Words by Joe Cutts
The good news, everyone agrees, is that Vail Resorts will be a boon for business in Stowe, drawing more skiers to the slopes of Mount Mansfield and boosting the local economy.
But that's also the bad news. Stowe skiers say the crowds, traffic jams, and parking problems have been especially horrific this year, despite the fact that a Stowe season pass is among the most expensive in the country, at around $1,800. If that price comes down to $800 under Vail's Epic Pass regime, it's easy to imagine that next year's crowds will be thicker than ever.
"Vail is a marketing machine," says Park City attorney Jamie Preston, who skied many years at Stowe before moving to Utah. He's spent this winter witnessing the impact of the Colorado mega-conglomerate's arrival on the Park City scene, where Vail has acquired and conjoined the the former Canyons and PCMR resorts.
"Anyone with any experience with Vail Resorts knows these guys are master marketers, and the locals in Park City...well, we don't know exactly what the numbers are, but we can tell you there's a lot more people in town, a lot more Texas and Colorado plates, because of the Epic Pass."
"I bet they buy Smuggs--just make them an offer they can't refuse--and do a big lodging play back there. I bet anything you that's their ultimate play."
Dave Dodge, founder of Dodge Boots and a Stowe regular, says the crowds have already been unprecedented this year, and the commute from Burlington is no longer the usual 50 minutes. "On that big powder day [Feb. 13], I left Burlington at quarter past 7 and I didn't get on the lift till quarter past 10. The traffic was jammed up way down past Moscow Road,” says Dodge.
That's a good three miles shy of the parking lots on Route 108, the two-lane road that is Stowe's only access. And that was on a Monday.
Line Skis founder and J Skis CEO Jason Levinthal, another Stowe regular, says he and his son tried to escape the gondola crowds last Friday, but were unable to get to the Lookout Double because the lines for the Forerunner Quad were just too big to circumnavigate.
"This year is a game-changer; I've never seen it so crowded," says Levinthal (reached by phone from Big Sky on day one of Powder Week).
And then there's this: Vail takes great care to attract skiing families, and it wants them to feel safe on the slopes. Anyone who has ever cruised a Vail Resorts groomer is likely to be familiar with the famous Yellow Jackets, an army of zealous employees deployed on the hill to monitor safety and flag down anyone deemed to be skiing too fast for a friendly lecture on safety.
If that's what Vail has in mind for Stowe, a clash of cultures is likely to ensue. Stowe skiers are known to be some of the best in the East. They love their high-speed arcs on the groomers--often the only thing fun to do when conditions are bad--and the resort's patrollers have heretofore demonstrated a willingness to let rippers rip as long as they are in control. Vail, on the other hand, takes a hard line on speed, making no distinction between an excellent skier who's well in control at 40 mph and a backseat Jesus who's a menace to society.
Preston, a former Middlebury College racer, envisions a steep learning curve for Stowe ski bums.
"I know some ski-racing buddies who are gonna get the passes pulled," he says. "Vail doesn't care how good a skier you are. If they think you're exceeding the speed limit they will let you know, especially with those narrow trails [at Stowe]. A lot of these guys are going to learn that they just can't ski the mountain the way they used to." (Park City shops have started displaying signs in their windows, Preston says: "Beware the Yellow Jackets. You'll get stung!")
Not everyone is freaking out. Many Stowe skiers are excited about a potential 50-percent cut in season pass prices, especially if it comes with privileges at places like Beaver Creek, Kirkwood, and Whistler. John Ridgely, a Stowe regular who lives in Richmond, 45 minutes away, plans to continue skiing weekdays.
Vail, on the other hand, takes a hard line on speed, making no distinction between an excellent skier who's well in control at 40 mph and a backseat Jesus who's a menace to society.
"People who have been forking out $1,800 for a pass are going to psyched," says Ridgely. "It'll be interesting to see what happens with the overcrowding, and weekends are going to be a zoo. But I think a lot more people are going to be buying season passes, and that's good for the little guy and good for the sport. Stowe won't be as exclusive anymore."
Chris James, co-founder of Ski the East and Meathead Films, doesn't think Vail could screw up Stowe even if it tried. "The awesome terrain--that won't be changing, and that's what I care about. You're always going to have crowds at a popular resort, whether it's Jackson or Squaw or Stowe. And there are always going to be ways to move around the hill and beat the crowds. And I think you have to take this year's overcrowding with a grain of salt, because last year was such a bust."
Levinthal says he'd like to see Vail's inexpensive-pass paradigm applied to other, lesser Eastern resorts. "I'm not scared of it. That could be good for the entire Eastern ski scene," he says.
And he's not convinced that Stowe's neighbor, Smugglers' Notch, won't eventually be part of the Vail empire. The two resorts could easily be linked into one huge Eastern powerhouse.
"I bet they buy Smuggs--just make them an offer they can't refuse--and do a big lodging play back there," says Levinthal. "I bet anything you that's their ultimate play."