The two biggest rival corporations in ski resort management staked their claims in Washington state in 2018 by purchasing two of the Central Cascades’ most beloved ski areas.
Vail Resorts, based in Broomfield, Colorado, bought Stevens Pass, the lovably crusty ski area on one of the continent’s snowiest mountain passes reachable by road; meanwhile, Denver-based Alterra Mountain Company snapped up Crystal Mountain, a resort founded by Seattle ski bums at the edge of Mount Rainier National Park.
Then, the pandemic winter of 2020-21 brought coronavirus public health restrictions, increased demand for outdoor sports and a La Niña weather pattern that dumped snow. It made for one of the most challenging ski seasons in recent history. As the season ends, we examine how Stevens Pass and Crystal Mountain are faring under the industry’s biggest ski conglomerates, which have steadily divided up North American snow country. (Boyne Resorts, which owns Summit at Snoqualmie, is a distant third in this two-horse race.)
Numerous interviews with season pass holders from both resorts show that Crystal Mountain provided customers with a premier experience amid tough pandemic conditions — though this comes at a premier price. Meanwhile, Stevens Pass slashed the price of its Epic Pass last month in an attempt to make skiing more affordable after a season in which its operational struggles frustrated many longtime pass holders.
After purchasing Stevens Pass out of financial default, Vail pumped millions into aging infrastructure by upgrading the Daisy and Brooks chairs at Stevens. Alterra invested comparatively less into capital improvements, but Crystal still gained a 200-vehicle parking lot and has plans for a new skier services building.
However, the two conglomerates had different blueprints for managing their new acquisitions.
Vail is known for subsuming its acquisitions into its corporate brand. At Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, longtime patrons use a “Star Trek” reference to characterize the resort’s new, blander identity: VailBorg. Stevens Pass was no exception. An isolated outpost nestled deep in the Cascades far from the ski tourism hubs of Utah and Colorado, Stevens Pass boasted a scruffy personality as a no-frills ski area with eye-popping snowfall totals, natural topography perfect for ungroomed freeride skiing, and one of North America’s best terrain parks. It had a loyal following of skiers and boarders who felt like their home mountain was an undiscovered gem.
But several changes that played out over the last three years have eroded the mountain’s luster in the eyes of some customers. From interviews with a half-dozen skiers — including one who wrote a formal complaint to Stevens Pass management on behalf of more than 30 longtime pass holders — and a seasonlong monitoring of online groups where Pacific Northwest powderhounds congregate, the picture that emerged was one of shortened hours, consistently late lift openings or sudden lift closures, a subpar terrain park and a general lack of the human touches that once made Stevens Pass special.
The “new” owners nevertheless view their presence as a boon for Stevens Pass: “There is an advantage of Stevens Pass being a part of Vail Resorts in that we have direct conduits to other resorts within our portfolio that are similar,” said Stevens Pass vice president and general manager Tom Pettigrew. “We’re all part of Vail. Vail is all of us.”
Under Alterra, Crystal Mountain appears to have maintained more of its identity. “The vision for Alterra is to create a collection of unique brands,” Crystal Mountain president and COO Frank DeBerry said. “We find it super important to let Crystal continue to be Crystal and to respect the culture that’s developed here.”
That culture, Crystal’s fans say, is one devoted to skiing from first snowfall to final spring melt. Crystal seized on this past season’s early winter, opening Nov. 18, and pushed closing to May 9 once the snow piled up. (Stevens Pass opened Dec. 4, planned an early April closing day, then extended to April 18.) This winter, Crystal introduced a mountain “ambassador team” of local skiers and snowboarders, highlighting the people whose passion for the sport is woven into the fabric of the resort.
But what matters most to skiers, and keeps them returning despite new management, is the skiing. In their own way, both corporations are known to run a tight ship. As Marc Peruzzi, a former editor of Skiing magazine expresses it, “People can criticize Vail all day long and [complain] about how they lose their identity under the Epic [season pass] umbrella. But they are really good operators and they know what they’re doing.”
Which is exactly why operational woes at Stevens Pass this past season were particularly surprising.
