What a year! The snow just won’t stop coming and last year’s drought is a distant memory. It really hit me last Saturday, when I found myself skiing Aspen Mountain with another foot of fresh snow. It was the third straight weekend of the same, and we’re about to have another one starting tomorrow.
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.
Everyone knows it’s because of the Ikon pass and SkiCo selling its soul, right? Whenever I explain that Ikon visitors are making up less than 9 percent of total business and a high of 15 percent on the weekends, I get the eye roll. We live in the age of confirmation bias and everyone is quick to share anecdotal observations that validate their theory on everything, including longer-than-usual lift lines on weekends.
Here’s the truth: This is the best snow since 2007-08, and it comes a year after one of our worst snow years ever. Last year’s frustration has translated into this year’s full-throttled enthusiasm. Season pass use is through the roof, up 40 percent to date against last year, and up more than 53,000 skier days compared to the 2016-17 season. Paid lift tickets, which includes Ikon pass usage, are up 5,000 skier days compared to 2016-17. That local season pass use shows that I’m far from alone in my determination to not take this snow for granted — shooting for 35 bowl laps — and there are lots of other season-pass holders who will hit personal highs for ski days this year. Why wouldn’t we?
For 30 years, we have fretted over the threat of Aspen turning into an exclusive country club. And from a ski-experience standpoint, we have been embarrassingly quiet. Highlands has been stuck at fewer than 200,000 visits per season, and most days it feels like a private mountain. Buttermilk still offers fresh corduroy days after a trail is groomed and even Ajax has rarely mustered a gondola line longer than five minutes this season, unless you showed up with the daily “crack of noon” club or during the first 20 minutes of a powder day. Snowmass, the “busy” mountain, still only has three people per acre on its peak days.
It’s true that this year is busier than it’s been since the late ’90s. But 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. That said, weekends have been very busy this year, much more so than we expected, and most dramatically during the past month’s outrageous powder run.
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. That includes parking, coordination with RFTA, lift capacity and ski school programming. We will remain unrelenting in our pursuit of the perfect ski/ride experience.
As we head into the final weeks of the season, I implore the community to engage in some serious self-reflection. We have received a stream of disturbing emails from locals. One woman recounted witnessing two occasions of “Go back to Vail!” being yelled at Ikon skiers. Sadly, she was not expressing disappointment at the person doing the yelling. She was suggesting that such unhinged, inhospitable behavior was warranted. It made my heart sink. I know this valley, which so often stakes out the high ground in defending inclusion and tolerance, is better than that.
We all had a first day skiing here. Most of us look back on that moment as a good one. Let’s extend the same courtesy to everyone else. We want to welcome people whether they come every year for five days or they live here and ski 100. The mountains are open to all, and everyone on them deserves respect.
Mike Kaplan is president and CEO of Aspen Skiing Co.