Former Aspen journalist’s new book targets ski industry |

Former Aspen journalist’s new book targets ski industry

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Hal Clifford

Former Aspen journalist Hal Clifford has published his second book, and it is not going to put a smile on the faces of many ski area executives.

“Downhill Slide,” which Clifford wrote over several years while building a house and starting a family in Telluride, is a critical look at the modern ski industry and the three big public ski companies, Vail Resorts, Intrawest and American Skiing Co.

The book’s central premise is that these companies, and other ski area operators, have lost sight of the real values in skiing and instead are focusing on building cookie-cutter, theme-park ski villages designed to sell real estate and separate skiers from their money.

He also focuses on how those villages, and big ski areas in general, are prompting the rapid urbanization of high mountain valleys.

The subtitle of the book is “Why the Corporate Ski Industry is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns and the Environment.” It was published by Sierra Club Books.

Anyone who is curious about the fate of the new Intrawest village proposed for the base of the Snowmass Ski Area, or about the future of the Roaring Fork Valley, will find “Downhill Slide” a fascinating, if somewhat depressing, read.

“I do think think what you are seeing happening here is that Intrawest is executing another one of their masterful sales jobs,” Clifford said of the proposed project in Snowmass Village, which is a partnership between Intrawest and the owners of the Aspen Skiing Co. “I’m sure at some point, they told them, ‘We are going to make this the number one ski resort in the nation,’ which is what they say at each ski area where they build a village.”

Clifford, a former Aspen Times columnist, devotes a chapter in the book to how Intrawest develops its villages and how they are rigidly programmed to appear to be lively and spontaneous.

Other chapters focus on how the U.S. Forest Service has become partners with the ski industry instead of regulators guarding public lands and how ski areas are trampling the environment ? if not on the ski areas themselves, then in the mountain valleys surrounding them.

Clifford’s work focuses on the “Big Three” publicly traded ski companies, which now account for about a quarter of the nation’s skier visits, and the local Skico comes in for light treatment.

Clifford calls the Crown family’s ownership of the Skico a “benevolent monarchy” compared to the Wall Street-driven actions of Vail, Intrawest and American Skiing, yet he also points to the Roaring Fork Valley as one of the classic examples of what happens when a ski town becomes valued more for its real estate than its skiing experiences.

“My interests was always in looking at publicly traded ski companies,” Clifford said when asked why he did not focus more on the Skico. “When you bring the Wall Street imperative to these mountain communities, it has a quantitative and qualitative difference. But Aspen showed many other players in the industry how much money was out there and how much money was interested in the lifestyle.”

Clifford contrasts the pure enjoyment of skiing with what some ski companies are now selling with their “New Ski Villages.”

“Whistler works like Disneyland works or like Carnival Cruise Lines works,” he said of Intrawest’s biggest village. “That has a certain appeal to a certain segment of the market, but I think it is a disservice to take this wonderful sport and convert it to something resembling land-locked cruise ships.”

Clifford offers some examples of smaller ski areas, such as Bogus Basin in Idaho, returning “back to the future” of skiing by offering discount ski passes to attract more skiers and not jumping on the ski village bandwagon that has swept the industry in the past five years.

And he hopes people in Aspen and other ski towns will read the book to gain a better understanding of what is happening in the industry.

“I have tried to show the man behind the curtain pulling the levers,” Clifford said. “And the book may inform people in ski towns what is happening in other places. People get their heads down and they don’t recognize what is happening out there. And the power of the big three ski companies is in their ability to set the pace in the ski industry. Other resorts can quickly feel that ‘We’ve got to play their game and if we don’t, we will fall behind.'”

“Downhill Slide” is Clifford’s second book. His first, published in 1995, was entitled “The Falling Season, Inside the Life and Death Drama of Aspen’s Mountain Rescue Team.”

A busy free-lance writer, Clifford has recently decided to get a real job, signing on as the executive director of the MountainFilm festival and tour in Telluride. An excerpt of “Downhill Slide,” as well as some additional reporting on the subject, is expected to be published in an upcoming issue of Outside magazine.

Clifford will be in Aspen on Nov. 12 at Explore Booksellers for a reading and book-signing.

[Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is]

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