We've seen a lot of progression and invention for anyone interested in skiing steep slopes with lots of snow, which I take, given the title of this magazine, is a few of you. We've seen the introduction of rockered skis, spoons, new boots, outerwear, and bindings, and GoPros and octocopters to capture it all. But new lifts accessing the kind of terrain where you can put that gear to use? Don't count on it anytime soon.
While skier visits have grown about 15 percent over the past decade, from 52 million a year in 2001 to 60 million in 2011/2012, this year's dismal winter and the economic gloom that trailed it put the hand brake on many resorts' expansion plans. "If this winter wasn't so bad, it'd be a different story," says Lorene Korenke, the Forest Service's National Winter Sports Program Manager. Additionally, many resorts have expanded into the acreage and terrain approved in their master plans and permits, and the next step--convincing the Forest Service to allow them to expand their boundaries--will take many millions of dollars and years of onerous permitting and environmental reviews, something most are understandably loathe to do.
Expansion into steeper terrain has happened at places where freeriding is wrapped up in the identity of the resort. For instance, Fernie, whose Polar Peak triple opened this year, accessing the top ridgeline of the resort and 90 percent expert terrain, held some of the first big-mountain contests in all of Canada. Bridger Bowl, whose Schlasman's lift accesses a whole ridgeline of expert fall line terrain and requires an avalanche beacon to board, also counts on an above-average number of freeriders to contribute to their bottom line. Both hills have differed their strategy from that of many big resorts, who count on real estate sales and beginner and intermediate patrons to make their money. Staying true to what Fernie's Matt Mosteller calls the "taste" of the mountain--powerful, big, and steep--has validated their strategy, as Mosteller noted a significant increase in U.S. business this past winter. "That segment [of the market] will travel to ski that kind of terrain," he says.
Outside of those small areas, ski area expansion is at something of a halted crossroads--one it doesn't seem likely to move past anytime soon. Bigger resorts aren't focused on new terrain. For instance, Squaw Valley is in the midst of a $50 million renovation, but almost none of the investment is going toward increased offerings for advanced skiers. Despite the infamously massive lines at KT-22, the construction this summer is largely to reorganize the beginner and intermediate lifts to make the mountain more accommodating to less aggressive skiers and riders. Because many big resorts have their fortunes wrapped up in real estate and attracting more casual skiers, it seems that the resorts that will lead the way for skiing's next generation of freeriders are not the Vails or Whistlers but the smaller hills whose business strategies focus on a cutting-edge, and steeper, skiing experience.
(This is The Base Grind, Ryan Dunfee's weekly look at the ski industry. Last week, he wrote about giving up the ski bum life.)