FastPass for the chair lift: Ski resorts expand paid skip-the-line pass programs
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As an avid snowboarder who values first tracks and good snow above any other aspect of a ski vacation, I found it hard to complain when I was brought straight to the front of a lift line with a mountain guide during a work trip to Breckenridge, Colorado, in 2019.
Yet as a resident of a New Hampshire ski town, I felt conflicted. I know firsthand how challenging it is to live a mountain-focused lifestyle where money is tight.
Similar emotions arose when I heard about the Fast Tracks pass, an upgradeable pass option available at four POWDR-owned resorts for the 2021 to 2022 season that allows guests to pay to skip the lift line.
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The pass, which was announced in mid-October, will be sold at Vermont’s Killington Resort, Utah’s Snowbird, Oregon’s Mount Bachelor and Colorado’s Copper Mountain. It can be added to day or season passes for a daily starting fee of $49, but the price may fluctuate depending on demand.
In a community whose cry for inclusivity and accessibility to the great outdoors has been getting increasingly louder in recent years, the announcement was met with pushback from both locals as well as some outdoorsy travelers.
In fact, even a U.S. senator, Ron Wyden, raised concerns about the new upgrade, which arguably amplifies problems that already exist in the outdoor community, like the fact that it is most accessible to those who have money.
Specifically, in a letter to POWDR made public on his website, Wyden pointed out the “serious concerns this policy raises about equitable access to the public lands on which Mount Bachelor operates under its U.S. Forest Service Special Use permit.”
But a former Copper Mountain lift operations employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely about the subject, understands that this is part of a larger picture about the economics of the outdoor industry.
“I think the general consensus among locals is that it’s just another thing that costs more money and means they get less of a perk of being able to be the first ones on the hill,” he said. “Because when you wake up first thing in the morning to get the first chair, the Fast Tracks people will still get on the lift before you. Couple that with [lack of] employee housing and the high cost of living [in tourism-focused mountain towns], and it’s kind of like [rubbing] salt in the wound.”
He also expressed confusion about the uproar, especially since the Fast Tracks pass, which originally took inspiration from a similar pass offered at Disneyland, is old news.
“At Copper, we had the Secret Pass, the Premier Pass and the Beeline Pass, and those were essentially the cut-the-line passes,” he explained. “You could pay extra on your daily pass or season pass to cut the line. We’ve literally been doing it for years.”
Copper Mountain began offering similar passes to guests staying at the resort in 2002 and to the general public in 2003. According to a statement on POWDR’s website, less than 2% of daily skiers (on average) use the pass. POWDR was contacted for comment on this story but declined due to the short notice.
Copper, or POWDR as a whole, aren’t the only ones in the ski industry offering such perks. California’s Mammoth Mountain, for instance, offers a “Mammoth Black” membership, which gives members exclusive access to lifts, parking, events, a private dining room, a personal concierge and other perks for a starting fee of $12,000.
Resorts worldwide also offer “skip the line” perks in the form of ski lessons and private on-mountain guide services.
While there is a fair argument to be made about the Fast Tracks pass (and other similar offers) not actively making winter sports inclusive and accessible to travelers of all backgrounds, the reality is that without the money that comes into ski towns during weekends and holiday vacations, these towns wouldn’t be what they are today.
Most likely, this new Fast Tracks pass will have its largest impact on these busy holiday weeks and weekends, when lift lines are longest.
People who live in ski towns and work in the tourism industry, often working multiple jobs to meet the increasing rent prices, are rarely found skiing on weekends or during busy vacation weeks. Of course, there are exceptions, but many ski town locals either work during the busiest ski days or actively avoid them, choosing instead to ski midweek when lift lines are short or nonexistent.
And in recent years, with ski areas getting more crowded than ever (the National Ski Areas Association reported more than 59 million visits to ski areas during the 2020 to 2021 season alone), locals are increasingly skipping lift lines altogether, opting instead to head into the backcountry or “skin” uphill at resorts.
When I returned to New Hampshire, after all, I waited until Monday, after my weekend of work was done, to head out to my favorite ski hill — and there wasn’t a lift line in sight.
Featured image courtesy of Johannes Kroemer/Getty Images
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