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Hitting the slopes on skis or a snowboard will never suck. There’s nothing like toeing up to your favorite line and dropping in to dance with gravity. It’s everything up to and after that moment that’s become a buzzkill. And that’s not just the resentment of a thirtysomething Front Ranger jealous he can’t play hooky for midweek storms anymore. The U.S. ski industry has lost enough of its luster that newbies aren’t picking up the sport quickly or fervently enough to replace the Baby Boomers retiring their sticks each season, according to a 2017 report by the National Ski Areas Association.
If you’re simply looking at affordability, it’s easy to see why. The average price of a day pass in the United States jumped from around $59 in 2005 to $130 in 2018. That’s a 120 percent increase, four times the rate of inflation over the same period. Those nationwide averages can seem quaint in the Centennial State, where walk-up tickets at Vail Mountain Resort ran north of $200 last season. The stoke has been suppressed by other costs as well. The cost of fuel, lodging, parking, gear, and food. The cost of patience. The cost of climate-changing traffic.
Yet, pandemic aside, the Gore-Tex-bedecked crowds in Colorado have been thicker than ever. In 2018-’19, the state broke its annual record with around 13.8 million visits. How can the industry be both struggling and booming? Laurent Vanat, the French author of the annual 200-plus-page International Report on Snow and Mountain Tourism, points to the mega pass. While resorts are laboring to bring in new skiers, the convenience and prices of the Epic and Ikon passes may be encouraging existing skiers to head to more resorts more often, he writes: “The business model of the large U.S. resorts can be summarized as trying to get always more money from always less customers.”
Something has to give, and the resorts seem to know it. In Colorado, Arapahoe Basin announced it would reduce pass sales this season by 10 percent—not for social distancing, but because it can’t fit any more cars in its lots. Eldora Mountain is adding 800 new parking spaces and will charge solo drivers $10 for a spot on peak days to encourage them to hop on its free shuttles from Boulder instead. New chairlifts with more seats and faster transit times are popping up around the state to shorten lift lines. But change is slow, and until the resorts, state, and skiers—both tourists and residents—come together to make it happen, it’s up to us to take responsibility for our own fun. To help with that, we rounded up some practical advice—plus a few big-picture ideas from our wish list—to make this season worth the hassle, and then some.
Break New Ground
These nine resorts’ on-mountain improvements are the perfect excuse to bust out of your routine this season. —Nicholas Hunt
Disney-style line skipping is debuting in Colorado this season; starting at $49 a day, you’ll gain access to dedicated Fast Tracks lift lines. You’ll also gain the ire of every skier you pass.
Last season, Monarch installed a midmountain food trailer at the bottom of its Panorama lift. This season, it added restrooms, so you don’t have to do the pee-pee dance down to the lodge.
Free Skiing For Grommets
The Power Kids program has long been a wallet-saver for parents. Now Purg has increased the upper age limit for the free, unlimited season pass from 10 to 12 years old.
The languid, four-person Peru Express lift has been upgraded to a high-speed six-seater that promises shorter lines and better skier circulation.
Beaver Creek Resort
With two lifts, 250 acres, and 17 beginner and intermediate trails, new-this-season McCoy Park is ideal for honing your skills or spending a relaxed day on the hill with your family.
To celebrate their 60th anniversaries this season, Crested Butte and Breckenridge both treated themselves to new lifts.
Trail crews at Leadville’s local hill spent the offseason adding two new runs in the Tennessee Creek Basin, a steep tree-skiing zone that opened last year.
Resort-Run Snowcat Tours
Loveland Ski Area
Sending Dry Gulch’s open bowl and surrounding trees without having to earn your turns? Yes, please.
Sleep Like A Texan
One mountain-town local explains why staying slopeside isn’t just for out-of-staters.
Look, I get it. When you travel within your own state, you don’t want to feel like a rube. After all, you’ve got the skill, you’ve got the gear, and you shudder at the thought of being lumped in with the traveling hordes. But Front Rangers need to get over themselves. Take it from a townie: Stop pretending to be a local and admit to being the tourist you are. By embracing your visitor status, you give yourself permission to exploit the true “fast pass” to the mountain: ski-in, ski-out lodging.
This may seem like a preposterous idea. Slopeside accommodations are for oil-moneyed Texans, not for a regular Coloradan like yourself. Instead, you make one of two poor choices. You either spend six hours on I-70 making a daytrip, or you book a short-term rental in a hip neighborhood far from the base area to indulge your local fantasies for the weekend. Either way, you’re sentencing yourself to the same sufferfest of full parking lots, packed shuttles, standing-room-only buses, and monster gondola lines.
