Is this ski season cursed? All signs pointed to a big comeback season – a planned La Niña, vaccines to fight Covid and an increase in unlimited season tickets. But in mid-January, every local ski area suffers from some form of calamity.
First, the snow did not materialize in November; Crystal Mountain passed its hoped-for mid-November opening without enough white stuff, and Stevens was unable to make its scheduled December 3 debut. But the snowflakes finally fell, and the Washington Cascades currently sits nearly 100% normal snowfall.
But Stevens Pass had 99 issues, and delayed snowfall was just one. The ski area and its parent company, Vail Resorts, garnered most of the attention for its eventful year; only a handful of the mountain’s 10 chairlifts opened at first, leaving huge swathes of terrain inaccessible. “Omicron/Covid has had a particularly difficult impact, particularly at Stevens Pass, and staffing issues have hit the station harder than any of our others due to some of its unique characteristics,” said Tom Dukeson , Pacific Northwest communications manager. Although Vail Resorts reported a 76% increase in the number of Epic passes sold internationally, there was little skiing to do in Washington. (Frequent closures of Highway 2, where the Washington Department of Transportation plows and mitigates avalanches, haven’t helped.)
Seattle filmmaker Jeremy Hunter Rubingh started a Change.org petition at the end of December, complaining “We are disgusted with the poor management of the ski area” which had been acquired by Vail Resorts in 2018 for 64 million dollars; signatories grew into the tens of thousands, helping to inspire media coverage of Vail’s crowded and partially open ski mountains across the country. “People are tired of corporate exploitation,” says Rubingh, explaining why her petition has gone viral. “Companies don’t value employees and don’t pay a living wage and then complain they have a talent shortage.”
In mid-January, Stevens Pass general manager Tom Pettigrew resigned and a big acting boss, Tom Fortune, came in; Fortune had previously worked at Stevens Pass before managing Vail properties near Lake Tahoe. In its first week, Fortune promised to fix the issues and has already launched an additional chairlift at Stevens; Dukeson notes that they hope to open more ground soon.
Crystal Mountain, owned by Alterra Mountain Company and under its unlimited Ikon Pass, is the southern rival of Stevens Pass. After traffic receded to the Mount Rainier area resort in late December and parking lots were filled to capacity, Crystal announced a plan to require reservations from skiers; a few days later they pivoted to weekend parking reservations and an expanded shuttle service from Enumclaw. The rush for unlimited use of the Ikon Pass has gone from a physical backup at 7 a.m. on a weekend to a panicked online grab for reservations when they’re released on Tuesdays; the offer of weekend places is snatched up in a few minutes. Complaints exploded on social media.
Although Summit at Snoqualmie, the slopes closest to Seattle, does not fall under either of the two national mega-passes (its owners, Boyne Resorts, only have a handful of others), it has experienced mogul-sized bumps during his season. Despite record snow on slopes that often suffer from rain, electrical problems caused several closures. Marketing manager Karter Riach says that’s a lot more than normal – they’ve had more than half a dozen major outages since Christmas, including Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. Backup generators can operate some lifts when power is unavailable, but Summit had to reimburse both ticket buyers and tube customers.
Rubingh, who makes films about climate change and public land use, admits he wishes he could draw as much attention to these causes as he did to a disappointing ski season. He cites Mount Baker Ski Area, independently owned but nearly three hours from Seattle, as the rare ski area with affordable access. Still, he’s cautiously optimistic about the move to Stevens Pass after January’s flurry of negative press, although time is running out for a season that only lasts until early spring. “I think time will tell if that means real change,” he says. “And they don’t have much time, frankly.”