I don’t usually get confused in public restrooms, but there I was in the men’s room at the Mangy Moose: totally stumped. It was December, Jackson Hole was beginning to see the storms of this winter’s historic snowfall, and the skiing was superb. Town morale should have been peaking. There in the urinal, however, was a bumper sticker to the contrary that read IKONnot Ski. I was immediately bummed. The attitude it reflects is pervasive: that multi-passes, specifically Ikon and Epic, are bad for skiing and bad for ski towns.
If you do actually live in a ski town, and you bemoan tourist visitation, you are a hypocrite. First, please stop this elitist, radder-than-thou attitude toward beginners—we need new skiers. Nick Sargent, who heads up the Snowsports Industries of America, told the trade paper SGB as much last year: “Next to climate, participation is our biggest threat.”
Second, ski towns have an economy 100 percent based on the tourist dollar—we need crowds. Complaining about tourists is like the petulant server, angry that their restaurant is full. Patronage is entirely the point. And guess what? Before you moved to town, you visited for the first time once, too.
Yes, I saw footage of the Vail lift lines in early February. Yes, it was an incredible sight. No, it wasn’t shocking—they’ve had crowded lift lines since the Mesozoic Era. Like culture-appropriating Instagram models taking selfies at Coachella, this is just what happens at Vail.
That storm was Vail’s biggest of the 2019-20 season thus far—they reported 38 inches in 48 hours. In an open letter to the public, Vail Mountain COO Beth Howard said it was among the top-five snow events in the resort’s nearly 60-year history. Locals and tourists alike began to line up two hours before the resort opened at 8 a.m. The fact that ski patrol and mountain operations could get the resort safely opened at all is remarkable.
Howard also noted how the lines were gone by 10 a.m. on Friday and by 9:15 a.m. on Saturday, citing the gondola’s ability to manage the herd. “Once the initial group dissipated,” she said, “the line was around five minutes long the rest of those days.” If you don’t like crowds and lines, stay away from music festivals, the DMV, and a ski resort after almost 4 feet of featherlight powder blankets the mountain. Powder-day lift lines are as synonymous to skiing as skis. It’s not simply the fault of the multi-pass.
“The issue of crowding has always been a part of skiing,” Rusty Gregory, CEO of Alterra Mountain—which owns Ikon—told me. “The first person who set up a tow rope on a small hill, once word got out, there was a line there.”
Gregory said that Alterra is trying to understand demand and capacity to deliver the right guest experience. For example, Deer Valley caps ticket sales and Crystal Mountain now requires day tickets to be purchased in advance on weekends and holidays. Additionally, Gregory said $200 million in capital investment is being focused on increasing the lift capacity and downhill capacity of the Alterra resorts, particularly on those close to highly populated urban areas.
While ski resorts do not share exact skier visit numbers, Aspen Ski Co.’s VP of Communication Jeff Hanle told me that Aspen saw a 19-percent bump in skier visits with Ikon. After the atrocious drought of the 2017-18 season, the last two seasons have seen historic snowfalls all over the Mountain West. My sense is that most ski resorts (and their neighboring towns), who made the switch to multi-passes have seen increased overall revenue. Now, is the bump in visitation due to the multi-pass effect, or just a strong economy and feet of blower pow? It’s probably all of it.
Hanle is certainly happy with Aspen Ski Co.’s Ikon inclusion. “Ikon Pass helped energize skiers to explore more resorts and likely ski more days than they would have,” he said. “It allowed skiers who might not otherwise have visited us to give us a try, or return after many years. As a resort and an industry, we need this accessibility to grow the sport.”
If you’re a skier, particularly one who lives in a mountain resort town, you should rejoice at crowds. And if those crowds flew to your town because of their fancy multi-passes, rejoice at that, too—the only thing better for your town’s economy than a crowd is a crowd with deep pockets.
More skiing begets more skiing. Pass it on: Clued-in skiers explained the sport’s cultural quirks to each of us long before we knew the difference between a gaper gap and a road gap. It’s our duty to continue that inclusion. The skiing community that I know and love gifts expert knowledge. We don’t close the door on beginners, we don’t believe in too much snow or too many 50-cent chicken wings at après. There’s no such thing as “too much” in skiing.
And if you encounter people who insist that crowds are bad, that the hill has too many tourists, that multi-passes are killing the vibe, do what I did in the bathroom at the Mangy Moose: pee on them. Or, you know, just walk away.
Paddy O’Connell is a reformed ski town local who now enjoys making a living.
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