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Boulder

Nov 06, 2018

Winter Warfare in the Colorado Rockies

In the high-stakes tug-of-war between mega-conglomerates Alterra Mountain Company and Vail Resorts, independently-owned ski areas face a tough choice: partner with the big dogs or get creative to stay relevant.

WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

The ski industry’s 2018 pre-season media reel dramatizes the battle royal between Alterra Mountain Company and Vail Resorts in their quest to become Colorado’s undisputed “king-of-the-ski-hill”.

These large corporations hold tenure in a sport where idiosyncrasy is historically celebrated. When gold was discovered in Colorado circa 1859, miners and prospectors used crude skis to cross mountain passes and battle snowdrifts. Those frontiersman and their primitive planks were harbingers of a world-class ski culture; in the early 20th century, Norwegian champion Carl Howelsen brought ski jumping to the western slopes, and later, 10th Mountain Division “Ski Troops” returned from WWII and popularized the sport. Over 175 recreational ski areas have graced the spruced slopes of the state’s jagged Rockies, many of them experiencing rapid stints of boom-or-bust reminiscent of the area’s gold mines.

“Mismanagement, financial issues, inconsistent snowfall, and insufficient clientele”

Local ski hills nucleated mountain communities and provided residents with affordable access to the slopes. These mom-and-pop operations, oftentimes just a single chairlift or towrope, were highly susceptible to both financial hardship and climatological slump. In 2018, Boulder-based adventure production company The Road West Traveled debuted Abandoned, a ski film that explores these now-shuttered destinations. Co-producer Lio Delpiccolo says that many of these spots went under well before today’s conglomerates moved in. “Mismanagement, financial issues, inconsistent snowfall, and insufficient clientele drove many small hills to close their doors,” he informs.

The small-scale resorts were not generating staggering profit, but to locals and visitors, they were the sine qua non of old-school mountain culture.

That homespun era has been largely superseded by skiing’s new epoch: The Age of Acquisitions. Just 30 resorts remain in operation statewide, and most of them are owned or managed by a handful of large companies. Ski towns have evolved from humble mining camps to high-end Swanksvilles: main streets packed like Times Square on winter weekends, Starbucks on every corner, and some of the most expensive real estate in the country. The big ski resorts are similarly crowded, the slopes overwhelmed by tourists and the lodges by $15 hamburgers.


Members of the 10th Mountain Division training at Mount Rainier National Park during WWII. Photo by Mount Rainer NPS via Wikimedia Commons.

Some locals decry the megalomania of corporate operators and commodification of the ski-town experience (and not to mention the nightmare I-70 traffic), but the influx of tourism is a boon to local economies. And the mom-and-pop hills that frequently scraped through each season by the skin of their teeth have found new financial opportunity by way of big-name acquisition. It may be hard to admit, but even as Vail and Alterra glamorize and mass-produce the recreational skiing experience, their sheer might can benefit smaller resorts and actualize projects such as affordable employee housing.

In 2016, pre-season Epic Pass sales netted the company $525 million in cash.

Vail Resorts, today worth a cool $1.4 billion, has been perfecting its acquisition prowess since the early 2000s. With CEO Robert Katz at the helm, the company snatched up big-name resorts like Utah’s Park City in 2014 and Canada’s Whistler Blackcomb and Vermont’s Stowe Mountain in 2016. The multi-national headliners complement classic Colorado destinations like Breckenridge, Keystone, and Vail. The 14-resort gestalt assumed the moniker “Epic Pass” in Vail’s famous industry innovation. A season pass bestows its holders’ keys to all the kingdoms for a ridiculously low price, and every resort added to the repertoire is an opportunity to pull more skiers into Vail’s robust orbit. In 2016, pre-season Epic Pass sales netted the company $525 million in cash. Vail Resorts also draws a portion of its annual revenue of $425 million from hotel and real estate development and guest sales in resort villages.

Alterra Mountain Company, Vail Resort’s upstart rival, is the brainchild of a 2017 joint venture of KSL Capital Partners and Henry Crown & Company. The arrows in their quiver include Colorado’s Steamboat Springs and Winter Park and California’s Squaw Valley and Mammoth Mountain. A total of 26 resorts comprise the “Ikon Pass”, Alterra’s answer to the Epic Pass’s preeminence.

