regional population got together and ruined everybody’s good time out in Washington the weekend before last. The huge and until recently almost completely off-the-radar-outside-of-the-Pacific-Northwest Crystal Mountain ran out of parking and subsequently slammed the window shut on walk-up weekend and holiday day ticket sales through the end of February.

It was the right move. It is also not unprecedented. Magic Mountain in Vermont has limited day ticket sales for years. So has Deer Valley. And this is a fairly common (though not often triggered) crowd-control approach in the theme park world. That said, this whole circus is a jarring turn for the state’s skiers, who, lost along the seaboard between busy and built-up Tahoe and Whistler, are used to being lonely and ignored by anyone outside of their region.

Washington skiing is a curious thing. They have some seriously huge mountains and killer average annual snowfall totals. Crystal claims 2,600 acres on a 3,100-foot vertical drop with 486 inches of annual accumulation. Mt. Baker averages 600 inches and clocked a seasonal world record 1,140 inches of snow over the 1998-99 season. Yet, because the base areas at most mountains remain almost completely undeveloped, with very little on-slope lodging, they attract almost none of the out-of-state tourism that supercharges mountains of similar size elsewhere in the West.

That means that to get to Crystal, you have little choice but to day trip by car. This is a problem that’s bigger than skiing, in a country that has relied for too long on automobiles as the primary means of transit while steadily regulating wilderness development out of existence. That means too many people traveling to the same place at the same time. Aside from increasing bus service to and from the mountain, which Crystal has done, there isn’t much it can do short term to address these realities.

But about those skiing problems: before a dry MLK Monday, it had snowed 17 straight days at Crystal, totaling 112 inches. The Alterra-owned mountain is also unlimited with no blackouts on the Ikon Base Pass, meaning that anyone who thought ahead could have scored a season pass for just $649 ($619 if you were renewing your pass). If, like me, they renewed in April, they could also have picked up the kids version for $159. And the state, home to Amazon, Microsoft, and many other crafters of the modern economy, has added more than 2 million residents since 1990.

Snow + cheap access + lots of people is a formula for busy-ness. So the avalanche of skiers rolling out of the metro regions and into the mountains on a snowy Saturday morn should not have surprised anyone.

That it did means that Alterra has some work to do in assessing the long-term consequences of inexpensive passes on the mountains that they’re intended to benefit. When locals in Jackson Hole, Aspen, and Big Sky launched a season-long snowball fight against Ikon Pass holders last season, most area managers said, “Yeah, but look at all this snow.” This is essentially the same argument that Crystal is making now (though Crystal, unlike the aforementioned resorts, is actually owned by Ikon Pass-issuer Alterra). But eventually, someone will have to stop blaming the snow and acknowledge that this cheap mega-pass model may not be sustainable in its current form.

Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory has admitted as much in the past. “We’re not just throwing the product out there and sitting back to see how many people show up,” he told The Aspen Times in November. “We’re watching closely about how those trends continue and over time, you’ll see the resorts adapting individually to whatever paradigm passes in general and the Ikon Pass in particular start creating.”

So the Ikon Pass you see today may not be the Ikon Pass you see five years from now, or even next year. It’s hard to predict exactly how the model changes, but you can take some educated guesses. Even if Crystal were, say, blacked out on the Ikon Base Pass over holiday periods, it wouldn’t have dented the crowds over the three non-holiday weekends that sparked the no day-tickets policy. While a weekday-only or no-Saturday pass would be a good option, Alterra has so far shown a preference for a very simple two-product pricing model (with some local add-ons available for early access, etc.). Perhaps more Alterra-owned mountains adopt the Stratton/Steamboat model, in which the base pass only grants five days of access, and is blacked out completely over holiday periods. Skiers who want a full season pass would need to pay the additional $300 for a full Ikon Pass.

What is unlikely to happen is a massive price hike of the pass itself (though a change in tiering would essentially be exactly that for base pass holders accustomed to unlimited access). Not so long as Vail and its cheaper (after the initial deadline) Epic Pass are hanging out with a collection of just-around-the-corner mountains in nearly every region.

