My Winter with the Mountain Collective
If you’re unaware, the Mountain Collective is essentially a season-long ski pass that:
- Gets you two free days at each of six (high end, mostly huge) ski resorts, namely: Alta-Snowbird, Aspen (all four areas), Jackson Hole, Mammoth, Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows, and Whistler-Blackcomb
- Plus half price for any additional days.
Of course, with a set-up like this, one feels naturally challenged to go to all six resorts. I therefore did that this winter (because, as this is my last as a grad student, I’m unlikely to have time/flexibility for it in future winters).
I didn’t get in on the early-season sale at the $349 price point, so I ended up paying $379 for it. Considering that most (all? probably all if you insist on Alta-Snowbird being considered one ticket) of those resorts have walk-up ticket prices north of $100 a day, you can see the inherent value.
Two days each at six world-class resorts across western North America.
So how was it?
It was stupid.
Whistler/Blackcomb, January 9-10
Logistically speaking, this one came together all right.
I’d received a grant to attend a conference in Milan just before Christmas and I bought the return ticket to Seattle rather than Pittsburgh. My parents live in Tacoma, so it was good to spend the holidays with them, got to ski at Crystal and Baker while there, plus I was able to borrow my dad’s (brand new!) Jeep for the drive up to Canada. At the border, the crossing guard asked where I was from and, when I told him Pittsburgh, we started talking about hockey. I was nervous he would eventually figure out I didn’t know anything about the sport, but I faked it long enough to secure entry into that great northern fortress.
Stayed in Squamish, which was relatively inexpensive ($79/night IIRC). I’ve already covered this here though. So, read more there if so inclined. Meanwhile, here’s a photo of that trip so you can feel better about me as a person:
Squaw/Alpine, January 21 and 25
This was the one airfare I paid for with money: Seattle to Reno, $79.
Logistics here were also not so bad. The rooms at the Grand Sierra in Reno had all been remodeled in the last year, but it still only cost $35/night, including both the “resort fee” and all the Let’s Make Tourists Pay for All the Stuff We Want taxes (which iirc aren’t that bad in Nevada).
Unfortunately, this also meant that I was skiing the Sierras in January 2013. I’ve posted specifically about the hilarious awfulness here.
I had been to Squaw before, but not Alpine. Alpine was a nice, laid back little resort. Low-key vibe and, as an in-bounds skier, the lift system was convenient, the terrain super-enticing, and…
Yeah, no, I remember what the coverage looked like.
Nice lake views though.
Given that my lift ticket to Alpine was already paid for (and amortized out at what would eventually be $37.90 if we ignore any option values), I liked the resort a lot. However, being there also made me start to wonder if I would ever feel okay about paying $114 (walk-up rate) for a place like Alpine that seems to have more in common with relative local hill bargains like Mt. Rose ($79 before discounts) and Alta ($74 + $5 RFID).
Like my dad says, you can wear yourself out just as easily at a cheap place as an expensive one (variety and quality of terrain permitting).
I’ve still never seen Squaw ski well. I’m sure it’s amazing when it does and the powder is knee-deep, every skier in Northern California is on-hand, and the line on Granite Chief is two hours long. In the meantime it seemed even less well-suited for the no-snow days than did Alpine. That one pizza place down in the Potemkin village is awesome though. They should no joke have one of those at the base of everywhere.
Also this: I only skied half-days at each of Alpine and Squaw. I ended up with a job interview for the Monday of the following week. So I had to hustle and complete some research so I could not look like an idiot while I was out there. And with only one run open per lift anyway, I didn’t feel like I was necessarily missing out on too much.
Mammoth Mountain, January 23 and, no, just the 1 day
I skied every single (open) lift there at least once. They also had, basically, one run open per lift, but with so many lifts it seemed like an overflowing cornucopia of possibility.
They have an awesome operation, the lifties seemed happy to be there and welcomed me to their lift by name half the time (yeah, I know, they were just getting it off my RFID, but whatever), it was pretty as crap, and the snow was a little better than at Squalpine (the top of High Five almost seemed natural). But, yeah, it was still in the Sierras in January 2013 so I felt bad for Mammoth because otherwise the layout, the terrain options, and the people seemed pretty all right.
