Aspen Nips the Catz Tail! Trump Saves the Ski Industry!

Tony Robbins would have to admit that backing out of the Paris Agreement is a genius leadership move…

Ya, I know what you are thinking. But really…

I already went off on Vail’s climate announcement so I won’t repeat that (read it here)

Predictably, Aspen today announced they too are “#StillInIt” and all about living up to the Paris Agreement (PA) even if the evil Orange Dragon isn’t putting the federal government in the game. I am still at a loss about why on earth they aren’t saying, “Thank goodness!”

I will get to reasons why the lift-served snow sport industry ought to be thanking Trump for pulling the US out of the PA. I promise….

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Most people, meaning those for AND against the PA, have no idea what is actually in it. (many will read it and still have no idea what it says)

So, how can they make an informed decision? Truth is, most people don’t. They take whatever collection of 15 second sound bites they have from whatever sources they prefer and they follow that.

We live in an “Information Age” but most of what we consume as “information” isn’t really information. It is a collection of other peoples’ conclusions. In the same way that computer models produce conclusions NOT “data”, consuming news only gives you the chance to vote on their conclusions it doesn’t give you “information” you can use to make your own decisions.

So, I read the PA It isn’t very long. Here is a link to the December 2015 version. Paris Agreement. (I can’t make the URL link work. I found it with the search terms “Paris Agreement Document) If you don’t want to read it, I’ll just tell you that someone at the DNC photocopied the first page and used it for the party platform.

The PA does nothing less than take for itself all the responsibilities of a government. The PA is going to eradicate poverty, promote LGBT rights, fight for the ubiquitous “social justice”, “climate justice”. Lots of justice in there. They will 3D print sliced bread, canned beer and real sex partners for everyone on the planet. The only shared feature of their various definitions of “justice” is the transfer of money.

Some people say. “It isn’t binding so why not just sign it?”

The obvious answer is that if it doesn’t actually DO anything then why bother with it at all?

If you were buying a car, the PA is that moment when the sales guy says, “Just sign the work up sheet here and I’ll go ask my manager to approve you”…unh huh….

But, the reasons run all they way down to our constitutional roots. It is deeply tied, believe it or not, to the current travel ban broo-ha-ha. If you recall, a judge held that the travel ban was discriminatory in its “intent” not because of the language of the executive order itself but because of things Trump said during the campaign.

If SCOTUS should uphold that decision it sets an interesting precedent. If Trump had verbally supported the PA, any regulation that doesn’t fit the PA mold could be overturned by citing the Travel Ban decision and Trump’s verbal remarks would carry the full force and legal weight of a treaty DOMESTICALLY without ever having passed a two thirds vote in the Legislative branch. That would essentially neuter the Legislative branch and turn the Executive branch into the hand maiden of the judiciary branch and effectively give any entity foreign or domestic the opportunity to circumnavigate the Constitution by filing a lawsuit. Any Ork with a pile of cash and a lawyer can become “President of Middle Earth for a Day”

Another popular meme is, “But only Syria and Nicaragua haven’t signed it”

My Mom used to say, “Just because all the other kids are jumping off the bridge does not mean YOU should!”

Ya, whatever, Mom, but seriously..read the PA. If you are the dictator of Bumfuckistan and you get millions in free western cash and are NOT bound by the PA to spend it on anything related to the climate, why the hell would you NOT sign it??”

The world is NOT a collection of unconnected dots, people. There are NOT 195 nations overflowing with love for the planet…yer gonna have to trust me on that..

All the PA really does is establish the global pecking order and loosely define the nations who will pay the bills and which nations will receive payments. The winners and losers have already been determined.

One thing is does communicate clearly. It does NOT like free-market solutions. It prefers money raised by taxation.

MOST of the payments will go to support the massive global bureaucracy that the PA calls for. In order to manage their involvement in the PA, every country will be forced to develop it’s own bureaucracy. Ka-Ching!

In the US that would have meant a new cabinet level position and many thousands of pages of new regulations. Ka-Ching!

