Slippery slope 

Two books examine the ski industry’s downhill slide

There’s a reason the price of lift tickets at Montana’s two largest ski areas has surpassed the average daily wage of many, and it has little to do with the cost of powering the lifts. The reason, argues veteran ski journalist Hal Clifford, is simple: The big resorts no longer care about working stiff skiers.

In his exhaustively sourced new book, Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns and the Environment, Clifford examines how resorts like Big Mountain ($47/day) and Big Sky ($58/day) have become giant real estate ventures frosted with snow. Instead of catering to day-skiers and middle-class families, the big resorts have instead targeted customers unlikely to blink at lift ticket prices, given that they’re already in the market to spend several hundred thousand dollars on a second home.

When Clifford runs the numbers, they add up to depressing: Skiers earning less than $50,000 a year are disappearing from the slopes. In their place are the customers Big Mountain is trying to attract with its far-reaching Glacier Village project. Clifford doesn’t say much about Big Mountain, but he unloads on Tim Blixseth, the timber magnate behind a 1,000-acre private ski development near Big Sky known as the Yellowstone Club.

“The ski area is bigger than Snowmass, but Blixseth plans to sell a mere 400 memberships,” reports Clifford. “These people will pay $1.5 million simply to join the Yellowstone Club, and another $1 million, on average, to buy a home site…Bottom line: with $26 million out of pocket, $1 billion is likely to come back. At those rates of return, lift-ticket sales become irrelevant.”

The Yellowstone Club may be the most extreme example of how real estate has surpassed skiing on the industry’s priority list, but the phenomenon is manifest at Big Mountain and nearly every other major ski area in the country.

Major expansions are designed to increase real estate prices at the resort, but the effects can be seen down in town as well.

Whitefish doesn’t make Clifford’s list of hollowed-out ski towns and pre-fabricated alpine villages where many homes sit empty for most the year and affordable housing is virtually nonexistent. Still, there are signs of what Clifford refers to as “the Aspen effect” appearing in the Flathead Valley below Big Mountain.

In Whitefish, the average home price is $250,000, while the average wage hovers in the neighborhood of $7.25 an hour. It’s hard to not think about that disparity when Clifford writes: “In few places will you see so much wealth and so much poverty revolving around the same center point—the ski resort.”

To be sure, Montana’s two largest ski areas give a lot back to neighboring communities, whether through discounted passes for locals or charitable donations. Clifford doesn’t spend enough time considering these benefits, or the upside of resort expansion: more jobs, more money into the local economy, and more skiing thanks to expanded terrain and snowmaking.

Instead, Clifford hammers his chosen points home. He challenges the wisdom of those calling the shots in skiing with telling comparisons. He juxtaposes the stagnation and decline in the number of people taking up skiing with the rapid expansion going on at resorts in Montana and elsewhere. Then Clifford looks beyond the slopes to see how this expansion is making life hard on wildlife and ski-town denizens.

Clifford, who became inspired to write Downhill Slide while covering the ski industry for Ski Magazine, makes a compelling case for putting the brakes on ski area expansion and real estate development. His text is over-laden with statistics in places, and he fails to deliver anecdotal evidence that’s both entertaining and enlightening. But the Telluride resident and self-professed “mountain town slut” has compiled a convincing indictment of the modern ski industry.

If only Clifford could tell a story as well as Daniel Glick, author of Powder Burn: Arson, Money and Mystery on Vail Mountain. Published in 2001, Glick’s investigation of the still-unsolved 1998 arson case at Vail strings together a series of personality sketches that deftly captures the character of America’s most ambitious ski town.

Glick begins with Kim Langmaid, “a high cheek-boned thirty-three-year-old naturalist with a complexion permanently bronzed by the high altitude sun.” Langmaid is a lynx expert, and in Vail, that means she knows a lot about a rare alpine cat that once stood in the way of resort expansion.

Through Langmaid’s eyes, Glick explains how skiing is crowding out the elusive lynx in Colorado. Sighing over Vail’s plan to encroach on lynx habitat with new slopes, lodges and something called “Adventure Ridge,” where “kids can play laser tag at 11,000 feet,” Langmaid sums up her frustrations like this: “If playing laser tag ever becomes more important than that incredible creature, we’re doomed.”

Those claiming responsibility for torching five buildings and four ski lifts at Vail in ’98 put it this way in a surreptitious e-mail: “Vail, Inc. is already the largest ski operation in North America and now wants to expand it even further. This action is a warning. We will be back if this greedy corporation continues to trespass into wild and unroaded areas.”

Glick, a correspondent for Newsweek, makes a lot out of greed, and how it has shaped Vail’s history. We hear from a ski bum, a resort executive and a community activist, among others. Combined, their stories—and Glick’s skillful handling of them—make for a great read. This is ski-town social history at its best: a view inside the condo jungle where laser tag resides a few notches up the food chain from the endangered lynx.

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