#1: FIS World Cup Ski Racing Recap: Men Ski Well in Wengen:
Hello, and welcome to Top Five Fridays, the January 21, 2022 edition! This week, we kick things off with some competitive ski news from the world of FIS World Cup Alpine racing, before shifting gears into a trio of highly interesting highlights. We’ll start by bringing you the latest from the Park City ski patrol, where their long lasting contract negotiation saga seems to be coming to a close, before bring you up to speed with the latest from Vail’s difficult season and eventually rounding things out with a story in the making regarding uphill skiing at ski resorts. Before we reveal all the details in those updates, let’s start by recapping World Cup ski racing action.
This week, the women’s field was in Zauchensee, Austria for a Downhill and Super G race. With the Olympics on the horizon and these two events not being the strong suit of the U.S. team, there wasn’t an overwhelming presence from Team America in either of these races. Still, they weren’t totally void of results, as Keely Cashman earned points in the Super G race, finishing in 23rd. While that result is certainly pretty cool, what’s even cooler is that it qualified the 22 year old athlete for the Olympics, giving her the third spot in the Super-G on the U.S. team, joining Mikaela Shiffrin and Breezy Johnson. The U.S. Alpine Team’s roster spots are still getting situated, but as soon as we have that final list, we’ll be sure to share the news. Currently, the women’s circuit is in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy for a Downhill and a Super G race, with a Giant Slalom in Kronplatz, Italy on the schedule for Tuesday. You can preview the races in Cortina here, and the race in Kronplatz here. To review last weekend’s results, click here.
On the men’s side of the circuit, things were quite a bit more interesting for the U.S. Team. After a quiet week just a week ago, Wengen offered the men four opportunities, with a Super G, two Downhill races, and a slalom race. While no podiums were earned, numerous points were, as the men’s team’s top athletes all earned noteworthy finishes. Of the three speed races, last Friday’s Downhill was the highlight as Bryce Bennett took home a 7th place finish while Ryan Cochran-Siegel (RCS), finished in 8th, just .01 seconds behind Bennett. Joining them in the points was Travis Ganong in 20th. While that race offered the best results, it wasn’t the only one in which RCS and Bennett both earned points. A day later, in a second Downhill race, RCS finished in 15th while Bennett took home 21st. While neither of these top U.S. athletes managed to podium this week, their consistent results provide hope that either one could earn a top 3 finish on any given day. With the Olympics fast approaching, we’re hoping to see each of them round into form at exactly the right time. Finally, before wrapping up our recap of last week, we also have to mention that Travis Ganong and Steven Nyman both earned points in the Wengen Super G, coming in 19th and 28th respectively. Looking ahead, the men are currently in Kitzbuehel, Austria for two Downhill races and a slalom race. From there, they’ll also travel to Schladming, Austria for a slalom race on Tuesday. As always, we’ll keep you updated with those results when we check in next week. For now, you can review the results from Wengen here, preview Kitzbuehel here, and Schladming here.
#2: The Park City Ski Patrol Story is Hitting its Denouement, Thankfully:
Next up this week, we’re pleased to bring you something of a conclusion to a story that had been growing in importance and concern in recent weeks. That story, of course, is the contract negotiations between the unionized Park City ski patrollers and Vail. When we checked in last week, the two parties had finally come to an agreement in principle and we expected it to be quickly approved by the ski patrol union. This week, we learned that it was, as well as some of the details and perspectives surrounding that agreement. First, let’s start with some details. Before that agreement was reached, we learned that the ski patrol union was seeking a $17/hour starting wage, with an increase of $1/hr for each of the first three years of employment. In other words, a third year patroller would make $19/hr. As it turns out, the agreement didn’t quite hit those numbers, but it came close. Under the approved agreement, patrollers now start at $15/hr (which is on par with the starting wage for all other employees at the resort), with a $1/hr increase for patrollers who agree to work shifts at both Park City and Canyons. That asterisk is pretty much a no-brainer for ski patrollers, effectively raising the starting wage to $16/hr. While the patrollers hoped to earn slightly more, part of their agreement rested on a simple, yet powerful fact: this wage brings them in sync with ski patrol unions at other Vail owned ski resorts, meaning they’re now on the same page as a larger population of unionized ski patrollers that could band together in future negotiations.