“Vail Fail” versus “Crystal Clear”?
On a Thursday in late February, Peshastin resident Dan Osborne sat under the cover of his hatchback parked outside Stevens Pass, enjoying a beverage after a day of carving deep powder turns.
Danger Dan, as he’s known on the hill, has been skiing Stevens Pass since the mid-1970s. He worked as a lift operator, or liftie, in his younger days and routinely clocked 100-day seasons. While that Thursday of whiteout conditions offered up some of the season’s best skiing, Osborne found such days frustratingly few and far between.
“Short-staffed, late openings, not getting [lifts] going, poor communication with the public,” Osborne said, rattling off a litany of complaints. “It’s been messed up so many days. We call it Vail Fail.”
“Stuff is broken, we get it. It’s heavy weather up here, we get it,” he said. “But it’s been a chronic thing all season.”
Several season pass holders echoed Osborne’s sentiments about sluggish or inoperable ski lifts and point to the Stevens Pass Updates Twitter feed as evidence of a seasonlong chronicle of delayed openings and maintenance breakdowns.
Stevens Pass management chalked up this season’s operational issues to pandemic-related challenges.
“There is no doubt that this past year had COVID-19 staffing and guest service challenges and we deeply apologize for every inconvenience that caused our guests,” Vail vice president of communications Sara Olson wrote in a statement to The Seattle Times. “However we are incredibly proud of the amazing work done by the entire Stevens Pass team to navigate this unprecedented season.”
“This isn’t a normal season,” Pettigrew said. “We are trying to operate a ski resort in the middle of a pandemic where there are elements that increase the time.” For example, he cited physical distancing rules that prohibited employees from riding the same chairlift or shoveling snow within 6 feet of each other.
And for every passionate handful of ski bums who have lamented Stevens’ demise, there are contented families who’ve enjoyed what the mountain has to offer. “I’ve had a great experience. I don’t have a thing to complain about,” said Ligia Iorga of Bellevue, on the same February powder day that Osborne laid out his issues.
Iorga’s family has held season passes for four seasons, and “I have not come here once and not found the lifts open,” she said. Fifth-year season pass holders Kory and Michelle Knudson, of Snohomish, echoed Iorga’s sentiments.
Across the Cascades, despite dealing with similar pandemic limitations, Crystal Mountain saw an influx of midweek skiers that led to busier days, but overall, based on interviews with a half-dozen season pass holders, there appears to have been far fewer complaints. The resort set a season goal of opening by 8:30 a.m. on weekends and 8:45 a.m. on weekdays, which ski patrol and resort management claim they met consistently, notwithstanding holds due to heavy winds that frequently afflict Crystal Mountain.
“I think they did a great job. Operationally, Crystal was running pretty well,” said Candice Nuez, 35, of Federal Way, who has snowboarded at Crystal Mountain for 20 years.
“This year we said we’re going to open as early as we possibly can every day,” DeBerry said, citing days where lifts started as early as 8:15 a.m. and insisting that operations never began after 9 a.m.
DeBerry is known to address problems head-on by issuing public letters, as he did on Nov. 25, when the resort miscalculated early season demand, and Thanksgiving crowds surged even as Crystal was promising a less busy ski experience due to public health protocols. He did the same on Jan. 13, 2020, when Crystal’s parking lots got overcrowded over a powder weekend and DeBerry pledged immediate corrective action — they stopped selling walk-up tickets.
Alterra’s management style worked in Crystal’s favor amid this crisis — DeBerry said he made the January 2020 decision personally, then brought Alterra on board. “I had to sit down with our CEO, explain that’s a big change and ask for their support,” he said. “I had 100% support to do it.”
Stevens Pass season pass holders say they wish they’d seen similar transparency from Vail management in dealing with its problems this season. Cliff Trent, 63, is a Seattle resident and self-described “ski dad” who parented two sons through competitive ski racing with a home base at Stevens Pass.
As he watched Stevens Pass’ operational struggles this season, Trent gathered feedback from more than 30 Stevens skiers he’d met over decades and presented complaints to Pettigrew.