We are also likely to see a small but possibly significant shift in consumer preferences to smaller but less-busy independent mountains, at least among a certain subset of frequent and savvy skier. Washington has 14 ski areas, many of them quite large and most of them not owned by Alterra or Vail. Four of them are on Indy Pass, and three of those have a vertical drop of close to or more than 2,000 feet. As Vermont Ski + Ride editor Lisa Lynn said on The Storm Skiing Podcast, the rise of the bargain megapass and the crowds that come with it may be creating an enormous opportunity for independent ski areas and the passes coalescing around them.

We have already seen this happening to some extent in the Northeast, where crowd-weary southern Vermont skiers have gravitated toward a re-energized Magic Mountain. President Geoff Hatheway said that season pass sales and overall skier visits were soaring at his once overlooked and once near-bankrupt ski area. Berkshire East and Catamount owner and GM Jon Schaefer told me much the same about his two mountains.

I don’t know what this pass drama means for the Northeast, where Ikon Rage has never really dug in among the locals, but I have some guesses. While I have formerly said that Alterra may be forced into offering unlimited access on the Ikon Base Pass for Stratton and Sugarbush, since Vail’s neighboring Mt. Snow and Stowe (with blackouts) do the same on the cheaper Epic Local Pass, I don’t actually think that’s a good idea. And after viewing holiday liftlines at Vail’s Northeast mountains over the past snowy, holiday weekend (including at – gasp – Wildcat!), I think they may reconsider unlimited, no-blackout base pass access – which they offer at every mountain in the region save Stowe – as well.

Vail has only been in the Northeast for three seasons, and Alterra has only existed at all for two. Neither of these companies has this region figured out yet. The most expensive versions of each company’s passes will likely remain the season pass for all of their owned mountains (with the exception of Alterra’s Deer Valley), and at roughly $1,000 each, that is fair, and is actually substantially cheaper than most single-mountain passes were a decade ago. But beyond that, the tiered access on whatever passes develop below the full-blown versions may look very different from what we have today, both in our region and across the country.

Getting Loony with Octuple Fever (and other news about chairlifts)

Haven’t made it to Big Sky since they cracked the champagne bottle to christen Ramcharger 8 last season? Don’t worry, you’ll get your shot at Octuplefest Northeast- style starting next December at Loon:

I’ll have a lot more to say about Loon and their 2030 plan in the coming weeks.

In New York, the humble but necessary West Mountain cracked open their new triple last week, opening their Northwest trails for the season. The owners have been investing steadily over the past several years to continue building West out into an excellent family mountain. From Spectrum Local News:

Seven years have passed since Spencer Montgomery and his wife Sara were part of a group that purchased West Mountain.

"There wasn’t a lot of money being invested into the actual ski area,” Spencer Montgomery said. “There was a period of about 15 years where there wasn’t much of any capital investment made."

The Montgomerys and their partners have reversed that trend, pouring more than $17 million into the Queensbury ski resort since taking over.

Elsewhere

Olympian Doug Lewis takes us to the retro days of Middlebury College Snow Bowl – still a terrific and completely unheralded ski area – in Vermont Ski + Ride. The mag also outlines 50 must-ski trails in Vermont.

Former Waterville Valley GM Tom Day will be the new president and GM at Gunstock. More paperwork delays on the Saddleback deal. Freeskier on the Steel City Showdown at Seven Springs. Ice Coast Magazine profiles Boston-based Parlor ski company. More drama at Big Tupper in New York. The who-gets-which-parts-of-the-carcass contest continues at Hermitage Club AKA Haystack. Alterra now officially owns Sugarbush.

This week in skiing: a non-skiing weekend that included some skiing

Saturday, Jan. 18 – Big Boulder, Pennsylvania

I found myself on a non-skiing long weekend in the Poconos, my wife and kids and I splitting a large house with two other families for three nights of general beer-drinking and hanging out. But since there were mountains close by and I’m not made of sheer willpower, I absconded with my daughter in the mornings to make a few early turns.