Surely, those mountains of regulations would mean that cities, states and counties would have to have their own new bureaucracies…. Ka-Ching

Individuals and businesses (such as Aspen and Vail) would also have to pay the direct costs of compliance with all these new regulations as well as the incremental tax increases associated with the PA… Ka-Ching

Businesses such as Aspen/KSL and Vail would have to hire an army of people to cover the army of government employees who would want to see their plan, approve the plan and monitor the plan, receive massive reports on the plan. ..Ka-Ching

Because the technologies to make a huge reduction in energy consumption are not cheap, businesses would have to raise prices to customers, reduce headcount, reduce benefits, reduce pay raises…in short some pretty tight austerity measures…Ka-Ching

Or, receive massive government subsidies….KA-CHING!

We already know that folks in countries who have gone whole-hog for the renewable technologies have seen unsustainable increases in their electric bills….Ka-Ching

The price of fossil fuels, petroleum in particular, were predicted to rise 300-400% by 2030. We know that is a political target anyway. It was part of the Obama platform in 2008 and 2012. I can’t put that all on the PA.

When China surpasses the US in oil consumption, the trading currency would likely switch from dollars to yuan. The PA would simply accelerate the inevitable change. With US domestic oil production reduced and in many cases, blocked, the US doesn’t have a strategic fall back position…KA-CHING

The economic pressure of high fuel and electric prices is going to mean the end of vacation travel for millions of middle class households that currently participate in snow sports...Ka-Ching

You are maybe wondering who are all the beneficiaries of all this Ka-Chinging?

The simple answer is that if you love lift-served snow sports..it ain’t you…OK?

If you are a skier, YOU are the Ka-Chingee!

The cost of getting to a ski resort is going to go way up…Ouch

The cost lift passes and staying, eating and apres-skiing there is going to go way up…Ouch

There are going to be millions fewer customers who can afford to ski. Guess what happens to everything the resorts charge for and who will pay for that?…Ouch

Perhaps this gloomy economic outlook is the strategic driver behind the flurry of acquisitions? In the potential scenarios created by the PA, only a few resorts will survive. Only the top economic demographics will remain as customers and the dramatic increase in prices won’t affect their participation habits much. But what about all those small businesses in those ski towns who think The Consolidators are the savior returned? What about all that public infrastructure built to support twice the capacity?

Perhaps the “consolidation” craze is just preparing Aspen?KSL and Vail (who already own that market segment) for the inevitable and crushing demise of the lift-served snow sport industry. They intend to own the few resorts they believe will survive.

I was scratching my head over Vail and Aspen volunteering to live up to the PA…

But, if they can suck the budget-skiing resort owners into a “climate war” or influence legislation and regulations in a way favorable to their strategy, it would hasten the demise of those smaller  venues, that’s a win. They are already positioned financially and, as they grow larger, will enjoy more political influence. A huge chunk of the funding for the US Forest Service already comes from VR and Aspen/KSL.

If you are one of the millions of participants who struggle or make sacrifices so you can go skiing or riding, there is absolutely nothing in the PA for you to be happy about. 

 People yak about building “awareness” and take fat donations to do that. I am just wondering if the problem is awareness or “careness”. Everybody from Kindergarten on up is aware of climate change….not that many people care.

The battle cry on the slopes these days is “save our winters!”

My question is, “For Whom?”

But let’s not stop there. Let’s spin the dreidl again and see what turns up.

Even though they are not going to be REQUIRED to suffer all the slings and arrows of outrageous legislation (and YOU won’t have to pay for it all)…

Aspen and Vail just said they are going to do it anyway, which means you will pay for it in one way or another.

BUT…because they won’t have the heavy burden of regulatory compliance and exponential growth in fuel and electric bills, it makes a nice strategic and tactical windfall. They have the opportunity to take the money they had set aside for the effects of the PA in their long range plans and put that money to good use reducing their elephantine carbon clog hoppers.