“It was an attempt to say that there is a community of people here that are used to a level of operational service we have grown accustomed to over the last 20 to 30 years and we’re not getting that,” Trent said, referencing his email to Pettigrew. “We see hints of things like disgruntled employees and I challenged him to talk to us. But we got no recognition in his response that there were any problems. He blew all that off and went right into corporate-speak. I was really disappointed.”
In response to Trent’s email, Pettigrew acknowledged, “we knew this would be a difficult season” and described how pandemic safety measures had made operations challenging, while stressing “our imperative is to protect your health and safety above all else — and this absolutely entails compromise.” He deferred Trent’s request to meet and talk, saying “maybe after the season, we can grab a beverage and say hello.”
Trent and other longtime Stevens Pass skiers say the homogenization of the resort has led to, among other things, the departure of longtime staff members that resulted in a loss of institutional knowledge and staffing issues that compounded Stevens’ operational problems this season.
The staff experience, and why it matters
Geographically, Stevens Pass is a tough ski area to run in the best of times. It’s the site of the 1910 avalanche that’s hailed as the deadliest in U.S. history, and according to Stevens Pass Ski Patrol Union vice president Katie Warren, some avalanche mitigation is required to open all but one chairlift at the ski area. Crystal Mountain, conversely, can spin five lifts even if ski patrol is still conducting avalanche control work.
“We’re a very unique, challenging mountain to run,” said Warren, a seventh-year patroller.
That heightens pressure on Stevens Pass on days with significant new snowfall, which were abundant this past season, when the mountain got upward of 600 inches of snow — more than double the annual snowfall at Vail or Park City in Utah. Seasoned patrollers are crucial to the operation because several years of experience is a prerequisite for patrol route leaders who supervise the detonation of explosives on avalanche-prone slopes that preemptively trigger slides before runs are opened to the skiing public.
“We have definitely lost some experienced patrollers, especially in the last three to five years. We’ve seen some pretty high turnover for a variety of different reasons,” Warren said, citing cost of living and desire for a more stable career as factors across the ski industry that are not unique to Stevens Pass. (Notably, despite COVID-19, Crystal Mountain claims it had its easiest staffing season in years.)
Still, Warren conceded: “I’ve seen the mountain run smoother than it has this year.”
Second-year lift operator Per Nesselquist and a second Stevens Pass operations employee who requested anonymity because they feared losing their job, also described high staff turnover and rapid attrition.
“There were many more new faces than typical,” said Nesselquist, who is currently on personal leave. “The people who actually kept things together over the years left after last season due to a shift in control.”
Stevens’ staffing “isn’t materially different than it has been in the past,” Pettigrew said, adding, “There is turnover within all of our departments. We work hard to retain our employees.”
As February’s complaints about lift closures reached a fever pitch, Warren defended Stevens Pass, saying, “The last two weeks, the only thing we can blame is Mother Nature. I’ve been doing avalanche control almost every 12 hours for either the highway or the ski area.”
Ultimately, Warren chalks the mountain’s struggles up to staffing issues. “Holding on to staff, especially during a difficult winter, is challenging,” she said. “People are driving long distances on a dangerous highway. There are not a lot of places to live and there isn’t a lot of employee housing.” Olson said Stevens Pass could provide housing for only 65 employees this season, half the usual number.
In a statement, Olson said Vail “has remained fully committed to our employees” despite “two very challenging seasons and COVID-19, and we have not looked to reduce staffing or service levels in any way.”
At Crystal Mountain, DeBerry encountered few of the hurdles that plagued Stevens Pass this season. Crystal had more housing capacity, with room for 130 employees — just 38 fewer than in a normal season.
DeBerry said this past winter was the easiest in his three seasons because the COVID-19-induced shutdown of the hospitality industry in November actually made working at Crystal more attractive.
Staffing up early served Crystal well. “When you have enough staff to start, people get less burned out during the season and retention is easier,” DeBerry said.
Courting “guests” versus “purists”
Season pass sales are central to Vail and Alterra’s business models because they incentivize even casual skiers to commit to a specific mountain early.
