BARTLETT, N.H. — The line was long, but manageable. It certainly wasn’t reminiscent of some of the images that have circulated online this season of the outrageous queues that have materialized at Vail Resorts-owned ski areas across the country.
Even so, the lift attendant at the Flying Bear quad chairlift, located at the base of Attitash Mountain Resort’s Bear Peak, was handling the crowd well on a bluebird day in the White Mountains. Making sure the lift loaded to capacity, she got into a groove putting together proper combinations that she pulled from the lines, utilizing the singles line to fill in every gap along the way. In singles lines across the property, it was less than a five-minute wait all day long, whether it was at the Flying Bear, the Summit Triple or the Flying Yankee. That’s not exactly the kind of nugget you hear about Vail lift queues these days.
It was sometime late morning when a man clad in a blue parka with an Attitash logo came over to relieve the lift attendant for a spell. He grabbed the Epic scan gun from her and started waving it at individuals in the line.
The lift attendant seemed to appreciate the break she was being handed. But she also had a question for the man.
“Who are you?” she asked.
Turns out, the guy’s name happened to be Brandon Swartz, and he was only the general manager at the New Hampshire ski area.
Now Swartz, who began his new role on Feb. 7, had only been GM at Attitash for two weeks when the aforementioned interaction with the lift attendant took place, so you can understand her uncertainty meeting the new GM, who also happened to be the second person to take the position at Attitash in 16 months (Greg Gavrilets resigned from his post in January to become GM of Mount Rose Ski Tahoe in Nevada). Prior to Gavrilets and Swartz, John Lowell served as general manager, then president, of Attitash and sister property Wildcat Mountain, for 10 years. Lowell announced his retirement last fall.
So while the attendant’s unfamiliarity with Swartz made sense, it also speaks to the confusion surrounding the product that Vail Resorts has delivered this season to 2.1 million Epic Pass holders. High-volume traffic, insufficient staffing, a serious lack of snowmaking, and an chaotic experience in customer relations have all, in some part, contributed to blows Vail has taken this season in the Mount Washington Valley, home to Attitash and Wildcat, only two of the 37 resorts owned by the Broomfield, Colo., conglomerate.
Lift issues and maintenance seemed to be a daily issue this season at Attitash, leading to long lines and headaches. Up the road at Wildcat, there’s no escaping the long lift line debacle. The Pinkham Notch ski area even made its own headlines when a chair detached from a lift in January, injuring a snowboarder.
If there’s one phrase that sums up how the valley is feeling these days about Vail’s presence, it’s “fed up,” convinced the powers that be, located more than halfway across the country, have little idea about what it takes to run a New Hampshire ski area; how the fickle weather dictates approach, and just how much snowmaking is needed during an early season drought. Vail seems to wants cookie-cutter attractions for its affordable Epic Pass, even when dealing with mountains, states and jobs that having little to do with one another. For instance, if you come into New Hampshire with the mindset that maintaining Wildcat, in the face of Mount Washington and its unpredictable, gnarly weather, is the same as running Beaver Creek, well then, somebody did zero homework.
So Vail’s challenge this offseason isn’t to gobble up more resorts in order to sell even more Epic Passes, it’s about how to fix the dysfunction it has created at its resorts across the country. It’s about how to fix a public relations nightmare that has thousands of Epic Pass users disenchanted and ready to bail.
The concern for places like Mount Washington Valley might be, if Epic Pass users bail, where will they go?
I’ve probably skied Attitash more times in my life than any other ski area in New England. My family has owned a home in the Mount Washington Valley for almost 40 years, and Attitash was always one of our top winter destinations. It wasn’t far from the center of North Conway and offered a little bit more in terms of terrain than Cranmore Mountain Resort, which sits right in the center of town. It’s also where my high school ski club often booked its annual weekend trip.
That also means I’ve become accustomed to Attitash’s shortcomings; the painfully slow summit chairlift, the boilerplate on the likes of Saco following a morning of foot traffic, the Kachina Triple chairlift sitting dormant. Again.
There was a sense early on this season, when the complaints endlessly started rolling in on social media avenues, that much of the grumbling was coming from newer Epic Pass holders who were expecting Deer Valley when rolling up to Bartlett’s finest. Attitash and Wildcat always have had issues that partly defined them, but their former owners either knew how to handle their inefficiencies, or at least figured out how not to make them part of the story.
When you sell a record 2.1 million season passes, though, the microscope starts to grow around your brand.
But on this particular day, in the middle of February, it was hard to understand what all the fuss was about. I arrived at the resort around 7:45 a.m., which was only early enough to secure a front-row parking spot in the Bear Peak parking lot, 15 minutes before the lifts were scheduled to start running. Inside the lodge, barren of a crowd, a guest at the customer relations desk said that he expected chaos upon arrival and was wondering where the madness went. The woman behind the desk just grinned and held a finger up to her lips.
