This opinion was first published in our November 2016 issue (45.3).
PHOTO: Jay Goodrich

In January, my younger loaded his skis into his 2001 Dodge minivan and spend winter on the road. He has a short list of spots he wants to hit if the snow is right, but for the most part, his goal is to ski as many days as he can while spending as little cash as possible. His question to me, his wise, all-knowing older sister whose advice usually comes unsolicited: Should he buy the Mountain Collective pass?

As a mobile millennial with an affinity for big mountain skiing in North America, yes—you two are perfect for each other, I told him.

For urban-based skiers who have to travel to get the big mountain experience, opting for the $409 Mountain Collective is a good investment: You get two days at 14 ski resorts, with a 50-percent discount for additional days. If you live in a mountain town and plan to ski close to home this winter, the Mountain Collective doesn't make as much sense as a local season pass—which is a good thing. There is no one-size-fits-all pass because there is no one-size-fits-all mountain, or skier, for that matter.

One of the knocks against the multi-resort pass is that it pulls skiers away from investing in their local hills. But so far, that hasn't played out for one reason: Small ski areas maintain their uniqueness by not fitting into the big, corporate mold. There's a difference between skiing at Jackson Hole and Bridger Bowl, and dedicated skiers appreciate the value of each. Similarly, skiers in Salida, Colorado, who ski Monarch Mountain, aren't scrapping their winter plans at home to go to Revelstoke instead. Generally, these are different skiers, and where they overlap, the Mountain Collective's low cost makes doing both more financially viable.

When the Mountain Collective was released in 2012, the market was already shifting away from expensive single-mountain passes designed for skiers who lived and skied at one mountain. In its first year, it included two days of skiing at four destinations: Aspen/Snowmass, Jackson Hole, Squaw Valley/Alpine, and Alta, for $349, with the half-off discount on additional days.

"When we set out to create this pass, we asked ourselves, 'If we weren't in the industry, what pass would we buy?' These are the mountains we want to ski and we've really strived to keep the initial price low and add more value over the years," says Aspen's Vice President of Marketing Christian Knapp, who was involved in the creation of the Collective and continues to manage it. "Multi-resort passes are here to stay. People want variety and choice. They want to chase the snow and they want to have options to link up with friends and have cool experiences and travel."

Dave Hayes, 36, skied 25 days on the Mountain Collective Pass last year, plus a handful of days at Crystal Mountain outside Seattle, where he purchased day tickets when the snow was good.

"Living in Seattle means easy access to Whistler Blackcomb and my parents live in Sun Valley, so I go there for Christmas and knew I'd get my days in," Hayes said. "After that, it's a good excuse to go on ski trips with friends somewhere different."

With lift ticket prices averaging $123 in North America last year, his pass paid for itself after four days of skiing. Sharing accommodations and travel costs with his brother and his brother's girlfriend, Hayes skied at seven destinations on the pass during the season. He spent Christmas in Sun Valley, rang in the New Year at Jackson Hole, took weekend trips to Banff and Whistler and a few others, and hit Taos for his annual ski trip with friends.

"I had never been to this many ski resorts before, and going to all these different places under one pass felt like a unique experience each time. Each mountain had its own personality," he says. "That isn't lost because they are all on the same pass."

The Mountain Collective consists entirely of independently owned resorts (with the exception of Whistler Blackcomb, which was bought by Vail Resorts in August), distinguishing itself from its main competitor, Vail's $829 Epic Pass. Encompassing 13 ski resorts in North America and 30 in Europe—more than 43,500 skiable acres—the Epic Pass solidifies the biggest corporation in skiing. Even if you ski at 10 different places on the Epic Pass, you're only supporting one player in the ski industry. By skiing at a variety of different resorts, you're flipping the Monopoly board off the table and keeping the market competitive, which keeps skiing more accessible.

"The power of this alliance is the strength of these individual resorts," says Knapp. "We're all competitors in a lot of ways, but there's a lot of mutual respect and we all share common values. It's all about skiing and the big mountain experience."

I told my brother to go ahead and buy the Mountain Collective—ski at Telluride, Sun Valley, Mammoth, and the rest. But I also told him not to skip over the little guys—the spots you can't ski on a combo deal with a trip to BC or Japan. These are the places where he's sure to find the calm, steady heart of skiing.

Sierra Davis is the associate editor of POWDER. She prefers to travel with a boot bag.