Opinion: How big corporate ruins the skiing experience


Gabby Dodd

Ever since Vail Resorts introduced the Epic Pass in 2008, the company has been rapidly buying (they now own 19 resorts) and partnering with ski areas around the world. Vail Resort’s most recent competitor, the Ikon Pass, which first launched for the 18/19 season and was created by Alterra Mountain Company, is also racking up resorts with 23 qualified destinations.

The ski industry thrives on mergers and acquisitions, for without expansion, profits could be lost. Many smaller, privately-owned ski areas find hope in being acquired by a big company like Vail or Alterra because when profits and management struggles, there’s someone who can save the day.

Being under one of the big company’s umbrellas can generally benefit both the resort and the skier. The skier will likely visit more frequently and can decide when and where they want to go. During bad snow years, the passholder has the opportunity to travel from their home mountain to a different resort with better conditions. The access both the Epic and Ikon provide for its cost drives more people to buy passes and go skiing. The biggest benefit is for the people who may not be able ski frequently throughout a season. With the creation of multi-resort passes at a relatively affordable price, for the seven-days-a-year skier, all of the sudden a season pass is worth it. This in turn, generates revenue for a resort which can put that money toward improvements. This is all sounds like a win-win situation, however, big corporate business is also deteriorating our skiing experience.

Back in the day, more independently owned ski areas could charge well over a grand for a season pass (like Squaw Valley’s Platinum Pass with lots of bells and whistles that went for $1,500 in 2009). It was expensive, but it also helped separate the diehards from the casual riders. High prices meant dedicated local riders were going to be the main customers of a season pass. For the rest, casual riders and once-a-year vacationers were kept at bay. Now with passes like Ikon and Epic, the sheer volume of people the passes attract overwhelms resort parking, lift lines, and lodges. The crowds led Arapahoe Basin in Colorado to pull out of its 10-year partnership with Vail in February 2019. While being included on the Epic Pass increased sales, according to a statement in the Colorado Sun from Arapahoe Basin’s leader Alan Henceroth, “We don’t need any more people on the weekends.” The ski area has almost 2,000 parking spaces and it’s still not enough. While ski resorts have always experienced crowds at some point or another, it seems that the hordes of people are becoming more and more common, turning joyful all day laps with friends into a hurry-up and wait, why-did-I-come, regretful experience.

Aside from the crowd issues these big companies create, comes the loss of the authenticity of a once-soulful resort.Family run ski areas are bought up by multi-billion dollar companies and their ways of operating that made the locals love where the live change completely. Runs that used to make skiers feel free become littered with slow signs and mountain safety, telling them how they should be skiing. The big terrain parks that used to turn kids into the next generation of Olympians are downsized significantly or eradicated completely; a harsh reality for resorts around Lake Tahoe like Heavenly and Alpine Meadows that used to create a solid freestyle scene through their large, no-longer-existent, parks. Big corporate is more concerned with the “tourist experience” making things easy to ski, and therefore enjoyable. By getting rid of “dangers” like skiing fast, difficult terrain, and terrain parks, i.e. the things that actually make skiing fun, they are more likely to appeal towards novices, families, and avoid issues with lawsuits.

There is no incentive anymore for a skier to choose the family-run mountain when they could buy the Epic or Ikon Pass and ski multiple resorts for the same price they could one. According to research conducted by non-profit Mountain Rider’s Alliance (MRA) which is aimed at establishing sustainable and profitable local ski areas, “Since the 1980s, roughly 33 percent of U.S. ski areas have gone out of business and up to 150 more are considered threatened.”

There are many factors that go into this, like climate change, but the biggest percentage of all closures were family-run mountains attributed to a loss in visitors. These dying ski areas offer something Vail could never do, which is create a sense of character, community involvement and atmosphere that is at the core of why people fall in love with the skiing lifestyle in the first place.

Gabby Dodd is a Sierra Nevada College junior, and a member of SNC’s freestyle ski team. She is an editor for the Eagle’s Eye.