After leisurely putting on my boots with no people or bags crowding my space inside the lodge, I returned my boot bag to my car — in the front row — and was on the Flying Bear by 8:15 a.m. I was hesitant about what to expect after all the horror stories this season, but found good skiing on trails like Illusion, Kachina and Morning Star. On the other side of the resort, I walked onto the Summit Triple and Flying Yankee lifts, transporting me to some old-school favorites like Grandstand (albeit, sans bumps) and Ptarmigan. It wasn’t by any stretch a top-10 ski day, but after the wet, warm weather that New England has suffered much of this season, it was a pretty darned good day on the slopes.
In the midst of it all, Swartz showed up at the Flying Bear. I boarded one of the first chairs under his watch. On the ride up, one of my chairlift compadres told me that he rode the same lift with Swartz the day before, and the GM was explaining to him how fixing Attitash was not an overnight venture. More like years.
It didn’t seem as if this guy, a native of Massachusetts, was willing to wait around. He skis at Attitash all the time, he said, because his daughter is a member of the Attitash Race Team. He owns a home in the valley, but said he’s been looking at property over the border in Maine. Maybe his daughter should race at Shawnee Peak, where overcrowding and snow conditions seem to be less of a constant issue.
His more concerning tone though was saved for the region that once thought Vail would be a positive financial addition to the popular vacation destination. “North Conway has become a Vail town,” he said. “And I hate that.”
How many others are there with investments in the valley who feel the same way?
When Vail originally purchased New Hampshire’s Attitash, Crotched Mountain and Wildcat from Peak Resorts in 2019 (the company also purchased Vermont’s Mount Snow at the same time, adding to a New England family that already included Mount Sunapee, Stowe and Okemo) the company said it intended to invest some $15 million in improvements to elevate the guest experience. At the time, that was music to the real estate market’s ears in the area. “Skiing has always driven the real estate market up here,” Paul Mayer, owner of Black Bear Realty, located in Glen, a town right between Attitash and Wildcat, told me then. “(Vail has) a huge name and general consensus is any new company coming in and purchasing a ski mountain is going to bring renovations and expansion in that package. Improved skiing is good for the valley.”
They’re still waiting.
Staffing and snowmaking have been two of the biggest complaints this season among Epic Pass holders. It was disappointing to ride the Flying Bear over Avenger, arguably my favorite trail at Attitash, and see grass, rocks and ice in lieu of the packed powder that normally creates a fun and fast downhill surface. The trail has been open only sparingly this season, a situation multiplied at Wildcat, where the mountain had only 20 percent of its terrain open during the second week of March.
When other local resorts went through the same warming trend that advanced February vacation week, they turned on the snow guns to recoup their losses.
Neither Attitash nor Wildcat bothered.
So, where does Vail go from here? Even though the Colorado front office certainly has heard the complaints, it is daft to suggest that Wildcat and Attitash are Vail’s two biggest concerns heading into the summer months. That’s part of the problem when you’re only two of 37.
However you look at it, Vail has a mountain of issues to face as it prepares its 2022-23 offering of the Epic Pass. Based on this season, it’s impossible to expect the company will sell another 2 million of them. Indy Pass already has been vocal about welcoming disgruntled Epic Pass holders, while Ikon Pass has done some premium shifting with a handful of its resorts in order to subdue overcrowding. Not to mention, Vail’s stock has gone into the tank this season following widespread criticism of its operations. If it could go wrong, it did for Vail Resorts this year.
Some immediate change is coming, though. In January, it was discovered that Vail actually has filed a preliminary permitting document with the U.S. Forest Service (Attitash’s summit is located in White Mountain National Forest property) to finally replace the hated Summit Triple chairlift, which has received complaints from skiers and riders for decades. According to the document, the new lift would be a four-six passenger, high-speed lift following the same general profile of the triple. That’s in addition to the replacement of the east and west double-double chairs, shuttered in place of a fixed-grip, four-person chair in time for next season, announced as part of Vail’s $320 million plan to install 19 new chairlifts at 14 of its resorts.
If there’s a silver lining for Vail, it might be that it purchased Attitash and Wildcat with a pandemic on the horizon. Now that we’re just escaping the protocols that came with that, maybe focus can shift to improving the product. Otherwise, the haphazard approach that Vail has brought to its Mount Washington Valley properties will continue to be littered with uncertainty, confusion and turnover. Or, at least, even more of it.
This isn’t about improving on a bad season. This is about improving on how Vail does its business, an absolutely necessary component for the resort company as it looks to wipe the stain from its name.
New Hampshire is waiting.
Unfortunately, so is everybody else.
Eric Wilbur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.