It’s no secret that I love skiing. Some of my most exhilarating, joyful moments have occurred sliding down a mountain on two planks. Standing on a summit, taking in the beauty of the scenery — the interplay of snow, mountains, trees, and sky— can be a downright spiritual experience. So when I see what’s been happening in the ski world lately, well, it hurts. Because it seems that skiing is in some sort of free-fall. And I’m not sure where it’s going to land.
Skiing has changed over the years. Sure, I know, change is inevitable. And I know it’s easy to see the past through rose colored glasses without acknowledging that yes, there were problems and yes, things were far from perfect. And although I know that griping about skiing is pretty unseemly — I mean, think about how privileged we are to ski at all — there’s a lot of ski-related stuff to gripe about these days. All of this has been covered pretty extensively everywhere from The New York Times to the Wall Street Journal to Outside Magazine. For an even more in-depth look, you can read Heather Hansman’s excellent book, Powder Days: Ski Bums, Ski Towns, and The Future of Chasing Snow (incidentally, I interviewed Heather just a few weeks ago. You can find it here).
The bottom line is this: Instead of being a respite from aggravation, skiing has become a source of aggravation for a lot of people. The reasons are numerous, complicated, and interconnected. In a nutshell, it’s a perfect storm of corporatization, cheap season passes, not enough staff, lack of affordable housing, resort mismanagement, and a two-year plus pandemic.
Let me explain how all this has affected me, personally.
I live in a small ski town in Vermont. Vermont is known for many things: the Green Mountains, beautiful countryside, picturesque villages, covered bridges — but most notably, there’s a way of life here that’s a lot slower paced than the rest of the country. I can drive to the next town and maybe never pass a car. I can leave the door of my house unlocked. I’m tuned in to when sugaring season arrives. That sort of thing.
That’s not to say we don’t welcome visitors. On any winter weekend, the small towns near ski areas are bursting with activity. And that’s fine. It’s necessary for the local economy, and it brings a shot of vitality to our sleepy little state. But in the past year or so, things have changed dramatically. And I don’t think it’s for the better.
Here’s what I’m seeing:
• Traffic on weekends is bumper to bumper, of the sort you’d experience in the big cities that most of these folks are trying to escape. Cars are backed up as far as 10 miles from the ski area.. And as if that’s not enough, cars searching alternate routes are spilling onto residential streets, so much so that locals can’t get out of their driveways to get to work or to the grocery store. I’ve seen responses on line that say we just need to build better roads. Easier said than done. Winding mountain roads can’t be turned into the Jersey Turnpike. And no one wants that to happen, anyway.
• The local community is incredibly stressed. Thanks to second homeowners moving in for longer durations and short-term rentals, people who live elsewhere are staying for prolonged periods of time. Sure, many of these people pay taxes and feel that they have a right to be here, because, well, they do. But the stress they put on the local environment is real. A community sewage system built for 2,000 residents can only take so much. The population has exploded, and it’s hard for a small town to hold up.
As part of this, going to the grocery store has become a real challenge. Lines snake down the aisles and shelves are regularly stripped bare. On my way back from a recent road trip, I stopped at a market an hour away to get groceries because I knew it’d be impossible closer to home.
• Parking at the ski resort is impossible. Forget about parking on weekends. The lots are completely full when the lifts open at 9:00 (at the latest), and cars are being diverted into maintenance lots without shuttle service to the main base. That makes for a long uphill slog on pavement and dirt. In the past, the close-in lot I customarily use was never full by 8:30, and now you have to get to the mountain by 8:00 just to get a space. Yes, even on a weekday.
• Massive lift lines. I wasn’t going to go here, but I will. The photographs you’ve seen online and in the papers are one hundred percent accurate. Sure, it’s always been busy on the weekends — but as they say, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Friday has become the new Saturday, and Monday the new Sunday. The weekend is twice as long and many times more crowded. For those who counsel that weekday skiing is a lot better, well, yes, it is. It’s better because it’s more or less the it was on weekends two years ago. If you want to call that better, then yes, you’re right. It’s become so bad that I’ve started driving 40 or 45 minutes to ski at other resorts. It’s not what I want to do, but it helps me maintain my sanity.
• Housing is really, really hard to find. A landlord in the area recently terminated the leases for 18 apartments so he could use them as short term rentals. There’s no such thing as affordable housing anymore.
So what’s the solution?
I don’t know. I think you’d need to know a lot more about town planning and resort management, traffic management, and economic and environmental sustainability than I do. I’m just a skier sitting at a keyboard, complaining about my privileged life.
What I do know is that these problems, at this scale, are new. Huge parts of the ski industry — in states and towns all across the country, not only in my little corner of Vermont — operate under a business model that never existed before. Bargain-priced season passes rule the day. Maybe they should be discounted less drastically. Maybe they should be sold in targeted varieties (for weekends only, or for a single resort). Maybe towns need more stringent rules regarding short term rentals, a movement that’s growing around here. Maybe we need better shuttle systems.
Regardless, something needs to change. The present system is not sustainable.
I love skiing. I love the act of skiing. That won’t change. But all this other stuff, no. Just no.