Last winter, skiers and snowboarders at Mt. Sunapee, a state-owned New Hampshire ski resort that is operated by Vail Resorts, got so sick of the long lift lines and overcrowded parking lots that they took a drastic step: They called in the governor.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who ran a ski area before being elected in 2016, took on the role of a beleaguered customer service agent. Responding to the Sunapee skiers, he confirmed that he had heard from “some very upset customers.” Passes to the mountain, he declared at a news conference, had been “massively sold and there is some argument that they were oversold.”
If calling in the state’s highest elected official is extreme, so are the challenges facing skiing.
Climate change is shortening ski seasons and wreaking havoc on infrastructure, as climate-fueled wild fires ravage mountains and scorch ski areas.
At the same time, skier numbers have never been higher. Last year, there were nearly 61 million skier visits to United States mountains, a record. Multimountain ski passes, like the Epic Pass from Vail Resorts, the Ikon Pass from Alterra, and the niche Mountain Collective and Indy Pass, have helped drive those numbers.
In addition to causing overcrowding on the mountains, the surge in visitors overwhelmed mountain communities that were suddenly contending with labor and housing shortages and traffic jams.
At the Vail-owned Stevens Pass ski area in Washington, 46,360 people signed a petition saying they were “disgusted with the mismanagement of the ski area, the failure to treat employees well, or pay them a livable wage, and the failure to deliver the product we all paid for.”
At Stowe, Vt., on a powder day last winter, I sat for 45 minutes in a miles-long traffic jam on the two-lane Mountain Road while trying to reach Stowe Mountain Resort.
I gave up and went backcountry skiing instead.
More skiers, bigger challenges
Vail Resorts, the largest ski-area operator in North America, took the brunt of the criticism, and in March the company announced a $175 million investment in its employees — the “first steps in a new direction,” Kirsten Lynch, who became chief executive of Vail in November 2021, wrote to employees in an email. Changes include a $20-an-hour minimum wage and investments in affordable housing. Ms. Lynch said that Vail, which employs about 50,000 people, is on track to be fully staffed this winter.
To address overcrowding, Vail Resorts is limiting sales and raising prices of lift tickets. But since 71 percent of its skiers use the Epic Pass, which is sold in unlimited numbers, this may not appreciably change congestion on and off mountain.
Beyond the corporate response, individual skiers and some ski areas are fixing what’s broken by reclaiming the essence of skiing: Community. Connection. Nature. Excitement. Some are opting out of the multimountain passes — and with more than 470 ski areas in the United States, skiers can always explore other, less-crowded mountains. Other skiers and ski area leaders are seeking or creating a ski culture that is more inclusive and sustainable.
It’s a modern twist on the age-old skier’s quest for fresh tracks.
One morning last winter, Zach Ryan hiked up from the top lift at Arapahoe Basin to reach East Wall, a rocky face raked by steep chutes. The 29-year-old chef at a Whole Foods Market stopped at the prayer flags flapping on the ridge and took in the 360-degree view. A Basin, as the area is known, tops out at 13,050 feet, and sits on the snowcapped Continental Divide in Colorado. It has some of the highest skiable terrain in North America.
“You feel like you are in the Alps,” Mr. Ryan said of the spectacular setting. “I can go any day of the week, even on a powder day, and find solitude and peace.”
That wasn’t always the case. In 2019, the ski area was infuriating its skiers. The resort had been on the Epic Pass for a decade. Mr. Ryan said that before that, the ski area “might see four to five days per year where the parking lots filled. When A Basin was on Epic, that happened all the time.”
Alan Henceroth, the resort’s chief operating officer, concurred. “The most angry skier you’ll ever encounter is the one who shows up and is told there is no parking spot for you,” he said. “And we were doing that on a regular basis.”
Mr. Henceroth faced a conundrum. “Business was fantastic — we were having record years — but we thought the brand was really being damaged and the foundation of our business was crumbling.”
