When will Vail open Blue Sky Basin?
With a 50-inch base at Vail, skiers are clamoring for the whole mountain to open
VAIL — On Nov. 29, 2018, Vail Mountain opened its Blue Sky Basin ski area to the public after the resort had seen 71 inches of natural snowfall that season.
Three years later, as 2021 ended and skiers watched walk-up lift tickets hit $239, Vail did not correspond with a full terrain opening to its full lift ticket price, leaving Blue Sky Basin closed despite the fact that the resort had seen more than 100 inches of snow.
The mountain eclipsed 125 inches of snow this season during the storm that hit the valley Wednesday and Thursday, yet Blue Sky Basin is still not open.
“The crews are working hard in Blue Sky Basin,” John Plack with Vail Resorts said on Wednesday. “Guests who have been out skiing the Back Bowls over the past week will have heard lots of snow control work with the explosive charges used by Ski Patrol. It’s a good sign that Blue Sky Basin is taking shape.”
In a Dec. 30 letter to skiers posted across Vail Mountain’s social media channels, Vail Mountain Chief Operating Officer Beth Howard referenced Blue Sky Basin not being open yet while addressing staffing challenges.
“ … looks can be deceiving,” Howard wrote. “If you look at Blue Sky Basin, it seems like there’s plenty of snow. And in some areas, there is. But in others, we still have quite a ways to go. The operations team is hard at work preparing terrain. They are performing the careful and meticulous act of snow control — we will never risk their safety or yours in order to open more quickly. We have great respect for the Operations and Ski Patrol leaders who are guiding their teams through this process. We appreciate your understanding and patience.”
But it was some of Howard’s other comments which have led many to assume Blue Sky Basin not being open is more than a matter of snow.
Pride and the pandemic
Howard said the Pride Express, which completes a unique loading option out of Cascade Village, is not running due to staffing challenges. As a result, those loading from Cascade Village must ski down to Lionshead Village and mix with the guests there.
In operating Vail following the pandemic last season, a new priority was placed on making the Cascade lift a unique loading area. The fact that Cascade allowed guests to spread out even further, creating four loading terminals at one mountain, was a significant enough feature of Vail that the detail made it all the way to Wall Street in a Vail Resorts earnings call last season.
“Hopefully you’ll have the Cascade lift running early this year,” said Patrick Scholes, a Wall Street analyst at Truist Financial, in September of 2020.
“Absolutely, we’ll make sure to do that,“ replied Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz.
The promise was kept, and Cascade opened on Nov. 28, 2020, well before other areas like the Back Bowls, which had been known to open before Cascade in previous years.
But along with Cascade opening on Nov. 28, 2020, Pride Express also started running, so Scholes and others could complete their trip up the mountain and connect to Chairs 2 or 7, rather than having to come right back down to one of Vail’s other loading areas. Without Pride Express running, Cascade is not its own unique loading area — instead it’s merely an alternative to the in-town bus for skiers starting their day in Lionshead Village.
With Pride Express being inoperable due to staffing challenges, many are assuming a similar situation is happening in Blue Sky Basin as the snow continues to fall.
Other resorts opening up faster
While resorts across Colorado were starved for snow at the start of the season, with many delaying openings, including Beaver Creek, a snowy December has allowed other nearby ski areas to catch up quickly.
Vail’s has four chairs which remain closed – Chairs 26, 37, 38, 39 – while nearby Copper Mountain, on the other side of Vail Pass, has only one chair still closed. Copper is currently offering access to all parts of the mountain except the double-black diamond terrain on Tucker Mountain.
And Ski Cooper, near Vail’s south edge on the border of Eagle County and Lake County, opened its Tennessee Bowl terrain on the back side of the mountain, an area touted as needing more snow than the front side when it debuted to the public a few seasons ago.
‘You should consider a season pass’
In the 2018-19 season, when Blue Sky Basin opened in November, Vail Resorts was happy to report it had sold 925,000 pre-purchased skis passes, season passes or otherwise.
At the time, it was a 21 percent gain over the previous year, a dismal ski season in Vail which saw only 171 inches of total snow. (Blue Sky Basin opened on Jan. 13 that season after receiving about 50 inches of total snow.) The 21 percent gain in ski pass sales, reported in December of 2018, left company officials pleased, Katz told investors.
One of those investors asked if Katz was concerned about Vail’s new competitor, the Ikon Pass. Katz said the Ikon Pass was good for the industry as a whole, reinforcing the notion that “if you ski, you should consider a season pass.”
Many considered a season pass this year.
After cutting pass prices by 20 percent this past offseason, Vail Resorts sold an estimated 2.1 million pre-purchased tickets and season passes, a number that surprised many, including Vail Resorts officials.
Vail Resorts CEO Kristin Lynch, in a December earnings call, said Vail Resorts pass sales were indicative of strong leisure and travel demands overall, and that staffing was the company’s top priority.
“At this point in time, we are just very focused on the guest experience, and what’s needed for the upcoming season,” Lynch said.
The guest experience at Vail, however, ever since the 1999-00 season, is highly dependent on Blue Sky Basin being open. Now that the passes have been sold, passholders’ expectations include skiing Blue Sky Basin on a January powder day.
In response to Howard’s post, several pointed out Vail’s good snowpack and lack of openings.
“I never recall a time when Blue Sky Basin, Chair 21, Teacup has been closed when we have a 50-inch base,” one person wrote.
“I paid for a pass to have access to the entire mountain, especially now that we have a 50” base,” wrote another.
“As a long-time customer, I feel like your failure to pay adequate salaries while selling way too many passes amounts to fraud,” wrote another.
Vail Mountain has not yet given an indication as to when Blue Sky Basin might open.
“With the big storm coming in Wednesday night, expect some control work in the Back Bowls, but a fantastic powder day on Thursday and great conditions through the weekend,” Plack said.