Gondola line

According to Aspen Skiing Co., the crowds this season taking to local slopes have been driven by a 40 percent spike in pass use more than the Ikon pass. The morning lineup for the Silver Queen Gondola up Aspen Mountain is shown here on Sunday, March 3, when a double-digit powder day awaited skiers.

The robust crowds taking to the Aspen Skiing Co. slopes this winter are part of what is on track to be the busiest ski season since the late 1990s, the company’s CEO wrote in an op-ed published Friday.

The op-ed, found on page 9 in today’s Aspen Daily News, is the latest from a ski industry executive responding to the crowd sizes experienced at resorts around the country, as well as the perception of those crowds by the locals. The heads of Big Sky Resort in Montana and Jackson Hole in Wyoming have published similar pieces in their hometown papers recently.

Touting the great conditions, with more than 300 inches of snow only midway through March, Kaplan asks, “What is there to complain about?”

“Apparently a lot, if you wade into certain echo chambers online and in the papers. Where’d all these people come from? Why are they skiing my lines? This place is ruined — time to pack up and move to Revelstoke; Aspen’s gone to the dogs,” the SkiCo CEO quips in print.

But for those who suggest that the Ikon pass is to blame, Kaplan writes that visitors using the new product, designed by Alterra Mountain Co. to compete with the Vail Resorts Epic Pass, make up a mere 9 percent of skier visits this season. That number climbs to 15 percent on weekends, which Kaplan notes have been markedly busier this winter.

“I get an eye roll” when explaining these statistics, he adds. “We live in the age of confirmation bias and everyone is quick to share anecdotal observations that validate their theory on everything.”

The Ikon pass, new this season from the company co-owned by the Crown family of Chicago, who also own SkiCo, offers unlimited days at resorts including Steamboat, Copper Mountain, Winter Park, Squaw Valley and Mammoth Mountain. Ikon holders get a limited number of days at premium resorts including Aspen/Snowmass, Alta/Snowbird, Jackson Hole and Big Sky. The pass is accepted at a total of 38 destinations.

The true driver of the busier slopes is locals’ season pass use, which is up an astounding 40 percent from last season, according to SkiCo.

Jeff Hanle, the company’s vice president of communications, said that total paid pass use — which includes window tickets, the Classic pass, the Ikon pass and Mountain Collective — is up this year with strong numbers compared to last year, but not up as much as local pass use.

Whenever comparing numbers to last season, it is important to note that the winter if 2017-18 saw some of the lowest snowfall totals and overall least favorable conditions in a generation. Skier visits were down 7 percent at SkiCo resorts. A better comparison is to 2016-17, Hanle said.

Measuring against that year, paid pass use is tracking up in the low single digits, but local pass use is still up double digits, he said.

The bottom line is that “skiers like to ski where there is good snow,” Hanle said.

It is adding up to a season that is on track to be the busiest since the late 1990s, when SkiCo set skier visit records.

A big difference in this era compared to two decades ago, Kaplan notes, is that “back then, we didn’t have Highland Bowl, Deep Temerity, Burnt Mountain, gated terrain on Ajax, nor half the high-speed lifts we do today,” so theoretically the crowds move more efficiently and have more terrain to tackle.

Those crowds are testing infrastructure, including parking lots, which are full more days than in past years, as well as bus service, Kaplan concedes in the op-ed.

“I can assure you that we will adjust to these new visitation patterns, make tweaks to the Ikon pass, and even abandon it if it’s not working for us over the next few years. In the meantime, we are committed to continuous learning and improvement, and will course correct our operations as we go,” Kaplan writes.

Hanle said this ski season has been a “learning year for everybody” — not just Ikon and Epic resorts.

“When you talk to ski areas around the country, everyone is saying the same thing. … We have great snow and we haven’t seen people coming out like this in a long time.”

That’s a better message than what was common two or three years ago, when all the talk was about a dying industry, Hanle said. People coming out is a good thing for the ski industry and the communities that rely on that business, he added.

Curtis Wackerle is the editor of Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at curtis@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @CurtisWackerle.