Why not sidestep those bottlenecks entirely and hit the slopes on your schedule? That’s what makes ski-in, ski-out lodging so satisfying. You can shred fresh snow in the morning, duck back to home base for a DIY lunch, and re-emerge for a late afternoon session when the crowds have died down. You can warm your icy toes in the hot tub or by the gas fireplace in your room instead of in the resort cafeteria, you can return to your private accommodations for easy-button bathroom breaks, and uphillers can even snag predawn workouts while the rest of the crew keeps snoozing—all without ever moving your car or fighting for an open table at the lodge.
And while slopeside digs can run well over $1,000 a night in Vail, they aren’t always as expensive as you’d think. My hometown of Steamboat Springs has a substantial inventory of on-mountain condos, such as those in the Storm Meadows complex, that rent for well under $400 per night, making them comparable to Silverthorne’s chain hotels. Similar deals can be snagged in Winter Park, Crested Butte, and Copper Mountain. So, channel your inner Texan and sleep where no locals ever lay their heads—unless they’ve passed out after a particularly epic après. —Kelly Bastone
Ease Into Uphill
Backcountry skiing is booming as people search for fresh powder and thinner crowds, but out-of-bounds exploring isn’t as simple as buying an alpine touring (AT) setup. The gear can be complicated, the technique different, and the terrain dangerous. Sound daunting? It doesn’t have to be. These four steps are a fun progression to learn the sport and, above all, become a safe and competent backcountry skier or rider. —Jen Murphy
Step 1: Inbound Lessons
Before you throw down for pricey equipment, make sure you actually enjoy the heart-pumping trudge up the mountain with Winter Park Resort’s three-hour Intro to Uphill tour. The course includes rental gear and highlights the basics, like when to use your heel risers to keep your boot level on steep ascents and how to manage your skins, the unwieldy fabric cutouts that turn your skis into extra-long snowshoes. $89; winterparkresort.com
Step 2: Go Guided
Vail Resort’s Nordic School takes clients into the White River National Forest on half- and full-day guided trips. Bring your own splitboard or AT skis, and the school will provide a beacon, probe, and shovel, plus instruction on how to use them in the event of an avalanche. Options range from mellow tours past abandoned mines to challenging high-alpine traverses. From $322; vail.com
Step 3: Backcountry Lite
With 1,200 acres of terrain and no lifts, Bluebird Backcountry—located just 30 minutes east of Steamboat Springs—feels like the wilderness. Good signage, ski patrol, and avalanche mitigation, however, create a controlled environment perfect for practicing essential backcountry skills, like route-planning, transitioning into ski mode,
and kick-turning up steep snow. Day passes from $45; season passes from $275; bluebirdbackcountry.com
Step 4: Get Schooled
Earn your AIARE 1 certification from the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, the gold standard for avalanche safety instruction, during an epic hut trip with Colorado Adventure Guides. The three-day courses are based out of Summit County’s sweetest backcountry cabins. Your gear and basic uphill skills should be dialed so that field time can be devoted to learning how to read terrain, recognize hazards, and manage risk—which you’ll need to know to strike out on your own. From $895; coloradoadventureguides.com
We need resorts to help get single-occupancy vehicles off I-70.
I’ve played both roles in the theater that is I-70 during ski season. I’ve been squeezed three abreast in a friend’s car in standstill traffic glaring out the fogged window at the driver next door sitting alone in his truck. Screw that guy, I’d think. On the other hand, I can’t count the number of mornings I’ve actually been that guy.
I’m proof that while we might wish altruism were enough to make us do the right thing and carpool, it’s not. Because even though I’m fully aware of the impact single-occupancy vehicles create—the traffic jams, the pollution, the health concerns—the draw of a powder day is often too strong to stop me from taking the wheel solo. We need something to counter that pull.
Kay Kelly, head of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Office of Innovative Mobility, believes incentives, the proverbial carrots implemented by policymakers and businesses to change our behaviors, can be just that. “But not every incentive is going to appeal to every person,” she says. “You need a variety to appeal to other people’s priorities.”