That final note is the part of this story that really piqued our interest. In a previous report, we shared a perspective from a University of Utah assistant professor of economics who believed that Vail’s hesitancy to give into the ski patrol union had less to do with the financial impact of the wage increase, and more to do with the precedent being set by a successful holdout. That idea seems to have grown in weight this week as not only is the Park City ski patrol now in sync with other unionized patrols employed by Vail, but could also be seen as motivation for other ski patrol groups at Vail resorts to unionize as well. Should that happen, the strength of ski patrol unions could grow mightily in years to come.
Finally, before we close this highlight out, we want to share with you an article published by Outside Online from Heather Hansman, author of Powder Days, a book that takes a look at the feasibility of being a modern day “ski bum.” In this week’s article, she expands upon the idea we just laid out, and explores the possibility that unionizing could revolutionize the ski patrol profession. We won’t dive into too many details here, but if this story has been of interest to you, we’d highly recommend giving her article a read.
#3: Legal Issues Adding to Vail’s Already Hellish Ski Season:
In other news this week, we’re back with another round of bad news for Vail. Before we jump into this week’s update, we’d just like to once again say that we’re truthfully really hoping to see the company pull through this difficult season and use it as a learning experience. For all of the gripes that people have had with their “takeover” of the ski industry, they’ve also brought a lot of good initiatives forward and there’s a lot of benefits to their business model. Plus, things could get quite messy if they ever found themselves in the position of having to sell off their resorts. That said, as we’re seeing in this week’s news, things are going to get worse before they get better for Vail.
This week, we came across two headlines that add layers of legal issues to Vail’s already overflowing plate of problems. Of the two, the story that hits closer to home for us here in Vermont is the news that the state of Vermont has issued the resort a cease and desist order over refunds they’ve been sending to EB-5 investors who had contributed funds to Mount Snow when it was still owned by Peak Resorts, before being purchased by Vail. Now, there’s a lot to unpack there, so let us backtrack a bit and provide some background information on what exactly is going on here. Back in the mid 2000’s, Vermont ski resorts began tapping into the EB-5 program as a means of raising funds for developments. In short, this program offered a way for foreign investors to earn their United States green cards by investing in development projects. In theory, it’s a great system- U.S. developers obtain international funding, and non-U.S. citizens can essentially buy their way into the United States. Unfortunately though, as we’ve already seen with the situation at Jay Peak and Burke Mountain, the program leaves plenty of room for problems.
While the previous issues with the EB-5 program surrounded issues of fraud, this time around we’re seeing an entirely new complication arise. In this case, EB-5 investors had contributed money to the development of Mount Snow when it was owned by Peak Resorts. Then, years later, Vail purchased Mount Snow. Now, much more recently, Vail has begun refunding EB-5 investors, presumably because they simply don’t need additional funds to complete their development plans at the resort. In refunding these investors though, it cancels out their involvement with the EB-5 program. The issue of course, is that it creates an immensely complicated and problematic situation for the investors. For starters, many of them are already living in the U.S., having been granted temporary residency in the U.S. while they invest in the EB-5 program. If their paperwork hasn’t been cleared yet, a refund would essentially force them to pack up and leave. Additionally, the EB-5 program hasn’t been renewed, meaning that these foreign investors can’t simply find another project to invest in as the program no longer exists. Making the matter even more confounding, no one is quite sure why Vail is issuing the refunds in the first place. Afterall, these investors aren’t receiving payouts of any kind, their compensation is in the form of residency. At the moment, that’s more or less where this story stands. The state of Vermont has issued a cease and desist on the refunds, and Vail will be fined $15,000 for every infringement moving forward. While those fines are pennies to the company, the threat of federal legal actions might be enough to dissuade them. To learn more about this story, check out the report from the Denver Post.
