By R. Scott Rappold
Looking for Skiing’s Soul? Check Independent Ski Areas
It’s a question I get nearly every day at my local ski area, whether I’m riding the lift with a vacationer from Dallas or a powder chaser from the Front Range.
“What days at other ski areas do you get with a Wolf Creek season pass?”
None. Nothing. Zilch. Just unfettered access to a mountain that gets an average of 450 inches of snow a year.
And that lack of reciprocity is just fine with a lot of the locals.
It’s skiing like it used to be, the old soul of skiing, where making sure someone has a good experience on the mountain matters as much as the bottom line.
In an industry becoming more consolidated—Vail Resorts now owns 40 ski areas around the globe—where multi-mountain passes like Epic and Ikon give skiers dozens of places to go without having to buy a lift ticket, Wolf Creek remains an enigma.
You park for free and walk right up to the lifts (unless you get there late on a busy holiday and have to ride a bus.) There are no ski-in, ski-out condos, posh boutiques or fancy on-mountain restaurants. Lift lines are practically unheard-of. And you can buy lift tickets for the family without having to take out a second mortgage.
It’s skiing like it used to be, the old soul of skiing, where making sure someone has a good experience on the mountain matters as much as the bottom line. The few independent ski areas left fill an important niche in the industry.
“I find it refreshing,” says Wolf Creek CEO Davey Pitcher.
“We’re very aware of the fact we’re on public land. I do feel an obligation to try to provide a ticketing structure that doesn’t price out certain people who maybe aren’t sure about becoming part of the sport,” he says. “We think our independence allows us to focus on some of these needs that really revolve around public use of public land rather than running it as a bottom line business.”
A Family Business
On any given day, you might see Pitcher driving a snowcat, wearing a snorkel while he leads an avalanche-bombing crew or walking through the lodge smiling and shaking hands. On one busy day over this past Christmas, he parked cars.
Wolf Creek has been owned by the family since his father, legendary ski pioneer Kingsbury “Pitch” Pitcher, bought the dilapidated ski area in the late 1970s. Almost everything about the ski area has changed since then, except for the snow. Thanks to storms that come pounding out of the Southwest and collide with the Continental Divide, double-digit powder days are common.
This past holiday season, 120 inches of snow fell in 10 days at Wolf Creek.
With so much snow, skiers from across the West flock here. For many Ikon and Epic passholders, it’s probably the only window lift ticket they buy all winter. For that reason, ski pass consortiums have courted Pitcher for years.
“I’ve seen what it does to other ski areas. I’m not convinced it’s the best for the local communities and for the traveling public,” he says of the multi-mountain passes. “Not that I’m necessarily against it as much as the business model isn’t something we’re interested in.”
He’s referring to what has become a common gripe in mountain towns: Big crowds, long lift lines and quickly-tracked-out powder, as the multi-mountain passes encourage skiers to chase the best powder days, along with 10,000 of their new friends.
At Washington ski area Stevens Pass, crowds of Epic Pass holders combined with staffing shortages have gotten so bad that a petition at Change.org accusing owner Vail Resorts of deceiving consumers has garnered more than 43,000 signatures. Stories of full parking lots and long lift lines at Ikon and Epic pass resorts abound.
“Powder days have become very busy and there’s a lot of angst among the locals and the guests buying tickets that are paying full price, that their skiing experience is maybe less than perfect,” says Pitcher. “I think not having control over that in the middle of winter or not being able to at least understand where the visitation is coming from probably isn’t something we want to contend with.”
Wolf Creek is typically busy over the holidays and spring break, as many families from Texas and Oklahoma have been coming for generations. But it can often be empty on a random powder day in the middle of the week. Would that change if every skier from Summit County could come and ski for free?
Breaking away at A-Basin
In Colorado, nothing has shown the dark side of multi-mountain passes like what began occurring at Arapahoe Basin in the late 2010s.
For more than 20 years, skiers who bought the popular Vail Resorts passes for Keystone, Breckenridge, Vail and Beaver Creek, could also ski A-Basin, which had long been the quintessential “locals” hill. No lodging, relaxed vibe.
“On weekends, you might wait five minutes (in a lift line) but it’s working. The business is healthy and successful yet we have fewer skiers here.”-Katherine Fuller, Arapahoe Basin
A-Basin communications manager Katherine Fuller says as Colorado’s population swelled, the pass helped introduce a new generation of skiers to the ski area. The extra revenue helped fund two major terrain expansions, lodge improvements and numerous lift replacements.
“Our strategy for many years was to keep adding more and more skiers and we realized that just wasn’t creating a good experience for the guests,” she says.
Parking became the biggest issue. Hemmed in by jagged mountains on three sides, there simply wasn’t anywhere to put all the cars. Long lift lines also became common.
“The crowds became untenable,” Fuller says. “There were so many unlimited access products available through (the Epic Pass).”
So for the 2019-2020 season, A-Basin caused ripples throughout the industry by leaving the Epic Pass. Their goal was something anathema to most corporate business models: reducing the number of skiers by 20 percent.
It seems to have worked. Though A-Basin now participates in the Ikon Pass, there are blackout days and limitations. You can only ski the mountain as much as you want if you buy an A-Basin season pass.
It’s About the Skiers
“On weekends, you might wait five minutes (in a lift line) but it’s working. The business is healthy and successful yet we have fewer skiers here,” says Fuller. “When we get a big storm, the powder doesn’t get skied off as fast. If you know where to go you can find snow several days after a storm.”
Some Epic Pass locals grumbled about it—after all, A-Basin has the longest season in North America, often October through June—but Fuller says the ski area relishes the new independence.
“We have a personality and a vibe here that is quirky, laid back, welcoming. We have great terrain and delicious food. The way we make decisions here is about the ski and ride experience of the guests. Being independent allows us to be nimble. It allows us to react quickly to the needs of the guests.”
Back at Wolf Creek, as the 2020-21 season dawned, Pitcher took another step out on his own and dropped from the industry collective Colorado Ski Country USA. No longer was Wolf Creek included in marketing materials or even the statewide snow report.
Despite this move, and the uncertainties of running a ski area during a pandemic, Wolf Creek shattered its old record with 267,000 skier visits. That’s 40,000 more than the previous record. Sure, they had lots of powder and at times were the only area with deep snow.
But Pitcher also says his customers come for the experience of skiing an independent area, without the hassles and crowds of mega-resorts.
In this era of resort consolidation, he doesn’t see Wolf Creek as an endangered species.
“I don’t think holding out is really what we’re doing. There might be some changes in the future of these big (multi-mountain) collectives,” he says. “They might have created a monster and they may need to figure out how to put it back in the closet eventually.”
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