Charging through powder in Vail’s Blue Sky Basin. Photo by Zach Dischner via Wikimedia Commons.

“Ninety percent of our income comes from pure, unadulterated skiing.”

Jen Brill of Silverton Mountain, an independently owned-and-operated resort in the southern San Juans, says that competing with the huge conglomerates is an uphill battle. Vail and Alterra draw from a massive clientele and a diverse revenue stream. “Small family-owned ski areas will struggle to stay relevant in the coming years,” Brill cautioned. “We don’t have other revenues for income like luxury real estate, merchandise, and expensive villages. Ninety percent of our income comes from pure, unadulterated skiing.”

Brill and other local operators don’t benefit from the financial gusto of the top dogs, but they offer an intimacy with their clients that is sacrificed with scale. “Close relationships with our resort guests is key. We see in a year what most of those resorts see in a day. As buyouts have happened, we think Vail will have problems with heavy crowding, and we can draw the crowd that will pay a little extra for solitude and independence,” Brill opined.

“My constant mantra is that the skiing comes first,”

Moreover, some small resorts are teaming up for a shot at the collective-pass market. Monarch Ski Area partnered with 15 other resorts on an affordable pass, and Purgatory owner James Coleman launched a “Power Pass” of five small southwest ski hills with limited days at bigger resorts. Coleman corroborates Brill’s emphasis on the esotericism and individuality of the ski experience. “My constant mantra is that the skiing comes first,” he asserts. “All the lodges and restaurants, those things are all important, but the skiing has got to be first.” He wants to target the drive-up vacationers and local enthusiasts—a smaller but sturdy market that might be repelled by the splashy Vail crowd.

The massive resorts in Vail’s repertoire may draw the most visitors, but the company recognizes the value of homespun charm. They moved to attract the type of skiers that Brill and Coleman are courting via acquisition of community-cherished Crested Butte Ski Resort in 2018. In addition to a partnership with independent Telluride Ski Resort, these hills infuse Vail’s Epic Pass with local flavor. Alterra Mountain Company has secured congruous partnerships with iconic independents Aspen Snowmass and Wyoming’s Jackson Hole. Telluride co-owner Bill Jensen opines that big-name partnerships will become the financial stratagem for locally-held resorts. “I think alliances are going to be just as prominent as acquisitions going forward. These two entities [Vail and Alterra] don’t necessarily have to buy a resort to bring it into their group.” Crested Butte representative Zach Pickett expressed enthusiasm for the impending increase in tourism. “Sharing Crested Butte’s legendary terrain and extraordinary mountain town with new guests is something the resort is very much looking forward to,” he says. “We are confident that our town and mountain charm will remain the same.” Given the perks, will all of Colorado’s in-bounds terrain soon fall under one of two sprawling umbrellas?

Crested Butte Mountain Resort, photo by Peter via WIkiCommons

There’s an enduring ism that corporations like Vail and Alterra value profit over people. But with limited budgets and resources, small resorts can really benefit from the influx of capital provided by corporate buyout. For example, Vail promised to spend $35 million in improvements over the next two years at recently acquired Crested Butte. And the Epic/Ikon Pass label, be it an allied or acquired destination, ensures a lucrative flow of tourists eager to spend cash on rentals, food, and merchandise. Finally, Vail and Alterra have the monetary fodder to fuel vital community projects. In October, Vail announced plans to develop deed-restricted workforce housing for their arsenal of seasonal employees. The lack of affordable housing in ski towns is a salient crisis in Colorado’s high-county, and ski companies have a vested interest in housing the workers who keep the lifts running and the village coffee brewing. Affordable housing projects are hindered by local zoning laws and soaring home values; Vail’s bottomless capital could support meaningful infrastructure in the ski towns that anchor their resorts.

If momentum is any indication, Vail and Alterra will increasingly dominate the landscape of the Colorado and national recreational ski industry. Independently-owned hills want to retain the high-octane individuality and counter-culture charisma of their origins, but the siren’s call of the Epic/Ikon Pass will continue to define skiing’s future.

The Outdoor Journal has reached out to Alterra Mountain Company and Vail Resorts, but so far they have declined to comment.

Cover Photo: A skier drops a cornice at Silverton Mountain Resort, notorious for its steep terrain. By Zach Dischner via Wikimedia Commons.

