You expect to find ski rentals at a ski resort. But when Trevor Dearstyne, a 26-year-old executive recruiter in New York, made a trip to Hunter Mountain Resort on the second Saturday of January, there were no rentals available for his girlfriend and brother. They’d all been reserved. Dearstyne hit the slopes while the others drove around to every rental shop in town. The two spent the morning hiking and shopping. 

Meanwhile, Dearstyne was dodging skiers on the Belt Parkway, the resort’s top-to-bottom blue trail. “Conditions were icy and people were flying in every direction,” he says. “It was an absolute free for all. I’d never seen anything like it.”

By 10:45 a.m. the group was getting back on the road to head home, while a line of cars were still trying to get into Hunter’s parking lot. “I drove twice as long as I skied,” he said. “But the crowds and conditions didn’t make it worthwhile to stay.”

If last season was the fifth-busiest on record for American resorts, according to the National Ski Areas Association, this year seems to be delivering even greater crowds. Many mountains have done away with COVID-related capacity caps and reservations systems. And ski conglomerate Vail Resorts, which owns Stevens Pass in Washington state, reported that it sold 2.1 million Epic passes — 700,000 more than last year — after lowering prices by 20%.

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That means more people are on mountains at a time when staffing and supply chain issues are snarling almost every facet of operations. The issues are especially pronounced at smaller resorts with limited lifts and parking infrastructure to support the crowds — much less the ability to lure seasonal workers, which are in historically short supply. Compounding matters is the fact that these “feeder” mountains, like Hunter, have recently been acquired by Vail or its competitors as a way to build loyalty with city-dwelling weekenders, delivering more season pass holders than ever before.

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If it sounds like the strategy is working, it’s also backfiring.

Washington, D.C., attorney Gregory Vadas, 51, jokes that it takes three times as long to get up the mountain as to ski down due to lift lines at Whitetail Mountain Resort, a 9-lift, 23-run, beginner-friendly ski area in southern Pennsylvania that Vail Resorts snatched up in 2019. Though it’s the closest resort for him to ski regularly with his two young daughters, hour-plus waits just to get into the parking lot have the Epic Pass holder rethinking weekend ski trips.

“I’ve tried to call the resort to find out if they’re at capacity, but I just get stuck on hold for hours,” he says. “I’m honestly reconsidering buying a pass next year.”

Before you end up in similar predicaments, here are the unique issues that ski operators are grappling with this year and strategies for sidestepping them on your next trip.

Make reservations, if you can

To avoid issues of overcrowding that are affecting many mountains, seek out the ones that are still requiring reservations and capping capacity by limiting day-pass sales. It keeps operations smooth for both skiers and overworked skeleton crews of staff.

Stratton Mountain in Vermont, owned by Alterra Mountain Group, is issuing day tickets only by reservation this season and gives notice online when days are sold out. Similarly, Windham Mountain in New York’s Catskills region has created an online capacity calendar this season to avoid large-volume crowds. Ahead of traveling, skiers can look online to see if their trip is predicted to fall on a less-busy green day or peak red day.

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Some places, such as Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming, are even requiring multi-resort pass holders to book ahead rather than show up on any powder day. Lift ticket availability is updated on its website — and can sell out weeks in advance. (While you’re making reservations, avoid Dearstyne’s fate and secure any gear you need, too.)

“We recognize that many of the people coming back to the slopes this winter are doing so for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and are paying for travel, equipment, and passes,” says Mary Kate Buckley, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort president. “With all of that in mind, we proactively limited ticket sales and day passes so we could create a safe and enjoyable experience for our guests.”

Upgrade your tickets

Ancillary fees are common with airlines: Buy a base fare and then pay extra for legroom or early boarding. Now ski operators are using the model to preserve the appeal of their most desired terrain.

