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Ski Resort Life

You Can Chase Affordable Powder Days Without a Mega Pass. I Did.

You don't need a mega pass to afford skiing at resorts this winter.

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I completely overhauled my approach to skiing this past winter season. I did not buy a season pass (in my case, a “mega pass)”; it was the most gratifying, enriching, and memorable ski season of my life. This is not hyperbole. Though mastering the “French fry” (parallel turn to most) as a kiddo while leading a pack of friends down Gunbarrel, the steepest bump trail at Ski Sundown in the great ski state of Connecticut, was also a pretty great season. Still, for a 40-year-old father of two, this past winter season was a watershed moment in my ski life because nearly every experience exceeded expectations. 

A little context. I’ve been sliding on sticks for 30+ years, shaped by a “Ski the East attitude;” ski in rain, on ice, awake early for dusting, and rip with straight skis far too long. I do not claim a home mountain or live in a ski town, so I never had a traditional season pass to a single mountain. I’m also never in the running for 100-plus skied days. I have a handful of ski families (literally and figuratively) “back East” and “out West” and routinely travel to ski, usually twice per season. I’m a bell-to-bell lunatic skier when solo. 

A combination of factors enabled my no-season pass approach. Not (yet) having to chase a toddler down the hill, coupled with having accrued comically high vacation time and an awesome and understanding wife, meant flexibility to ski. So I did. 

I skied 25 different ski areas across six Eastern states.

That number is a personal best of unique ski areas visited in a single season.  Further, I didn’t ride the same ski area twice. That was not intentional per se but rather the result of pursuing the addicting allure of new experiences. It is also worth pointing out the use of the term ski areas versus ski resorts, which are used interchangeably far too often, a disservice to the uniqueness of those places.  

Unable to travel out West this season, I decided to forgo the season pass and maximize experiences regionally by combining frequency passes, discounted lift tickets, and simply finding cheap, weekday lift tickets (they do exist). To be clear, once mega passes were offered, I promptly and repeatedly bought them. Even back in the day, the heavily discounted American Skiing Company college pass was one of the most satisfying purchases ever. No doubt, mega passes are great products; they make skiing affordable at super cool places. 

For years, I joined the masses in purchasing, with satisfaction, a mega pass at early bird pricing. I skied that handful of partner resorts—only those partner resorts—every weekend, some weekdays, and traveled to destination resorts. I joked with ski friends who bought another season pass, “Well, I guess I’ll see you in the spring.” And sure enough, we didn’t ski together. I do regret that knuckleheadedness, though buying a day lift ticket on a weekend at a destination resort – before buddy passes – was outrageously expensive. It still is. 

But after a few seasons, skiing only those partner mountains began to feel like a routine. A good one, to be sure.

But it devolved into a series of races a) to beat other skiers to the parking lot, b) to eat lunch super early or late to have a chance at a table in the lodge, or c) only ski in the morning because the terrain was chewed up by noon. Even trail selection became scripted; daring to deviate from the rotation could put you on thin ice from the group (ski pun intended) and, worse, into the long lift line you were trying to avoid in the first place. Even a culinary favorite—hot chili in a bread bowl—began to lose its luster. The $18 price tag didn’t help.

It is not lost on me that these are first-world problems, silly in context to the state of the world and domestic affairs. Yet skiing is a big part of my life, and like many, I want the sport to prosper in the face of climate change, exclusivity, cost, and the many issues facing ski towns and locals. I’m also not suggesting the no-season pass approach is better, especially if you ski with a young family. 

But skiing in new-to-you areas or places you have not visited in a while will create a domino effect of new experiences that will enhance your winter season. You will also support more mountain towns while helping ease congestion in overrun areas. It is easy to overlook the dozens and dozens of really cool ski areas just sitting in plain sight. With uniqueness comes surprises. They are worth a stop.

I’m sure you may be wondering about the bottom line. The back of the napkin math says $593 was spent.

$249 for a slightly discounted Indy Pass; $194 Ski Vermont 4 Pass and 8 discount or weekday day or night lift tickets ($150). That total cost was about $200 cheaper than last year’s Epic Pass ($783) or Ikon Base Pass ($779) starting prices. Now, sure, it’s not a set-it-and-forget-it season pass, but the point is chasing powder in-season—at reasonable prices—does exist. So I did it.

Beginning in December, I kicked off the season with the first of a half dozen “ski trip loops” every two weeks. I sprinkled in day trips, limited to nearby ski areas. Fuel prices and carbon emissions knaw at me whenever I mull a day trip. 

