As the news spread last Wednesday that Vail Resorts had purchased Kirkwood Mountain Resort, there was a genuine concern about the future of the one of the most iconic ski areas in the American West. As someone who made a personal decision a few years ago to stop supporting a corporate-owned ski resort (Heavenly) and start buying my pass at one of the last independent ski resorts in the Lake Tahoe area (Kirkwood) – the fact that Kirkwood is a better mountain for all the right reasons didn’t hurt either – this news affected me, but it did not shock me.
In the past few years, all but two of the major resorts in Lake Tahoe have been gobbled up, acquired, whatever you want to call it, by the corporatocracy, which is methodically tightening its grip on the entire ski industry. It seems that it’s longer a question of “if” a resort will be purchased by the corporatocracy but “when.” Squaw was purchased by KSL, which then bought Alpine from JMA, which still owns Homewood; CNL owns the assets to Northstar and Sierra; MTN, which is Vail Resorts’ listing on the New York Stock Exchange, owns Heavenly, manages Northstar and now manages Kirkwood. The acronymic takeover of Lake Tahoe’s ski resorts is a confusing trend, yes, but it’s also a disturbing one that deserves more careful analysis.
I was privy to this latest acquisition – or something similar to it – since last summer. While the exact details and unfolding of the deal might have changed since then, the end result remains the same: myself and others live in South Lake Tahoe no longer have a choice in supporting either an independent ski resort or a corporate-owned one. Of course, I could reject all my local resorts and commit to the backcountry, but that should be a voluntary action, not an involuntary act of force bestowed upon me to play in a game I didn’t want to play in the first place.
By supporting a corporate-owned ski resort I know that my financial support, regardless of how miniscule it is to the company’s ledger, is not just fattening the pockets of those in distant lands, people who likely don’t have mountains in their blood, but that my financial support means that that I am possibly contributing to the ruination of my mountain playground. And it’s hard not to feel a bit violated in that type of system because, as consumers, we should all be able to make a choice that we are comfortable with and that fits our own values. But when our choices are reduced to the point that there is only one choice, our autonomy is yanked from us and it’s at that point when it’s clear the ski industry has effectively lost control because it means it was unable to regulate itself.
Sadly, this industry has been directing its compass in a much different direction than where it intended when someone decided the pleasure of sliding down snow on skis could a profitable business. The thirst for profit, however, has changed the desired profit margin. This industry is predicated on an infinite growth paradigm, which usually means making money off products (real estate, for example) that are not directly related to sliding on snow. Unfortunately, the resources needed to support this infinite growth paradigm can only be considered infinite if we are willing to accept the consequences that sprouts from this paradigm (notably a damaged environment and soulless, Disneyland-esque theme parks trumpeted as ski resorts).
Here in Lake Tahoe, mine is a rather juvenile lament because this is already the case for many skiers along the I-70 corridor in Colorado and, before long, nearly every skier or rider in the American West. But the adult in me shouts “should it really matter?”
On one hand, Vail’s reputation as “profit trumps everything else type of outfit” suggests an unpleasant fate for Kirkwood. Vail’s business model unquestionably caters toward the tourist and non-serious skier, a customer it has decided craves comfort and the purchasing of an experience – regardless of how unauthentic that experience is – rather than blower pow and 40-degree chutes. To implement that model, Vail and all the other acronyms typically focus on non-skiing related amenities because, well, the majority of the people they want to visit their resorts don’t know what to do in blower pow and 40-degree chutes.
That’s precisely why many of its acquisitions rarely possess the terrain serious skiers and riders seek because, in Vail’s mind, serious skiers and riders don’t bring in the revenue that stuff its shareholders’ pockets and allow the company to grow like it has. Perhaps that’s why Vail’s other properties aren’t known for their terrain as much as their fabricated European-style villages, fancy bread bowls, $10 martinis, and those oh-so-epic après ski massages. Vail learned early on that, as much as humans would like to try, it simply can’t recreate the Cirque at Kirkwood with blueprints, 2x4s and nails, so it’s wise to market other aspects of a mountain to attract visitors.
When Vail Resorts wants to improve its skiing-related amenities, it typically installs faster chair lifts, improved grooming and snowmaking capabilities, increased signage, and terrain expansion. This stuff might be detrimental to the environment but it is designed to enhance the experience for tourists, although I’ve never heard a local complain that a lift doesn’t take long enough or that additional terrain is satanic. But in the process of impressing tourists, Vail often sours the experience for serious skiers and riders who often prefer any chair lift providing access to challenging terrain, less grooming, and less signage.