That might mean discounted parking for high-occupancy vehicles or cheaper lift tickets for skiers who board CDOT’s Snowstang bus service, both of which could have an immediate impact. Weekends during the season commonly see more than 50,000 vehicles on I-70 a day with an average occupancy of just 1.9 people. Kelly estimates that if every vehicle filled its seats, we’d cut traffic in half. But for that to happen, the ski resorts need to step up. Because while the mountains don’t have an obligation to mitigate the traffic they create, they do have direct influence over the majority of winter weekend drivers.
To be fair, a handful of I-70-adjacent mountains, including Arapahoe Basin, Loveland, Breckenridge, and Copper, along with Eldora and Aspen Snowmass, have perks to encourage carpooling and alternative transportation. However, Stuart Anderson, executive director of Denver-based Transportation Solutions, which advises regional partners on traffic management and more, says they haven’t been robust enough. When I asked nearly a dozen mountains if they planned to implement new incentives or update the few that already exist, only two had concrete plans. Breckenridge is implementing a $5 parking discount for cars with four or more people, and Eldora, as required by Boulder County, is charging solo drivers $10 to park on weekends and holidays.
Anderson says the first step should be for resorts to educate their guests more effectively, particularly around carpooling’s positive impacts. Then they need to offer more compelling benefits, such as serious discounts at their ticket windows, restaurants, and pro shops, not just a small break on parking. It won’t be easy—when Eldora announced $20 charges for vehicles with two or fewer occupants in 2018, so many skiers protested that it nixed the plan—but the resorts must find the will to do unpopular things, like fees and turning every preferred parking spot over to carpoolers. “At the end of the day,” he says, “people are rational economic decision-makers.”
To complicate matters, these incentives will have to keep pace with population growth, says Margaret Bowes of the nonprofit I-70 Coalition. “There is concern that as soon as we take a car off the road, there are going to be two new residents that replace it,” she says, and time is running out. “Colorado is developing a reputation for congestion. That’s not good for the ski industry anywhere in the state.” —Jay Bouchard
Ditch Your Car
Thanks to a new Colorado law legalizing carpooling apps, these companies aim to reduce I-70 traffic by connecting skiers heading to the same resorts. —Jen Murphy
Selling point: Get rewarded for carpooling with food and drink perks at resorts. In-app messaging makes it easy to coordinate pickup spots.
Number of mountains served: 10
Cost to ride: $20 to $45, round trip
Best for: Après fans
Selling point: Carpool one way or round trip to the mountain or to backcountry trailheads and Nordic ski centers.
Number of mountains served: Anywhere the driver is willing to go
Cost to ride: Depends on the destination, but a trip from Denver to Breckenridge costs $16 for passengers versus a $100 off-peak Uber ride
Best for: Those who had to work late on Friday and need to meet their pals for dinner and Saturday turns
Selling point: It connects with users’ social feeds so you can get to know the people you’re riding with before you book.
Number of mountains served: 14
Cost to ride: Free, though drivers can ask passengers to chip in for gas
Best for: Do-gooder eco-crusaders for whom lowering their carbon footprints is payment enough
Use Big Brother
Crowd-tracking technology has existed for years, so why aren’t more ski resorts embracing it?
Skiers love forecasts. We obsess over weather predictions and pore through grooming reports, but if it’s crowds we want to anticipate, we’ve had surprisingly few ways to peer into the future. Until now.
This season, Aspen Skiing Company (ASC) is using crowd-tracking technology developed for airports, theme parks, and other people-moving entities to let visitors evaluate traffic at parking lots and base areas across its four resorts. The initiative began two years ago when ASC debuted a feature on its app that color-coded parking conditions. “It let people know whether they should take the bus or choose a different resort,” explains spokesperson Jeff Hanle. Then the pandemic happened. Part of last season’s response included a pilot program to survey crowd density in its base areas so visitors could use the Aspen app to predict—and avoid—overloaded (read: virus-y) locations.
Now ASC says it’s found a more accurate way to monitor its visitor levels, thanks to crowd-flow optimization firm Veovo. The London-based company’s real-time, crowd-sourced data allows ASC to estimate wait times by tracking mobile devices, whether guests are using its app or not. That’s an advantage over Vail Resorts’ EpicMix Time app, which only tracks skiers who have downloaded the program, and Alterra Mountain Company’s Ikon app, which only monitors logged-in visitors. Not to be left behind, Vail has updated its app this season to combine its live data with historic crowd trends—plus a slew of other factors—to try to predict wait times throughout the day for lifts at 12 of its resorts, including Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Crested Butte, and Keystone.