 

Aspen says they are STILL in it. That surely means they were ALREADY in it before today. I wonder how they were planning to deal with all the requirements of the PA. Let’s take a look at just some of the things that Vail, and now Aspen, have committed themselves to fund. I don’t mean “support” or “signal intent” or lobby or protest…I mean PAY FOR..send money…..moola…dinero….scheckles

Payments to “The Convention” to be distributed to foreign governments to;

fight poverty…. create food-security… support LGBT rights…create climate justice, social justice..the list is really long. How will Aspen and Vail determine how much money to send off every year? Without a government to tell them how much, it should be interesting to watch. I want to see a photocopy of the checks…

Maybe we are seeing the emergence of a Vail v. Aspen Slugfest (click here to read it)“climate competition” that would blow the roof off their goals. Wouldn’t that be something if free enterprise took the lead over tax driven, ineffective government bureaucracy?!! I mean, after all, the War on Poverty and the War on Drugs worked out so well….

So, I am heartened by these announcements by various companies to toe the PA mark and soldier on alone.

As Tony Robbins has often said, “Real leaders don’t create followers. They create new leaders”

+It just might be that backing out of the Paris Agreement has lifted America from becoming a band of dogged, slogging  followers and created all these new leaders.

Rather than having surrendered “American Leadership”, the Orange Dragon just broke away from the pack of followers and unleashed these new leaders on the world.

To be fair, it just might turn out to be the most genius leadership move ever.

 

 

Senior Skier’s Network Update

Thanks to you, the Senior Skiers’ Network is growing like a weed. As our three months anniversary approaches we have 8,633 readers in 82 countries around the world! Each of you reads more than one article when you visit, with a very low “bounce rate” of only 11%.

You prefer news about the snow sport markets around the world by a 3 to 1 margin. That kind of surprised me. The most popular articles concerned the Vail Resorts and Aspen/KSL acquisitions

Articles about inexpensive alternatives are the second most popular, followed closely by Do It Yourself ski instruction.

Well Done World!                      Thank-you for your support!

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Senior Skiing To Grow 400% Worldwide

This article in SkiAsia.com truly fascinates me! It’s really hard to pin down an exact number of active snow sport participants in the world. Outside of Winter Olympic news, The whole notion of skiing in China has been mostly off my radar. Bad analyst..Bad analyst!

So, just thinking “out loud”….

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Many resorts don’t report visits and many people who haven’t skied in years identify themselves as skiers in blind surveys. The number is estimated at around 100 Million worldwide.

Whatever the real numbers are in traditional winter sport countries, the emerging markets in Eastern Europe, Russia, China and elsewhere are on the verge of swamping existing demographics in a very profound way.

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The US has roughly 12 Million active participants who generate about 55 million visit/days each year. It has been that way for a couple of decades.

Now, here is China setting a goal to increase the number of skiers and riders in their country from their current 15 million to 300 million over the next five years!

You read that correctly Three…Hundred…Million…New…Participants.

In Five Years!

The American ski industry has struggled for 20 years just to break even on participation growth.

In reality, the US industry has not created a net gain in participant numbers in a VERY long time. In fact, if you look at this chart, there appears to be a serious “down-bubble” on its way in the U.S. as the number of new, young participants has been shrinking and older participants “age-out”.

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According to the 2017 Laurent Vanat report, the recognized authoritative study of global snow sports market data, while Vail Resorts, and Aspen-KSL are making headlines by moving the deck chairs around the Titanic, China has grown to 646 ski areas and Russia to 354 resorts. Sure, many of them are on run with a surface tow but, it won’t stay that way.

A friend of mine from Kyiv just sent pictures of her Ukrainian ski vacation. Good slopes, good snow, great accommodations and the food was 5 stars on any gourmet’s chart. All at the cost of about 20% of a Colorado vacation.

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For a long time, in the US, the number of participants and the number of visits per season has been either flat or declining. Western Europe is seeing declining numbers as well. Switzerland is tanking in a major way.

Revenue growth has come almost exclusively from price increases.