First run of the day I went up the Gondola.
On the way back down I experienced horror. There were signs at the top of Climax stating that the snow sucked there and that they didn’t even know why they’d opened that run and probably don’t go down there (it was more implied than stated I guess). As all other options were closed, leaving only one other trail — which turned out to be a narrow cat track made out of corrugated ice (actual ice, like from the east coast) with rocks on one side and often a cliff on the other.
I’ve never been on a green-dot cat track before where with every turn I wondered if I was going to die as a result. It turned out there were no other (open) runs that branched off from this cat track.
On the plus-side, however, it allowed me to see this sign close to the bottom:
Fresh snow kills. I’m just glad they didn’t arrest me for exhaling. Aren’t most mammal-visited places CO2 emission areas?
Not sure what else to say about the visit, though, aside from High Five skied real well and was devoid of co-skiers and that the bottom of Eagle Express skied like a swimming pool. I’d like to go back to Mammoth some time — so much terrain — but I probably won’t. Costs a lot when you’re not there on a Special Pass and I can wear myself out somewhere cheaper and easier to get to.
Plus it only has super-expensive lodging. That’s also why I was only there for one day. Drove down from Reno early in the morning, drove back in the afternoon/evening. Mono Lake was nice on the way home to GSR.
Hadn’t been there before.
Then I flew home on miles. Got the job offer (four weeks later), but turned it down because I liked another one better.
In February I went to Blue Knob on a $25 Tuesday. They had eight inches of dry powder that day, but the Knob’s not included as part of the Mountain Collective, so I’m done talking about it.
Jackson Hole, March 7
I hadn’t had a lost luggage incident since I was an undergrad. That was 20 years ago. Here’s what happened. Since I’m currently a poor graduate student living on a meager stipend, I booked travel using my Delta miles. Since I don’t actually fly all that much, I only had enough miles to book flights that qualified for “Saver” status. This meant booking a trip that required me to change planes in both Detroit and Minneapolis en route to Salt Lake City.
When I got to the Pittsburgh airport to check in for the trip, the kiosk tried to buy me off of the MSP-SLC part of the three-legged monster. This sparked an idea. When I was giving over my bags at the counter, I asked the airline person if there wasn’t maybe a way to get to SLC with only one stop, thereby improving my life, since the third flight was apparently full. There was! She booked me on a one-stopper through MSP that would get there three hours earlier. She then tagged my skis to come with me on my new itinerary and my boots to go to Detroit so they could be shot at (or something).
The rest of the story involves rented ski boots at Grand Targhee, subsequent deep bone bruises, and having to drive from Driggs to Pocatello (then back to Victor) to pick up my boot bag because people are kind of incompetent and bad at following instructions. People who work in baggage I mean (this time).
Targhee would have been nice had I been able to control my skis. The next day I got weather trapped on the Idaho side of Teton Pass*, so I only ended up skiing JHMR the one day after that rather than the two originally planned. Snow was largely cruddy or hard and eventually there was no more sun to follow.
Jackson Hole makes you pay $15 to park and walk-up lift ticket rate is $119, then it’s so crowded there (on a weekday) that the place seems to be telling you Welcome to Jackson Hole, here’s your line. There were queues snaking around everything at the base area. Huge line for tickets, huge line for gondola, huge line for tram, people spilling out of the lodge in what sort of looked like a line. I headed looker’s right to avoid the huddled masses and thereby avoided some lines. Hooray for strategy.
The drive from my hotel in Jackson Town was pretty.
They don’t really go out of their way to tell you where to turn to get there. And I realize there’s cheaper parking elsewhere, just: most non-special ski resorts have free parking that’s situated at the immediate base area. Even most non-Aspen special places have this. I like how JHMR blames the situation on the Teton Village political machine or whatever. They’re gouging people. They should just own it.
Here are some photos that make it look like the day was otherwise awesome.
We had some very good runs. My brother made it out there from Boise (he got there an hour or so later than he meant to because there were no clear signs telling him where to turn off the main highway), which made the day more fun than it would have been otherwise.
