Lead Image: Mikaela Shiffrin letting her emotions show after putting down what would become a second place Super G run, ultimately securing this year’s Overall World Cup Title. Image: U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team on Facebook
#1: FIS Alpine World Cup Recap: Shiffrin Surges Back, Securing the Overall Crystal Globe:
Hello, and welcome to Top Five Fridays, the March 18, 2022 edition! This week, we’ve got a double header of competitive ski news, followed by a double header of resort news. Between the four highlights, we’ve got plenty to cover, so let’s jump right into this week’s FIS Alpine World Cup results.
When we last left off, we promised you a big week on the World Cup circuit as this week’s races had significant implications for final rankings. At that time, Mikaela Shiffrin held a slight lead over Petra Vlhova in the overall standings, and retained the possibility of finishing first in the Giant Slalom, as well as second in the Slalom and Super G. Since then, Mikaela has gone on to win first place in a Downhill event, a feat that she last accomplished in 2020, and finished second in a Super G race. Noting that these are her weakest and second weakest events, these two finishes are absolutely jaw dropping, particularly when factoring in her recent showing at the Olympics. These results, while independently impressive, really highlight how fierce of a competitor Mikeala is. In the wake of arguably one of the worst stretches of her career, Mikaela surged back to win a gold and silver medal in her two worst events. To call that feat impressive would be a huge understatement. Adding to the feeling of success, these two finishes secured the Overall Crystal Globe for Mikaela for the fourth time in her career, tying Lindsey Vonn for the most Overall Globes ever. Additionally, Shiffrin’s second place finish in the Super G gave her the overall bronze in that event. Now, over the course of the next few days, she’ll look to finish her season strong with a Slalom race which is currently underway, and a Giant Slalom race scheduled for tomorrow. Pending her results in these two races, Shiffrin could move up to first place in the Giant Slalom overall standings, and retain her current second place position in Slalom. Ultimately, that means the best case scenario for Shiffrin at this point would be an Overall Globe, a Giant Slalom Globe, a silver in Slalom, and a bronze in Super G. While there never seemed to be much chatter about whether Shiffrin had “lost it” after the Olympics, these results should serve to silence those who may have entertained the thought.
On the men’s side of the circuit, while no Americans are in contention for an overall medal, we do want to be sure to highlight some of the strong performances we’re seeing as the team continues to show up in positions that provide significant promise for the future of the team. To start the championship week, in the Downhill event, Ryan Cochran-Siegle finished in 8th place, while Travis Ganong finished in 10th. A day later, RCS improved on his result, finishing in 7th place in the Super G event. Again, while neither of these athletes are in position to take home an overall medal, their progress throughout this season, and particularly RCS’s, who has been returning from a significant injury just over a year ago, shows plenty of promise for the week ahead. You can review all of the Courchevel results thus far, and preview the remaining races of the season right here.
#2: Despite Conditions, Athletes Threw Down at the Fourth Stop of the Freeride World Tour Last Week:
Next up in ski news this week is a recap of the 4th stop of the 2022 Freeride World Tour. It’s been just about a month since our last coverage of this event as we’ve had to wait for the finals to begin. As a quick reminder, the Freeride World Tour recently changed their format, with the first three stops now representing qualifiers and the final two stops representing the finals. As such, this week’s event in Fieberbrunn included only those athletes who’d made the cut, which then allowed the competition to go to a two run format. This new format was a first across all categories (it was initially tested amongst Snowboard Men last season) and proved to be significant for a number of athletes who used their second run to earn their final result. While we can’t speak to whether or not the athletes themselves support the two run format, as taking two runs down a venue like Fieberbrunn sounds incredibly daunting to us mortals, we can confirm that as spectators, it made for an incredibly entertaining event. Now, with the stage set, let’s get into the action.
Despite questionable conditions, athletes on both the Men’s and Women’s sides of the aisle absolutely threw down at this venue. One of the most diverse, trickable venues on the tour, Fieberbrunn offers a smattering of cliffs, chutes, and windlips for athletes to utilize before culminating in an iconic halfpipe-esque chute dead center at the bottom of the venue. While the chute was largely avoided this year due to conditions, the top half of the venue was put to work. On the topic of conditions, things were a bit dicey to say the least. At the start of the event, conditions appeared to be what we’d describe as “firm powder” before softening into a much thicker consistency throughout the day. As such, athletes were challenged with finding the best snow conditions throughout the venue and avoiding the ever present possibility of going over the handlebars when things got thicker quicker than expected. Such was the fate for multiple athletes whose momentum carried them head over heels.
On the Men’s side of the event, we got to witness a number of amazing feats, heartbreaking runs, and breathtaking crashes. Ultimately though, it was FWT Rookie and Wild Card entrant Max Hitzig who took home the gold medal in his first appearance on the tour. In his run, Hitzig, who was on the K2 Reckoner 122, a uniquely freestyle ski choice for this competition, let his freeskiing flag fly, stomping easily the largest 360 of the day, spinning uphill to his right on a windlipped cliff. From there, he strung together another 360 and perfect backflip to claim the day’s top score. Following his lead, a number of other athletes put down runs including massive 3’s, cliff drops, flat 3’s, and more. Within the “and more” category, two of the best tricks of the day came by way of Finn Bilous, who linked together a nose butter 3 directly above some serious exposure, into a cliff drop, followed by a massive cork 7 blunt directly into another drop. While the run itself didn’t earn a podium finish, the style within it makes it well worth watching. Ultimately though, at the end of the day, it was Max Hitzig who took home first, Carl Regnér Eriksson in second, and Leo Slemett in third.
