Roger Marolt: Roger This
December 11, 2009
Highlands is the new Buttermilk. There’s no easier way to say it. I’ll grant you that the mountain has plenty of vertical drop and lots of steep, challenging terrain, but this is not enough to rescue its post-Bowl popularity from experiencing a steep decline. I don’t care how much snow falls out there; Aspen Highlands is going to suffer an identity crisis beginning this winter.
A little history will show you why. Ever since the ski areas opened in 1958, Aspen Highlands seems to have been in competition with Buttermilk to see which could be Aspen’s least popular ski mountain. After some initial attractiveness to rogues and rookies that lasted though the early 1960s, the demise of the two areas was sealed with the opening of Snowmass at Aspen in 1967. After that the two areas pretty much raced neck and neck down the tube, with both completely cratering in popularity in the early 1990s. It was then that Highlands became know as the “ski lift museum,” while Buttermilk remained without a nickname because most people forgot that it existed.
In 1993 Highlands was gifted to Harvard University by its founder, Whip Jones. Harvard, with one of their greatest investment decisions ever, shortly thereafter sold it to Gerald Hines, who shortly thereafter got out of the resort development business after it was rumored he lost his shirt trying to use Houston alchemy to turn dirt into gold. Before he gave up, however, he conned Aspen Skiing Co. into buying the mountain operations from him.
Aspirations of success, buoyed by the promise of a bustling Base Village, induced Skico to make huge improvements to the ski lifts there and to take on the ominous task of opening Highland Bowl – one of the most spectacular ski area expansions ever contemplated anywhere.
By 2002 both Highland Bowl and the new Base Village became realities, but the promise of incredible skiing by the former was offset by a really crappy design of the latter, and there was only a slightly noticeable increase in the number of people visiting the ski area. The fateful result was historically significant as it proved once and for all that Aspen is no longer about the skiing, but about the configuration of timeshares, shops, and restaurants around the venues where locals apparently enjoy that sport. While the skiing at Highlands is spectacular, the design of the base is deplorable, and the mountain hasn’t cracked Ski Magazine’s top-10 resort ranking since its renaissance.
Nonetheless, Highlands muddled through the go-go first decade of the 21st century in decent shape largely due to the support of loyal locals who couldn’t imagine skiing anywhere else. So devout have they been to their humble mountain that not even the lure of real skiing at nearby Aspen Mountain could lure them away.
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Highlands has gained its fame from being the unofficial “locals’ mountain.” And, of course, this title came with a price tag. And, of course, that price tag was significantly marked down.
You didn’t really believe that locals frequented Highlands because of its charm, did you? That vanished with the concentric a-framed lodge at the base more than a decade ago. You didn’t truly believe it was because of the unique terrain, did you? All of our mountains … well, at least three of our mountains have great terrain. You certainly didn’t think it was the easy access or the free parking, did you? Ha!
No. The main reason Highlands has been the locals’ mountain is the same reason that La Cocina was the preferred watering hole – they were cheap!
There wasn’t anything on the Laco menu for over 10 bucks, and Highlands has always offered a cheaper season pass. Not so this year. Laco is gone, and Highlands is going. In a decision that will ultimately make the “Uncrowded by Design” marketing campaign of 1999 look like a stroke of genius, Skico announced a one-size-fits-all ski pass pricing scheme this year that hits Highlands devotees right were it hurts most – in the groin; because most of them don’t have large wallets. There is no more Highlander pass. Everybody has to buy a more expensive four-mountain ticket to ride!
What does this mean? For starters it means that locals are no longer being subsidized to stay at Highlands. And, they won’t. I don’t care how loyal they are, if diehard Highlanders now have a pass that works on all Skico mountains, they are going to go exploring. Even if this only happens now and then, that alone means fewer skier days at Highlands. But, I’m guessing that a lot of former Highlanders are going to realize that some of the other mountains are a hell of a lot easier to get to. I am willing to bet that more will discover what every other sensible skier has known since 1946 – that Aspen Mountain actually is the best place to ski.
Maybe most importantly, though, tourists will no longer have to go to Highlands to see authentic locals. Face it: That was one of Highland’s biggest attractions. Not even at Johnny McGuire’s could a visitor go and find such a heavy concentration of people who live and work here. Now, locals will be on all the slopes. Conceivably, you might even find one at Snowmass.
So, Highlands got more expensive for locals this year while the other mountains got cheaper. This jeopardizes its “locals'” status. That gives tourists one less big reason to go there. It all bodes very poorly for Highlands’ future attendance.
Just as Skico had to scratch their heads for 20 years before the terrain park idea landed in their lap to get people back to Buttermilk, now they’ll have to figure out a way to revive Highlands. I don’t think it will take as long this time. I predict we’ll see a locals’ “Welcome back to Highlands” pass next year … at half price … and free parking.
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