Admittedly, Vail’s reputation is well-documented and well-deserved, but it doesn’t tell the entire tale.
On the other hand, Vail has the business acumen and cash flow to improve Kirkwood, which had been borderline neglected under the previous ownership in recent years. As other resorts in the area were building mid-mountain lodges, replacing old lifts with high speed quads and gondolas, spending money to attract visitors, cash-strapped Kirkwood was crossings its fingers that people would come because it has what most every other resort in Tahoe doesn’t – big-time snowfall and big-time terrain. That wasn’t cutting it and Kirkwood was failing to maintain relevance in the current landscape of the ski industry, which has become more industry than ski over the past decade.
With the deepest snow in the Lake Tahoe area and terrain that rivals Squaw, Kirkwood has the skiing part down; the industry part of the equation, however, wasn’t measuring up. Vail is undoubtedly going to reverse that trend for Kirkwood and, in time, create a product that reflects the needs of tourists. Because, let’s face it, there is no Kirkwood or Squaw or Heavenly without tourists. These days, if a ski resort doesn’t cater to tourists it risks going out of business.
My only hope is that, along the way, Vail does a better a job of connecting with both tourists and locals than it has at its other properties, and perhaps even expand its role by eliciting input from both groups since they are integral to keeping shareholders happy and retaining the soul of a ski resort – a winning combination that other ski industry acronyms haven’t achieved and which surely would increase your bottom line in the long-term.
In that respect, I woke up last Thursday with a sense of optimism after waking up last Wednesday disappointed. Now it’s possible my optimism is simply masquerading as naiveté, and that my worst fears will come true at Kirkwood, but there is no law that requires Kirkwood’s future to match the fate of Beaver Creek or any other of Vail’s properties that have been unable to create that winning combination.
The serious skiers and riders might be thrifty, and we might not have the deepest pockets, and just because we have a tendency to point out failures in the past doesn’t mean we won’t champion successes in the future. Lastly, it’s important for these acronyms to remember that the inability or unwillingness to learn the lessons of past failures is not an excuse and is in fact more indefensible than the repeating of those same failures in the future.
Jeremy Evans is the author of In Search of Powder: A Story of America’s Disappearing Ski Bum. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Now that I am working on my second book project, I’ve scaled back my perusing of internet forums in regards to ski-related issues. Fortunately, the co-founder of Mountain Riders Alliance forwarded me this link suggesting that the owner of Canada’s Sunshine Village has bullied Teton Gravity Research into removing specific threads from its popular website.
Not surprisingly, Sunshine Village suffered from a public relations nightmare following this incident. The reported mistreatment of employees fueled a firestorm of comments on internet message boards this winter. None of these boards is more popular than TGR’s. But while the situation hasn’t been forgotten, chatter over the internet had certainly died down in recent weeks.
For that reason Ralph Scurfield Jr., owner of the Alberta resort, made a horrible tactical move by threatening legal action against the iconic action sports company. An internet message board is an open forum, not a journalistic endeavor. One of its main functions is to allow people the freedom to express themselves on a variety of subjects. Yet it appears Scurfield is attempting to censor the internet, which is a bold move even by his standards.
Whistler-based Pique Newsmagazine columnist G.D. Maxwell wrote an interesting column about Scurfield, one that echoes the thoughts of many winter sports enthusiasts. It also reveals a pattern of tyrannical behavior. Given Scurfield’s history with lawsuits, TGR couldn’t simply ignore the threat. As a result, it temporarily removed the information Scurfield wanted to be removed and consulted its own lawyers on how to proceed going forward.
Of course, a lawsuit based on one guy’s bruised ego is not worth fighting. At the end of the day, however, I believe the TGR threads about Sunshine Village will resurface. And when they do, Scurfield will likely be the dartboard for additional doses of venom spewed his direction.
While promoting In Search of Powder this winter, I was often asked ‘Is the ski bum really disappearing?” My answer is always the same, which is there will always be ski bums, disappearing doesn’t mean extinct, and those that believe the ski bum is flourishing are likely using multiple definitions to cover a wide spectrum of ski and snowboard enthusiasts.
Some reviewers, even ones that liked my book, referenced stories published by the New York Times, Boston Globe and ESPN.com suggesting that the ski bum isn’t disappearing — or at the very least has morphed into something else.
That being said, I think it’s great that the ski bum has become a debate topic on bar stools and dinner tables. I am pleased that people are taking my book seriously enough to discuss the merits of it. Question everything in life.
