PHOTO: Anton Enerlov
PHOTO: Anton Enerlov

Ride the Dang Bus, Already

Public transportation is a part of the solution to traffic, climate change, and wellbeing in the mountains

For a pastime that was built around the notion of escape and freedom in the mountains, getting to the ski hill now feels like we're lurching in the opposite direction from those ideals: stop-and-go traffic, idling cars spewing exhaust, drivers angry at one another as they jockey for position.

Though this is nothing new for Colorado skiers trying to navigate I-70, bad traffic has coughed its exhaust-laden tentacles into even the most isolated Western ski towns. The parking lot at Bridger Bowl, Montana, overflows on powder days; the ski area even shut it down once because there was simply no more room. Ever tried driving into Aspen or Jackson or Breckenridge or Squaw Valley on a powder day? Not exactly the quiet life in the mountains we all envisioned. And then there's Little Cottonwood Canyon. Traffic is so bad there it has a name, the Red Snake, a line of brake lights that extends 11 miles from Alta and Snowbird to the valley floor.

"Unfortunately, it's become part of the deal, just like rising lift tickets," says Tom Hudachko, who, at 41, has skied Alta his entire life. "Just like everybody else, I'm getting up at the ass-crack of dawn to sit in my truck on the side of the road, with a thermos and breakfast burrito two hours before the lifts open."

Like you and me, Hudachko knows he's part of the problem. And just like you and me, Hudachko knows things would probably be better if everyone just took the bus. In the Wasatch, which has the distinction of being adjacent to a large metro area with over a million people, that's easier said than done: Park-and-Ride lots fill up early, buses are often already at capacity, and it takes a lot longer to get to and from the hill.

But if the stress of driving to the mountains, especially on a powder day, is burying your anger-meter in the red and thereby eroding our collective stoke for skiing, we need to step away from our cars and do the unthinkable: Embrace the ski bus.

If only it were that easy.

Like you and me, Hudachko knows he's part of the problem. And just like you and me, Hudachko knows things would probably be better if everyone just took the bus.

In Jackson Hole, where I live, my stop is a six-minute walk from my front door. But no matter how much time I give myself in the morning, I always end up running awkwardly, in my ski boots, down an icy, snowy street, skis over my shoulder, helmet swinging wildly from my backpack, in order to catch the big blue bus. I climb aboard, sweating and wincing from toe bang before I've even skied a single run. I've seen friends drive by in their trucks and feel the envy of their comfy shoes, of a dopey dog sticking its head out the window, and of afternoon tailgate beers. It's like an '80s movie, where I'm the sniveling nerd on the bus watching the cool kids drive off with babes and rock 'n' roll.

But like the '90s taught us, reality bites. Traffic in our ski towns is only getting worse. People are not going to suddenly stop skiing--unless, of course, it ceases to be fun and accessible. And last I checked, driving in traffic is neither. So it comes down to a simple choice: Make small adjustments to your daily routine in order to ride the bus, or ignore the problem and drive.

The good news is practically every ski town has a bus, and it is usually free. All it takes is figuring out the schedule. As Americans, we are addicted to the convenience of our own private vehicles. And man, I love my truck and the fact that I can throw all my crap into its bed to make a game-time decision about what to ski. But it's also cultural: Why should I have to take the bus when others, like those who can afford to park their Escalade rental, don't have to? Haven't we, as locals, earned the right to drive to our ski hill?

I started riding the ski bus a couple of years ago when Jackson Hole began charging for parking. Seeing it as yet another attempt by a big resort to make it more difficult for locals to enjoy a day of skiing, I regarded the move with contempt. In my mind, it further delineated the haves from the have-nots. Wealthy customers can easily pay $10 (for the economy lot) or $20 (slopeside). I saw it as unfairly hitting the everyday skier where there is very little wiggle room: in their wallet.

But I had it wrong. Local officials instituted paid parking to discourage driving and mitigate traffic. The resort doesn't pocket the cash, bus rides are free with a season pass, and so is parking if your car has three or more passengers. Other resorts use this tactic as well. Vail is often demonized for charging $25 for skier parking. That fee doesn't go to the resort either, but rather to help fund the cost of servicing the Vail Valley with free bus transportation (a single new electric bus costs around $900,000). Vail has charged for parking since the 1970s, and now has one of the most successful mass transit programs in the country in terms of per capita ridership, servicing 3.2 million riders a year, according to Mike Rose, transportation manager for the Town of Vail. "If a community thinks it's an advantage, they'll pay the price," says Rose.

You'd think locals everywhere would be in favor of increasing bus service. But that's not always the case. This spring, Jackson residents voted down an increase in sales tax to boost mass transit. The bus system in North Tahoe is also sorely underfunded and thus, insufficient and underutilized. The message is clear that we'd rather complain about traffic than actually do something about it.

"As inconvenient as it is to drive, it's still more convenient than taking the bus," Hudachko says about his commute to Alta. On my bus, I've felt that time penalty when it turns a corner away from the resort to hit other stops, when somebody fumbles with their zipper trying to find their bus pass, or pesters the driver with too many basic questions. Watching this go down as others race by in their own vehicles requires a conscious effort to dig deep, all the way to the pit of my stomach, to access those delicate reserves of patience.

Still, I actually prefer the bus. I find a calm during the 20 minutes it takes to get from town to the mountain. I can send a few emails, text friends to meet up, or just pass the time looking out the window or chatting with the person next to me. No traffic. No parking hassle. And best of all, it drops me off right at the base of the tram. I find my place in line and say hello to friends who, despite driving their own vehicle, got there at the same time as me.

Matt Hansen is the editor-at-large for Powder and doesn't run very fast in ski boots.

This story originally published in the November 2017 issue of POWDER (46.3). Subscribe to The Skier’s Magazine for $14.97.