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Red Pen Edit: The New York Times on Skiing
Bringing cognitive dissonance to the slopes
Disclaimer: I was a long-time user of Vail’s Epic Pass until this year when I switched to Alterra’s Ikon Pass.
Skiing has had its fair share of negative headlines over the last year. An anonymous user started the Instagram account “Epic Lift Lines”, which posts videos of absurdly long lift lines at ski resorts around the country. The account quickly amassed tens of thousands of followers and gained traction throughout the skiing community. Multiple websites covered the issues that Vail Resorts, a ski company that owns dozens of mountains around the United States, was going through. Vail Resorts’ main competitor in the emerging skiing duopoly, Alterra Resorts, had similar problems. The New York Times has since written two articles about skiing, “Who Gets to Ski?” and “Taking Back the Mountains”, that cover some of the issues skiing is dealing with. Here are some of my thoughts. Note that I just say skiers instead of skiers and snowboarders, because snowboarders are just skiers who decided to embrace the unicycle of skiing.
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“Who Gets to Ski?” by Alyson Krueger
When Tim Pham learned to ski in the 1980s, the sport seemed simpler. He would go to quiet resorts in Northern California like Sugar Bowl, where he would show up any time of day, buy a $35 lift pass, and ski without facing lines or crowds…Afterward, he would head to the lodge, where there was live music and domestic beer on tap for $2.
According to the ballpark-only-estimator Inflation Calculator, $35 in 1985 is worth $95 today, and $2 is worth $5.44 today. A lift ticket at Sugar Bowl this season runs between $98-$160 depending on the day of the week. So lift tickets have increased somewhat in price, and beer prices have increased slightly. I haven’t been to Sugar Bowl, but most bars will still have a domestic macro beer for $6.00. This is just one data point, but the price increases aren’t as large as I thought.
Mr. Pham doesn’t want to keep anyone from skiing, but he himself is discouraged. “I think people should be able to have access to the mountain, especially if they pay for a pass,” he said. “But the resorts need to step up and make changes. We can’t have these crowds anymore.”
This comment gets to the central struggle of these two articles. Do you want more people to have access, or do you want less crowding? In the short run, these two goals are zero-sum. More access means more crowding, and less crowding means less access. But this is just a guy talking, surely the New York Times will set the record straight and explain that you can’t increase both accessibility and decrease crowding. Right?
Vail Resorts said that over the holidays, the busiest time of year, 90 percent of lift lines were under 10 minutes.
This is a version of the Prosecutor’s Fallacy. The correct statistic is not the wait time for an average lift, it’s the wait time for an average skier. For example, imagine a mountain with three lifts. Two lifts go up the bunny hill, and each only has a two minute line. The third lift is the only lift that goes up the main mountain and it has a 20 minute line. That means the typical lift line is only two minutes long, but the typical skier has to wait 20 minutes. The difference is subtle but crucial.
“However, given that the snowfall was slightly below average in a few U.S. ski regions, the 2020-21 jump can be partially attributed to the realities of Covid,”
This is a somewhat fair point by the ski industry. Many Americans decided to spend their travel money skiing in the US instead of vacationing abroad that winter. As a counterpoint, it wasn’t totally unexpected; Vail and Alterra knew they were selling season passes in record numbers and failed to build out enough infrastructure.
“It used to be really cost prohibitive to go to these resorts,” said Constance Beverley, the C.E.O. of Share Winter Foundation, a nonprofit that creates opportunities for youth historically denied access to skiing and snowboarding. Now, budget airlines and season passes that grant admission to multiple resorts have made it possible for more people to ski recreationally around the country.
Wait, so skiing is actually cheaper than it used to be? There needs to be some attempt to reconcile the two diverging statements, such as saying lift tickets have gone up in price but the total price of a ski trip has gone down, but the author of the article does neither.
“This sport is predominantly male and white, and it’s been flat in the number of ski visits over the past 20 years, which means it’s not growing,” said Ms. Lynch, of Vail Resorts.
Again, what? This claim seems impossible, but it is backed up by the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), an industry group. Is it possible that crowds actually haven’t increased? I would love for this to be discussed. It isn’t.
“What is interesting about ski culture is that in many ways it builds community by exclusion rather than inclusion,” Ms. Isaac said. According to data from the National Ski Areas Association, 87.5 percent of skiers over the 2020-2021 season were white. Black skiers made up 1.5 percent of the group, and Native Americans, 0.7 percent.
Skiing is an exclusive activity, but this is because it’s economically exclusive. You need a substantial amount of time and money to ski. There could also be racial discrimination in skiing, similar to how Blacks were deliberately kept out of public swimming pools for decades, but this needs evidence.
Alterra, for its part, seems to be in favor of limiting crowds; its Ikon Pass, starting at $729, is considerably more expensive than the Epic Pass. “The higher the price, theoretically the lower the demand,” Mr. Gregory said. “We want to make sure we are offering an experience for people that they want to return to.”
The company is working with the Share Winter Foundation to bring in newcomers to ski, focusing on days when the mountain is less busy.
