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Skiers wait in line at Copper Mountain's Super Bee chairlift in 2018. (Michael Booth, The Colorado Sun)

Powdr, the owner of Copper Mountain, Eldora and nine other resorts, likely thought its Fast Tracks program unveiled this week would be a defining perk in the increasingly competitive resort industry. 

The so-called “premium experience” program offers fast-access, beat-the-crowds lift lanes at Copper, Utah’s Snowbird, Oregon’s Mount Bachelor and Vermont’s Killington to skiers who pay an extra $49 or more a day. The latest strategy by Powdr is part of a nationwide effort by all kinds of resorts to ease crowding.

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

The response has been less than appreciative, with local skiers raging against yet another brick on the road to making resorts an elitist, pay-to-play playground for the wealthy. Even a U.S. senator is calling on Powdr to kill the plan.

“Snow sports are already expensive enough that equity issues have been persistent, and financially disadvantaged families have long been unfairly priced out of access — something a Fast Tracks policy is sure to only make worse,” Oregon’s U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden wrote Wednesday in a letter to Powdr boss John Cumming

When Copper Mountain launched its similar Beeline Advantage program in the early 2000s, skiers protested, arguing the dedicated lift lane violated equal access rules for public land. The White River National Forest, the most skied national forest in the country, studied the program and eventually gave it the go-ahead. It’s unclear if other forests have reviewed programs that charge for speedier access to public lands.

The resort industry has become dependent on season pass sales with operators selling as many passes as possible. Operators in the shadow of Alterra Mountain Co. and Vail Resorts often partner with the two giants, aligning with either Alterra’s Ikon Pass or Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass. Those two passes provide access to more than 85 ski hills in the U.S. and Canada. 

Vail Resorts reported it sold 1.2 million Epic Passes for the 2019-20 season, which included pre-purchased day passes. A year later the company reported an 18% increase in pass sales for the 2020-21 season, so somewhere around 1.4 million passes sold. Last month Vail Resorts reported a 42% increase in pass sales, which were priced at a 20% discount for the 2021-22 ski season. So that would put total Epic Pass sales somewhere around 2 million for the upcoming ski season.  

Many resorts have adjusted business plans as they maneuver through the perennial boom in pass sales. Some are increasing fees for parking. Some are requiring reservations for partner pass holders. Arapahoe Basin, which left the Epic Pass program in exchange for seven-day Ikon pass access, is capping the number of sales of its own restricted season passes at 90% of total sales for the 2020-21 season. (Arapahoe Basin boss Al Henceroth said last week the resort is already close to that cap.)

As more skiers with Epic and Ikon passes crowd ski areas, Powdr’s Fast Tracks plan offers visitors  an opportunity to rise above the masses — a perk that might lure more wealthy vacationers to Powdr’s ski hills. Add-ons are a hallmark of the airline industry, which now has fees for passengers who want extra leg room or checked bags. Several ski resorts have high-dollar passes that provide country-club-type perks that include dedicated lift lines. And it’s not unusual to see loyal visitors rail against special access programs.

Disney in August announced it was getting rid of its FastPass program that sped Walt Disney World and Disneyland visitors onto rides via express lanes. The amusement parks replaced the program with a digital service called “Genie+,” which charges $15 to $20 a day for access to “lightning lanes.” The company announced the new program with a YouTube video that quickly drew 12,000 thumbs down responses and fewer than 1,000 thumbs up. 

The Powdr Fast Tracks program is different from similarly named programs — like Vail Resorts’ First Tracks — that offer early access to chairlifts before they open to the public. Fast Tracks is all-day access to special lift lanes at some, but not all, chairlifts at the four resorts. The dedicated, speedier lanes are not unlike those reserved for single skiers, patrollers, instructors and their students.

“Now you can spend more of your day skiing and riding and less time waiting,” reads the pitch.

In the past, the special lift line program at Copper Mountain could be added to the resort’s so-called Beeline, Secret and Premiere passes. The new program at Copper Mountain is available to all Copper skiers — including all passholders and lift ticket buyers — starting at $49 a day. That’s on top of a walk-up, peak-season day ticket price around $185 and a season pass that costs $699. The Fast Tracks pricing will be dynamic too, meaning when demand is high, the price will peak.

It’s really riled locals at Mount Bachelor, Killington and Snowbird. (The online chatter in forums for those resorts has been, at best, pugnacious.) And those locals were already irked about the partnership deal that opens their hill to Ikon Pass holders. A longtime Bachelor local launched a petition online, arguing Powdr was “putting profit over people.”

“This is an utter sociopathic move that goes against not only the mountain code of respect, but is a slap in the face to all locals, many of which can barely afford to live here anymore,” Dan Cochrane wrote in his petition demanding Powdr drop the program. In a couple days he had collected more than 8,700 signatures. 

Privileged access for big spenders is not new for New England ski areas. Bretton Woods in New Hampshire and Okemo in Vermont have offered versions of a premier pass that includes dedicated, speedier lift lines. 

“What feels dirty here, and what Killington skiers are bent about, is that they announced the plan six months after season passes went on sale, with no option for a season passholder add-on or upgrade,” said Stuart Winchester, the New York editor of The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast, which tracks the ski industry in the Northeast and beyond. “Killington has one of the most expensive season passes in the Northeast, but passholders justify it because the season usually pushes or exceeds 200 days and the mountain is pretty big. They choose it over the cheaper Epic and Ikon passes because of this, and now they are feeling betrayed.”

Wyden, the Oregon senator, joined the protest, complaining to Powdr founder Cumming that “a two-tiered system of access to public lands based on financial ability is antithetical to equity in the outdoors, leaving those who cannot afford to pay for the pass being literally sent to the back of the line.”

Wyden asked Cumming to abandon Fast Tracks or at least delay its implementation until the company “adequately explains” how it “will not exacerbate equity issues that already exist in outdoor recreation.”

The Forest Service’s policies for ski areas operating on public land require resorts to protect equal access and not discriminate in programs and services. For example, a ski area on federal land, like most Colorado ski areas, can’t offer one price for local residents and another for visitors. Fast Tracks does not violate those rules, said Don Dressler, the mountain resort program manager for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region.

“Products like Powdr’s Fast Tracks are business decisions that are not prohibited as long as they remain equally available to anyone without requirements,” Dressler said.

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, daughters and a dog named Gravy. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors, ski industry, mountain business, housing, interesting things Location: Eagle, CO Newsletter: The...