Big Boulder is the kind of place that knows exactly what it is and does that one thing exceptionally well. It’s a small mountain and because of geography not an exciting one, but since it was long ago transformed into a giant terrain park, it is swarming at all times with the sorts of crowds that adore giant terrain parks. I am as a general rule fine with this crew, but holiday weekend crowds are not my kind of party. So I booted up and hit the lifts by 8 a.m., leaving my 11-year-old to finish her breakfast burrito and boot up at her leisure while I crushed some fast groomers. I have to say that the grooming was excellent, and the snow conditions very good, especially in the center of the mountain. We skied until the lifts started backing up, which unfortunately coincided with the arrival of a steady snowfall, which are my preferred ski conditions.

Sunday, Jan. 19 – Jack Frost, Pennsylvania

Again we arrived at 8 a.m. and booted up in an empty cafeteria, and again I took fast laps while Waverly eased into the morning. It’s easy to see why Peak bought this mountain and why it will fit nicely into Vail’s portfolio. With long-ish runs rambling through the trees, it skis big. The fall lines are nice and occasionally truly steep. The terrain is naturally segregated, from skier’s left to right, into green, blue and black pods. It is an excellent feeder hill in the mold of Vail’s feeder hills. At the same time, the antique side-by-side twin base-to-summit lifts give it an old-timey Poconos hokey pokey feel (and I have little doubt that Vail will uproot the entire system within five years and replace all these charming relics with new Doppelmayr detachables).

It snowed all morning. Here was my storm skiing. With few people on the slopes and little fear of ice mines I stomped on the gas and freewheeled joyously down the hill. For about two hours. And then everyone else in Pennsylvania showed up. Holiday weekend or not, skiing in Pennsylvania is an early-arriver’s game. By 10:45 the liftlines resembled the queue at a FEMA water truck the day after a Category 5 hurricane. If there’s one thing I dislike more than liftlines, it’s disorganized liftlines, and there was no apparent logic to the jumble-rama swarming about each lift base. And since we’d accomplished enough skiing on our non-skiing trip, we headed out and were back to the house in time for lunch.

More podcasts are coming – just not this week (probably)

When I launched The Storm Skiing Podcast in October, I had seven episodes in the can, and I recorded another three soon thereafter. I wanted to make sure I had a good supply of content to launch with, but I also didn’t want to record any more until I’d produced all of those. While my early guests were very understanding of the fact that our conversation may not air until several months after we’d recorded, I didn’t want to make a habit of it. When new podcasts come out, I want them to be representative of my subject’s most current thinking, especially given how fast the industry is evolving.

With that adjustment in approach is going to come a bit more inconsistency in the podcast release schedule – at least for now. They may not always be weekly, but more episodes are coming. I am actively working with at least six individuals on future episodes, and I am reaching out to new folks regularly. I had a really good subject lined up to record yesterday, and we had to move it to early February. That happens, especially in the heart of winter, especially when your main subjects are people who run ski resorts.

While you wait for that, you can check out some of these other rad skiing podcasts, all of which have been at this game a hell of a lot longer than me and do a very nice job: Low Pressure Podcast, High Falutin Ski Bums, Wintry Mix Podcast.

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The Storm Skiing Podcast is on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, and Pocket Casts. The Storm Skiing Journal publishes podcasts and other editorial content throughout the ski season. To receive new posts as soon as they are published, sign up for The Storm Skiing Journal Newsletter at skiing.substack.com. Follow The Storm Skiing Journal on Facebook and Twitter.

Check out previous podcasts: Killington & Pico GM Mike Solimano | Plattekill owners Danielle and Laszlo Vajtay | New England Lost Ski Areas Project Founder Jeremy Davis | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | Lift Blog Founder Peter Landsman | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Burke Mountain GM Kevin Mack | Liftopia CEO Evan Reece | Berkshire East & Catamount Owner & GM Jon Schaefer| Vermont Ski + Ride and Vermont Sports Co-Publisher & Editor Lisa Lynn|