 Stationed in North Conway (NH), Burlington (VT), Lebanon (NH), Saratoga Springs (NY), Scranton (PA), and Rangeley (ME), these 3, 4, or 5-day trips allowed me to discover a mix of well and lesser-known ski areas (and of course, some ski resorts, too). I did not appreciate – or more accurately lost sight of – the wildly different offerings at the 150 or so lift-served ski areas that make up my Northeast backyard. I also traded comfort, familiarity, convenience, and in many cases, companionship to carve a new experience (ski pun intended, of course). I’ve fallen in love with this approach.

Indeed, somewhere in the far recesses of my mind, those “other mountains” were calling. I’m glad I answered the proverbial phone. These adventures of “bouncing around” (partial Phish song pun intended, sorry) at dozens of mostly new-to-me destinations were incredibly satisfying. The journey was just as memorable as the destinations. The majestic views along NY Scenic Route 28 through frozen lake country, cutting through the Mount Washington Valley while passing ski areas along NH Route 302, and most vividly, watching the thermostat drop from -2 degrees in Burlington (VT) to -25 degrees while heading south to Middlebury along VT Route 7. Indeed, cold air does sink. 

As you might imagine, the destinations were wildly different (mountain wilderness pun intended, second to last intentional pun). To provide a few examples of that range, Saddleback (ME) had a vertical drop of 2,000+ feet, while McCauley (NY) rocked a super interesting and varied 663 vertical feet of terrain. Jay Peak (VT) and Cannon (NH) have aerial trams (the only two in the northeast for ski trivia folks), while the base-to-summit lift at Northeast Slopes (VT) is a T-bar. The interior of both base lodges at Cochran’s Ski Area (VT) and Mohawk Mountain (CT) are unofficial museums of the U.S. Ski Team and early American skiing, respectively. I even chatted briefly with the iconic Birdman at Berkshire East (MA). 

Other ski areas on my tour featured youth racing leagues, night skiing, the single chair, rope tows, ski patrol intel, wicket lift tickets, high fives, red, white, and blue painted ice walls in celebration of Team USA at the Olympics, a first chair bell, costumed crusaders, tailgating parties, liftie DJs, historical early skiing artifacts, and of course, magnificent and expansive views that stop you in your tracks (last ski pun, promise). These ski areas, and many others, exceeded my expectations. The uniqueness of each ski area enriched my experience and illustrated the passion, history, beauty, ingenuity, and soul of American skiing. 

Expectations are a funny thing. On one hand, when expectations are high for an experience–say, skiing–more often than not, the activity fails to deliver that sought-after satisfaction. You probably had a good time, but maybe not a great one. On the other hand, when expectations are low – or better yet, there are none – the experience is almost always better than imagined, usually stemming from the first positive moment. “Whoa, gotta parking spot in the first row. Sweet! It’s gonna be a good day.” Or, “Hey, patrol just dropped rope at that trail. Let’s get late-morning first tracks!” Giving a new-to-you ski area a try will likely exceed your expectations and result in a satisfying day on the slopes.

While crowds and conditions are not a fair way to judge a ski area – they vary and change regularly – both shape the ski experience. Culture, operations, ease of use, and vibe are the X-factors and a much better means of appreciation and comparison. 

One observation I failed to appreciate for years was illustrated at Magic Mountain (VT) and Smuggler’s Notch (VT). While Magic will eventually spin a fixed-grip Quad, both ski areas operate base-to-summit double chairs. While many visitors complain about a long ride, the benefits are two-fold. First, low skier density on the slope means more runs with limited skiers in your line of sight. Better yet, less chance of on-slope collisions. Low skier density is quite noticeable if you are used to the opposite. It makes most runs feel like you have the mountain to yourself. 

Second, a long lift ride either forces conversation or fosters daydreaming. At Magic, I had delightful conversations with strangers, one of whom is now a ski buddy. The casual conversations covered teaching your kid to ski, satisfying efforts of resurrecting a lost ski area, and the benefits of becoming a volunteer ski patrol. Just skiers talking about their love of skiing. Is there a better X-factor? At Smuggs, the three of us kept rotating who rode the lift together and who rode solo. While I love my friends, I enjoyed the solo rides, letting my mind wander into the beautiful abyss of Mount Mansfield’s ridgeline and valley.

 In the end, I realized the old adage is true, variety is the spice of life. I also understand that it is almost impossible to resist early bird pricing for a season pass. And yes, a mega pass provides value, variety if you can travel, and unlimited skiing! But you don’t have to have one to find new, exciting and meaningful ski experiences at a reasonable price. All that really matters are the basics: snow on the ground, lifts spinning, and embracing the unknown, just like those unmarked woods skier’s right on your next run down the hill.