March 23, 2024

Last week we had two very dear friends visiting us for two days.  As Snowbird/Alta season pass holders we are able to get them day tickets for half price. When the total came to $220 per day for the two of them I started to protest that the person had forgotten the discount. However, in a rare sane and calm moment I realized the discount had indeed been applied. It really hit me hard – skiing is an insanely expensive and extravagant sport. I know, duh, Kevin!

Unfortunately, there are many facets of this problem. Of course, the most basic is the cost of equipment, clothing, lodging and tickets. (We will dive into that topic in an upcoming post.) But the rabbit hole this experience made me go down this week was the exclusive nature of this sport we love. The dollars alone cause that, but the issues are more nuanced. One of the most troublesome issues relates to the growing focus on private ski experiences. In many ways the “privatization” of our sport creates additional tiers in the industry. It isn’t just two groups – those who can afford the sport vs. those who cannot. Even if you can afford the equipment, clothing and lodging, there is now another tier above you – those who can afford to exclude you from their powder.

The tip of this iceberg is the private ski area. While there aren’t many, the trends are troublesome. There is, of course, the Yellowstone Club in Montana which proudly states “Joining this exclusive members’ club unlocks 2,900 acres of world class ski trails…”.  In all respects the Yellowstone Club is very public about how private it is. The owners of the Yellowstone Club, Discovery Land Company, LLC, apparently aren’t done yet. They have indicated interest in developing a 6,500 acre private ski club near Steamboat Springs, Colorado centered around the defunct Stagecoach Ski Area. Stagecoach was hailed in the early 1970’s as the next big Colorado resort, but flamed out in 1973 after limited trail cutting and development.

While the Yellowstone Club is the poster boy, they are not alone. Perhaps the quietest private ski area development is Wasatch Peaks Ranch located between Snowbasin and Salt Lake City. The owner group installed several chairlifts on the 12,700 acre property and opened for the winter of 2001-2002. Somewhat unlike Yellowstone, this outfit is super focused on privacy, and it is difficult to really find out much about them (their website consists of one page with only three links to pages where you can fill out forms to make inquiries). While this private resort has recently been involved in a zoning controversy, it has recently settled the matter and is proceeding with further development – read Wasatch Peaks Settlement for more. And then at the extreme end of these “clubs” is Cimarron Mountain Club in southwest Colorado that is shared by 13 families who exclusively cat ski the 1,700 private acres.

This focus on private skiing is not limited to the west.  The renamed Windham Mountain Club in the New York Catskills has announced plans for membership only skiing perks. Not surprisingly, many viewed this negatively (read December’s New York Times article on the topic here: A Ski Resort Rebrands as Ultraexclusive, and Some Locals Feel Left Out. The Hermitage Club at Haystack Mountain in Vermont is a private ski area open weekends for members only. Similarly, Holimont in western New York State is open to the public during the week, but is open to members only on weekends.

It is easy perhaps to dismiss the impact of the private resorts on the ski industry given the small number of such beasts. But what we call the “partial privatization” occurring in the sport is hard to ignore.  As we recently discussed in an article, Powder Mountain, which historically has been a proud independent rascal in the ski world, has announced that parts of its terrain will be accessible only by land owners in the resort (read our thoughts on that here: Powder Mountain Going Private?!). This semi-private model where part of the resort is closed to the public every day seems particularly awkward. We give them middle fingers while skiing and they stare back with the “what me?” look?

And then there is the “early ups”, “first tracks” or “fast pass” trend that has taken hold and is probably the most insidious private skiing issue. My buddy and I were first in line on a recent powder day at Alta, having arrived in that position 45 minutes before the lifts were to open. To our surprise a number of instructors with their clients came along well before the lifts opened to the public to catch the first first tracks. For around $200 an Alta skier who has a recommendation from an instructor can get the freshies before the rest of us. We knew such programs exist but at Alta?! In fact, such programs abound. Frankly it is difficult to find a western name resort that does not offer some version of this – Park City, Deer Valet, Alta, Aspen, Whistler, Steamboat, Snowbird… you get the idea. Again, the larger eastern resorts offer the same. Many of these resorts also offer programs in which you can pay extra for reduced lift lines. At Snowbird if you pay an extra $75 you don’t have to wait in line with the smelly masses.

Who knows where this trend towards privatization of the ski industry will stop. We wish it had never started! What if Elon Musk offered Aspen $500,000 to rent Snowmass for the day? It reflects poorly on the industry and without a doubt makes it that much more exclusive. A friend recently suggested that if an area was going to implement a first tracks type program it should be through a lottery and it should be free. Love that concept! We will spend tomorrow trying to get through to Vail to see what they think. Stay tuned.

Be Well; Ski Well.

conSKIerge co-founder

Kevin Dennis is a life long ski bum with a 34 year legal career on the side. Now retired, he skis 80+ days a year. While he lives in Alta UT in the winters, he has traveled extensively through skiing and has skied almost every major resort in North America (and many you have never heard of). He continues to hit the road often throughout the western United States and Canada and trips over the last several years have included ventures in British Columbia, Montana and Colorado. Whether you want to know about the behemoths like Aspen or Squaw or are interested in the road less travelled (Lost Trail Powder Mountain in Montana or Whitewater in BC anyone?), Kevin has been there, has an opinion and you will most likely have to tell him to shut up after a half hour!