Props to Alterra for this one. The fact is that the vast majority of crowding issues are occurring on weekends. If resorts can figure out a way to shift demand towards Monday-Thursday, then it is possible to increase access and decrease crowding.
Ultimately, the problem with this article is that it not only fails to solve the tension between increasing accessibility and decreasing crowds, it doesn’t even recognize there’s a tension to begin with. If skiing is going to become more accessible, then the crowds will be worse. If crowd sizes are going to decrease, then skiing will remain inaccessible.
“Taking Back the Mountains” by David Goodman
At the same time, skier numbers have never been higher. Last year, there were nearly 61 million skier visits to United States mountains, a record.
This statistic needs context. According to the NSAA, 2021-2022 did have the most visits of any year on record, but 2010-2011 and 2007-2008 achieved virtually the same number of visits. Based on personal experience, this doesn’t seem possible, but I don’t know enough about how visitor statistics are calculated to know how accurate they are. Maybe the distribution is shifting towards the most popular resorts? Would love to know more.
To address overcrowding, Vail Resorts is limiting sales and raising prices of lift tickets. But since 71 percent of its skiers use the Epic Pass, which is sold in unlimited numbers, this may not appreciably change congestion on and off mountain.
This is a great point. Vail has no way of knowing how many people will show up on any given day because over two-thirds of skiers don’t buy tickets for specific days. They have season passes. So it’s a problem, but one of Vail’s own making.
Other skiers and ski area leaders are seeking or creating a ski culture that is more inclusive and sustainable.
This is the same tension from the previous article. Ski resorts can become more inclusive, but this means becoming more crowded. Also, I can’t wait to see how skiing can be more sustainable.
So Mr. Henceroth did something almost unheard-of for an American business: He turned away customers. Arapahoe Basin left the Epic Pass in 2019 and signed on with the Ikon Pass and Mountain Collective, which cap the number of days that skiers can go to Arapahoe. The ski area also limited sales of season passes and lift tickets.
The result: In early 2020, Arapahoe Basin had 69 percent fewer skiers than a year earlier when it was on the Epic Pass. “The experience is way up. The skier days are way down,” Mr. Henceroth proudly announced on the ski area’s blog.
This is a fine solution to the crowding problem, but it directly conflicts with the earlier statement about ski area leaders being more inclusive. By raising prices and limiting sales, Arapahoe Basin is becoming more exclusive. Full stop.
In 2019, Ms. Diggs founded EDGE Outdoors, which is aimed at getting Black and Indigenous women onto the slopes. Her work is part of a long overdue reckoning for snowsports where 9 out of 10 participants are white and 63 percent are male.
To repeat, if you’re going to claim something is racially exclusive, you need evidence. The facts point toward economic exclusivity, not racial exclusivity.
This year, Taos Ski Valley became the second North American ski area to become carbon neutral (the first was Wild Mountain in Minnesota), beating its original 2030 target by eight years.
“Our vision,” said Mr. Norden, “is better, not bigger.”
The ski area now operates on 100 percent daytime solar energy, its new luxury hotel runs on geothermal power, the ski area is buying a fleet of electric snowmobiles, and it will be the first ski area in North America to operate an electric snowcat this winter.
Where to start with this one. First, the accounting that allows Taos to claim it is carbon neutral relies on buying carbon offsets (paying others not to pollute), not by reducing emissions. Second, the idea of skiing being carbon neutral is kind of silly. Ski resorts bring tens of thousands of people per day to the wilderness to ride massive machinery thousands of feet and then ski down mountains covered in man-made snow on runs that used to be covered in trees. It is not exactly an environmentally friendly activity. If Taos were to close tomorrow forever, the result would be millions of vehicle-miles saved, reforestation of hundreds of acres, and a far lower carbon footprint. Calling a giant resort hacked out of wilderness carbon neutral is a heavy lift.
According to one source, only the chair lifts and snowmaking at Taos are covered by solar power. The most common source of electricity in New Mexico, the state Taos is located in, is coal. So their snowmobiles are running on coal instead of gas! Granted, snowmobiles often get terrible gas mileage, so this may be an improvement, but switching from gas to coal isn’t exactly something to brag about.
Tyler Ray had a familiar challenge last month: managing 100 people toting saws and loppers who came from as far away as Maryland to maintain Crescent Ridge, a popular ski glade near Randolph, N.H. Glade zones are areas of open forest that are maintained by volunteers for backcountry skiing, in which skiers use climbing skins that enable them to ski uphill. At the top, they remove the skins and ski down through the trees, often in fresh powder.
It’s interesting that they have all those saws… I wonder what they could be for?
Instead of solving the accessibility vs. crowding problem, this article introduces a second issue, sustainability vs. skiing. And similar to the first, the tension between the two is sidestepped entirely.
The point is not that skiing should be banned or restricted or curtailed. It’s that skiing has some high-profile issues. It is inaccessible. Crowds have gotten out of control. It takes place in what used to be wilderness. The point is that the New York Times should have used both articles to start addressing these tensions so that the skiing community can find a solution. Instead, these two articles are a hodgepodge of competing goals that aren’t even acknowledged to be in competition with one another. Bah humbug.
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