However, those who question my book’s argument (that the ski bum is disappearing) are likely using a different definition of the term. In my book, I use the classic definition for a ski bum. The original ski bums, those that spawned the subculture starting after World War II, are the barometer. The definition of ski bum, in my mind, should begin and end with them.
Those using other definitions, I believe, are really engaged in arguments such as “Jeremy’s book is narrow-minded because it only uses the original definition” or “Ski bums also include ski and snowboard enthusiasts who don’t fit the original definition” or “Jeremy Evans isn’t the authority on ski bums.” All of these arguments can be made rather easily, but ultimately whoever is making such an argument is likely using a different definition of the term “ski bum.”
Of course, there should be some wiggle room from the original definition as long as the tenets of ski bum culture remain intact, but at what point does too much deviation simply become something else altogether?
The New York Times article mentioned someone that was laid off from a high-paying technology job because of the country’s recent economic downturn and decided to become a ski instructor. But will that person continue to teach skiing when the economy rebounds and they can land another high-paying technology job?
Ski bums don’t change directions with the wind. They have a life sentence to the mountains. There is a big difference between a person choosing to be a ski instructor because they turned down a high-paying job and a person who accepts being a ski instructor because there aren’t any jobs, let alone high-paying ones.
There are cases being made that early retirees living in the mountains are also ski bums. Maybe they were lawyers or doctors or senior management members and decided, at age 60, that they’ve made enough money and are headed to the mountains. But where were they in their 30s, 40s and 50s?
There is a big difference between a person choosing to move to the mountains when they are financially set and a person who moves to the mountains knowing they might never be financially set. Insolvency is part of the subculture’s charm because a ski bum isn’t beholden to money.
There are also cases being made that telecommuters living in a ski town and making six figures somewhere else are also ski bums. But would they live in Telluride and ski if they had to live on a ski instructor’s wage?
Don’t get me wrong. These people have amazing lives and are probably the envy of their friends and family. To be able to live in the mountains and ski or snowboard is truly a dream, but not everybody who skis or snowboards is a ski bum. And not everyone who skis or snowboards wants to be a ski bum. It’s an athletic pursuit, yes, but it’s also a philosophical one and it’s not for everybody.
Money has never been a ski bum’s currency. That’s what makes a ski bum unique because American culture tends to trumpet the acquisition of money. More than five decades ago, Warren Miller shot rabbits and lived out of his van in Sun Valley, Idaho. He gave beer to a lift operator one day and skied free the rest of the season.
How does Warren’s lifestyle and philosophy toward life at that time compare with someone making $150,000 by telecommuting and would probably stop skiing if they lost their job? It doesn’t, so I never bothered to try and make the correlation. By including differing philosophies spread across various groups of people, it cheapens the term and is borderline disrespectful to the subculture’s pioneers.
It’s funny. Nearly everyone who read my book didn’t have a problem with me suggesting that ski towns are now resort towns or that ski areas are now ski resorts. These new terms are reflective of the major changes that have happened in the American West, which are detailed in my book. But not everyone is on board when I suggest that it’s time to create new terms for these new “ski bums” that are reflective of the same major changes.
If the ski industry continues to modify the definition of a ski bum to the point of including everyone and abandoning the original definition, then what’s so special about being ski bum? At some point it’s no longer hallowed ground. It’s dirt everyone walks on.
With the proliferation of websites, blogs and twitter accounts, skiers and snowboarders are at the forefront of a technological revolution. There are plenty of them out there, but here are some of my favorite websites and blogs, ranging from the informational to the inspirational. Some of them are obvious selections, but maybe there is a new one listed below that you can add to your list.
Protect Our Winters: An environmental outlet founded by pro snowboarder Jeremy Jones. A good site that unites and informs.
Teton Gravity Research Forums: The all-encompassing information bible. Comments/threads are sure to provoke a rainbow of emotions.
Sierra Avalanche Center: Along with coffee and stale donuts, a morning staple for Tahoe-area backcountry enthusiasts.
Sadly, a snowboarder from San Jose recently died at Sierra-at-Tahoe near South Lake Tahoe, California. In February, a snowboarder from San Francisco died at Northstar-at-Tahoe near Truckee, California. Aside from both victims being snowboarders, another common link between the two incidents is that neither resort media relations department provided pertinent details to the public.
There are several reasons for this. First, owners don’t want the bad publicity associated with a death being credited to their resort. Second – and this might be the more influential of the two – is that Americans are so litigious that resorts don’t want to expose themselves further to a lawsuit by leaking material that legally doesn’t need to be leaked.
Had California not recently killed a bill in the legislature, resorts would’ve been required to report all deaths to the media, which could then deliver that information to the public. Perhaps that law would’ve limited a resort’s risk to lawsuits, but regardless it remains business as usual for resorts regarding deaths this season.
