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At the height of the ski pass war, Wolf Creek — with its $70 lift ticket — remains defiantly independent

It's a full on war between the Epic Pass and Ikon Pass

Skier Conor Crowley makes his way down a trail at Aspen Highlands. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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WOLF CREEK — As the first flakes frost the highest peaks, the Colorado-sparked season pass war is ablaze.

It’s a new world for skiers, with resorts across the U.S. aligning into two distinct camps.

In one corner, the nascent Alterra Mountain Company this week fired off a list of new partners for the Ikon Pass, which offers unlimited skiing and free days at 35 resorts in 12 states, Canada and Japan. Vail Resorts is countering with a 10-year celebration of its Epic Pass, offering unlimited skiing and free days at 65 resorts in eight states, Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan.

And then there’s Davey Pitcher. The resolute owner of Wolf Creek ski area isn’t playing the pass game. His 1,600-acre snow magnet is the largest ski area in the West that hasn’t signed a pass deal with any partner ski areas, a tactic that resorts large and small are adopting — sometimes reluctantly — as the two resort Goliaths grapple.

“It’s definitely a great thing for a lot of skiers, and I think it’s a welcome change for the industry. But it’s not for us,” Pitcher says, climbing into a decades-old Chevy as he inspects the construction of a new chairlift that will expand beginner terrain and expedite expert access to his steeper stuff.

Wolf Creek ski area owner Davey Pitcher on the site of a new chairlift under construction at the southwest Colorado resort on July 2, 2018.  (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Few skiers would not love to travel the world — or even their own state — and ski a variety of resorts every season. But budgets don’t always match dreams. They are going to the hills six, maybe 10 days. They are going to drive, not fly. They ski with an eye on daily lift ticket prices, which will top $200 a day at the larger resorts as patrons are guided toward passes. They are Pitcher’s people.

“Regardless of how much they’d like to travel the country, they know that financially there are a lot of hidden costs to those passes,” he says. “In many ways, those passes are a lodging play.”

And with his lift tickets costing about $70 at the peak of the season, he’s seeing plenty of passholders visiting Wolf Creek to plunder powder.

“We’ve found that people who buy those passes, they begin thinking that they have disposable income and they say, ‘Well I’m saving enough on the pass so I can splurge on a day ticket to Wolf Creek,” he says, his radio crackling with calls from workers spread across his hill. “We fit into a funny little spot and we think that if we do any kind of exchange … say we have an agreement with Taos or other ski areas, we would start to lose some of our revenue.”

It’s not for lack of trying by the resorts that Wolf Creek has stayed out of the game. Pitcher, whose dad, the legendary resort pioneer Kingsbury Pitcher, rescued a struggling Wolf Creek in the mid 1980s, always declines the partnership offers. His remains the last holdout of truly independent ski areas in the West.

Epic, Ikon or neither? A quick guide to the Pass Wars

Vail Resorts sells about 750,000 Epic Passes of various configurations every season.

We won’t know exactly how many Ikon passes the privately held Alterra will sell until the company goes public — who knows when? — and starts releasing its financials. But it’s safe to guess they want to sell around 250,000 to make their investors happy with the Ikon’s grand debut.

The Ikon is priced at $999. The Epic is $899. Choosing one over the other is a matter of your resort preference and your location. For simplicity, let’s break this down geographically, starting with the true battleground: The Rockies.

  • Colorado: This is ground zero for the season pass war that will forever alter the resort industry. The Epic has unlimited access to Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin and Crested Butte and seven days at Telluride. The Ikon has unlimited access to Steamboat, Winter Park, Copper Mountain, Eldora and seven days total at Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass ski areas in the Roaring Fork Valley. The Ikon last week announced seven days at Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico.
Skier Will Durrett at Arapahoe Basin. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
  • Utah: If you are loyal to Park City, the largest ski area in North America, you should go with the Epic and its unlimited access to the 7,300-acre resort. Alterra is staking claim in Utah, though, with its acquisition of both Deer Valley and Solitude. The Ikon pass delivers seven days each at Deer Valley and Brighton, seven days total at Alta and Snowbird, and unlimited access to Solitude.
Skier David Paul at Utah’s Alta Ski Area. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