Unfortunately for Vail, our legal-issue highlight doesn’t stop there this week. Across the country, in Washington, the state government is also starting to get involved in its business. As you likely know, Steven’s Pass is the home to some of the loudest uproar coming as a result of Vail’s struggles this year. That’s the resort that gave birth to the Change.org petition with over 40,000 signatures calling Vail out and asking pass holders to cancel auto renewals on their passes. This week, we also learned that the state’s Attorney General has made his concerns surrounding Vail’s ownership of the resort known, asking via Twitter for people to submit formal complaints to his office. At the time of his posting, he’d already received 80 complaints over the course of the previous two months, a “significant number.” While it’s unclear what the next step would be for the Attorney General if more complaints pile up, it’s safe to say that this isn’t great news for Vail who’s enduring a heck of a beating to its reputation this year. If this story progresses, we’ll keep you updated. For now, check out what we know in this report from King 5 News.
#4: Black Mountain, NH, One of the Hotspots of Resort Touring in New England, Threatens to End Uphill Access Due to Constant Poaching:
Finally, we’re rounding out this week with a highlight that’s not quite mega news yet, but a topic that we believe could grow in volume in the months and years ahead: the issue of on-resort uphill skiing. It goes without saying that uphill skiing has exploded in popularity in recent years, in part due to ever improving equipment, and also in part due to a pandemic that increased interest in social distancing and exercise. As a result, more and more people are looking to strap skins on their skis and head uphill as a means of recreating. While the preferred terrain for that activity is the backcountry, it’s not always possible to head into unknown terrain, due to either snow conditions or daylight. For that reason many people are looking to utilize their local ski hills as venues for their uphill travels as they can trust the coverage and terrain there. For ski resorts that make money by selling lift tickets, this has created an interesting issue: how do they handle guests that come to their ski resorts but don’t want to utilize their lifts? At the moment, there really isn’t a standard. Some ski areas simply mark designated uphill routes and allow skiers to use them during certain times, free of charge. Others, such as Aspen, Bolton Valley, or Black Mountain, allow uphill skiing with the purchase of a pass. Even amongst those examples though, the price of these passes vary widely. All of this amounts to mismatched expectations between uphill skiers and resorts.
This week, we came across a Facebook post that feels like a smoke signal for forced change. Black Mountain Ski Area in New Hampshire, one of the first ski areas in New England to endorse and promote uphill skiing, made an exasperated post on Facebook this week, pleading with its uphill population to begin purchasing their $10 uphill lift ticket, and to stop poaching the mountain. Their reasoning, interestingly enough, wasn’t particularly focused on the financial aspects. Instead, the problems that they cite in their post are more about respecting their mountain as well as their neighbors. In an effort to avoid paying the $10 ticket, uphillers have been parking in auxiliary lots, in neighboring businesses, and even in the driveways of nearby homes. When they’ve been “busted” by Black Mountain, it seems as though they’ve played ignorant to the policies, despite fluorescent signage. As a result of their frustration, Black Mountain has made one last plea for cooperation before threatening to end uphill access at their resort altogether.
The interesting thing about all of this for us, is that we’re quite certain that this issue isn’t only happening at Black Mountain. With no consistent expectation for what uphill access should cost, there’s room for ignorance and various expectations amongst uphill skiers. Here in Vermont for example, a number of ski areas including Stowe, Sugarbush, and Mad River Glen allow uphill travel for free. At some of these resorts, a free pass is required, while at others there isn’t. Simultaneously, Bolton Valley, another local resort, has created an entire network of backcountry ski trails, accessible for $17 - $25 a day, or $320 for the year. Despite being an entirely different experience, that pass is also required for uphill travel on the resort’s designated ontrail routes. Finally, for comparison’s sake, out in Aspen, skiers can pay $69 for an uphill season pass, granting them access to uphill routes at certain times. All of this is to simply say, as uphill skiing becomes increasingly popular at resorts, there will be growing pressure for skier and resorts alike to come to an agreement on the value of skinning a resort’s trails. As it stands, the value of that is being marketed as anywhere for $0.00 - $25.00 a day, or $0.00 - $320.00 a year. With such a wide range of expectations, it’s likely that we’ll see more issues like the one occurring at Black Mountain Ski Area. For more on this, check out the recent Facebook post from Black Mountain.