The Sellouts

Washington's Biggest Resorts Just Got Bought by Conglomerates

Colorado ski companies snapped up Stevens Pass Ski Area and Crystal Mountain this year. It might ruin the Northwest ski scene—and save it at the same time.

By Allison Williams December 18, 2018 Published in the January/February 2019 issue of Seattle Met

Washington’s ski roots run deep but we’re no Aspen or Vail, where mega resorts dot the Rockies with posh gondolas and slick folk whose ski jackets actually match their ski pants. The Cascades have long been the land of mom-and-pop mountains and scrappy ski hills, rope tows and RV lots, and bag-lunch cafeterias. A place where we ski in the rain and don’t even complain (much). This year, that all changed.

First, in June, came the news that Stevens Pass Ski Area would be purchased by Vail Resorts. The acquisition surprised some; North America’s biggest ski company already owned resorts from Vermont to Minnesota and seemed more in league with, say, Whistler Blackcomb, which Vail nabbed two years ago. Why Stevens, a day destination for snow bums and ski schools? The likely answer: Vail gained a city—Seattle—full of customers for their Epic Pass, an annual ticket to all the company’s holdings.

“I was pissed. I was mad,” says 21-year-old Katey Murphy, a Seattle University student who’s skied Stevens since she was three. Like many regulars, she fears what national corporate ownership will mean. “It definitely used to be a small mountain community. Stevens is, I think, gonna lose that.”

Then in September, less shocking: Our Mount Rainier-adjacent Crystal Mountain was to be sold to Denver-based Alterra Mountain Company, owners of Steamboat Springs and California’s Mammoth Mountain. Longtime resort president John Kircher had purchased Crystal from his family’s own Boyne company last year, but he cited the Stevens/Vail deal in his sale, claiming an indie couldn’t compete.

Alterra likely snapped up Crystal for the same reasons Vail took Stevens—it sells its own brand-new, multi-mountain Ikon Pass—and because multiple properties are insurance against bad snow years or even climate-change shifts.

“Alterra wants to own the best mountain in every market,” reassures new Crystal president Frank DeBerry. “We don’t buy a good resort and change everything.” Still, Seattle skiers anticipate some wallet ache.

“Swell. Now tix are going to cross into the triple digit territory,” bemoaned one Redditer when the news broke. While day tickets for Stevens and Crystal remain below $100, both new owners have switched to dynamic pricing that vend lift tickets like hotel rooms and airline flights, with shifts based on demand and advance purchase. Skiers who don’t commit pay more, early buyers risk bad weather—and those multi-mountain annual passes look all the more appealing.

Leah Whiteside, whose family owns a Crystal ski condo and belongs to the Crystal Mountain Founders Club, is wary but optimistic of the new Colorado overlords. “It’s always been our mountain home. Hopefully they’ll make improvements, continue plans to develop,” she says. For her, Crystal’s heart is at the Snorting Elk bar, where generations of skiers clink beers while kids sled outside. “It’s a really good vibe. I think that still exists.”

And change could mean capital improvements to aging infrastructure. Both mountains have suffered from overcrowding in recent years, a tricky problem to solve but easier for owners with money: Forest service restrictions limit new lifts or even new parking lots, and projects can take decades. Higher ticket prices could thin crowds right away.

Murphy says she understands why Stevens sold to the big boys. “The parking has gotten out of hand, the weekend lines are unbearable, and they’ll have a bigger corporation to have the money to help control that.”

Still, after a lifetime of skiing at Stevens, she expects an influx of Epic pass holders who care little for the mountain community, and she expects this season may be her last on Highway 2. “If it changes dramatically, I’ll go to Baker.”

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