Coupled with declining visitation, that model is unsustainable as fewer skiers are forced to pay ever higher prices to float the industry boat. VR and Aspen/KSL may enhance their margins by aggregating revenues and creating some economies-of-scale but it doesn’t change the industry’s foundation elements, declining numbers and rising prices.

Products like the Epic Pass are merely the hand the magician wants you to be fascinated with while he lifts your wallet. With declining numbers of customers, the only way they can keep their investors happy in the long term is to raise prices. They have proven incapable of creating new customers.

Faced with emerging, growing markets with cheap and in some cases, government subsidized pricing, it will be much less expensive to enjoy your annual winter vacation in China or Bulgaria than in Colorado.

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China recently flew its first domestically designed and manufactured airliner. 

China recently announced it will open a new “Silk Road” for western trade.

Do the math folks. The world’s fastest growing economy plus 300,000,000 new participants plus government built and operated airliners plus millions of acres of new government subsidized ski resorts. They already manufacture an awful lot of the equipment you buy.

Should China decide one winter to offer free flights, lodging and skiing to Europeans and North Americans, what might be the result? Overnight, the entire western snow sport industry might well become what has been sneeringly referred to as a “feeder resort”.

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The pressure on prices in the western industry will be tremendous. In the short term, the pressure on publicly held North American consolidators may well be more than investors are willing to bear.

Certainly there will be downward pressure on pricing at destination resorts as more options become available in emerging markets

The good news is that small non-destination venues that do not rely on snow making will enjoy a significant competitive flexibility. If they can cover the costs of operating the lifts, they can stay afloat. Highly leveraged operations will struggle…unless…

Unless, large western operations can involve themselves in development of resorts in these emerging markets…(They probably have and I have just been focused elsewhere) It certainly puts the Whistler acquisition in a whole new light for me!

And, it makes sense for them to do so. Pricing in traditional western markets has been treading the tipping-point of the supply & demand curves for a long time. Growth in participant numbers are flat or declining.

Conversely, Eastern Europe, China, and Russia are creating new snow sport participants in very large numbers already. Now that China has made snow sports compulsory for kids in Beijing, the number of new participants may grow as much as 40% year-over-year for the foreseeable future.

Let’s talk about Brain-Drain.

You cannot pack 300 Million new people on the existing slopes. There is going to be a whole lot of building going on.

North American resorts are ALREADY having trouble finding enough ski instructors to cover the demand.

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China and Russia and Eastern Europe will need expertise and the only place to get it in a hurry is from the mature markets of Western Europe and North America.

With Snow-Job wages in the US as ridiculously low as they are, it would not be hard for subsidized, emerging markets to drain off the best and brightest. Resort design, engineering and construction talent, snow making experts, resort operations and travel experts, all of these skilled workers, and many more, are targets for predatory hiring practices.

American snow sport organizations such as NSAA and PSIA already spend a lot of resources on fishing for new instructors on college campuses. The North American instructor corp is already an aging population.What happens to the supply of new, young instructors should China decide to offer a one year paid internship with free housing on American campuses..or worse..to already certified instructors?

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There are a variety of competitive responses available to western snow sport operators, not many, but some very interesting possible outcomes. The one that I find the most worrisome is this…

The NUMBER…..300,000,000 new participants is mind boggling, breath taking.

Add that to growth in other emerging markets and who the heck cares about a paltry 12 million Americans?

If I am Vail or Aspen/KSL I get over there and develop a cut-rate feeder market and drive North American skiing development into THE destination for the global elite. Private gondolas and $20,000 per night rooms….THAT kind of “elite”.

Broad based North American participation from the middle class would no longer be a significant business consideration. If you can consistently attract 60,000,000 visit/days out of the world’s wealthiest skiers, who the heck cares if Joe the Plumber can afford to ski?

What bugs me is that current operations such as Aspen/KSL and Vail are already boiling that frog. Pass prices are going down but the cost of everything else associated with a ski trip are going up at rates higher than inflation.

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They have their Old-Schoolers too! Very Old school 🙂

Slowly as the glam and bling rise, and the western middle-class declines, snow sports are increasingly out of reach for a growing number of traditional participants.