Which raises the question: What took so long? And, frankly, why haven’t more mountains implemented their own systems? Resorts routinely invest in new lifts and facilities to woo skiers, yet nothing can hijack a ski day like overcrowding. Heck, in 2019, even the cash-strapped National Park Service managed to navigate budget shortfalls and government red tape to implement real-time updates for the campgrounds and parking lots at Glacier National Park. Hopefully, if Aspen and Vail’s updates prove useful, similar improvements for other bottlenecks like parking capacity will follow, and it will push more mountains to follow suit. —Kelly Bastone
Phone It In
Apps can’t guarantee a good ski day, but they can help. —Nicholas Hunt
Problem: Not knowing where to ski
What it provides: Hourly proprietary snowfall predictions up to five days in advance for all your favorite resorts, live cams, professional snow reports, and seasonal trends make it easy to feed your powder fever. Free ($30 for an annual all-access subscription); iOS and Android
Problem: Getting lost
Solution: Fat Map
What it provides: This GPS-enabled terrain map lays out each run in 3D, has real-time data on which lifts are open, and allows you to mark secret snow stashes for future sessions or share waypoints with friends for midmountain meetups. Free ($30 for an annual all-access subscription); iOS and Android
Problem: Crummy on-mountain communication
What it provides: By using Bluetooth instead of Wi-Fi or your data plan, Bridgefy lets you chat with friends from almost a football field away sans service, making it perfect for organizing your next lap when your crew is strung out over multiple chairs. Free; iOS and Android
Problem: The possibility of avalanches
What it provides: Access everything you need to stay informed while skiing the backcountry in the palm of your gloved hand, including a color-coded danger map, daily avalanche and weather forecasts, and the ability to submit observations to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center on the go. Free; iOS and Android
Catch Some Heir
Carl Eaton and Pete Seibert Jr. may not have any significant financial stakes in Vail Resorts, the company their fathers founded, but they’ve grown up with the industry their families helped revolutionize. —Ted Katauskas
5280: For Denverites, skiing revolves around traffic jams and lift lines these days. How do we go back to the Vail your dads, Earl and Pete, imagined when they hiked up Ptarmigan Ridge and decided to build a ski resort?
Seibert: When you’re standing up there, it doesn’t look a lot different today than it did for them. So, if you want an experience like those early days, I guess you have to pick the right day.
Meaning, not a Saturday after a storm when there are lift lines you can see from space. What would they have to say about that?
Eaton: They’d be rolling over in their graves! But the world is changing. You have to change with it or get left behind.
What, exactly, has changed?
Eaton: Back in those early days, Vail was a ski area for people who loved to ski, and there was never a profit. All of the money that was made went right back into the resort. Today, it’s a business, and businesses make a profit.
One innovation that has made Vail Resorts profitable is the Epic Pass. Thoughts?
Seibert: My dad had a restaurant background. I can’t help thinking he’d say it’s like making Matsuhisa [one of Vail Village’s most exclusive restaurants] all-you-can-eat for $5 on a Friday night.
Did the Epic Pass ruin the experience for everyone?
Eaton: There are a lot of good things that have come out of it. If you take advantage of it, it pays for itself in about a week, and it locks in money for the company, so there’s a guaranteed profit. But you can’t just live by a quantitative model. There’s got to be some qualitative considerations as well.
If you could hit the reset button, what would you change?
Eaton: Oh boy. I don’t know if I can answer that, being an employee of Vail Resorts! [Eaton is the head of lift maintenance at Beaver Creek.]
C’mon, one thing.
Eaton: If we could have made I-70 three lanes or put in that supertrain, that might have solved the traffic jams, but then you’d have even bigger crowds on the mountain. So that’s not the answer.
Seibert: Vail is a big mountain by North American standards, but by European standards? Not really. Adding new terrain would spread skiers out and help keep them out of the choke points.
What do people get wrong about the state of the industry?
Seibert: I think it’s easy to focus on those critically busy days, but 70 to 80 percent of the time, Vail skis like a dream. And in a lot of ways, skiing has become easier and more accessible. Sometimes, I need to focus on my own attitude and make sure I’m taking advantage of everything that is there.
Eaton: For me, it’s taking some nice big turns on a freshly groomed run. There’s just nothing like it.
Seibert: Exactly. That freedom still exists, and every day I go up, I find it. I find something that makes it worth going.
Bring Skinny Skis Back
It’s not difficult to get addicted to powder. A day of free refills—when the snow falls fast enough to completely cover your tracks by the time you reach the top of the chairlift again—is close to a religious experience around these parts. But like any addiction, it comes at a price: mainly, being bored when the snow’s not flying (which is the majority of the season).