On the Women’s side of things, the athletes were just as sendy. While the first three stops of the tour were dominated by rookies' presences, the 4th stop of this year’s tour was dominated by familiar faces who were able to tap into their previous experiences on the venue to best manage the tricky conditions. While all of the female athletes skied exceptionally,, the trio of women on the podium all put down runs in which they absolutely sent the biggest features on their lines. Hedvig Wessel and Elisabeth Gerritzen in particular went absolutely massive, both taking the biggest cliff drop in their run as large as possible, taking off the point. At the end of the day however, neither of those athletes could match Jessica Hotter’s first run which featured numerous hits, ultimately giving her the highest line score and a distinct advantage. As such, the final podium was Jessica Hotter in first, Hedvig Wessel in second, and Elisabeth Gerritzen in third.
Looking ahead, this all sets us up for an interesting show down in Verbier in just over a week. With 12,500 points on the line for first place at that event, there are only two athletes amongst the 17 Men’s and Women’s skiers who are unable to take home the overall gold: Max Palm who has pulled out of the event due to injury, and Sybille Blanjean who is 16,165 points removed from Jessica Hotter’s first place lead. Beyond those two athletes though, the field is wide open and anyone could claim a spot on top of the podium. That event should prove to be wildly entertaining and we’d highly recommend giving it a watch. For now, you can see current overall rankings here, or consume as much FWT content as your heart desires directly on their website.
#3: After a Tumultuous Season, Vail Announces a New Direction For Employees, Starting With a $20/hr Minimum Wage:
Moving on from competitive ski news, we bring you some news this week that’s both overdue and very welcomed. As you surely know, it’s been a bit of a tough year for Vail Resorts, at least from a PR perspective. Between insanely long lines at lifts, staffing shortages, struggles between employees and the company’s HR app, and even a near strike from ski patrol at Park City, Epic Resorts have been getting negative reviews all season long on social media. It’s a story we’ve covered multiple aspects of throughout the season, although most comprehensively in our January 7, 2022 recap when we described the tangled web of issues that’ve compounded upon each other to create the nightmarish season that Vail’s endured. At the end of that highlight, we came to the conclusion, along with many others, that the start of the end of Vail’s problems could come from simply investing in their workforce. This week, we’re happy to share that that’s exactly what they’re doing.
In an open letter to employees published on March 14th, Vail CEO Kirsten Lynch announced a renewed focus on the employee experience, calling it “A New Direction.” In it, Lynch acknowledges that her first 100 days on the job have been wrought with difficulties, and that Vail has failed to give its staff the same Experience of a Lifetime that it promises its guests. To correct that error, Lynch has announced an incremental annual $175 million investment back into Vail’s employees. Within that investment, there are seven key components. We’ll defer you to Lynch’s letter for full details on each part of this plan, but in short the spending will include: $20/hr starting wages for all employees and $21/hr wages for skilled positions, a new Seasonal Frontline Leadership Development program to enable upward mobility within the company, a 40% discount at all Vail retail stores for staff, an increased commitment to expanding access to affordable housing, an additional $4m per year into the company’s HR department, a more flexible work from home policy for corporate staff, and an merit based salary increase from an average of 3% to 6%. Now, that’s a lot to digest, so again, we’d suggest digging into Lynch’s letter to learn more about each initiative. From our perspective though, the two most impactful announcements are the wage increases and the commitment to affordable housing, which includes the promise to develop more housing on Vail owned property. Overall, this feels like exactly the type of step Vail needed to make to preserve its reputation and correct the ship moving forward. You can read Lynch’s letter in full here, as well as the Denver Post’s coverage of the story here.
#4: We Talk a Lot About the Business of Ski Resorts Here. This Week, the New York Times Talked About Big Sky's Luxury Focused Approach:
Rounding out this week, we want to share an article from the New York Times that gives yet another perspective on skiing, ski resort business models, and the overall accessibility of our sport. If you follow along with our weekly posts, then you’re well aware that these themes and concepts have become more prevalent this season as skiing attempts to balance the desire for inclusivity with issues of overcrowding. Generally speaking, the overall trend within skiing has been to increase accessibility with a focus on welcoming more new participants to the sport. Most significantly, this has been embodied by Vail’s price drop on the Epic Pass last season, which led to a huge increase in pass sales as well as crowds.
This week however, we learned about a different approach being undertaken at Big Sky Resort in Montana. There, resort management has decided to become laser focused on the guest experience. Due to a number of factors, including but not limited to: the growth of neighboring Bozeman, an 82% increase in inbound passengers to the city’s airport over the past five years, an uptick in luxury developments in the area, and the recent inclusion on the Ikon Pass, business has begun booming at Big Sky. Taking cues from Vail’s Epic issues this season, the team at Big Sky has decided to put the customer experience at the forefront of all decision making. As such, they’ve implemented some of the highest ticket prices in the industry, with day tickets hovering around $225 at the window. They’ve also taken the unique step of charging extra for the privilege to ride the tram to the highest points on the mountain and the most extreme terrain, with a daily tram ticket fetching up to $100/day at times of high traffic.
What’s most interesting about these tactics however, is that they seem to be working as far as meeting the resort’s goal of maintaining an excellent customer experience. By implementing these strategies, they’ve been able to control crowds and maintain a top notch experience for guests willing to buy in. This of course forces us to wonder whether this more high end, exclusive approach is what’s best for skiing, or if it’s simply what’s best for this resort. Or, perhaps the answer isn’t so black and white. Maybe it’s more along the lines of an idea we presented last week when we began wondering if the ski experience is becoming more mature, more diverse, and evolving into numerous ways for skiers to make their way into the mountains. If that’s the case, it’s an exciting development as it suggests that just like skis themselves, there will soon be a way for everyone to experience skiing in a way that’s perfect for them. To learn more about this differing perspective on ski resort strategies, check out the article from the New York Times.