Downhill to Disneyland

The slopes are crowded, so why aren't Colorado resorts rolling in cold cash?

Every year, the Colorado ski industry looks forward to the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in January as one of the busiest times of the year. But this past winter, on the Sunday of that holiday-enhanced weekend, the number of skiers on Vail Mountain exceeded even those eager expectations.

On that day, for only the third time since the mid- to late 1980s, the number of skiers at Vail climbed high enough to reach what the U.S. Forest Service, the mountain's landlord, calls its "Skiers At One Time" limit. The ski area notified the town manager and the Forest Service, advising both that the mountain had reached capacity. Though no action was taken, it was noteworthy.

A ski mountain's capacity is actually a floating number that varies according to a surprisingly scientific calculation. It takes into account a resort's bathrooms, restaurant seats and other infrastructure factors, as well as how quickly the resort can move skiers up the mountain on its lifts. For example, Bob McLaurin, Vail's town manager for the past eight years, says that Vail's SAOT number is based primarily on how many visitors government planners originally projected could get in and out of Vail's sole four-way intersection without immediately seizing into gridlock.

Mike Gorman

Since then, the traffic signal has been changed to a roundabout, so the tourist volume the town can absorb is slightly higher than the 19,900-person limit set by the USFS. Additionally, in the time since the Skiers At One Time limit was fixed, the resort has opened up its Blue Ski Basin, greatly expanding the available ski-mountain terrain. Still, given the relatively small size of the town of Vail -- and, in particular, its limited parking -- the Forest Service decided to stick with the early capacity figures.

No matter how you counted it, though, January 21 was an awfully busy day at Vail.

Vail was hardly alone this year in enjoying a bumper crop of skiers. In the early part of the season, Colorado Ski Country USA reported a 29 percent increase in skier visits at Front Range destination resorts over the same period the previous year. Although the stampede to the slopes slowed this spring, most analysts project at least a 5 percent hike in visitors overall from last year. The National Ski-Area Association already has announced that more people went skiing and snowboarding this year than in any other year in history.

Of course, this is not news to anyone who has driven into the mountains recently to get to a favorite slope. Denver-area skiers heading west on I-70 later than 6:30 in the morning on a Saturday or Sunday, or returning to the city any time after 2:30 p.m., know better than to expect a quick drive. Entire Sunday evenings can pass into night while fatigued skiers inch eastward from Georgetown to Idaho Springs.

This is not simply the perception of a few cranky drivers, either. The Colorado Department of Transportation counts the number of cars driving through the Eisenhower Tunnel (to Breckenridge, Keystone, Copper, and sometimes A-Basin, Vail and Beaver Creek) and over Berthoud Pass (Winter Park and Berthoud). Ten years ago, about 19,000 vehicles drove through the tunnel each day. This winter, the number was just under 29,000.

The number of cars climbing Berthoud pass on a winter day has grown similarly during that same period. The ski industry prefers that you think of these weekend winter jams as a transportation problem. But as anyone with a bursting bladder stuck inside a barely moving car on President's Day weekend can attest, it is a big skiing problem, too.

Most striking, however, is that all of this crowding is occurring at a time of unremarkable profits for the industry. Earlier this month, Vail Resorts, owner of Keystone, Breckenridge, Vail and Beaver Creek, announced layoffs due to what the company termed an "increasingly competitive landscape." A week before, Winter Park had reported its own job cuts, joining Aspen and Crested Butte in reducing its workforce.

This raises several puzzlers that cut to the heart of the state's travel-poster industry. For starters, it is worth asking how a business that charges a $50 admission fee and attracts enough customers to cause a ten-mile traffic jam can still not make money. More crucial to every Colorado skier who has waited a half-hour in a lift line, though, is a much more fundamentally troubling question: Is a successful ski business incompatible with good skiing?

About five years ago, researchers at the U.S. Forest Service decided to review the environmental impact that Aspen Highlands ski area was having on the local ecology. As part of their research, they took photographs from an airplane during several busy winter days. One of the purposes in reviewing the pictures was to gauge what is known as "terrain capacity." While the calculation is definitely qualitative, it tries to answer a simple question: How many skiers can share the slopes and still have fun?

No number is set in stone, but Ed Ryberg, the USFS's regional winter sports coordinator, says Colorado ski areas try to stay close to a few relatively solid standards. On beginner and intermediate runs -- wide, groomed trails with no hazards -- there should be no more than fifteen skiers per acre. For advanced runs, which demand more movement and room for error, the USFS figures five skiers per acre is plenty. The number isn't consistent at all ski areas at all times. Two years ago, the busiest resort in the state was Breckenridge -- even though, at 3,156 acres, the area is a third the size of Vail's 12,590 acres.

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