Your upgrade actually wasn’t an upgrade.
Imagine this: Six months ago, you threw down $1,029 for a Killington season pass. That’s a lot of money. More than a $999 Ikon Pass, which would get you up the lifts all season long at nearby Sugarbush. It’s $246 more than an Epic Pass, which comes fully loaded with unlimited Stowe and Okemo. Both include plenty of ammunition for a Western run: Jackson Hole, Alta, Taos would all be in play on Ikon; Whistler, Vail, Park City are wrapped into Epic.
But no. You ski Killington. You have for years. The premium is worth the price. It’s the largest mountain in the East. It has the longest season. It has every sort of terrain you can imagine. Powdr has invested heavily in lifts and detangling the once-snarled trail network. It’s a circus, true. But you know how to work the mountain, avoid the crowds. It’s your spot.
Then, on Monday, Killington officially drops the news – first reported last Friday by The Wall Street Journal – that it would be installing so-called Fast Tracks lanes at nine lifts ahead of this season. Access to these lanes will start at $49 per day. You ski 100 days per year.
How you feeling about Killington now?
Probably the same way that passholders at Snowbird, Mount Bachelor, and Copper Mountain are feeling about their hills. All four – the crown jewels of Powdr’s portfolio and enormous Ikon Pass draws – will lock Fast Tracks lanes onto the majority of their alpha lifts ahead of the 2021-22 ski season.
Anyone who has ever stood in a flash-frozen amusement park line as fellow parkgoers streamed by in their special upgrade lane knows what that feels like. It feels like shit.
What Fast Tracks looks like
Fast Tracks access is an add-on for every existing ticket product, including Ikon Passes and season passes. Daily access will start at $49 at Copper, Killington and Mt. Bachelor, and $69 at Snowbird. Copper Mountain confirmed that the product will max out at $79 per day at that ski area, but representatives from Killington and Snowbird declined to provide specifics, and Mt. Bachelor did not respond to an inquiry about pricing. Here are the lifts scheduled for Fast Tracks lanes at each mountain:
Killington: K-1 Express Gondola, Skyeship Gondola (both stages), Superstar, Ramshead, Snowshed, Bear Mountain, Skye Peak, Snowdon Six, Needles Eye
Mount Bachelor: Pine Marten, Sunrise, Skyliner, Cloudchaser, Outback, Northwest, Summit, Red Chair, Little Pine
Snowbird: Peruvian, Gadzoom, Gad 2, Little Cloud, Mineral Basin, Baldy – but not, notably, the tram
Copper Mountain: American Eagle, American Flyer, Super Bee, Timberline Express, Storm King, Excelerator, Woodward Express.
Powdr confirmed that its other six ski areas – Silverstar, Pico, Boreal, Soda Springs, Lee Canyon, and Eldora – would not have Fast Tracks lanes for this coming season.
An old new idea
The notion of sanctioned cutting for rich people – because that’s what we’re dealing with here, right? – is not a new idea. Amusement parks installed such lanes years ago. So did a few ski resorts. And not necessarily the ones you’d expect: humble Sierra-at-Tahoe sells fast passes daily or by the season. Bretton Woods Club members get access to “preferred lift lines.” Copper itself has offered some form of fast-access lanes for at least 20 years.
Sometimes, such experiments have flopped. Sunday River briefly tested a “Vertical Plus” program at its Chondola, Barker, Jordan, and South Ridge lifts several years ago. Blowback, by several accounts, was severe.
“The test was scheduled for a month, but based on guest and participant feedback, we ended the test after two weeks,” said Sunday River President Dana Bullen in an email. The resort never tried it again.
Still, the idea holds enough appeal for operators to keep dusting it off. Powdr Resorts’ move to privileged lanes is just the latest in a parade of crowd-management measures announced by major U.S. resorts ahead of ski season. Following two years of cataclysmic traffic backups on its two-lane access road, Crystal Mountain, Washington yanked full season access off the Ikon Base Pass and instituted a paid parking plan. Big Sky is reserving unlimited tram access to its highest-tier passholders – everyone else, including Ikon Pass holders, will have to pay a daily fee to ride what may be the nation’s most under-designed lift. And Arapahoe Basin is limiting season pass sales to 10 percent fewer than the number it sold last season.
None of these plans is perfect. But Powdr’s Fast Tracks is the worst idea yet. Unlike the changes at Crystal and A-Basin, it does nothing to control the total volume of skiers on the mountain. Unlike Sierra-at-Tahoe, there is no option for a season-long add-on. And unlike the limited tram access at Big Sky, it does not target a single, ultra-congested chunk of the mountain. Instead, Fast Tracks, with its klutzy rollout, disingenuous messaging, and concentration of crowding onto already strung-out and alienated locals, creates an avalanche of new problems that may wipe this lift out before it even starts spinning.
Taking away our one good thing
For years, it has been the best part of skiing: cheaper season passes. In mountains shaken by warmer winters, short-term home rentals, traffic, and crowds, it was a reliable hack. Who cares if Snowbird charges $170 for a peak-day lift ticket? Only tourists pay that. “I skied for five dollars a day last year, Brah – that’s like the same price as a pack of Stokely Dokelys.”