But: I was a little disappointed. JHMR was probably the MC resort that I was most eager to try. Obviously the snow conditions were worse than they’d been most of the year, which is hard for them to help. The crowds were crazy, especially given the cost — you’d think the one would keep the other in check. Apparently insufficient signage wasn’t deterring too many would-be visitors.
Also, restaurant facilities were inadequate. If you’re going to charge me $18.50 for a bad bowl of pho and a soda, you should at least provide a place for me to sit. What are these guys doing with my $37.90 (+ $15 parking + $18.50 lunch + $12 souvenir = $83.40) anyway?
Then I drove from JHMR down to my aunt’s house in Bountiful that night so I could go to Alta the next day.
Alta, March 8
Which was a good thing because it was fun hanging out in Bountiful for a few hours before going to sleep and the day at Alta was arguably the best I had all year (either that one or the one at Blue Knob). When the lifts stopped turning at 4 it felt like a criminal act.
The chairs themselves at Alta are notably weird, in particular the safety bars.
They couldn’t afford foot rests but they could afford five handles? Who wants more handles? Maybe they bought them at Big Lots.
The on-load procedure on Supreme, with the race gates that dump you on to the moving rubber belt, was also weird.
But the snow was good, weather was perfect, and it’s a fun place to ski. There’s not a lot of wasted run parts at Alta (top third of Sugarloaf maybe). Aside from taking Collins up to the top on the first ride of the day, spent all day skiing Sugarloaf and Supreme and never got around to messing with Snowbird and their insoucient youth.
It was a Saturday, so there were lift lines and having arrived a little late, I had to park on the road. They do a good job of ensuring there aren’t a lot of bad parking places though. At the end of the day, I just skied to the bottom of Albion, coasted my way to the Rustler Lift, rode it ever so slowly on up, and bam there was my car (sort of).
The Supreme laps were excellent. Random lift strangers were in the good-to-very good range, notwithstanding the one ride up with the ski instructor from Vermont and the Alta ski instructor who sat on either side of me talking around me, with great tediousness, about their certifications. Way to make skiing seem boring.
Alta has a good vibe. People there are pleasant and easy-going. I was originally thinking this was maybe down to it being more of a locals place (in comparison to JHMR, Tahoe, and Whistler), but I eventually realized that most of the folks I talked to on the lifts were tourists (and that all the NoCals in Tahoe, who are pretty off-putting at Squaw, are quasi-locals). Maybe the weather was just good. Or maybe people are just more relaxed when they’re not worrying about snowboarders making unpredictable turns and executing sudden mid-trail flop-downs.
And then I had to fly to San Diego, where I spent 30 hours at my brother’s house before flying back to SLC.
Boy were my arms tired.
Snowmass, March 11
Got back to SLC. Found my rental car in the Extended Parking lot at the airport where I’d left it (it was a little surreal paying to park a car at the airport that I had rented at the airport), then drove a little south and a lot more east.
As a poor person trying to ski in Aspen, I of course holed up in Glenwood Springs. It was a super-good budget hotel: Rodeway Inn. Room was big, had a fridge and microwave (!!), and a surprisingly comfy twin mattress from Leesa (Review.org‘s Leesa mattress review rates it a 4.8/5, and I would agree). was quiet enough despite being close to the freeway, and I’ve never seen a hotel desk clerk so excited about checking in a guest and recommending restaurants. The experience was borderline inspirational. Highly recommended.
And 45-50 minutes to get to a ski resort doesn’t seem all that bad to me. Maybe my driving tolerances are high. I drove from Tacoma to Mt. Baker for a day of skiing earlier in the season, so 45-50 minutes was nothing.
Conditions were a little cruddier than I’d have wanted, but it wasn’t hard to find somewhere to have fun. The weather alternated between sunny (mostly when going up the lifts) and overcast/snow (mostly on the way down). Flat light got problematic at times and in places, especially as it got on toward closing time.
Things I Liked About Snowmass:
- Once you got away from the base-like areas, the lift layout worked great.
- It’s huge and there are a lot of possibilities, yet I didn’t ever feel lost (Whistler should investigate this phenomenon).
- I liked the trees. They had good, reasonable trees through and around which to ski.