Luckily, there’s a quick fix. If you change your gear, you change your mindset. Click into a pair of thick-waisted all-mountain skis, and the groomers become something to plod along as you hunt for hidden powder stashes. But if you step into a pair of dedicated carving skis instead, the way you see the mountain shifts. Suddenly, the groomers become the fun part; free from powder fever, you can pick runs where the crowds are minimal and days when the traffic is light. The whole season opens up.
To better understand what makes this style of ski perfect for channeling your inner Mikaela Shiffrin, we asked Denver’s Folsom Custom Skis to break down the design of its Spar 88 carvers. —Nicholas Hunt
The deeper the sidecut—how thin the ski is underfoot compared to its width at the tip and tail—the tighter and faster the ski turns. These days, a carving ski typically has a turning radius under 17 meters—well below a powder ski’s 22-plus meters.
Better known as camber, this bend in the ski’s midsection spreads your weight along the length of the ski for more control during carves and acts as a spring for bouncy transitions from turn to turn. The longer and taller the arch, the more stable the ski is at speed.
Heavier core materials, such as titinal or the strips of maple found in the Spar 88, help stiffen the ski and dampen vibrations to keep it planted through the turn.
Lean Into It
Craving corduroy? Here are a few of our favorite groomers. —Nicholas Hunt
Mountain: Aspen Snowmass
This trail drops nearly 2,000 feet in two miles, but the truth is, the best manicured run at Snowmass is whichever trail has been selected for the Noon Groom, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Mountain: Beaver Creek
With two eight-hour snowcat shifts between 4 p.m. and 8:30 a.m., Beaver Creek has one of the most extensive grooming operations going. Take advantage of all that hard work on this experts-only section of Birds of Prey, the famous World Cup racecourse.
Mountain: Ski Cooper
Cooper eschews artificial snow and rarely grooms the same run two days in a row, so it’s home to some seriously soft runs. The hill has one secret groomer, though: The 10th Mountain trail entrance is easy to miss, meaning if you find it, you can often snag corduroy late in the day.
This relatively mellow slope is the only groomer in Vail’s Back Bowls, which makes it the only smooth cruiser in one of the sport’s most venerated meccas.
Build a Better Ski School
Teaching your kids to ski wouldn’t be such a hassle if the beginner area looked like this.
The stress. The coaxing. The tears. The but-I-have-to-go-to-the-bathroom-right-nows. Introducing your young ones to the slopes is traumatic enough without throwing a poorly designed beginner area into the mix. “Kids shouldn’t be getting exhausted just moving about,” says Eric Callender, vice president at British Columbia–based ski area design firm Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners and father to four- and six-year-old shredders. And with snowsports participation shrinking, it’s more important than ever for resorts to lower the barrier to entry. With that in mind, we asked Callender to build us a utopian novice zone. —Julie Dugdale
- Fully Loaded Buildings: There’s no quicker way to end your kid’s ski day than schlepping everything back to the lodge for a potty break. Now imagine taking your bundled ski bunny to a minilodge—complete with child-size amenities—right there at the magic carpet. Plus, having a comfortable, discreet place to hover reduces the risk helicopter parents will disrupt their kids’ lessons.
- Characters, Themes, And Play Zones: Spotting a goofy bear on a snowboard does wonders for toddler morale, so the more cartoonish fun, the better. Bonus: Innovative features that make transitions fun, such as a slide down from the lunch deck, are a good way to trick your kiddos into getting back on the hill for a couple more laps.
- Turns For Mom and Dad: Easy access to a lift that gets grown-ups to the good stuff while the groms are in lessons is a massive bonus. Ideally, the chair offers a view of the kiddie hill from the air so Mom and Dad can ski real terrain without being seen and catch a glimpse of Junior wedging down the hill.
- Level Terrain To The Lifts: Toddlers simply don’t have the mechanics to move uphill on skis on their own. Yet, many resorts balk at the added cost of installing a lift level with your starting point, leaving parents to carry the gear and herd their little ones upslope by any means necessary.
- Dedicated Access: Nothing is worse than fighting for parking, loading onto a shuttle, clambering up a couple of staircases, and trudging a quarter of a mile to the lift. Except, of course, doing it with a three-year-old in tow. “Well-designed resorts have a dedicated children’s drop-off for cars and short-term parking right next to the ski school entrance,” Callender says.
(This story has been updated.)