But, with millions of new participants on the near horizon there may be enough of the world’s newly minted millionaires in China and Russia that the western ski industry can afford to simply walk away from it’s traditional base.

The article doesn’t spell out HOW China will create these millions of new skiers and riders. Even if it is just all grade school kids, they will grow up one day.

Time will tell and I will be watching closely from here on out. Now if you will excuse me I have to go read Benny Wu’s market studies on the Chinese snow sport industry….

Stay Tuned!

Vail versus Aspen- A Senior Skiing Slugfest?

After last week’s examination of the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut, Vail Resorts, (Senior Skiers Sound Off – Vail…Beauty or, the Beast? ) I had planned to put out something a tad more light-hearted. After all, the season is winding down and we need to maintain the stoke for the 2017-18 season, yes?

But, you can’t let news like this just slip by. In recent news, the Aspen Ski Company has announced an agreement to buy Intrawest for $1.5 Billion. Intrawest owns Winter Park and Steamboat Springs in Colorado, Mount Tremblant in Canada, Stratton in Vermont and 3 other resorts.

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Does this signal a head-to-head slug fest? Crown versus Katz, in the street at high noon, for primacy in the North American snow sports market? Will this touch off a kind of Corporate Chinese Downhill where competition serves the marketplace by driving down prices? Doubtful.

As we have seen with VR acquisitions, traffic goes up and prices go up. While season pass prices have gone down compared to 20 years ago, the total cost of a ski vacation has risen.

As Aspen enters the corporate snow sport fray, we won’t know how they intend to manage these new properties until they actually begin operations. If they are to echo the Aspen Experience, we have to assume they will want to draw their business from the higher income brackets. Today’s announcements that not much will change seems carefully calculated to insure stability in share prices until the merger can be completed.

To think a management team, driven in the public eye by the Aspen name, will go off into the future without even taking advantages of economies of scale is naive in my view.

Everywhere that has happened it tends to pull prices for all goods and services upward, out of reach for the average senior skier. This is yet another signal of a kind of “gentrification” of the lift served snow sports market. Have Senior Skiers Been Abandoned? The Wrinkled Irrelevants…

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From Wikipedia, In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report Health Effects of Gentrification defines the real estate concept of gentrification as “the transformation of neighborhoods from low value to high value. This change has the potential to cause displacement of long-time residents and businesses … when long-time or original neighborhood residents move from a gentrified area because of higher rents, mortgages, and property taxes. Gentrification is a housing, economic, and health issue that affects a community’s history and culture and reduces social capital. It often shifts a neighborhood’s characteristics, e.g., racial-ethnic composition and household income, by adding new stores and resources in previously run-down neighborhoods.”

What we are likely to see in the coming years is an economic stratification, which also implies racial and ethnic stratification, in lift-served snow sports. Those who can afford the Disney-esque immersion, that is now being called “experiential” skiing, will likely appreciate the up-market move.

But, this up-market move does two things. It relegates those who cannot afford the “experience” to venues who will struggle to keep the lifts running, and it vacates the mid-priced segment.

In other industries that has tended to pull prices upward across the board. In an industry that has struggled to find new customers for 20 years, it does not bode well. It is an industry for which the cost barrier for new client acquisition is already significant.

Should the gentrification of snow sports pull prices upward away from its blue-collar roots, it may well accelerate the closure of down-market venues; more crowding, and further economic stratification, as the industry bleeds customers from the lower income brackets. Perhaps the Alt-Ski community will see some growth ( Seniors Skiing on the Cheap – An Alt-Ski Community )

abandoned skiing
When ski resorts are abandoned, the physical structures are often left to simply rot in place

In that light, numerous programs to introduce poor urban kids to snow sports almost becomes a form of mockery. “Hi kiddies and welcome! We hope you love skiing and riding now because you will never be able to afford it when you grow up”. My more libertarian  sensibilities cringe at the notion of public lands being used to enrich the lives of a relative handful while driving their availability to others downward.