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Expeditions

Jul 29, 2019

Trans Himalaya 2019: Breathless in the Himalaya

In an unprecedented Himalayan snowfall, ultra-runner Peter Van Geit breaks out his ice axe to access undocumented passes in the High Himalayas.

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WRITTEN BY

Peter Van Geit

Last month, The Outdoor Journal received the first contact from Peter Van Geit on his 2,500 km self-supported journey across 100+ Himalayan high passes in Himachal, Ladakh, and Uttarakhand, accompanied by filmmaker Neil D’Souza. In his latest update, Peter navigates unpassable verticle cliffs and holy glacial lakes along his spellbinding adventure.

After completing the entire length of Uttarakhand in 17 passes, I entered the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh. I had been doing 600-700 km ultra runs through this beautiful state in previous years on lesser-traveled roads in remote valleys. This time I was targetting several passes across the high mountains in three major sections: the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) a wildlife sanctuary and protected biosphere, the Dhauladhar range separating the Kangra plains and Chamba valley, and the Pir Panjal range separating Chamba from Lahaul. As of mid-July, I completed 45 high altitude passes touching 4,600 meters and heavy snow due to unprecedented snowfall this winter.

Shepherds from Barmour descending from the snow-covered Chaurasi pass at 4700m in Chamba valley on their way to graze their herds in the high altitude meadows around the Chaurasi Ka Dal lake.
Panoramic view from the Gaj pass at 4100m from the Dhauladhar high range onto the snow-covered Lam Dal Lake in the upper range of the Chamba valley. Late summer after the snow melts tens of thousands of pilgrims visit this holy lake.

Climbing above 4,000 meters in early summer meant cutting through steep, frozen snow gullies with my ice axe, opening several passes not yet traversed by anyone or following the fresh trail of the shepherds who had just migrated across some passes. With the Northeast monsoon setting in soon, I’ll be moving next to the high altitude deserts of Lahaul and Zanskar to complete several 5,000-meter plus passes and come back down to Garhwal in Uttarakhand in September once the rains in the lower Himalayas subside.

Read next on TOJ: Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes

GHNP is cornered between the high ranges of the Parvati National Park and Kinnaur. Three major rivers flow through this national reserve: the Tirthan, Sainj and Jiwa Nala separated by sharp, steep rising ridges. With no accurate trail info available on the Internet (no blog references meant few people or none have hiked here) I explored all three valleys using a very rough PDF sketch map made available by the tourism office and crossed over through three steep passes. The park has some of the steepest and most inaccessible rock cliffs I have encountered. Losing the trail here meant getting stuck inside near-vertical cliffs.

Sharing a cup of tea beneath the onset of the monsoon clouds with these shepherds while climbing up to the Waru pass at 3870m while crossing over the Dhauladhar range from Chamba valley to the Kangra plains.
Hospitality in the mountains. Night stay and dinner with these two shepherds on a ridge above the Jalsu pass in the Dhauladhar range of Himachal. Beautiful views on the snow-covered Mani Mahesh in the background, one of the seven Holi shrines of lord Shiva.

Once the snow melts on the higher ranges, many young men in Uttarakhand and Himachal go out in search for the “Jungli Nalla”, a high altitude medicinal root which is smuggled across the border from Tibet into China. One kilogram fetches 20 thousand rupees ($300 USD). Spending one and a half months in the mountains provides sufficient income for the rest of the year. While hiking deep inside the GHNP, I came across several villagers digging for both roots as well as large, beautiful rock quartz crystals.

Dhauladhar is a 4,000-meter plus mountain range which rises up steeply from the Kangra plains between Dharamsala and Palampur. Several passes cross over to the beautiful Chamba valley fed by the Ravi river which flows down from the high ranges separating Kullu-Chamba-Lahaul districts. There are several high altitude glacial lakes in the Dhauladhar which are considered holy and visited during an annual late summer pilgrimage by the local people. Most of the lakes were still covered under a thick sheet of frozen snow when I passed by.

Woman carrying home firewood from the forest in Lug valley in Himachal Pradesh for cooking purposes. With no road access or electricity in many remote hamlets, people rely on natural resources for home building and cooking.
Two Gurjar (mountain tribe) from Mumbardar in Chamba valley of Himachal were grazing their buffaloes in the alpine meadows above the clouds and upon seeing me passing by immediately invited me over for dinner and a night stay in their mud home.

