Alterra CEO: We don’t want Ikon Pass to overrun ski resorts such as Aspen

Rusty Gregory
Alterra Mountain Co./courtesy photo


Alterra Mountain Co. is a private firm that stormed the industry in April 2017, born from a partnership between KSL Capital Partners and the Lester Crown family, the sole owner of Aspen Skiing Co.

In the eyes of many observers of the ski industry, the line is blurred between Aspen and Alterra. Alterra is sometimes referred to as the Aspen group.

Aspen Skiing Co. and the Crowns are shareholders in the private company, Alterra Mountain Co. CEO Rusty Gregory said.

“They’re very closely involved with us so if people think about us the same way they think about Aspen, that’s a compliment to us,” Gregory said.

The CEO of Alterra Mountain Co. said it’s not the company’s intent to overcrowd the ski slopes at the resorts it owns or partners with through is popular Ikon Pass.

Rusty Gregory said Alterra executives and officials with the affiliated resorts, such as Aspen Skiing Co., will watch visitor trends this winter, the second season that the Ikon Pass has been sold. If they see crowding similar to last season, individual resorts will make changes to alleviate the pressure, according to Gregory.

“We’re not just throwing the product out there and sitting back to see how many people show up,” Gregory said in an interview with The Aspen Times last week. “We’re watching closely about how those trends continue and over time, you’ll see the resorts adapting individually to whatever paradigm passes in general and the Ikon Pass in particular start creating.”

The company cares about a quality experience at its resorts, he said.

“We’re not just throwing the product out there and sitting back to see how many people show up.” — Rusty Gregory, Alterra

Dealing with crowds isn’t a bad problem for ski areas to tackle, at least when compared to the alternative. But Gregory, like Aspen Skiing Co. officials before him, said 2018-19 ski season might have been a fluke. Snowfall was slightly above average but many of the storms hit for weekends, creating some monster days on the slopes that attracted hordes of local skiers and riders as well as Ikon Pass holders. Some local season pass holders at Aspen and Snowmass Village as well as other resorts such as Jackson Hole and Deer Valley blamed the swarms of people using the new pass for contributing to crowding of their slopes.

The Ikon Pass is good for seven days collectively on the slopes of Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk. The Ikon Base Pass is good for a collective five days at the four Skico resorts.

Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan tried to stop the finger pointing by noting this summer that local season pass use soared because of the snow conditions. There would have been crowding without Ikon Pass users, he said.

At one point late in the season, Skico’s season pass use was up nearly 40% from the prior season, according to Skico officials.

Gregory said Alterra’s resorts and affiliates experienced similar surges in local pass use. He said he understands the frustration among locals over crowds on powder days, even if the blame was misplaced on Ikon Pass users.

“I was a local in Mammoth for 40 years, another radically idiosyncratic community,” he said, noting that the residents and frequent visitors have a deep-ingrained love of the place. “I felt just like everybody else — no matter who that person was, even the friend that I came skiing with — if he or she was hitting my line on a powder day, I noticed that.”

But the crowding “is really less about the Ikon Pass and more about the enthusiasm for skiing in a good snow year,” Gregory said. “I hope we have another great year like that and more of those to come. What we’ll see is our resorts and other resorts, if that’s what the trend is going to be, adapting by configuring their resorts in a way to handle that demand.”

Aspen Skiing Co. isn’t waiting to see if the crowding continues. It made adjustments to its operations this offseason and will implement more as ski season unfolds to address what senior vice president of mountain operations Katie Ertl called “volume impacts.”

“We made some moves this year to change that,” she said.

The moves she outlined included:

• Paying Roaring Fork Transportation Authority to increase bus service. Specifically, RFTA will add weekend shuttles between the parking lot at Brush Creek Road/Highway 82 and Aspen Highlands.

• Using Skico’s mobile app to alert people when parking lots are full. In the past, people might drive up Maroon Creek Road, for example, only to have to turn around because the lot at Aspen Highlands was full.

• Adding chairs to increase the uphill capacity of the Cloud 9 lift at Aspen Highlands and the High Alpine lift at Snowmass. The capacity of both will increase to 1,800 from 1,200 skiers per hour. Ertl said Skico doesn’t believe that will pack the terrain with skier and riders. The High Alpine lift serves numerous trails on either side of the lift as well as the hike-to terrain of Hanging Valley Wall. That’s a lot of territory to absorb the increase in lift riders, she said.

• On the biggest powder days, Skico will strategically open terrain in sections rather than all at once. Last year, the Deep Temerity lift was overwhelmed when Highland Bowl finally opened on a Saturday with 16 inches of powder. People waited in line for longer than an hour.

“We opened the Bowl all at once,” Ertl said. In a similar scenario in the future, it might phase the opening of the Temerity terrain and the Bowl, she said.

Hanging Valley Wall terrain also may have a phased opening on some prolific powder days, she said.

Skico clearly believes it has opportunities to lure ski pass users from outside the valley at certain times of the year. It will unveil a “Passapalooza” event Dec. 13 to 15. Anyone with a 2019-20 to any resort in the world will be able to buy a Skico lift ticket for $59. It also applies to friends and family of pass holders.

Skico officials said the Ikon Pass successfully attracted some first-time visitors to Aspen-Snowmass last season. The prospects are for another year of high use this season.

“We did sell more, absolutely,” Gregory said. The number of repeat customers who bought Ikon Passes last season and renewed this season is “outstanding,” he said.