- Their lifts seemed the right length.
Areas for Improvement:
- You can’t park for free at the base area here either. Instead I parked all the way down the hill and then had to take the bus up to the lifts like a common troll.
- It’s not clear where you’re supposed to go after you get off the bus (it worked out eventually, but it felt like I was traversing back alleys) and then it’s not super clear where you’re supposed to go after you get your ticket (this also worked out, eventually, but “down” wasn’t the most intuitive direction for some reason).
- Employees ranged from indifferent to outright crusty. One of the resort ambassadors, for example, seemed put out when I asked him where a bathroom was.
Here’s another big area for improvement. I collect (coffee-style) mugs from the resorts I visit. Every time I go to a new resort, I buy a (logo) mug and when I get home I display it in my living room along with its respective lift ticket and trail map. They’re like trophies; they denote having come, seen, and to some degree conquered.
Snowmass (and Aspen), in its infinite wisdom, had no mugs available. They were, they said (at the weirdly named store that didn’t seem like it was affiliated with the resort even though it apparently was), all sold out. It’s March 11th, dudes, you’re going to be skiing another month at least and then after that you’re going to be open so guests can — do whatever they do in not-winter there. How do you manage to ever run out of mugs? It’s barbaric. Are you afraid that if you over-ordered that they would be too passé to sell next year?
(And as much as I deride their cafeteria seating availability, I should note that JHMR absolutely *killed it* on mug availability.)
All right, whatever. With the iffy snow conditions I spent most of my day either on cruisers or in trees, which are things that Snowmass does well. It was a fun day, totally worth $37.90.
Also, I got sick of my Contour Roam 2 camera malfunctioning every time I turned it on and therefore spiked it into the snow while it was beep-recording, which was the only thing it would do.
Should have let it sit in the snow a while longer to think about what it did.
On one of my lift rides I was sitting next to this guy who spends eight months out of the year living in southeast Asia where he wheels and deals real estate for some reason. The other four months he lives with friends in Aspen and skis constantly. He recommended I go to Aspen (Ajax) the next day, given the predicted weather and snow conditions.
He seemed super-rich so I believed him.
Aspen (Ajax), March 12
Speaking of super-rich, I felt a little out of place at Aspen given that I forgot to bring my trust fund with me. Next time maybe. I’ll have to have my parents work on that.
Kind of an odd place. For those who haven’t been there, this is the base:
I mean, that’s really all of it (unless you’re counting the entire city of Aspen). Different. Then, basically, there are only two and a half lifts you’re likely to spend time on (once you take the Gondola up): Ajax, Ruthie’s, and the enigmatically named F. I. S. respectively.
I know what it stands for, I just wonder whether they’re trying to imply that the FIS is a rickety old two-seater that nevertheless facilitates access to potentially interesting facets of the sport. Or maybe something else.
The run layouts are odd too. Aspen (Ajax) is basically a spine-chute-gutter setup, where you cruise a spine for a bit, choose which chute you want, then deal with the runout until you get back to the lift. The effect would be even more extreme if you were riding Ruthies and chose a chute that deposited you downstream of F.I.S.
It seemed small and non-sprawling. This? This is famed Aspen?
But it also comes off pleasant, normal, and human-scaled (walk-up rate notwithstanding). Some of those bumped out (relatively) steeps were pretty fun. And if you could find something soft enough on the F.I. de S. side, didn’t need a ton of variety, and didn’t mind a low-speed double chair, you could lap that area and avoid the gutters altogether.
Further, it was cool to look down on the (not functioning) Bell Mountain lift and realize that at one time even the rich and famous had to deal with 30-minute Riblet rides
Also, the slopes were delightfully uncrowded. It was good to see that price elasticity still works in Colorado even if it fails in Wyoming. I probably shared two chairs all day (one of those guys was definitely a trust fund kid, the other was a Harvard MBA). Once you chose your chute, you were the only one in it.
I can see paying a premium for relative solitude. Aspen’s cost-value ratio made a lot more sense to me than did JHMR’s. (Snowmass was also sparsely populated once you got off the lift.)