I crossed five passes in the Dhauladhar: Baleni, Minkiani, Indrahar, Waru and Gaj pass between 3,800 to 4,300 meters coming across heavy snow at the North facing (less exposure to the sun) Chamba side. The most adventurous was Waru at 3,870 meters, a lesser-known pass used only by shepherds (which means undocumented) where I lost the trail several times. Trying to get back on track, I had to scramble through dense forest and climb down through several side gullies which had cut deeply into the valley slope resulting in several “free solo” moments while climbing down 100-meter plus vertical drops. I survived several breathless and adrenaline rushing moments here until I set a foothold on firm ground again.

One of the near-vertical rock descents into a snow-covered gully which deeply cut inside the main valley while navigating my way “off-trail” to the Waru pass across the Pir Panjal in Himachal.

The Pir Panjal is a high range of 5,000meter peaks separating the Chenab river valley (geopolitically split across Pangi and Lahaul districts) and Chamba valley. Shepherds from Chamba annually migrate with large herds of 300 to 1,000 sheep and goats across several very steep 4,500 meter passes to graze the high altitude meadows of Pangi and Lahaul which produces better quality milk and meat. They return home only five months later at the end of the summer before the passes close again.

Camping below the stardust of the milky way while camping at Trakdi along the Manji Khad stream inside the beautiful Dhauladhar mountains near Dharamsala in Himachal.

I crossed the Marhu, Darati and Chaurasi passes touching 4,200 to 4,600 meters, all undocumented, following the footsteps of the Gaddis or shepherds who had just crossed over. The most adventurous and scary one is Darati, which is a sheer vertical 1,000-meter rockface that seems impossible to climb at first sight. From steep snow-covered ridges on top of the pass to a labyrinth of narrow passages through steep rock faces, one can only imagine how shepherds traverse these with 500 sheep. About 5% of the sheep do not make it alive to the other side.

Shepherds from Chamba Valley, Himachal at the base of the Darati pass waiting to cross over the steep snow-covered pass in early July across the Pir Panjal range into the high altitude meadows of Lahaul.
Women at Kalprai village in Chamba valley harvesting wheat on the rooftops of the mud separating the grains from the stem by hitting with large sticks while rhythmically rotating in a circle.

I experienced one of the most spellbinding moments in my entire journey so far while I was about to climb up the Chaurasi pass. At exactly the same moment, a massive herd of more than a thousand sheep and goats descended down the snow-covered pass displaying their natural skill to traverse these very steep slopes. They were guided by ten shepherds from Barmour district in Chamba on their way to the fairytale Chaurasi ki dal glacial lake surrounded by lush green meadows dotted with alpine flowers of all colors of the rainbow.

One thousand sheep descending from the snow-covered Chaurasi pass (4700m) in the Chamba valley in Himachal on their way from the plains to graze the high altitude meadows. They will only return home 5 months later at the onset of winter.

The most memorable moments in these remote valleys of the Himalayas have been my encounters and night stays with the Gujjars, or mountain tribes. Small, remote hamlets far beyond the last villages deep inside the forest, completely disconnected from civilization. These tribals live with their cattle in large beautiful rock and mud shelters built with huge pine tree trunks. They graze their buffaloes, horses, and sheep in the meadows which stay together with them under the same roof. Each and every encounter along my way with these native people has been one of heartwarming hospitality. After a full energy-draining pass crossing, ending up around a warm fire in a mud home eating freshly cooked food with these families who consider you as one of their own is beyond words.

Unseen hospitality with the Gujjars or mountain tribes in Chamba, Himachal who live disconnected from society deep inside the forests in mud homes grazing their cattle in high altitude meadows.
Overnight stay and dinner with the mountain tribes at Rali Dhar in Chamba, Himachal. The lady of the home is preparing yummy rottis (flat breads) on the fire with buffalo milk. They stay under one roof with their cattle.

Peter will continue to share his field notes with the hope of inspiring others to explore these beautiful locations. You can read more about Peter’s experiences and motivations in his interview here – Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes. Stay tuned on The Outdoor Journal for Peter’s next update along his 2,500 km journey.

To follow Peter’s expedition, visit his blog.
Facebook: @PeterVanGeit
Instagram: @petervangeit
Chennai Trekking Club

For more Neil Productions, visit: http://neil.dj/
Facebook: @neilb4me

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