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“From All according to their lobbyists, To those few who can afford them”  – flies in the face of American democratic traditions.

As snow sports become less and less affordable, the Aspen-Vail cage match may well create a hue and cry that endangers these government granted monopolies that operate on public property,

The “multiple use” policy of the US Forest Service ought to have limits that serve the interests of all. In the same way that a vacation to a national park has become corporatized, less affordable and less enjoyable through government granted monopolies, so too may seniors’ skiing.

In the last 20 years the number of active snow sport participants has held steady at around 12 million per season. According to the National Ski Area Assoc. there were 622 ski resorts in the 1988-89. Today, according to a chart at the Statistics Portal there were 463 during the 2015-16 season.

That’s the same 12 million people skiing and riding on 159 fewer resorts and a LOT less acreage.

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We seniors skiing on these crowded slopes can testify that you have to have the vigilance of a combat veteran to get through the day. Eyes in the back of your head and your head on a swivel, just isn’t fun. Senior skiing ought to be about a sense of freedom…not survival.

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With over-crowding and collision injuries on the rise today, if this trend continues, the remaining slopes promise to only bring a degradation of the snow sport experience. And, that drives down demand (fewer skiers) and drives up prices even further. Up to a point that perhaps not even the Godzillas and King Kongs of corporate skiing cannot afford to remain in business.

Many people have reported a marked increase in congestion at VR acquired resorts. Aspen’s entry into gentrification may well accelerate the twinkly-light, gourmet-dining but over-crowded “experience”. Where you are seen in ski togs becomes more important than the quality of the on-snow experience.

crowded skiing

Shops and hotels and restaurants in these acquired areas love the increase in traffic but that increase also adds unforeseen burdens on public infrastructure. Everything from constructing parking to traffic management systems to sewage and trash collection costs more in government expenditures.

Tax increases always happen whenever governments see the opportunity. Increased taxation tends to drive out locals on the lower economic strata. Homeowners who have lived in these town all their lives can no longer afford to remain and Gentrification becomes complete.

Back in the late 70s and early 80s, the focus of “smart money” in snow sports stopped being about skiing and started being all about real estate development in the area around resorts. Now that that fad has hit the wall and slid to the floor, I see this “corporatization” as an extension of that trend. It is just that the only remaining, available real estate in a ski town these days are the resorts themselves.

Once this fad has run it’s course and the stocks in these corporate giants stagnate, what will “smart money” do? Leave? Then what?

While the costs of a season pass might go down in the short term, the long term social costs in terms of diversity may well be unacceptable and unsustainable.

We do have a feel for where the upper limit is with this Gentrification movement. The once ballyhooed ultra-posh private Yellowstone Club near Big Sky has changed hands more times than a Christmas fruit cake. As Vail and Aspen probe upward looking for that line they dare not cross, the less-than-posh can only wait and ski.

Many people herald these acquisitions as if they represent the cavalry charging over the hill to the rescue. Well, the cavalry eventually retires back to its fort and we all know what a herd of horses leaves in the yard….and who has to clean it up :/

Time will tell.

Just Sayin’….

Seniors Skiing on the Cheap – An Alt-Ski Community

In the first installment of Skiing on the Cheap. we took a tongue-in-cheek look at the high price of ski vacations. It really is not a laughing matter. The expense of it all is one of THE major reasons people quit.

The snow sports industry is surrounded by a thick, high wall of travel agents so, this series won’t be about where to go, or the best hotels and restaurants or, where to buy diamonds and mink coats while you are there. There are literally THOUSANDS of people who are happy to separate you from your hard-won moola.

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We are here to help senior skiers hang on to it! Skiing is expensive enough as it is.  As those costs continue to rise, many seniors leave our sport. We’ll help you find ways to keep at it. If anything about what you are gong to read here interests you, shoot us an email and we will do what we can to hook you up.

Grandpa used to say, “If you want to buy good horses for cheap, just drive around in January and look for the shortest hay stack.”

