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On a clear day early morning skiers ride the Red Lady chairlift in late February 2022 at Crested Butte Mountain Resort (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

For decades, traffic to American ski resorts has relied on one thing: Snow. 

Big snowfall meant big business. 

But the busiest season ever in American skiing — 2021-22, with an all-time high of 61 million skier days — was not a remarkable snow year. 

The previous high points for national skier visits were set in 2010-11, 2007-08 and 2009-10. Those seasons were snowy, with nearly every region reporting above-average snow. The nation was locked in an economic slump those years, which further supported the resort industry’s long-held assertion that snowfall trumps all and business booms when the flakes pile deep. 

The 2021-22 season dispels that notion. After a decade of largely flat visitation — dipping as low as 51 million in 2011-12 and as high as 59.3 million in 2019-20 — the rebound to an all-time high bodes well for a 37-state industry that sees growing demand and season-pass sales outstripping snow as its primary driver.

“Strong season pass sales and a continued desire for outdoor recreation are two of the primary contributing factors to the season’s record-breaking results,” reads a statement from the National Ski Areas Association, which announced the new high mark during its annual conference in Nashville on Friday. 

NSAA spokeswoman Adrienne Saia Isaac said “a major factor” in the national record was the nearly 100 ski areas in six Rocky Mountain states that saw 25.2 million visits, a 12% bump over last season. Vail Resorts, the largest operator in North America, reported in late April that visits to its U.S. and Canadian ski areas were up 12.5% for the 2021-22 season from the year before. 

Here are some details from those ski areas in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. 

132: Days of operation, above the 10-year average. 

58%: Portion of resorts that opened late. 

6%: Portion of resorts that closed early. 

228: Inches of snow, slightly below the 10-year average.

4: Number of ski areas open in 2021-22 that weren’t open in 2020-21.

Colorado Ski Country, the trade group that represents 22 of the state’s 28 ski areas, has not announced 2021-22 visits for its member resorts. Last year the trade group estimated about 12 million skier visits, an increase over the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season but about 4% below Colorado’s five-year average. 

Visits to Colorado ski areas peaked in 2018-19, when resorts counted 13.8 million skier days.

Vail Resorts, which operates five Colorado ski hills that host more than 5.5 million skier visits a year, including the state’s busiest Vail and Breckenridge, does not report skier visits by resort or even by state. (That 5.5 million estimate comes from historic visitation numbers at the company’s Colorado hills and its publicly reported annual growth figures.) 

The company last year reported it sold 2.1 million advance lift tickets and season passes. Vail Resorts’ rival Alterra Mountain Co. is privately held and does not release any statistics, but its Ikon Pass is wildly popular. The Mountain Collective Pass, the Indy Pass, the Powder Alliance corral independent resorts into single passes. And most ski resorts offer their own season pass. 

Skiers in line at the Red Lady lift at the base area of Crested Butte Resort on February 20, 2022. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Independent ski areas with their own passes thrived last winter as Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Co. battled for season-pass market share. 

The boom in season passes — once reserved only for the most dedicated skiers — has changed the resort industry. Passes deliver revenue before lifts turn, removing the fraught reliance on snowfall from resort bottom lines. Pass revenue has enabled resorts to invest more in the summer months. And passes have boosted visitation. 

Yet passes have reduced the importance of skier visits. The skier day metric used to be a critical gauge, with each visit tied to the purchase of a lift ticket. Now resorts collect a season’s worth of lift-ticket revenue before the snow falls, making the number of times that pass is used less financially important.

But operationally, the impact of record season pass sales is a different story. A deluge of pass holders overwhelmed understaffed ski areas last winter, causing industry-wide headaches, especially at Vail Resorts. NSAA said 81% of U.S. ski areas were unable to fill every job last season, with an average of 75 empty positions at each resort. Ski areas far and wide are bumping pay and boosting benefits for the 2022-23 season

For the third season in a row, season passes eclipsed lift tickets in the tally of visits. Skiers with season passes made up 52% of all national visits, compared with 37% using day lift tickets. (The remaining 11% are off-duty workers and complimentary tickets.) The NSAA’s preliminary report for the 2021-22 season showed ski areas of all sizes across the country increased season pass sales last year.

Silver Queen Gondola at Aspen Mountain on Dec. 21, 2021, in Aspen. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Ski areas in the U.S. plan to invest $728 million in 2022, the NSAA reported. That’s an all-time high. Vail Resorts, for example, plans to spend as much as $325 million on its ski areas this summer, including installing 19 new chairlifts. Alterra Mountain Co. plans a largest-ever investment of $344 million at its 15 resorts. Across the industry, more resorts are investing in lifts, terrain and villages, marking a record year for lift-makers like Grand Junction’s Leitner Poma and Europe’s Doppelmayr. 

“The whole world is changing,” Leitner Poma of America boss Daren Cole told The Colorado Sun last December. “And next year will be off the charts.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors,...