So Mr. Henceroth did something almost unheard-of for an American business: He turned away customers. Arapahoe Basin left the Epic Pass in 2019 and signed on with the Ikon Pass and Mountain Collective, which cap the number of days that skiers can go to Arapahoe. The ski area also limited sales of season passes and lift tickets.
The result: In early 2020, Arapahoe Basin had 69 percent fewer skiers than a year earlier when it was on the Epic Pass. “The experience is way up. The skier days are way down,” Mr. Henceroth proudly announced on the ski area’s blog.
And he said later, “It was a record year for us financially.”
“We are no longer part of inexpensive passes that drive a gazillion skiers,” he told me. “We are focused on creating quality of experience.” That includes modernizing the ski area. This year, Arapahoe Basin replaced an aging triple chairlift with a high-speed six-person chair that will improve uphill capacity.
“Skiing is not broken,” asserted Mr. Henceroth. “Places where people want to ski are doing fantastic.”
Diversifying the slopes
As an African American girl growing up in Memphis, Annette Diggs never thought about skiing. Her family was just struggling to make ends meet. Ms. Diggs, 42, graduated from the University of Memphis and eventually moved to Seattle to take a job as a microbiologist. One weekend, she decided to join some friends who were going skiing. The drive through the mountains “was magical,” she said. “I felt like I was transported to a scene out of Narnia.”
But the scene on the mountain felt dystopian. “There were no Black people around,” she said. Ms. Diggs decided then to become a ski instructor, later telling the person who interviewed her for a job at the Stevens Pass ski area, that she wanted to “bring more people to the mountain that look like me.”
In 2019, Ms. Diggs founded EDGE Outdoors, which is aimed at getting Black and Indigenous women onto the slopes. Her work is part of a long overdue reckoning for snowsports where 9 out of 10 participants are white and 63 percent are male.
At an EDGE Outdoors clinic last winter, Ms. Diggs led 15 women of color down the trails of Stevens Pass. Snow was falling and the group moved slowly and deliberately, interrupted by the occasional smile or joyful yelp as someone experienced a new breakthrough.
There was also healing. “On the hill we are dealing with undoing a legacy of exclusion and welcoming them back to the mountains,” Ms. Diggs explained. “There is a lot of crying on the chairlift.”
EDGE Outdoors offers scholarships for ski and snowboard lessons, competitive athlete development, instructor training, and introductory backcountry and avalanche classes. This winter it will offer programs in Washington, Oregon, the Lake Tahoe area and Utah.
EDGE is part of a growing movement of skiers and riders from marginalized communities determined to change the face of skiing, an effort that dates back to the founding of the National Brotherhood of Skiers, a group focused on increasing participation by people of color in snowsports, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in February.
On a Friday evening last winter at Cochran’s ski area in Richmond, Vt., dozens of skiers and riders of color were sliding down the lighted slopes of the small nonprofit ski area. Equipment was provided at no cost, so the only thing skiers needed was enthusiasm. This was a biweekly community ski and ride sponsored by Unlikely Riders, a group that helps Vermonters who are Black, Indigenous or people of color get out on the slopes. This winter, the event will expand to Whaleback Mountain in Enfield, N.H.
Hana Saydek, 27, the executive director and one of four co-founders of the group, said that momentum for change increased following the murder of George Floyd and the racial justice protests of 2020.
In addition to these outings, Unlikely Riders sponsors lessons, backcountry tours, avalanche courses and offers free clothing and ski gear for Vermonters. Last winter, 95 skiers and riders took lessons at six downhill and cross-country ski areas around Vermont.
“You can come as you are to the mountain and exist without having to code switch, and try to fit into a dominant culture in order to feel accepted,” said Unlikely Riders co-founder Abby Cristosomo, 33. “You can feel like you belong there just by being yourself.”
Emma Patterson, 26, is a pro skier who skis and competes all over the world. But one ski area stands apart. “There’s no other place like Taos,” she said.