As it turns out, that is pretty good advice for folks who want to ski without spending the kids’ inheritance.

So, let’s visit with some folks who have found affordable alternatives that keep them living-the-life. If you don’t mind cooking your own meals, carrying some water, cutting some firewood and doing a little negotiating, you can ski everyday of a 120 day season for as little as $1,000.00.

The bottom line is this, if you love skiing but the expense is getting you down, there ARE ways that not only save you a huge pile of cash but also get you away from the “Lift-capacity-per-hour/Skiers-per-square foot” calculus of “modern” major resorts.

 

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From the top of the Saddle Mountain lift, you can see for 100 miles in every direction. Just the same view that Lewis & Clark had 210 years ago

Western Montana has a number of ski areas within a reasonable morning drive of Missoula. On the way down to Lost Trail Powder Mountain one morning, I stopped off at a little general store and campground in Sula, Montana for a cup of coffee.

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Sula is one of those non-town towns the American West is famous for. There is no cluster of homes on the highway. Just the store/campground and a couple miles up the road the post office stands alone and serves the cabins on the East Fork of the Bitterroot River. (see trout heaven).

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Normally one would expect a campground to be empty this time of the year. Even the tumbleweeds should be frozen, motionless in the snow. As I was leaving, I glanced back behind the store expecting to see zilch-zip-nada. Instead, I see 5 travel trailers, two tents and a Subaru Forester. I asked the owner what was up with that and she simply said, “Skiers”.

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Lost Trail is completely surrounded by National Forests and Wilderness areas. There has never been the opportunity to develop real estate within 12 miles of the place. It’s one of the things that has preserved its old-school feel and blue collar roots.

Even though it boasts 1800 acres, tons of steeps, glades and trees, it is simply too far off the beaten path to attract the tourist skier. On a hectic powder day, with the parking lot packed full, there might be 1,400 people on the slopes.

 

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Lost Trail has 8 instructors who are certified Senior Specialists

Even if you are all the way in the back of the lot, it’s only a 150 yard walk to the lodge. If you are 60+, a daily ticket is only $26 on Liftopia. A season pass for a senior skiers is only $375 or less, depending on your age. On weekdays it’s just kids from local schools and lots of retired folks.

Missoula is roughly 90 miles north of Lost Trail. Sula is only 12 miles away. There are guest ranches and B&Bs around that you can stay in but none closer to the mountain. On a snowy morning in the winter (the days you REALLY want to ski) it can take 2 to 2 ½ hours to make the drive down from the “big city”. From Sula it is 15 minutes.

On the way home that evening I decided to stop and visit with some of these folks in the campground and ask if I could tell their stories.

So, Meet James.

He says he is 63 and a refugee from the “Software Wars” of the 1990s, just looking to get some turns in each winter without ransacking the 401K. A Rocky Mountain native, he left  the morally conflicting life of a Beltway-Bandit and the D.C. madness in 1998 and came back looking for a slightly mellower line in life. Found it.

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In the warm months he hires out to ranches all over the Rockies gathering stock or helping out at brandings. He sprinkles in some guiding in the back country. In the winter, it is all about snow and skiing.

He found this place a few years ago on day trips to Lost Trail. He had noticed the campground was always empty and few of the 8 cabins were rented. He figured the place could use any kind of income in the winter and simply asked what kind deal they could make for the season. 

When you go to make your own deal remember this…The answer to all the questions you NEVER ASK…is always NO.

For $375 per month he gets a hot tub, free electric, free wifi, and nearly endless hot water in the shower house. Some of the best trout fishing in the west is quite literally 30 feet away. Sound like heaven? It gets better.

Having some skills with carpentry and fixing all manner of gizmos, he made a deal to do their maintenance work in trade for the rent. So, for 10-12 hours of work every month. It costs him absolutely ZERO cash and they let him leave his set up there year round. Wait ’til you see this…..

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This is a 1970s vintage military tent. It is hexagon shaped and 200 square feet. It came with poles and ropes, but he built insulated walls and a floor for it.