And the southeast Asia real estate mogul pegged the conditions pretty well. Once the sun got on the slopes the mogul runs softened up and were fun. There was a lot of fools’ powder around, but it didn’t take more than a turn to comprehend its true nature.
So, nice day. Cool to be able to buy less overpriced food for lunch in town. For some reason the ski slots on the gondola weren’t big enough for my skis. I had never parked in a garage to go skiing before, so that was special. The right-side carpool lane on the route back to Glenwood Springs is one of the dopiest feats of social engineering I’ve yet seen attempted.
And, in the end, I wouldn’t mind going back there again. I’d have to be a lot richer than I am now (or be on another great discount pass), but if price were no object, the relative solitude and available variety were appreciated.
Alta Again, March 14
Drive back to Utah was also pretty nice.
And mad props to Brittany and Devin for letting me crash with them once I was back in the SLC.
Also, somewhere in Aspen I picked up a cold that totally compromised Alta Day 2.
Also, while I’m trying to build tension by delaying getting on with the narrative, here’s this rumination: Alta/Snowbird doesn’t fit with the other resorts in the Mountain Collective collective. It’s way too un-fussy and unless you insist on the bi-resort AltaBird ticket neither are prohibitively expensive on their own. They’re also not nearly as self-contained resort-like; Big and Little Cottonwood are both local areas for Salt Lake residents.
It was therefore sort of weird to have them included on the pass.
But I am happy they were. The better cognate to JHMR/WB/Aspen would have been Park City or Deer Valley and it was nice to instead be somewhere that wasn’t so in-that-way special.
Was sick, so I was basically wiped out by the time my Prophets hit the whitepack. Snow wasn’t as good as it had been the week earlier, though it skied well given how warm the day was. The only new and interesting thing I did was to get around to hiking over to Devil’s Castle.
I’ve always loved how dark the skies are skiing at these altitudes. OTOH, when I got to the bottom I went through a coughing fit that lasted about 20 minutes.
Also, it’s in my cold water-throwing nature to point out that I think they have equivalent-or-better runs that don’t require all the hiking. And even with the hike the terrain was more crowded than anything at Aspen. Just sayin’.
And thus ended my Collective experience.
Why This Was Stuipd
- When I say “this”, I’m referring to the way that I did the whole thing (which was still the only I way I could have gotten to all these places in one season).
- This was too many ski resorts in not enough time.
- The JH-Alta-Aspen stretch in particular felt super hectic and flying to San Diego in the middle of that didn’t improve the relaxation quotient (my nephew was leaving from San Diego on a two-year church mission to Chile and it just happened to be going down that weekend; I’d booked my flights months before he got his departure date).
- Too much driving without enough time between drives.
- Because Delta’s baggage service was awful.
- Also, the packed-in timing meant that I didn’t really have options once I got to an area. I was going to be skiing in Aspen that Tuesday and Wednesday because those were the days I could fit it in. If the weather on Monday had been better (I think it was), skiing Monday and skipping Tuesday wasn’t an option.
Some of the downside is inherent to not living anywhere near the ski slopes. Booking flights a day in advance to whichever resort has snow tomorrow is cost-prohibitive from Pittsburgh (and I’m moving to Oklahoma, so it’s not getting much better any time soon).
Ideally, someone who wants to go to all six MC resorts should spend, I don’t know, 5 days at each? Then you can pick your on days and your rest days, you can bail on Squalpine one of those times and check out Homewood or Heavenly instead, and you know you’ll always have time for the hot tub that night rather than having to jump in the car and drive six hours across multiple mountain passes. Also, ideally, you don’t buy your plane tickets until the day before you go so you can end up at the place with good weather and snow. Again, cost-prohibitive.
That said, used wisely, the MC pass is an awesome value. Next year I’m expecting to ski for spring break and can probably put together a couple of four-day weekends in Utah or Colorado (non-stop flights available to SLC and DEN). Depending on where I want to go, the MC pass could be a good value for just that scant bit of skiing.
On the other hand, I don’t necessarily prefer to ski at MC-affiliated resorts. At a minimum, I’d rather spend a day at Targhee (amazing how much terrain they service with so few lifts, although they had the worst ski resort food I’ve ever eaten half of) than JHMR. I’d rather be at Rose/Heavenly/Diamond and/or the others I’ve never visited than Squaw the next time I’m in Tahoe again.
