Skiers and snowboarders

Skiers and snowboarders get ready to descend Bald Mountain from the Lookout summit, amid stunning views of the Pioneer Mountains to the east.

    After 82 years, America’s oldest ski resort is preparing for its first “Epic” season.

    Sun Valley is partnering with Vail Resorts’ uber-popular Epic Pass, a multi-resort ticket that grants holders access to more than 60 areas across the world. Here, a full Epic Pass nets you seven days on Baldy and Dollar over the 2019-20 season.

    Last year, somewhere between 900,000 and 1 million people owned some version of Vail’s flagship product. So, what’s it mean for Sun Valley—and the locals spoiled on first tracks and intermittent ghost-town lift lines? From reporters (ahem) to resort staff to Bald Mountain’s relentless corduroy hounds, that’s the million-dollar question. Scratch that figure: For this stubbornly independent holdout to hook up with an industry giant, the answer’s worth much, much more.

    Sun Valley Guest Services Manager Mike Fitzpatrick has been making preparations for the “Epic” addition since the announcement came down in March. He still doesn’t know what to expect.

    “It’s a little bit like looking into a crystal ball,” he said.

    Remember the solar eclipse of 2017? Nobody knew how many people would show to see that, either. He likens the effort to prepare for this winter to the one undertaken back then.

    “The whole community, we started talking and planning ahead—even though no one was quite sure what it would be,” he said of that effort. “We were ready. And, if we’re busy this winter, we’ll be ready, too. If we’re not—if the eclipse doesn’t come—at least we have our systems in place.”

    There are “positive indicators,” according to resort General Manager Tim Silva. But he can’t say what that will mean when lifts spin and the snow stacks up.

    “Hopefully, we’ll be busy—and we’ll have the opportunity to rise to the challenge,” Silva told local leaders and business owners during a luncheon at the Sun Valley Inn earlier this month. “Everyone else in the industry already is. Their resorts are typically busy.”

    Sun Valley typically isn’t as busy as others—and that can be a wonderful thing for skiers, if not an always sustainable one for the ski area, or the businesses built up around it.

    Since Vail launched the Epic Pass a decade ago, the company and its chief competitor, Alterra, have gobbled up or partnered with a massive chunk of the resort market to flesh out their offerings. Around 43 percent of skier days in 2018-19 were on some form of a pass program, Silva said. The choice to partner with Epic—as opposed to staying with the Mountain Collective, Sun Valley’s past partner, or Alterra’s upstart competitor, the IKON Pass—came down to the resort’s brand, Silva said.

    One way or another, though, it was beginning to look like a necessity.

    “In the last few years, the ski industry has seen a seismic change,” he said. “Most all major resorts are owned by or affiliated with a pass program. We were beginning to feel like we were at the dance and everyone else found a partner except us. Given the direction of the industry, it was time to jump in.”

    Silva’s careful not to confuse lack of crowds with allure. That, he said, comes from the people who call it home, and the team that works the hill. A lot of them chose to put down roots here because it’s off the beaten path—and most industry magazine reviews of the place include some combination of “hidden” and “gem.”

    Other materials, too. Like silver. Sun Valley Resort took second in Ski magazine’s 2020 Reader Resort Survey, trailing only Aspen in the publication’s annual ranking of Western resorts, released in late October. Along the way, it scored top honors in a poll-leading seven categories, earning the No. 1 slot for lifts, service, lodging, off-hill down-day activities, family-friendliness, charm and overall satisfaction.

    “While there is a regional airport in Hailey, 13 miles south and served by several major U.S. cities, know that flights can be diverted to Twin Falls or Boise in inclement weather,” Ski magazine Senior Editor Samantha Berman wrote in its November 2019 issue. “On the flip side, it’s what keeps this gem relatively hidden. While it remains to be seen how the Epic Pass will impact Sun Valley, it’s safe to say that if any resort has the history, community, and spirit to handle it, it’s this one.”

    Not all resorts have survived the whirlwind shift onto the Epic Pass with all their appendages intact.

    “We saw other communities that went on, and they weren’t ready,” Fitzpatrick said. “There are challenges out there—and we don’t want them to happen here.”

    He turned to Telluride for a taste of what to expect. That resort partnered with Vail prior to last season the same way Sun Valley will now. Other parallels are there, too. Both are a little high end, a little hard to get to and frequented by die-hards who see no reason to ski anywhere else. Telluride saw a “pretty good increase” in business last year, and the town survived just fine, Fitzpatrick said. He took notes, and put them into practice over the offseason. The pick-up and drop-off areas around Dollar and River Run have been revamped. The parking lots have been renamed. And, “Trail Creek” and “River Run”—formerly the lower and upper lots by the eponymous lodge—will have shuttles to the hill, and parking crews maintaining order.

    On the hill, the signs are new, updating closures and lift statuses in real time—all the better to direct first-time guests. The menus at Baldy’s five on-mountain lodges will change, too; the idea is to give each one “a distinct personality,” Fitzpatrick said, so people will spread out to find their flavor du jour.

    The changes are suited to the “destination skier,” which he thinks will come along with the Epic Pass and its seven days of access, according to Fitzpatrick. That’s a different group than the Mountain Collective, which worked through last season. It offered two days at a number of areas—and made up a good chunk of the mountain’s traffic. (Fitzpatrick didn’t divulge the percentage, but told the Mountain Express that it was “significant.” Silva referred to it as “a fairly meaningful piece of business.”)

    “People who had the Mountain Collective utilized it for the ultimate bucket-list road trip,” Fitzpatrick said.

    The route went something like this: Fly into Salt Lake City to ski Alta and Snowbird; head north to Sun Valley; cross east to Jackson Hole, maybe Big Sky if you have the time; then, drop in on Sun Valley’s sister resort, Snowbasin, before boarding a flight home, happy and exhausted.

    “They hopped from place to place,” Fitzpatrick said of those guests. “With Epic Pass, we anticipate a different type of guest. And, we anticipate them staying longer.”

    That means here, and in Ogden, Utah, where Snowbasin is also taking the plunge. The Holding family owns both resorts, and new pass options are strengthening ties this season.

    “In fairness, this is a two-resort decision,” Silva said. “For the Utah market, this is a very good deal.”

    For the Idaho contingent, time will tell if it’s a good deal, too, or merely a big one. Silva, for his part, has faith.

    “If any team can run a resort well,” he said, “it’s the one I see here.”

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