Confessions of a reformed day skier
As we punched it over Berthoud Pass in my brother’s dark blue 1969 Pontiac GTO, with skis wedged in crossways against the crushed velvet interior and eight door- and dash-mounted Pioneer speakers pounding out Deep Purple’s “Highway Star,” we wore “Vail Sucks” T-shirts under our neon-pink-splashed black Columbia Bugaboo parkas.It was Friday, we were skipping school in Denver, and we were headed for the Jane, as in Mary Jane a whole mountain of PPL’s and that endless stretch of trees between Frenchman and Outhouse.No way would we have lowered ourselves to ski Vail, an elitist country club of a mountain where our kind would never be granted membership. They hated us, in our bell-bottom stretch pants and jeans, and we hated them, in their “fag-bag” one piece suits and furs. That was the early 1980s, Vail was a privately held company, and all was right with the world.Ten years later, though, I found myself living and working in Vail, and suddenly I was a member of the club. With membership came privileges, including the right to sneer at the dirty, unwashed masses I used to jockey for position with on westbound I-70.I didn’t fully invoke that privilege, though, until the mid-1990s when Vail Resorts went public and joined in the O.J.-like slashing of season pass prices. Suddenly the lift lines and the parking structures got crowded on Saturdays and Sundays.A lot of “Vail Sucks” T-shirts were buried deep in boxes in Denver attics, and Colorado day skiers who throughout the ’80s flocked to Winter Park and Copper Mountain to avoid rubbing elbows with the New Yorkers, Texans, Euro-trash and wealthy Mexicans at Vail suddenly discovered it wasn’t that much farther to drive over Vail Pass. Simultaneously, those fly-in skiers started flying in less, and by the turn of the century, Vail found itself addicted like a cheap gutter junky to the Buddy Pass, Colorado Pass, or whatever the hell you want to call it hooked to the tune of $40 million in advance sales a year. Discount season ski passes for Front Ranger snowriders for about the same price as four single-day lift tickets at the window have become the industry norm in the new, highly competitive world of corporately held, publicly traded ski conglomerates.Almost everyone you talk to who gives a damn about the topic finally seems to be realizing this new reality, though many, many merchants, realtors, local residents, destination skiers and even some Front Rangers I’ve talked to (not just Kaye Ferry) still aren’t happy about it.For 35 years, Vail sold itself as an exclusive escape from the hoi polloi, and now the millionaires have to stand in line for a chairlift or a tee time with any punk from Arvada with feathered hair and a muscle car.Talk about devaluing your brand. The South Frontage Road carnage on any given Saturday in the winter can’t be good for return business, nor can previously unheard-of weekend mob scenes at Beaver Creek be driving high-end home sales there.But until George Gillett, Mike Shannon or some other sugar daddy steps in, buys Vail and returns it to the “good-old days” of the ’80s, day trippers are here to stay, say the experts. Get used to it, accept it, and begin to adapt.What that means first and foremost is fixing the parking problem. Everyone seems to agree. While the ill-advised public bickering between Ferry and Adam Aron makes for good copy, which sells the respective rags of the rabid media types who lap it up, they’re saying the same thing: parking is the problem, not the passes.Big strides are being made in that direction with the recent approval of temporary parking on Ford Park, the creation of public spaces on West Day Lot, more spaces coming on line with various redevelopment projects, and VR’s offer of $4.3 million for another deck on the Lionshead structure. Keep it up. The town needs to continue to push for solutions from the ski company while doing more to shoulder the burden itself, and we need to be creative with things like pricing and timing issues to encourage day skiers to stay and play.Which leads me to the second problem: shopping. Why would anyone who lives within a drop-kick of Park Meadows or Cherry Creek Mall buy anything but a cup of coffee, a slice of pizza or a beer in Vail? Answer: they won’t. So restaurants and bars will do OK in the new dynamic (provided people can find a place to park) and retail will suffer unless we start offering a better mix of goodies and encouraging more day skiers to become overnighters with sweet, spur-of-the-moment hotel deals designed to fill empty beds.Retail rents need to come down, shopping diversity needs to come up, and Vail needs to become a more vibrant place to hang out and drop a few bucks.To some degree, shunting day skiers off the mountain, through Golden Peak and back onto the highway isn’t a bad idea, but let’s face it, fly-in skiers aren’t going to want to hang out either if the new village and Lionshead malls don’t exude a fun, ski-town vibe. No reason Front Rangers can’t be a part of that.Don’t forget, before the Colorado Pass added 10 days at Vail or Beaver Creek a few years ago, a lot of the same merchants who are bitching about day skiers now were whining that VR was sending them all to Breck and Keystone with Summit-only Buddy Passes. Sometimes the ski company just can’t win.Finally, quit blaming the locals. Now that I’ve lived here 12 years and completely shed my Mile High City skin, I’ve become one of the dirty, unwashed local masses that ski company folks are increasingly saying are part of the problem. We might just have to raise the price of your Merchant Pass if you’re going to keep skiing on weekends and clogging up the frontage roads, you ungrateful locals.Granted, VR has dropped Merchant Pass prices from a high of $875 a few years ago to a low of $599 (with Smile School), but they’ve been creeping up ever since.But hell, locals ought to ski free, or darn close. After all, they run the mountains and the towns at the base of the mountains, all the while putting up with higher gas and grocery prices and housing costs that make three jobs the norm just for the privilege of shacking up with three or four roomies in some schlock ’80’s A-frame.And more and more employers are going “real world” and demanding 9-to-5, Monday through Friday consistency from their workers. There ought to be more flexibility from local businesses and schools, a recognition that we are a valley of ski towns and that more flexible work and class schedules will put locals on the mountains at better times for everyone involved.For that matter, Front Range businesses and schools could exercise the same thought process. That way, some poor shlub slaving in a cubicle in the Denver Tech Center won’t have to play hooky to ski the ‘Beav on a Wednesday, and some punk in a Pontiac GTO won’t have to cut class to come ski Vail on a Friday.David O. Williams has strong Vail and Denver roots but does regularly wash now and has never worn fur. E-mail him at dwilliams@vailtrail,com.