Ski pass program blamed for Teton Village problems

By Cody Cottier

Jackson Hole News&Guide

Via Wyoming News Exchange

JACKSON — Creeping traffic. Sprawling lift lines. Packed slopes.

This is Jackson Hole in the time of Ikon — or at least that’s the talk on the tram. The newest collective pass grants cheap access to resorts from Washington to Maine and Chile to Japan, but also takes the heat for a slew of problems that seem suddenly to have swelled.

“There are many people that feel it’s ruined the Jackson Hole skiing experience,” said 100 Club member Bill Maloney, who some dub the “unofficial mayor” of Teton Village.

“It’s difficult to sort out whether the problem is the Ikon Pass or whether it’s just become so popular,” he said. “But there’s no question it’s more crowded, and there are a lot more skiers who are not good skiers out there.”

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort officials initially declined the News&Guide’s interview request for this article, and declined to give statistics on how many visitors come bearing Ikon passes.

Spokeswoman Anna Cole said Ikon passholders account for 14 percent of skier days so far this season. Sometimes that figure is much lower, like on blackout days, so other times it must be higher. Resort officials declined to provide data for specific dates.

Skier days overall are up 8 percent over last year. If the trends holds, Jackson Hole will end the season with a record of nearly 700,000 skier days, just under 100,000 of them with an Ikon Pass. For comparison, passes used by locals make up 42 percent of skier days, just under 300,000.

Cole noted that purchases of walk-up tickets and other combo passes are down, meaning the net increase of Ikon is effectively lower than 14 percent. That muddies the water, making it difficult to draw precise conclusions.

Whatever its impact, “Ikon” is the buzzword of the season. It fills the snowy air on powder days — slipping with glee from the lips of passholders suddenly able to afford a week of skiing at one of America’s premier resorts, and with exasperation from those who ski Jackson Hole daily, watching a parade of out-of-towners clog the slopes.

For anyone able to swing extended trips to far-flung mountains the pass is a bargain hunter’s fantasy. The most expensive deal is just $899 for unlimited skiing at 14 resorts and up to seven days at each of another 17, including Jackson Hole. At Jackson Hole Mountain Resort it also comes with discounts on everything from waxes to lodging.

“The Ikon just made a lot of sense, with all the places you can go,” said Bobby Johnston, of Oakland, California, who skied Jackson on Tuesday. He and his girlfriend are midway through a trip that’s already taken them to Squaw Valley in California, along with Solitude, Snowbird and Deer Valley in Utah — all Ikon resorts.

Next it’s Big Sky, Revelstoke and Banff. At this point, they’re basically skiing for free.

The past two seasons Johnston opted for a different multiresort pass, but with the release of Ikon this year, one factor weighed in his decision.

“Jackson is definitely one of the big reasons why we went for it,” he said. “I think seeing that name on there kind of sealed the deal in my mind.”

It’s unclear how welcome he and his fellow passholders are, though. Everyone he encountered on the mountain was friendly, but on the bus back to Stilson he caught a snippet of conversation: “Tell everyone with an Ikon Pass they suck.”

The pass is not the first of its kind — it’s preceded a decade by Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass, which also covers dozens of locations for a similar price.

With the formation of resort conglomerate Alterra Mountain Company in 2017 and 2018, its leaders dreamed up Ikon as an answer to Vail’s popular offering. They included on the pass their own mountains, like Mammoth and Deer Valley, with a handful of independent resorts like Jackson Hole.

And as the narrative goes, the pass has drawn hordes of “Ikoneers” to this corner of Wyoming.

Other variables could play a part, too. Spokeswoman Cole noted a 10-percent increase in snowfall at the summit could attract local skiers to the tram. Maloney suggested dangerous backcountry conditions could push people in-bounds. But most agree you can’t throw a snowball without hitting an Ikon passholder.

“I see a lot of them here, they’re not hard to spot,” said Nick Londy (aka DJ Londo), a Jackson native and member of the 100 Club. “They’re definitely a piece of this puzzle.”

It’s not unusual for Teton Village to be at capacity. It’s even expected at times, like during Rendezvous Festival. But this year seems to many an anomaly, the resort frequently strained to the breaking point.

“That basically just puts tremendous stress on the entire system,” Maloney said.

Cole said growth in skier visits supports the local economy, creates jobs in the community and supports infrastructure through tax collection.

It seems many Ikon passholders are driving from places where they have unlimited skiing, crowding roads and parking lots in addition to the mountain.

Londy noted it isn’t only the locals griping.

“When I’m in these tram lines,” he said, “I’m hearing many visitors lament their own experience.”

Fred Bowditch, who moved here in the 1980s and skied 131 days last year, agreed the parking lots and roads are bursting like never before.

“It’s even up over last year,” he said, when Jackson Hole tallied 634,500 skier days, eclipsing the 2013-2014 record by 70,000. Then, though, Wyoming had the best snow of the major ski destinations. “Now,” Bowditch said, “everybody has snow and they’re still here.”

He guessed Ikon is a significant culprit in the phenomenon, making multiresort trips more financially viable. If skiers can buy a season pass to their home mountain but also hit resorts across the West at no extra cost, they’re far more likely to take advantage of the possibilities.

“Would people still be coming here? Absolutely,” Bowditch said. “It just makes it a little more convenient for them.”

And he doesn’t blame the Ikoneers. In fact, he suggested to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort that it offer the Ikon Pass for a bit more money on top of season passes. That way, local skiers could reap some of the benefits of Ikon themselves.

When the Ikon Pass was announced in 2018, the resort posted a press release on its website. It quotes Erik Forsell, marketing officer for Alterra Mountain Company.

“The Ikon Pass is a collaboration of like-minded mountain destinations across North America,” he said, “where incredible terrain, unique character and local traditions are celebrated.”

With glorious powder dumps for Kings and Queens of Corbet’s this week, terrain and traditions are secure. But some fear the “unique character” of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort may be at risk.

“I’m grateful for this special place,” Londy said. “But the thing that made Jackson so special to me was that we didn’t have lift lines, and it seems like there’s been a shift in goals in recent years.

“I haven’t seen it this busy in 30-plus years of skiing this mountain. There’s no doubt that the Ikon is part of that.”

And if that’s the case, Maloney wondered, “Is the Ikon Pass worth it?”