We’ll see, we’ll see. FWIW, for next year I’m leaning toward Bozeman/Big Sky for spring break and a couple of SLC turnarounds for the four-day weekends, which doesn’t portend to an MC pass purchase.
Some Comparative Evaluations
Which should probably have been the main point of this post anyway.
Favorite Resort: Alta probably, although it’s a little silly trying to compare.
Least Favorite Resort: I mean, assuming they all have the same weather and snow conditions, it would have been JHMR for the crowds. But if we’re equaling out the weather and snow, we might as well equal out the crowds, at which point we might as well equal out the lift layout, scenery, employee quality, etc., etc., so: Squaw.
Friendliest Employees: Whistler, hands down.
Most Unfriendly Employees: Aspen-Snowmass, hands down.
Best Lifties: Mammoth.
Worst Lifties: Aspen-Snowmass.
Best Snow: This is pretty worthless being based on 1-2 day sample sizes, but Alta.
Worst Snow: Ibid., but Squaw.
Best MC Transaction Process: Aspen and Mammoth (any ticket booth and you’re set).
Worst MC Transaction Process: Whistler probably in that they weren’t super clear where you were supposed to go and they wanted you to have uploaded a photo online before you got there (I had). It wasn’t a big deal though, all the processes were very smooth.
Best Lift Layout: Mammoth.
Worst Lift Layout: Whistler.
Favorite Terrain: Blackcomb. (Apple’s auto-correct wants this to be “backcomb” — how is that even a word?)
Least Favorite Terrain: Well, ignoring snow conditions… Aspen probably. They all had great terrain though (not that it was all open).
Place I’d Most Likely Return: Alta. It’s easy to reach and there are people in Utah off whom I can bum free housing. I think I’m a terrible houseguest, but people keep sending off signals like it’s some sort of privilege for me to stay with them. For which I’m very grateful.
Place I’d Least Likely Return: Eh — this is tough. Probably Mammoth based on its problematic location and assuming no close relatives or good friends move to Mammoth Lakes or Bishop soon.
Final Rumination on Premium Ski Resorts
It was great to have gone to some famous places I hadn’t visited before, but premium resorts are not necessarily my style. Maybe that’s obvious. That said, there are certain qualities that would make me happier about paying the sort of price premiums that these resorts are charging (AltaBird excepted). They all have great terrain and the possibility of excellent conditions. So, too, though, do many non-premium resorts. So that’s off the table as a differentiator. You can wear yourself out just as easily at a non-premium resort.
For me, then, here are the qualities that would make me feel like skiing a premium-priced resort would be worth it on occasion:
- Hell is other people. I’d pay more for fewer of them around (score one for Aspen).
- High level slope maintenance where required. For instance, paying a premium to ski at Stowe makes sense to me given how much more time and effort they expend keeping their place skiable despite the often jacked-up conditions in Vermont. The March I was out there, everywhere other Vermont resort was slush when all of Stowe was open, skiable, and pretty fun. You can tell they’re spending some of their extra resources for things that improve the skiing experience and it’s not all going toward marketing.
- Unique experiences. I think skiing the glaciers at WB may count here. I might should qualify this as “unique and me-accessible experiences”. I’m not skiing Corbet’s in this lifetime, so it’s not worth much to me.
- Premium-level service. The MC resorts surprised me for not doing more along these lines. WB employees treat you super well, so that was cool and appreciated. Nowhere else felt special in this way though. I mean, most days I’d prefer to pay less, deal with my own stuff, and enjoy some middle-class good naturedness. But, for instance, having a porter carry your skis up to the slopes for you is something that would let you know you’re having a premium quality experience. Sneering cashiers and overcrowded eating areas are things that suggest you’re having something less than that.
I had a great time. I’m a way better skier for having done this**. $379 for the skiing part of this was a huge bargain.
Way better than sitting around the house doing research.
* This actually turned out well since it allowed me to spend most of the day with some good friends in Victor whom I hadn’t seen much of in decades.
** I skied 15 days this season, which beat my previous personal best by five.