Last year I decided to splurge and buy both major season passes available in Colorado: EPIC, which is Vail’s offering and includes access of some kind to A-Basin, Keystone, Breckenridge, Vail, and Beaver Creek; and Rocky Mountain SuperPass (RMSP), which is good at Eldora, Winter Park, Copper Mountain, Steamboat, and Crested Butte.
Of course, just as I decide to do that, we get one of the worst snow seasons on record. We are worried about water supply in the summer, as the snow melt is going to be insufficient, but right now I am more concerned about the tree stumps that are not covered and the runs that didn’t open until well into February.
Also, any crap season is good enough to throw the world of ski resorts into major turmoil. Whether that’s the problem or something else I cannot say, but I ended up buying the last RMSP season ever issued. RMSP is dead, as well as another competitor, M.A.X. They are replaced by a brand new pass that takes into account the shake-up in the industry.
What happened is that Vail Resorts (of EPIC) bought Whistler-Blackcomb from Intrawest, which runs Winter Park and Steamboat in Colorado. To make things more confusing, Intrawest renamed itself Alterra and is now a private company, still headquartered in Denver. And to top it all off, Alterra is co-owned by the company that runs Aspen, and synergies seem to emerge.
The end of all confusing happs is the emergence of a duopoly that is reflected in season passes. The old EPIC pass will continue, and will doubtlessly continue to be very popular. In fact, it snagged not only Whistler-Blackcomb, but also Crested Butte in its lineup. The pass will continue to offer some of the finest mountains in North America, including Whistler and Vail, two of my favorite three.
The “antagonist” in the duopoly is the brand new IKON pass. Because EPIC was so insanely successful, IKON replicates much of the same idea. It comes in two varieties, like EPIC. It offers unrestricted access to some mountains, while others are only accessible for a limited number of days. It comes with friends&family tickets that offer a discount. There are additional discounts at mountain establishments.
The mountains included, of course, are different. The IKON unlimited base is composed of Big Bear, Squaw, and Mammoth in California, Eldora, Winter Park, and Copper Mountain in the Rockies, and more mountains in the East and North (Canada). It’s so eerily similar to EPIC, it’s scary.
So, which one should you choose?
I spent all season between EPIC and future IKON resorts. I saw myself gravitating more and more towards IKON. Next season, I will definitely switch to IKON full time and leave EPIC behind, for at least one season. Why?
Crowds. EPIC is wildly popular in both Colorado and California, and its mountains are insanely crowded. I assume the availability of a direct competitor with similar makeup will change things a bit, but this season in particular, it was barely possible to ski or snowboard at any of the Vail resorts. There was the 49 minute drive from the freeway exit to Keystone that powder Saturday, where it should be closer to 15 minutes. There was that blue bird weekend in Breckenridge when they had the competition and wait times at Colorado SuperChair went into the double minute digits. I never experienced any of it at Winter Park or Copper Mountain.
Cost. EPIC used to be the cheap pass, and Vail Resorts made up for the loss of ticket revenue by jacking up costs on the mountain. Food is insanely expensive (chicken tenders for $14, cup of coffee $6), as is parking ($30 a day in Vail). The average skier/snowboarder spends about ten days a season on mountain, which turns the daily cost to around $60 a day (instead of $120-$150 at the ticket window), but if you factor in all the other pricing, it gets insanely expensive. You could of course avoid much of the cost – you can bring your own food and drink, and you can park far away and shuttle in.
Friendliness. This is highly subjective, so your mileage will vary, but there is a good reason Copper Mountain and especially Winter Park are “locals’ mountains.” Coloradans are a very friendly bunch, and their mountains reflect that. That includes both staff and skiers: I had mountain patrol yell at me in Keystone for not putting up the highback on the board, like it’s something they should concern themselves with, while I had several skiers pass me in Vail, only to cut me off as soon as they were ahead of me. Conversely, the first time I went to Winter Park, a resort employee saw me walking on the street and spontaneously stopped to give me a lift to the lifts, while the skiers at Copper Mountain went out of their way to be friendly. Your mileage will vary, as mentioned, but I am an avid boarder with plenty anecdotal evidence.
Policy. The breaking point for me, the moment I decided to stop going to Vail Resorts mountains for the time being, came one morning in Vail. It was Saturday and I had left in heavy snowfall to drive to Vail for the first time. I was early enough to park in the far spots that are free, but decided it was too cold to wait for a shuttle and drove into the parking garage in town. I already knew they had jacked up the price of daily parking to $30, which was clearly a rip-off, but well-advertised and probably meant to ensure the mountain was not as crowded with day skiers as their other resorts.
It was a glorious day. Eight inches of fresh snow on the ground and temperatures that would keep it fresh all day. I got up with the first chair and the only thing decent available at that time was Game Creek. The back bowls and Blue Sky Basin would open only later. Didn’t matter: Game Creek Bowl is awesome any day, and the trees there are simply spectacular on powder day. I did run after run, flying through the freshies, splatting powder on unsuspecting tree trunks.
Then, I get to the bottom of the bowl, and a crowd is standing at the lift. Odd. I get in line. The lift is broken and won’t budge. We start collecting people. It’s freezing cold. Staff is confused. Something about the fuse being broken. More staff arriving via skidoo. Confusion. People start hiking up the bowl, a 45 minute value. It’s around 20 degrees and we are freezing. Somehow, they “forgot” to prevent people from coming down the hill. We are now over hundred, maybe two hundred people.
Finally, a full hour later (sparing a few minutes, which makes me strongly suspect there was a sanction if they exceeded the hour), they turn on auxiliary power and we can leave the bowl. Of course, by that time it was already almost 11 and we had missed the best time to hit the powder. I would still find pockets here and there, but between the cold of waiting and the skied out back bowls much of the fun of the day had been sapped.
Which is of course forgivable. Anyone can have problems and ski lifts can break down. Where I found Vail’s policy simply atrocious was in the way they treated us after we had gotten back up. All we got was a voucher for a hot dog.
Why is that so disappointing? Because some people had paid full ticket window price, $150. Even I had paid $30 for parking. Taking an hour away from a seven hour snow day means that one seventh of your $150 or my $30 went to standing in line at frozen temperatures. I understand that ski lifts can break, but Vail should have done the right thing and refunded those that were harmed. I should have gotten a voucher for free parking, and the dude that had a lift ticket at face value shouldn’t have thought of himself as a moron, but should have gotten a free day of his choice.
A hot dog may be a $20 value on the mountain, but I can get one for $1.50 at Costco, with soda. Really, Vail Resorts, is that what you think of the value of my time?