Stone: Time for Aspen’s wake-up whistle
A Stone’s Throw
My first reaction to Monday’s news that Vail is buying Whistler was “Ouch!”
The report I read called Vail Resorts “the dominant player in the higher-end destination winter vacation industry in the United States.”
What Aspen chauvinist wouldn’t go “ouch!” after reading that?
But then I realized I was falling right into the “bigger is better” trap that I so cheerfully and regularly despise.
Combining the ownership of an enormous ski area in Colorado and an even more enormous ski area in Canada doesn’t really have any effect whatsoever on the relative attractiveness of … well, of anything.
It is hard to imagine that anyone, when trying to decide where to go for their week of skiing, will think, “Vail owns Whistler. So the heck with Aspen. I’m going to Vail!”
Owning Whistler doesn’t make Vail’s already-impressive mountain any more impressive. It doesn’t change the ski runs. It doesn’t change the town.
Perhaps more to the point, owning Whistler doesn’t make Vail’s lift lines any shorter. It doesn’t reduce Vail’s weekend mobs, when thousands of Front Range skiers drive those two hours west from Denver on the interstate for some great skiing (while dooming themselves to spending almost twice as long fighting the traffic jams on their way home).
I know some people are pointing to the great new benefit of adding Whistler to Vail’s already impressive Epic Pass, a multi-mountain season pass.
But that “benefit” of the Whistler acquisition may just add to Vail’s weekend crunch, if Front Range bargain hunters buy the Epic Pass hoping to get up to Whistler at some point during the season — and just wind up spending a few more weekends at Vail.
That’s all very reasonable and, arguably, all very good for Vail. And certainly very good for Vail’s owners and stockholders.
But it doesn’t have anything at all to do with Aspen.
Except perhaps as an object lesson.
We cannot, will not and should not (pick your own order for those three) compete in the mega-market.
There is, of course, a certain (foolish) pride in chanting “We’re Number One!”
But the real foolishness comes in thinking that being the biggest automatically means being “Number One.”
Just as we all should know that bigger isn’t automatically better, so we have to recognize that biggest isn’t best.
I remember back when I was much younger and was, for some inexplicable reason, proud when the Aspen Skiing Corporation (as it was then called) owned Blackcomb (now a major chunk of the Whistler complex) and Breckenridge — and, as a matter of fact, Baqueira-Beret in the Pyrenees.
And I remember feeling deflated when the Ski Corp dumped those ski areas.
As I said, I was younger then.
And since I’m talking bigger/better, I’ll just say that these days my waist is bigger, but I know better.
And I’m thinking the Skico knows better too.
Their reaction to the Big News was more or less a shrug.
Sure, they promised that they would add a new resort to the Mountain Collective ski pass, Aspen’s vaguely adequate answer to Vail’s Epic Pass. But that really amounts to pretty much nothing at all — which is the right response.
Or, actually, part of the right response.
Because what Aspen must do — not in response to Vail buying Whistler, but in response to the fact that we are in competition with Vail and every other destination ski resort in our hemisphere — is preserve and protect what makes Aspen special.
Preserve, protect and resurrect.
As I hinted in my not-very-subtle way, Vail suffers from Big Resort Syndrome: overcrowding, long lift lines, lack of parking, savage traffic jams on the interstate heading back to Denver at the end of the weekends, and, really, the presence of the interstate itself, running right through the middle of town.
For many people, obviously, those are not serious problems. If they were problems, they automatically wouldn’t exist — as Yogi Berra put it: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
But, crowded or not, Vail has charms that appeal to many. Its one mountain is vast and offers a great variety of excellent skiing. Its downtown core is almost entirely pedestrian-only — once you find a place to park and take a shuttle into town.
Aspen, on the other hand, is suffering from our own Semi-Big Resort Syndrome — as epitomized by our savage traffic jam and our almost-overcrowded downtown core.
We know that Bigger is Better is a foolish fallacy. But we have to realize that Not-Bigger is Better is also dangerously wrong.
At the risk of sounding simple-minded, I have to insist that the only correct philosophy is this: Better is Better.
Or, if I can turn this whole thing upside-down and backwards and get to the same point, let me put it this way: We don’t need Vail to destroy us, we can do it very nicely on our own.
Vail is a corporate conglomerate of stupendous size. We have a stupendous conglomerate of public and private failures all our own.
We have a stalled, unfinished base area at Snowmass that has been going on (or not going on) for damn near a decade. We have a massive traffic jam at the edge of Aspen that is apparently beyond our ability to deal with. We have endless construction in the heart of the town. We have an endless battle over how to handle the base of Lift 1A. We have … oh hell, you know the whole story as well as I do.
What this town needs is a wake-up call.
Or maybe, to stick with today’s Whistler theme, a wake-up whistle.
As Lauren Bacall famously said (in “To Have and Have Not”), “You know how to whistle, don’t you? Just put your lips together and … blow.”
That line has lived on in history and memory as unforgettably sexy. Almost obscenely so. But no one can quite say for certain exactly what it means.
And that’s the point. That’s the appeal. Obviously sexy, with a tiny insurmountable bit of mystery.
The way Aspen is supposed to be.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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