Vail Resorts purchased Stevens Pass in June, bringing the local ski resort into the game-changing Epic Pass network.
Welcome to the Cascades, Vail Resorts.
Your decision to buy Stevens Pass last June is good news, skiers in the Northwest say. And your game-changing Epic Pass — which offers access to 65 resorts within your network including British Columbia’s Whistler Blackcomb — is a welcome addition.
Consider this your honeymoon period.
Eventually, though, Stevens Pass regulars are hoping you can fix a few things — like aging lifts, overcrowding and insufficient parking.
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“Vail operates some the best resorts in the world, so there’s a hope they’ll make some smart changes at Stevens,” said Dwayne McMahon, owner of Der Sportsmann outdoors shop in Leavenworth.
On the wish list
By far the biggest problem at Stevens Pass is parking — or lack of it, skiers and snowboarders say.
“The parking lots are full by 8 or 8:30 a.m. on weekends,” said Sean Mitchell, a regular from Lake Stevens. “They just haven’t been able to handle the crowds.”
The parking problems at Stevens are well-known, said John Gifford, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association.
“It’s a tough situation,” he said. “You have a popular ski area and on certain days, it’s tough to find a parking spot.”
Along with jammed parking lots are crowded slopes on weekends, said Nick Hoyt, who runs the Facebook group Stevens Pass Snowboarders. His hope is that Vail will tackle lift issues first because “if you add parking, it makes it more crowded.”
What should be first on the wish list?
Several older lifts need to be replaced, said Don Guerin, president of S’no Joke Ski Club in Seattle, which has 410 members, many of whom ski regularly at Stevens.
The Kehr’s, Tye Mill and Brooks chairlifts are ancient and could use a refresh. And the SkyLine Express, the workhorse high-speed quad chairlift serving Stevens Pass’ front side, broke down several times last season and might need some work, Guerin said.
Vail typically invests in its new acquisitions, as it did this season when it spent $52 million on a new gondola and two new chairlifts at Whistler Blackcomb. Vail purchased the British Columbia resort in 2016.
Marc Riddell, Vail’s communications manager for Stevens Pass and Whistler Blackcomb, said the company will be assessing parking, overcrowding and the need to replace lifts over the next year.
“We’re keenly aware of the problems,” he said. As for fixes, he said, “We have a long history of investing in our properties.”
Vail’s decision to buy Stevens Pass is linked to its success at Whistler Blackcomb, Riddell said. “We see a lot of opportunity at Stevens. And Stevens Pass and Whistler Blackcomb complement each other perfectly,” he said.
The Epic Pass
Vail’s Epic Pass is changing the ski industry. For one fee (the premium pass sold for $899 last summer), skiers and snowboarders have access to Vail’s properties and partners.
For Stevens Pass skiers, the Epic Pass is attractive because it offers access to Whistler Blackcomb, considered one of the top resorts in North America and just four hours away from Seattle.
“A lot of our club members have opted to go with the Epic Pass,” Guerin said. “They’re excited about the opportunity to ski at Whistler and elsewhere.”
Not everyone is a fan of the pass, though. Some industry observers say it is driving out independent ski areas.
“These passes are the kiss of death,” said Aaron Brill, owner of Colorado’s Silverton Mountain, in an interview with Bloomberg News last year. “People who used to visit smaller ski areas are now just traveling within their pass network.”
Another vocal critic of the Epic Pass is Howard Katkov, owner of Red Mountain resort near Rossland, British Columbia.
“Skiing and snowboarding are a way of life, not a line item,” Katkov said. “The families that are the core of this lifestyle are getting priced out left and right.”
Vail contends the passes actually save skiers money. Consider the cost of a daily ticket at Whistler Blackcomb. With walk-up ticket prices as high as $165 a day, it doesn’t take long to make the Epic Pass pay off, Riddell said, and it allows skiers to try out other intriguing destinations.
“If you have the Epic Pass, you have access to Whistler Blackcomb and a broad suite of areas,” he said, allowing users to chase the best snow, whether it’s in British Columbia, Utah or Colorado.
Will Stevens start to feel like a corporate ski area? That’s one fear some skiers have.
“Hopefully Vail will keep the local character at Stevens,” said Tracy Gibbons, president of Sturtevant’s of Bellevue, one of the region’s biggest ski shops.
East of the Cascades on U.S Highway 2, residents and business owners in Leavenworth also are watching carefully, said McMahon of Der Sportsmann.
“Leavenworth has been adopted as the ski town for Stevens because we’re only 35 miles away,” he said. The relationship has been beneficial, with Stevens Pass supporting tourism in Leavenworth, along with many community programs.
“They’ve always been very generous with us,” McMahon said. “We just hope that continues.”
If you go
Among the participating Epic Pass resorts in the West are:
- Beaver Creek
- Crested Butte
- Arapahoe Basin
- Park City
- The Canyons
- Whistler Blackcomb
- Resorts of the Canadian Rockies