Most of us take up skiing for a variety of reasons: we love the feeling of freedom we get when we fly down the slopes; we take delight from the physicality of the movement, the striving to perfection; we enjoy being outdoors with nature.
For some of us, too, there’s a feeling of adventure, maybe even of recklessness. We love the adrenaline rush we get when we huck a cornice or conquer the steeps. At the very least, we’re outdoors braving the cold while the rest of the world is sitting indoors watching TV. We’re badass, we’re doers, not lethargic couch sitters.
So when we see video like the one below (and who hasn’t?), it’s pretty dispiriting. The feeling of freedom, so integral to skiing, gets blown out of the water. Instead, it’s replaced with anxiety, aggravation, even despair. I don’t know about you, but this is not why I took up skiing.
It seems like this year, skiing has turned a corner. We’ve entered entirely new territory. Overcrowding, which used to be an occasional issue, is getting more and more common. I can’t recall ever seeing or hearing about so many instances of soul-crushing lift lines. Traffic to the mountains is getting worse, too, and parking impossible. Like a love affair gone wrong, skiing is becoming less fun and more of a hassle. And that’s not what skiing is supposed to be about.
So what’s going on?
Are more people skiing than ever before? Not really. Growth in the ski industry has been flat for decades, and a report from the National Ski Areas Association backs that up. In that report, released last year, NSAA president, Kelly Pawlek, wrote, “We have not hit 10 million participants since 2011. We are also not keeping up with our historical percentage of US population capture. Last season our participants represented 2.9 percent of the US population and we have not hit 3 percent since 2014.” As the biggest demographic of skiers — the baby boomers — ages and moves off the hill, there’s even been a big push to get more women, Millennials, and people of color into skiing. But that’s a topic for another post.
In spite of this, skier visits are indeed up. In April, NSAA announced that skier visits to US areas totaled over 59 million for the 2018/19 season, a nearly 11% increase over the 2017/18 total of 53.3 million (for more figures, check out this table from the NSAA). It’s anybody’s guess how skier visits have increased at EPIC and IKON resorts, but anecdotal evidence — and videos like the one above — suggest that it’s probably significant. I’ve been on ski lifts with people who’ve told me they’ve chosen X over Y resort simply because it was part of the EPIC or IKON pass. And I’m pretty sure they’re not alone.
When you think about the economics of the situation, it’s really no surprise. In the past, the cost of a lift ticket or season pass could be a major deterrent to someone who wanted to ski. It’s one of the things that have consistently kept people away from the sport. But with a wave of their magic wands, Vail and Alterra have turned things completely around. By any measure, the multi-resort passes are a bargain. If you bought the base IKON pass in the spring, for example, you paid just $649. for an adult ticket. This gave you unlimited skiing at 12 destinations and up to 5 days at 25 additional mountains (yes, there were a few blackout dates). The EPIC pass, though more expensive, was similarly a great bargain: $939 for access to 43 North American resorts, as well as a handful in Europe and Australia. When you consider that a single day lift ticket at many resorts now approaches $200, that’s an unbelievable savings. And while neither Vail or Alterra releases many details about pass sales, Vail announced in December it had sold more than 1.2 million EPIC passes for this winter, an increase of 22 percent. Alterra said it sold more than 250,000 IKON passes last winter, and sales for this season were up considerably. Add all these passes to proximity to major population centers — Denver, for example, or Seattle — and you have a perfect storm for overcrowded resorts.
Putting skiing within economic reach of the masses is not a bad thing, and there’s no question that lower costs allow more people to ski. The question is whether the ski areas have the infrastructure in place to handle it. Parking lots, dining facilities, and ski lifts are stressed to the breaking point. Even getting to the mountain is more difficult than it used to be. Colorado’s mountain-bound I-70 corridor is notoriously choked on winter weekends, and Stowe in Vermont has seen traffic back-ups like never before.
Sure, there are areas that aren’t on the multi-resort pass. But when skiers get more bang for their buck by going to an IKON or EPIC resort, going somewhere else becomes less attractive. This opens up a whole new set of problems. The multi-resort passes make it increasingly difficult for smaller, independent resorts to remain competitive. Since the 1980’s, roughly 33% of US ski areas have gone out of business and up to 150 more are considered threatened by industry experts. Sure, there are a lot of factors that have caused this to happen. Many of these places were smaller Mom and Pop hills. But though they had limited lifts and trails, they also nurtured beginner skiers and served as feeder hills for resorts like Vail. What’s more, they offered something larger resorts generally lack: a measure of character and community involvement that goes to the heart of what skiing is all about. So while the multi-resort passes are great for the big guys, it’s not so great for the places that skiers are not going.
So what’s the answer?
Damned if I know. Damned if anyone knows. On the one hand, who doesn’t want to spend less to ski? On the other, who wants to fight with crowds and stand in lift lines for an hour?
Some ski areas have responded by limiting access to IKON and EPIC pass holders. And as unpopular as this may be, it may indeed be the best solution. Deer Valley, for example, only allows IKON holders 7 days per season despite being owned by Alterra. It also halted lift ticket sales for five days this winter to keep skier numbers below its target maximum. And Crystal made headlines this year by eliminating window ticket sales on weekends and holidays. Others, like A-Basin, have opted out of the EPIC pass altogether, citing parking and restaurant capacity issues as a warning sign.
As skiers, we have other alternatives, too. We don’t have to buy the multi-resort pass at all, or if we do, we can frequent smaller areas on the busiest of days. Backcountry skiing is also an option (but please get avalanche training), as is mid-week and non-holiday skiing, if you can manage it.
There’s no question the multi-resort passes have brought about a new day in skiing. The question is what the industry does with it.
After a 4 hour trip from Denver to Winter Park last weekend (and as someone who had the Rocky Mountain pass the 6 years before Ikon and skied ~30 days/season, mostly environment-destroying day trips), I’m considering not skiing anymore. I’m not having fun. Something that I love so deeply just makes me grumpy. So instead, me and apparently hundreds of other Denverites, are just doing Ski Fit classes at the gym on Saturday mornings. Womp womp.
It’s worth noting that A Basin is on the Ikon pass. It’s also worth noting that everywhere I went last season with the new Ikon pass (Jackson hole, Banff, Taos), everyone hated us. Zermatt in Europe had no idea they were even on the Ikon pass when we went in January but when your hill is 16 times bigger than Vail you notice less.
More trams! Perhaps that’s the answer.
I think we should all patronize the smaller hills. Surely you don’t need huge steeps every time you ski. So many of these wonderful mom-and-pop ski areas have gone out of business, and it’s a terrible shame. These are the inexpensive places where most of us learned to ski, with families in the lodges and a fire in the fireplace. Often, they’re less than an hour’s drive from home, making them easily accessible. These places need us, and the massive resorts with their traffic terror, parking nightmare, and lift line horror would be better off without us on the weekends, at least.