Usually when an incident happens at a ski resort, an internal memo is immediately sent to all department managers. The memo requires employees with information about the incident to report to the public relations department and to only speak with the public relations department. With that department acting as the gatekeeper, it can then manage the details how it sees fit, which typically means to be vague and evasive.
Take, for example, the death at Northstar in February. The resort’s public relations department seemed more concerned with convincing people that the snowboarder didn’t officially die at Northstar than it was about delivering an accurate account of the fatality.
Since only a medical examiner or medical doctor can officially pronounce somebody dead, nobody is technically dead until such a pronouncement happens. But many first responders, including ski patrol, can come to this conclusion without too much difficulty, yet it’s always the public relations department providing details. Rarely are ski patrol members quoted in a story regarding a death, and if one is that person is likely going to receive a tongue-lashing from their boss.
As a former reporter at daily newspapers in ski regions, this can be rather frustrating. Public relation departments often don’t respond to interview requests until a body is removed and declared dead at a hospital. And even then it seems that phone calls are only returned when it’s in the resort’s best interest to start returning them – not when the public demands information, which is often immediately.
Vail Resorts, Inc., which owns Northstar, and other ski resort companies often engage in this cloak-and-dagger behavior when it comes to deaths. Despite the reasons already stated, it shouldn’t be about lawsuits and ski resort egos when a death is involved.
Skiing and snowboarding are dangerous sports. Participants know ahead of time the inherent risks of the sports and that death or serious injury can occur at anytime and for a multitude of reasons. That risk increases when helmets aren’t used or when skiers and riders choose to go outside of regularly-marked runs where there are trees, cliffs and rocks.
Everyone understands that the resort is in no way responsible for these accidents, including the ones that result in deaths, but for whatever reason it’s difficult to get reliable, first-hand information about rescue efforts or body recoveries at ski resorts.
As an added precaution, whenever you buy a season pass or purchase a lift ticket, simply making that transaction is an acceptance that you won’t hold the resort accountable in the event of injury or death. That alone would seem to minimize the threat of lawsuit, but resorts can never be too careful and they use that reality to handle details of deaths for their own advantage as well.
In February, Northstar released a vague press release and referred media members to the county sheriff’s department for further information, although it was quite obvious what had happened.
According to a story in the Truckee-based Sierra Sun newspaper, 30-year-old Jeffrey Halperin’s body was found upside down in a tree well. The article states that ski patrol and other Northstar safety personnel arrived on the scene after a report of an unconscious snowboarder shortly before 11 a.m.
Why then did the resort not release any information until Monday afternoon, more than 24 hours after emergency personnel arrived on the scene? Northstar spokesperson Jessica Van Pernis said that the information was not released on Sunday due to parent company Vail Resorts’ policy to not proactively send out statements regarding incidents.
“We can’t comment on an injured person’s condition due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and privacy laws, and once an injured person leaves our care to be transported to a hospital, we are not kept updated with what the status of their condition is due to those same HIPAA laws,” Van Pernis said.
When Halperin’s body was officially pronounced dead on Tuesday, Northstar then released this statement:
“Northstar-at-Tahoe Resort management and staff and the Vail Resorts family extend their deepest sympathy and support to the family and friends of the snowboarder. The resort would like to acknowledge the assistance of the Northstar Fire Department and CareFlight staff in the rescue efforts.”
The words “rescue” and “injured” imply that Halperin was still alive at the time emergency personnel arrived on the scene at Northstar, which doesn’t seem to be the case. He was later pronounced dead after being transported to a local hospital and only then did Northstar acknowledge his death.
The reporter who covered the story – and ski industry employees who were familiar with the incident – told me they heard Halperin was already dead. When I followed up with Van Pernis asking specifically if Halperin was dead when ski patrol arrived or if he was alive and later died at the hospital, which would’ve clarified the situation, she wouldn’t provide any further details and re-issued the same press release.
A county coroner said the cause of death remains unknown, but that it was likely blunt force trauma or suffocation. These possible causes of death suggest that he was already dead when resort personnel found him, but the public will never know and the resort is under no legal obligation to reveal anything more than it already has.
From a public relations standpoint, it’s understandable why Northstar and other resorts would engage in such behavior. It’s bad P.R. to be known as a place where deaths happen, and nobody wants deaths on their records. Leave that to hospitals.
But just because a resort is using the best words as defined by the public relation profession doesn’t mean it is using the most accurate words. At best, it often appears a disingenuous practice and, at worst, it can be disrespectful to the victims’ families and the taxpaying public that should know more about these deaths since they occur on public land.