But say you live in …

  • Southern California: The only simple choice. Ikon Pass. Your closest hills — Big Bear, June and Mammoth — offer unlimited access.
  • Bay Area: A little harder. The Epic offers unlimited skiing at Heavenly, Kirkwood and Northstar near Lake Tahoe. The Ikon offers unlimited access to Squaw-Alpine.
  • Pacific Northwest: Ikon has seven days with holiday blackouts at Washington’s Summit at Snoqualmie, which includes Alpental. Epic has unlimited access to Washington’s Stevens Pass. And if you venture to coastal British Columbia, the Epic offers unlimited skiing at the iconic Whistler-Blackcomb while the Ikon recently added seven days at Cypress Mountain.
  • Inner British Columbia: Absolute toss-up. Epic has seven days at Kicking Horse and Ikon has seven days at Revelstoke. They both are inner-BC trophies and destinations worthy of a long ski vacation.
  • Canadian Rockies: The Ikon has unlimited skiing at Tremblant and Blue Mountain with seven days total at Banff Sunshine, Lake Louise and Mt. Norquay resorts. The Epic offers seven days total at Fernie Alpine, Kicking Horse, Kimberley Alpine, Nakiska, Mont Sainte Anne and Stoneham.
  • The East: This is tricky. The Ikon offers more resorts, delivering seven days each at Killington and Sugarbush in Vermont, New Hampshire’s Loon Mountain, and Sunday River and Sugarloaf in Maine. The Ikon offers unlimited turns at Vermont’s Stratton, Canada’s Tremblant and West Virginia’s Snowshoe. The Epic offers unlimited skiing at Vermont’s Okemo and Stowe and New Hampshire’s Mount Sunapee.
  • The Midwest: Last week the Ikon announced inclusion of seven days each at Boyne Mountain and Boyne Highlands in Michigan. The Epic has unlimited turns at Minnesota’s Afton Alps, Michigan’s Mt. Brighton and Wisconsin’s Wilmot Mountain.
  • The Southwest: For skiers in the southwest part of the country, consider the Power Pass, which delivers unlimited skiing at Durango’s Purgatory and Hesperus, Arizona Snowbowl, Pajarito and Sipapu in New Mexico, and Utah’s Nordic Valley. The $699 Power Pass also includes three free days at 31 partner resorts across the globe.
  • Jet-setters: If you are a jet-setting skier, the Epic has deals at more than 30 European ski areas, unlimited access to Australia’s Perisher ski area in 2019 and five days at Japan’s deep Hakuba Valley. The Ikon countered last week with a seven-day deal at four-hill Niseko United on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island and home to Sapporo, the second snowiest big city in the world.

On a budget? Single-resort and alternative passes to the rescue

Both the Ikon and Epic offer a less-expensive version, the Epic Local and the Ikon Base, which trim the number of days and unlimited skiing options. Click over to www.epicpass.com or www.ikonpass.com to compare the variations. Unlike the Epic Pass, several of the Ikon Pass partners have blackout dates and prevent skiing during high-traffic holiday periods.

Snowboarder Eli Greenspan at Loveland Ski Area. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

If you are loyal to a single hill, most resorts, especially in Colorado, offer single-resort passes, many including an array of partnership deals. Silverton Mountain owner Jenny Brill said skiers this year have bought a record number of her mountain’s $149 spring unguided pass, which offers 17 days of spring skiing, $89 guided skiing, a $39 helicopter drop and three free days at 14 partner ski areas.

And, as an added consideration, the Mountain Collective Pass is weathering the new season-pass battle with a $449 deal that delivers two days at 17 of North America’s top ski destinations, including Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Idaho’s Sun Valley and Utah’s Snowbasin, three iconic hills that have passed on participation in the pitched Epic versus Ikon throwdown.

This story first appeared in The Colorado Sun’s newsletter, The Sunriser. You can subscribe here: cosun.co/thesunriser