Standing atop Kachina Peak, the iconic 12,481 ft. summit that towers over Taos Ski Valley, “you’re kind of on top of the world,” said Ms. Patterson. Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico, looks close enough to touch. The white summits contrast with the ochre tones of the high desert surrounding the Taos Pueblo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in North America.
But by 2014, Taos Ski Valley was a faded jewel. The New Mexico resort had lost approximately 40 percent of its skiers since its heyday in the early 1990s. Financier and conservationist Louis Bacon bought the ski area in 2014, and chief executive officer David Norden arrived two years later. Mr. Norden took a novel approach to revitalizing the ski area. He ventured: Could sustainability save skiing?
In 2017, Taos became the first and only ski area to be certified as a B Corporation for its environmental and social performance, joining the ranks of other socially responsible companies like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s. Mr. Norden’s gamble had an immediate payback: The B Corp announcement resulted in the largest single day of ticket-sales revenue in the ski area’s history.
This year, Taos Ski Valley became the second North American ski area to become carbon neutral (the first was Wild Mountain in Minnesota), beating its original 2030 target by eight years.
“Our vision,” said Mr. Norden, “is better, not bigger.”
The ski area now operates on 100 percent daytime solar energy, its new luxury hotel runs on geothermal power, the ski area is buying a fleet of electric snowmobiles, and it will be the first ski area in North America to operate an electric snowcat this winter.
Earlier this year, the ski resort became a charter signatory to the Nature Conservancy’s Rio Grande Water Fund, which is restoring 600,000 acres of forest in northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado to reduce wildfire risk and ensure clean water for a million people. An added bonus is that forest improvement also makes for great glade skiing.
Mr. Norden said that the ski area learns about “true sustainability” from the Taos Pueblo. The resort is funding a program for 25 children from Taos Pueblo to ski for free, including lift tickets, clothing, food, equipment and lessons.
Cheryl Romero, an Indigenous member of Taos Pueblo and a human resources manager at the ski resort, said the environmental commitment and engagement with the community is “really walking the walk.”
Tyler Ray had a familiar challenge last month: managing 100 people toting saws and loppers who came from as far away as Maryland to maintain Crescent Ridge, a popular ski glade near Randolph, N.H. Glade zones are areas of open forest that are maintained by volunteers for backcountry skiing, in which skiers use climbing skins that enable them to ski uphill. At the top, they remove the skins and ski down through the trees, often in fresh powder.
Hiking and clearing brush is just part of the draw on the fall glading days. People come as much for the community.
Mr. Ray, 44, is the founder and director of Granite Backcountry Alliance, a group that formed in 2016 to develop a network of ski glades in New Hampshire and Western Maine. It is now part of a burgeoning community-supported skiing movement that has ski festivals, backcountry outings, glading days, parties and movie nights.
“There are well known obstacles to getting involved in skiing,” said Mr. Ray, a gregarious lawyer and skier who lives in North Conway, N.H. “We’re saying let’s break down the barriers, make it free and public.”
The community skiing movement has become an economic engine in rural communities. Some 10,000 skiers visit Granite Backcountry’s ski zones each winter, supporting 16 full-time jobs and generating nearly $1 million in local sales activity. The Alliance is part of a national network of backcountry skiing groups, Winter Wildlands Alliance.
On a crisp winter day, I skinned up Baldface Mountain in New Hampshire alongside Granite Backcountry Alliance volunteer Anya Federowski, 44, an acupuncturist from the New Hampshire seacoast. From the treeless summit, we took in a stunning panorama of the White Mountains.
“It’s not about the number of runs. It’s just about enjoying the outdoors,” she said before sliding off into the powder.
David Goodman is the author of “Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast” (AMC Books) and host of The Vermont Conversation, a public affairs podcast and radio program. Follow him on Twitter: @davidgoodmanvt.