Now Powdr is reversing the flow of the river. The no-blackout season pass is supposed to be skiing’s Excalibur – wield it and you are king. Now skiers are pulling the sword from the stone, trying to stab a charging minotaur, and discovering it’s a raw block of iron. “What the fuck is wrong with this sword?” they yell to the talking forest animals milling about them in the glen. “Uh oh, looks like someone neglected to upgrade to the Sharpening Package,” squeals a talking chipmunk. But the warrior doesn’t hear him because the minotaur just beheaded the would-be king with an axe.
“Fast Tracks provides our guests with a way to maximize their time skiing and riding with friends and family,” Killington GM Mike Solimano said in a press release.
Really? Because the thousands of people who bought Killington season passes over the past six months probably thought that the best way to maximize their time skiing and riding was by dropping the equivalent of an average monthly mortgage payment on a season pass.
And that’s when Powdr should have dropped this atom bomb – in the spring, when their very expensive season passes went on sale. And they should have given passholders a chance to opt in. Love or hate Big Sky’s à la carte tram tickets stacked on top of their already astronomical day ticket prices – Christmas week lift tickets are currently $224 per day, and a three-day pack of tram access is $150 – at least they announced the change in the spring and offered top-tier passholders an unlimited tram option (the next tier down gets 10 tram days). Yes, it’s a very expensive (and sold out) pass, but the restrictions and advantages of the various tiers are clear.
Not so with Powdr’s passes. Fast Tracks is pay-by-the-day. Period. Compounding the frustration is this infuriating quote from one of the company’s top executives:
“Unlike our counterparts in other areas of the hospitality and event industry, the ski industry has yet to embrace the concept of providing options for guests to upgrade their experience,” says Wade Martin, co-president at Powdr. “We are exploring the opportunity to solve for our guests greatest pain points by becoming one of the first adventure lifestyle companies to provide upgrades that maximize the on-mountain experience.”
There is not one word of this quote that I do not utterly hate. First: positioning this as some grand insight. “Unlike our counterparts…” Any burnout who has wandered around a Six Flags after snorting a gram of shroom brownies at any point in the past decade has seen the fast pass lane and thought, “Man I hope they don’t try to pull that shit skiing.”
Second: ignoring your season passholders’ considerable investment by saying you’re now, “providing options … to upgrade.” Well, thousands of people already exercised their option to upgrade… to a season pass (currently $1,399 at Snowbird, $1,179 at Killington, $1,279 at Mt. Bachelor, and $699 at Copper).
Third: using the word “opportunity” to describe something odious.
Fourth: describing Fast Tracks as a solution to a problem that this initiative is going to make worse by saying it will “…solve for our guests greatest pain points…” The “pain point” here is, presumably, lift lines, which will get worse, not better, for pretty much everyone on the mountain who doesn’t ladle up with a Fast Tracks VIP wristband. (And, since steam is already tumbling out of my ears, I will point out that I’ve been involved with the drafting of enough executive quotes to know that 45 people helped write and review this one, and somehow they still blew the possessive use of “guests.’”)
I don’t know if humans actually wrote that quote or if they just pushed the “scramble” button on the Jargonator 5000 and printed whatever came out, but it is one of the worst quotes I have ever seen in a press release about anything.
In a free market, people make dumb decisions alongside good ones
Yes I know Free Market Guy, this is America, and not everyone gets the same size house or the same 12-wheel-drive VW Subaru. “If you don’t like it, why don’t you move to Communistastan, where everyone lives in a shipping container and eats their monthly 50-pound bag of government rice?” he screams at me in the comments section with the user ID “69DURMOM.”
Well Free Market Guy, I don’t really disagree with you. Powdr can try this (maybe – at least one U.S. senator is demanding that the company “abandon its plans to adopt this new pass system” given the “serious concerns this policy raises about equitable access to the public lands on which Mt. Bachelor operates”). The company has done a good job adapting the subscription trend to skiing with their Beast 365 (Killington) and Outplay 365 (Bachelor) passes. No one else has successfully done that as far as I’m aware.
But I feel as though the fast pass experiment may be different. Mostly because ski resorts are not as scarce a resource as Six Flags-caliber amusement parks, of which there could not be more than a couple dozen in the entire country. Bachelor may be relatively isolated, but Killington sits at the heart of New England’s fiercest ski state; Copper is in the uber-competitive Summit County; and Snowbird is next door to what may be America’s greatest ski area in Alta.
At least one prominent industry player has doubts. “I am glad they are trying it and maybe it will work,” said Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher, who encouraged the Sunday River experiment and a past effort to institute a reservation system on the Big Sky tram. “With that said, our efforts are now focused on yielding passes and tickets to maximize our ability to invest in the best lift infrastructure and thus manage the lines without this scenario, as I don’t see it being successful based on our experience in our two different trials.”
I hope it’s not successful. I hate everything about this. Anyone who has ever stood in a flash-frozen amusement park line as fellow parkgoers streamed by in their special upgrade lane knows what that feels like. It feels like shit. If this terrible idea catches on, it will change skiing for the worse. Not a good look for a sport already freighted with access and equality issues.
Maybe Powdr will retreat. I haven’t seen this much hostility aimed at the self-styled Adventure Lifestyle Company since they cancelled the long season at Killington.
But if they persist, we could see fast lanes multiply like RFID gates and high-speed lifts. For now, neither Vail nor Alterra had a comment on fast passes, so I will let the People’s Mountain have the last word here:
Fast passes are for the way down
— Magic Mountain (@SkiMagicVT) October 10, 2021
This essay first appeared at StormSkiing.com and is republished here with permission.