The public should demand that resorts adopt a full disclosure policy involving any fatality. In California, it almost became law that resorts would have to do just that, but the state’s previous governor vetoed the bill. Hopefully another bill comes through the legislature and resorts will have to legally report fatalities and provide additional details than the ones inserted into carefully crafted and rehearsed press releases.
Accuracy and transparency involving a human’s death shouldn’t be too much to ask – particularly if the resort knows more than what’s inside its press release. After all, deflecting attention from a situation doesn’t mean a resort has been absolved from its responsibility to inform the public.
Hopefully one day that becomes a legal responsibility and not just a moral one.
Fresh Tracks – Jeremy Evans.
One non-descript day this winter, Squaw Valley stopped running its Silverado chair, which accesses some of the resort’s legendary terrain. Rumors began circulating that the lift would remain closed indefinitely during the week as a cost-cutting measure. It turned out that Squaw was intending to do just that, but it didn’t anticipate the firestorm of comments on its Facebook page for its decision.
Hundreds of season passholders and other concerned members of the ski community commented on the resort’s Facebook page about the Silverado closure. Within days, Squaw reversed its decision and announced it would continue operating Silverado daily for the rest of the winter.
Keyboard Courage strikes again.
With social media such as Facebook, which allow comments from visitors, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the silent majority of the past is becoming the vocal majority of the future. That has to concern ski resorts because skiers and snowboarders tend to be passionate. Limiting access to killer terrain is certainly a no-non in their minds and grounds for a public attack.
But these weren’t random people writing “Letters to the Editor” in the local newspaper. Or disgruntled customers calling and leaving nasty voice messages that would likely never be returned by management. Those pre-Facebook ways of complaining rarely evoke change.
These people who commented about Silverado also weren’t anonymous posters. They were real people, with real faces, commenting in real time. When the comments piled up, Squaw didn’t have a choice but to take action or risk losing a public relations battle. Once Squaw reversed its decision, the powerless became a little bit more powerful.
That’s because without customers, there is no ski resort business, regardless of how much snow falls or how many hotel rooms are built. The real product remains the customer. Now that customer has a larger voice than ever before, and word travels fast in today’s plugged-in world.
Now, even the most diehard skier or snowboarder understands that skiing is a business. If a business is losing money, it must cut costs. Unfortunately that can mean cutting employees, which Squaw also did this winter, but every move a resort does now is subject to criticism or praise by its customers.
Skiers and snowboarders shouldn’t abuse their growing power because with increased power comes increased responsibility. The collective voice is most productive when it’s used properly. The best example of responsible social media behavior was a Facebook page called the “Squaw Valley Passholders Meeting,” which was created after the initial closing of Silverado.
A group of like-minded, concerned skiers and riders wanted their voices to be heard, of course, but more importantly they wanted to join the conversation and have some influence at one of the holy grails of ski resorts in North America. Within days of the page being created, an eclectic group of skiers and riders met at a café and engaged in a civil discussion, bringing up issues from the future of Silverado to loosening the resort’s boundary policy.
It was a productive meeting because the group wants to create an official board and communicate with Squaw Valley management about their concerns so both parties can co-exist. And Squaw management is receptive to the idea as well. That’s great to hear.
While the initial firestorm of comments certainly elevated to an uncivilized level, kudos to Squaw and its passholders for coming around and proving that social media doesn’t need to be vitriolic to be effective.
As someone who prefers privacy over publicity, creating this blog is an odd development for me. But the social media world, I have discovered, is such an important and integral part of being a journalist in the 21st century that it seems counterproductive to continue operating without one.
Following the release of my book In Search of Powder in November, 2010, I’ve come to accept that, as much as I’d like to keep a low profile, my opinion on various aspects of the industry now holds a little more weight than before. After all, I spent more than five years conducting research for my book on ski bums. By offering my comments and providing interesting links to photos, videos or articles, hopefully this blog will not only deflect attention away from me but allow everyone, including myself, to stay updated on the ever-changing winter sports world.
More than that, however, this blog will allow me to connect with those people who have become fans of my book and might be interested in what I think about certain topics. If nothing else, it will allow me another forum to express myself on topics that pique my interest.
My plan is to update this blog frequently, which might mean daily, weekly or monthly depending on how busy my brain is working. Oftentimes it’s on an indefinite leave of absence, and other times it’s working overtime. Either way, I look forward to developing this blog into something interesting for anyone who happens to stumble across it in cyberspace.
Fresh Tracks — Jeremy Evans.