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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That homespun era has been largely superseded by skiing’s new epoch: The Age of Acquisitions.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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Travel

Apr 25, 2019

A Hike Without a View

The allure of the outdoors comes from the unexpected challenges mother nature throws our way, where the lows accentuate highs. Luckily, the good days usually far outnumber the bad ones.

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WRITTEN BY

Noah Allen

Those of us that have spent any amount of time on outdoor adventures know that sinking feeling when things don’t go to plan. Opening the trunk to find only one hiking boot, a stray roadside nail causing a flat while pedalling along, or getting above the tree line to realize that the freezing rain you wished away hasn’t cleared and the next two miles of exposed rock is now a treacherous ice rink. When encountering the lows, it can sometimes be difficult to see how far you have come. However, in the woods, it often comes down to just you, and you alone, being the only one who can make your situation better by finding a way over, under, around, or just right on through every obstacle.

Noah Allen on the descent from Nippletop. Unhappy with the wet conditions as more rain moved in.

“Luckily, the good days usually far outnumber the bad ones.”

No hiking boots? Looks like your Crocs are getting a little bit more action than driving to the trailhead today, thank goodness they have that heel strap.

One flat tire? Flip the bike over on the nearest lawn and get the patch kit out. Patch blows out and then you flat the rear too? Curse the asshole who is out to get you, and ride home on the rims, they can take it.

Icy exposed rock? Well, sometimes a win is walking off the mountain unharmed.

View of Ausable Lake with fall foliage just peaking through at lower elevation.

The allure of the outdoors comes from the unexpected challenges mother nature throws our way, where the lows accentuate highs. The internal motivation for the next adventure comes from that need to crest the next hill and freewheel down the backside of the monster you have conquered. Luckily, the good days usually far outnumber the bad ones.

This past October I made my way across the Champlain Valley through the recently harvested corn fields to the Adirondacks at the height of leaf peeping season. I had left early from the Green Mountain State before the sun rose to get across the lake and to the trailhead near the Adirondack Loj located at 1250ft above sea level. There my hiking partner and girlfriend was waiting in the parking lot with her friends, all local New Yorkers, still sipping on their morning coffees.

Noah Allen and Becca Miceli on the descent from Nippletop, posing together on a slippery section on the way down.

“Nothing has taught me the same independence and confidence as my outdoor mishaps and successes”

The primary goal of this hike was to take in the stunning change of colors that draws millions of tourists to the northeast every fall. However, today this popular trailhead parking lot was not even near half full. Unfortunately, the weather was not looking good and it seemed many tourists were pursuing other options today. But we chose to roll the dice, cross our fingers, and hope that the views cleared by the afternoon seeing as how the sun was already poking through.

Two hours later after several miles and layer changes we reached the first minor peak. By this point, low veils of mist have descended to approximately 3000ft and we are officially in the clouds. The clear views below us provide some encouragement to push on with the hike with our fingers still crossed.

An hour later we reach the first high peak over 4000ft and nearly miss the occasion because the cloud cover is so thick. Equally disheartening is the muddy trail leading onward.

After another hour and half of dodging wet spots and mud pits, we reach the second high peak, Nippletop mountain, the highest point of the hike at 4,600ft. So far we have covered 7.5 miles and been on the trail for almost 5 hours and seen absolutely nothing but impenetrable fog obscuring the glorious fall foliage.

Jenna Robinson on the peak of Nippletop with a homemade sign to mark the occasion.

From here it was all downhill back to the trailhead, but only in the physical sense. While disappointment pervaded the group morale it was overridden by the outstanding accomplishment of a 15-mile hike with almost 5000ft of elevation gain and two more high peaks crossed off the

46er challenge. This particular hike was chosen for its famed beauty in no matter the time of year. While we were unfortunate with the weather and felt somewhat robbed of observing the physical beauty, it wasn’t all bad. It was Another precious day was spent in the mountains with friends, pushing ourselves, and learning how to draw out the small joys of disappointing situations.

The challenges that present themselves to outdoorsman are a part of the job. The challenges that present themselves day to day are just part of life. I add nothing new by repeating “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” but as a lifelong outdoors person, I can say nothing has taught me the same independence and confidence as my outdoor mishaps and successes. In fact, all the misadventures simply add reference points to understand how things could get worse, and when things are bad, surely it can only get better.

Cover photo: The view from Indian Head, one of the best spots in the Adirondacks for fall hiking.

All photos courtesy of the author.

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