Stevens Pass is part of Vail’s Epic Pass network, which includes unlimited days at Whistler Blackcomb — the big kahuna of Pacific Northwest ski resorts — and access to Idaho’s Sun Valley, along with multiple Colorado, Lake Tahoe and Utah ski areas.
Crystal Mountain, meanwhile, joined the Ikon Pass network, which includes hallowed Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Deer Valley, Utah, and Aspen, Colorado, resorts, plus Northwest favorites Mount Bachelor, Oregon, Schweitzer, Idaho, and Big Sky, Montana.
To court those already shopping for next season, the two rivals revealed diverging pricing strategies last month.
Crystal bumped up a tier in the Ikon Pass system, going from a resort eligible to $729 “Base Pass” holders to one requiring an upgrade to the full $999 “Ikon Pass” for unlimited access.
Meanwhile, Vail slashed the price of its Epic Pass by 20% for next season. Unlimited access to Stevens Pass and 10 other destination resorts in the West, plus seven days at Sun Valley, Snowbasin, Utah, and Telluride, Colorado, will cost $783. Just want to ride at Stevens? That dropped to $535.
For Nuez, the Federal Way snowboarder who has enjoyed Crystal Mountain, the Ikon Pass price hike reinforces the mountain’s reputation as catering to “a more hoity-toity crowd.”
But even though Vail’s cheaper Epic Pass was tempting, Nuez re-upped her Ikon Pass anyway.
In light of pre-pandemic overcrowding issues, DeBerry stands by Alterra’s decision to bump Crystal Mountain up in the Ikon Pass system. “More people have been purchasing the Ikon Base Pass than we’re comfortable having in the marketplace, and so by moving access to the full Ikon we do expect to sell fewer passes,” he said. “We’re OK with that and I think our skiers are OK with that.”
In the Stevens Pass circle, the Epic Pass price drop quelled some of the midseason discontent. Social media forums once ablaze with #VailFail hashtags and pledges by angry skiers to quit the Epic Pass quieted once the discount became public.
These seemingly divergent paths align with the two companies’ philosophies. Alterra, and Crystal Mountain, is are willing to edge prices up as they court “purist” skiers but also provide a high-caliber experience. Vail, meanwhile, intensifies its quest to provide “Epic for Everyone” with its cheaper-than-ever season pass, which Olson said she believes will diversify a sport that has been historically white and increasingly for the affluent.
Industry analysts say this hews with Vail’s eagerness to expand its Epic Pass network and court new regional customers who ski primarily at local mountains like Stevens, but will capitalize on network privileges and splurge on excursions to Vail’s prized destination resorts.
“Vail Resorts puts customer service above all else to serve the customers who are going on a ski trip to enjoy their vacation and want to be treated like a guest,” Peruzzi said. “The customer that self-elects for Alterra resorts is more of a purist skier. They think of themselves as skiers, not guests.”
“The only way this approach delivers value is if we first and foremost deliver a great experience at Stevens Pass,” Olson said. “Without that, guests in the Seattle market would not visit Stevens Pass or buy a pass with access to both Stevens Pass and other resorts.”
Stevens Pass old-timers say their frustration over how Vail has run their home mountain persists. As Tim Wangen, 63, puts it, “The locals who’ve made Stevens Pass what it is have been thrown aside.”
Longtime pass holders like Wangen bemoan how, despite pledging allegiance by investing in a season pass early, skiers who’ve supported Stevens Pass for years line up daily with less confidence that they’ll be pointing their ski tips toward their favorite run.
“When that experience gets destroyed, you have a sense of loss and anger,” Trent said.
“Like any company, we don’t get everything right and we are constantly investing and improving,” Olson said. “However, we also have a demonstrated, decadelong track record of success growing the number of our pass holders and successfully operating both world-class resorts and local ski areas.”
Next winter’s ski season will probably resemble its pre-pandemic self. But even if both resorts are filling chairlifts to max capacity again, the divergent management styles and pricing strategies adopted by Stevens Pass and Crystal Mountain appear to be here to stay.