Tom Clyde: A successful ski season
We made it work. Ski season happened. I assumed we would be closed by Presidents Day weekend the way the plague was spreading last fall. The decisions and plans made by the resort management and the Health Department, and a pretty high level of cooperation from the skiers on the hill made it happen. A big thanks to the frontline employees who had to deal with the argumentative mask scofflaws, to the snow makers who got things open on time, and everybody who kept it running to the end. A friend said we were lucky, but we were also good. Good planning, good execution, good cooperation.
It was a challenge. There were a lot of people picking up extra shifts when the resorts were short-handed with crews in quarantine or worse. The food and beverage operation took a big hit because nobody wanted to eat inside. Instead of lunch at Deer Valley three or four days a week, it was maybe four days all year. For some reason, I didn’t put on the usual 10 pounds over the winter.
The lift lines were unpleasantly long all winter. Most of that was the COVID protocol of sending up a lot of empty seats. Run the lift at half capacity, and you double the line. But the ski runs felt congested and busy this year, too. COVID or not, it felt like skier numbers were up with people getting outside as a break from the weirdness. Nature’s curative powers prevailed, and it felt safe, even necessary, to be outside.
My friends are already discussing next year. The two resorts have taken dramatically different approaches for what we are all assuming will be a plague-free, back-to-normal season. Deer Valley bumped up the price of the regular season pass by about 10% and the price of a senior pass by around 60%. Most people in my ski group are seniors (my knee often reminds me that I am, too). It’s a big increase, and the explanation was basically, “We are charging more because people will pay it.” And we probably will. It’s a lot, but it turns out that local retired people ski a whole lot more than full-price folks with jobs.
In the pre-Ikon days, the premium Deer Valley charged relative to the rest of the market was justified by a premium experience. Now, with unlimited numbers on the mountain because anybody with an Ikon Pass has bought the right to access at any time, the Deer Valley Difference is mostly better parking and clean restrooms. I overheard a conversation in the DV parking lot where two guys said they were fed up with the parking reservations and avalanche closures at Snowbird, and didn’t care what a DV pass cost, they weren’t dealing with the Cottonwood canyons another season.
Park City Mountain Resort owner Vail Resorts, by contrast, dropped its price on the Epic Pass by 20%, and says they will more than make that up with increased volume. So if you enjoyed this year’s Hunger Games in the parking lots, lift lines and restrooms, you’ll love next year with even bigger crowds. If what we saw this year with the reservation system was reduced capacity, I don’t want to be there under what they are considering a full load with increased volume from the discounts. Snowbasin isn’t that far away.
Utah skiing has reached an interesting point. For years, the Utah ski industry was overbuilt, with more lift capacity than we had skiers. Locals became accustomed to skiing right into the chair, and considered a 5-minute lift line insufferable. Access was relatively easy, and parking generally adequate. Traffic, parking and lift lines were all Colorado problems.
Not any more. The Cottonwood canyons have exceeded their road capacity. Solitude charged for parking, and Snowbird required a parking reservation. Neither did much to reduce the canyon traffic snarls. The pandemic turned an already unpleasant bus ride into a pathogenic nightmare, and nobody rode the bus. Bus ridership in Park City fell off the cliff, too. Whether that comes back remains to be seen. Things really collapsed around here on those days when avalanches shut down the Cottonwood canyons.
Despite concerns about what next season will look like as “normal” works itself out, this past season offered up some really good skiing once it got going. I’ll finish up with about 80 days, which is nothing to whine about. I can honestly say that skiing this year was a life saver. Being out in nature, being with friends in a setting where we all felt relatively safe from the plague exposure, and doing something that seemed normal, was a powerful and necessary thing this year. I’m not sure what the winter would have been like had things closed up, but it would have been rough. Thanks again to the resort employees and management who made it happen and kept it open.
This year had its unique challenges and everybody rose to the occasion and met them successfully. Next year will have a different kind of challenge, with more and more Epic and Ikon pass traffic from Salt Lake. We had a plan for COVID. Is there a plan to address the plague of success?
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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