This season, Utah-based operator Powdr introduced add-on Fast Passes that cost $49 a day, allowing skiers to bypass lift lines at four of its 11 resorts, including Copper Mountain in Colorado and Snowbird in Utah. Also on the list is Mount Bachelor, a ski area in Bend, Oregon, with bare-bones on-slope amenities and old-fashioned lifts.

“I want my 12-year-old-son to grow up skiing,” says Mount Bachelor regular David Marchi, who owns a gear shop nearby. But he’s been frustrated with the Fast Pass system, saying he can’t justify the additional cost. Beyond the $100-plus lift tickets, he spends $25 for parking and $60 for two lunches at the cafeteria. “It’s not sustainable to drive the middle class out of the industry,” he quips.

While some do feel priced out by these ancillary Fast Passes, they can offer quality assurance for those who are already splurging on big, blowout ski trips.

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At Big Sky, Montana, for example, it costs an additional $60 to $80 per day — on top of a $227 one-day lift ticket — to access the Lone Peak tram that reaches Big Sky’s most extreme terrain, including the Big Couloir, one of North America’s toughest inbounds runs, with a sustained 50-degree pitch over 1,400 vertical feet.

Local resident Ashley Dodd, 44, says it’s worth it. She rode the tram just once last year because of two-hour waits. Now, she says, it’s another story. “On average, the wait time is closer to 20 minutes, and even when the snow is really good, there’s hardly any line,” says Dodd. “People are saying that it’s like the clock has been turned back a decade to before people discovered Big Sky.”

Expect less from your hotel

Like the mountains themselves, slopeside hotels depend heavily on seasonal staffs, which often get hired from other countries. Because the U.S. hit its H-2B foreign visa cap in October, it’s harder to bring employees from overseas. Expect staff shortages and be patient.

The just-renovated Limelight Hotel in Aspen, Colo., found a clever workaround. It transferred housekeeping and culinary staff from a nearby Colorado Springs hotel that considers winter its low season — though bellhops and front desk associates are having to wear multiple hats by shaking drinks at the bar during après ski.

It’s been harder to sidestep supply chain issues, which have derailed construction timelines and forced new hotels to open prematurely. Henning Rahm, Limelight’s general manager, says he’s still waiting on furniture that has been delayed due to COVID-related factory shutdowns, Chinese New Year celebrations, shipping logjams and customs backlogs. As a result, he’s defaulted to leaving “excuse our dust” signs around the property.

The two-month-old Montage Big Sky took a similar approach when it opened in December, leaving in-room notes for guests explaining that certain facilities, like the ice skating rink and tubing hill, were delayed in opening. The spa, for example, was offering 50% discounts on treatments because the sauna, steam room, and pool weren’t available. The issues have since been resolved and full pricing restored.

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Pack a lunch

On-mountain dining was always pricey. But now, COVID restrictions that limit indoor seating and service have many skiers packing a PB & J.

Beth Howard, vice president and chief operating officer at Vail Resorts, says that in anticipation of lean staffing, many dining venues scaled back menus to focus on guest favorites, such as burgers. Meanwhile, food supply issues have forced dining outlets to make do with substitutions, like tater tots rather than French fries.

On a recent visit to Talon’s Restaurant in Beaver Creek, Colorado, however, several people surveyed the cafeteria-style offerings and decided to pass altogether, turned off by the idea of spending $25 for a packaged salad of iceberg lettuce and croutons. These days, think of base lodge dining a bit like navigating an airport: You may want to stash energy bars in your pockets to fuel you through the day.

Even hotel meals are getting squeezed. Due to staffing shortages, some ski lodges, such as the Osprey at Beaver Creek, a RockResort, have switched a la carte breakfasts to simple buffets; dinner is served only when the restaurant has staff.

At Hunter Mountain in New York state, Dearstyne says he needs a reservation to grab an après beer at the resort. “The fun of skiing is missing this winter,” he laments. “My next trip, I plan to have a buddy as a designated driver so I can ski all day and hit a bar in town for a liquid lunch of beer before heading home.”