Editor’s note 8/6/19: Arapahoe Basin announced it will be part of the Mountain Collective pass for the 2019-20 ski season—joining 17 other resorts around the country, including the four mountains of Aspen Snowmass.

As multi-resort season passes in Colorado exploded in popularity over the past decade, there have been a few casualties along the way. The Rocky Mountain Super Pass and the Multi-Alpine Experience (M.A.X) pass, for instance, went by the wayside as Colorado’s landscape shifted to a duopoly of the most popular offerings on the market: Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass and Alterra Mountain Company’s brand-new Ikon Pass. But the Mountain Collective pass, which was founded in 2012 and offers limited access in Colorado, is still hanging on.

With the Ikon and Epic passes offering by far the most robust all-season access to resorts in the Centennial State (Epic offers seven Colorado mountains; Ikon offers five) one has to wonder: Why would Coloradans buy the Mountain Collective pass?

After all, we are talking about a pass that (as of early December) costs only $489 but offers just two days each at 17 worldwide ski resorts—only one of which, Aspen/Snowmass, is in Colorado. On the surface, it seems like a tough sell to Denver-based skiers, who could have unlimited access to many nearby resorts and to ski areas in other states (and throughout the world) if they shell out more money for the Epic Pass ($699 for the local pass) or the Ikon Pass ($749 for the base pass). So, if the Mountain Collective will continue to compete, what can it offer that the other passes don’t?  We took that question to the man who created it.

When Christian Knapp dreamed up the Mountain Collective Pass six years ago, he says the season pass market was an entirely different landscape than it is today. “At the time, [independent ski areas] were struggling to compete with the multi-resort pass competition. So we banded together and tried to create something that was pretty grassroots-y,” says Knapp, who is also the chief marketing officer for Aspen Skiing Company. “It didn’t step on the toes of our existing season pass products.”

But these days, if any pass is getting its toes stepped on, it’s the Mountain Collective. The Epic pass has only extended its footprint over the past several years, and the Ikon pass—unveiled less than a year ago—absorbed popular alternatives like the aforementioned Rocky Mountain Super Pass and the M.A.X. Pass.

As result, over the last six years, a few of the Collective’s resorts have either jumped ship—like Telluride this season, which partnered with Vail Resorts to join the Epic Pass—or have started two-timing the Mountain Collective with the Ikon Pass. The Ikon Pass offers seven days at Aspen/Snowmass as well as other Mountain Collective resorts including Jackson Hole, Taos, Alta, Snowbird, Big Sky, and Sugarbush, as well as unlimited access to not only Steamboat, Copper Mountain, Winter Park, and Eldora, but also to Mountain Collective resorts Mammoth Mountain and Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows.

Because of so much overlap, it may seem like the Mountain Collective is affiliated in some way with the Ikon pass or Alterra Mountain Company, but according to an Aspen spokesperson, they are not tied in any capacity. However, Knapp says, the Ikon Pass “has certainly drafted off the relationships created through Mountain Collective to accelerate the on-boarding of partner resorts.”

Despite the two-sided turf war between Epic and Ikon in Colorado, Knapp claims a huge part of the Mountain Collective’s demographic is made up of Front Range skiers.

“Colorado is a pretty big market,” Knapp says.  “California is big. Utah is big. Even The New York market is big. They’re definitely clustering in urban areas. The Mountain Collective works well for that person that’s not necessarily within driving distance of a mountain but they have a home base. They’ll go there a few times, but then they’ll get on a plane a few times, too.”

But just how big the market really is remains unclear. When asked about total pass sales, Knapp noted that the Mountain Collective “does not share unit numbers.” And though the Mountain Collective website indicates that this year’s passes are “nearly sold out,” it’s hard to know exactly what that means. Meanwhile, Alterra Mountain Company said it expected to sell 250,000 Ikon Passes this year while Vail Resorts expected to sell 925,000 Epic Passes.

It’s possible that the Mountain Collective is reaching a different type of skier. Knapp uses the word “affordable” to describe the pass—and given that the pass is cheaper than other options, he’s technically right. But it would be hard to describe Collective pass holders as bargain shoppers. The product’s tagline beckons potential buyers to “join the society,” which sounds more apt for country club members than for thrifty coupon-cutters.

“There’s that element,” Knapp says, in regards to Mountain Collective’s affluent clientele. “But we hear a lot of stories about people getting Sprinter vans and doing the tour, sleeping in parking lots. They hit the places in Utah —Snowbird, Alta, Snowbasin—then they’ll go hit Jackson and Sun Valley…a bunch in a pretty short amount of driving.  A lot of the customers use Airbnb, VRBO…they’re figuring out ways to do it on the cheap.”

For Denver-based skiers interested in spending a week in Aspen, it does work out to be a better deal to buy a Mountain Collective Pass than an Ikon Pass or six individual tickets. The day ticket price at Aspen/Snowmass for advanced purchase doesn’t go much lower than $159 for adults. For $489, you get two days at Aspen or Snowmass and then additional tickets are 50 percent off. Plus, for kids 12 years old and younger, a pass is $99.

Another upside is that the Mountain Collective is still available after the ski season is well underway. While Epic passes must be bought by mid November and Ikon by mid December, and all three get progressively more expensive as the ski season draws nearer, Mountain Collective is available until sold out, with a live indication of available passes at the current price point visible on their website. Furthermore, the it offers access to a couple resorts not yet available on the Epic or Ikon: Snowbasin, Utah, and Sun Valley, Idaho.

“No other pass on the market offers the combination of a low out-of-pocket price point, no blackout dates, and the flexibility to buy additional days at 50 percent off,” Knapp says. “Mountain Collective truly is a collaboration of like-minded resorts that have come together to offer a cool product for people who don’t necessarily need unlimited access. We’re also scrappy and resilient, which has resonated with our core target audience and keeps us focused in the face of a rapidly changing industry.”

Editor’s note, 12/21/18: An earlier version of this article said that Telluride Ski Resort was owned by Vail Resorts. Telluride has only partnered with Vail Resorts to join the Epic Pass. 5280 regrets the error.