He observed that, “It’s one thing to live dirt cheap, but living on a dirt floor is something else entirely. I was in a tipi here last season. Cold, drafty, and it took 5 ½ cords of wood for the season. I built this in modules, with screws. If I want to move it, it is one day’s work and it all fits on an 8×12 ft trailer. It looks like this winter will be less than 1 1/2 cords of wood for heat.”

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A cozy retreat and a welcome sight at the end of a day workin’ the stash!

The tent is heavy canvas, built to military specs, fire proof, waterproof, and cost $495.00. The materials to build the insulated floors and walls cost him $331.00. The kit to convert the 55 gallon barrel into a stove was $44.00. The barrel he got for free. The used stove pipe and window he bought for $5 from the Habit for Humanity store. For a total cash outlay of less than $1000.00 … Home Sweet Home.

The day I came to visit was starting off as highly unusual anyway. I woke up to minus 37F degrees in the valley. The weatherman promised it was a temperature inversion and that it would be in the teens up in the mountains.

When I arrived at 8 AM, it was already up to a balmy minus 21. A 20 mph wind was whipping snow in my face. I was thinking, “This poor SOB has to be freezing in there”

I was wrong. Montana outside…Florida inside. A modest fire was crackling merrily away in the stove and it was 83F degrees inside! The mingled aromas of pine smoke, fresh coffee and bacon embraced me like the good friends they have always been 🙂

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Side by Side Stainless freezer/fridge, two burner propane stove with oven and a microwave. Nothing you can do at home you can’t do here

The interior is Spartan but homey, practical. It’s organized with 3 spaces, Office, Kitchen, and a homemade futon-enabled Bedroom/ Living Room.

 

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The Corporate Headquarters

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Cowboy gear hung from the walls, patiently waiting for Spring. “Leather has salt in it from the horses’ sweat. If I stuff it in a bag and store it, mice and other critters get into it and gnaw on it.”, he explained, “Plus, I like the smell”

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Ski boots hung from the ceiling. “It’s warmer up there so they dry faster. The Langes are a close fit and work like scalpels but they are a cast-iron bitch to put on when they are cold!”

This is definitely Man-Space … with a delicate hint of Chainsaw-Gas Febreeze..

“Most folks think I am some kind of nut and I suppose I am from their perspectives. I just can’t think of anything less relevant to me than what other people think.”

“I am not ‘off-grid’. I am all over it. I just ain’t paying cash to be on it. I have my little internet business that keeps me in fun-money and out of the 401K. I have 100s of friends on the mountain and off so you can’t even call me a hermit. You’re here aren’tcha?”

“I am here for the outdoors, the snow, and the fishing. The less I spend on BEING here the more I can DO here. People talk about ‘the journey’ being more important than the destination. What the hell good is ‘the journey’ if you aren’t DOING things along the way?”

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These are themes repeated by everyone in this little Alt-Ski community. “Don’t trash the vibe, man” They are here for one thing…”TURNS!! It’s all about the TURNS, dude…”

As the weatherman promised, it was much warmer at altitude. We had 13” of Fresh to play in. The hyper-cold temps down in the flat-lands kept most people home that day so we had the place almost to ourselves with only 100 or so cars in the parking lot.

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Virgin Lines All the Time! All the ColdSmoke we could handle without even going off-piste…Sweet 🙂

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Campgrounds in the mountains are primarily summer businesses with few to no customers in the winter. The opportunity is there to negotiate yourself a pretty nice deal on an entire season.

With a little spirit of self-sufficiency, the winter world can be your oyster..for cheap.

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In the next installment of Skiing on the Cheap we will meet Subaru Man. He’s a 60 year old surfer and snowboard artiste from Malibu who could afford to buy the whole establishment but has become determined to recapture the free-spirit, SoCal surf-scape, rad-ness of his youth by living in a Subaru Forester and searching out the Gnarl at these little backwater ski areas…Stay Tuned!

Skiing on the Cheap

 

So, my erstwhile editor forwards an email to me from one or another of Montana’s legion of “tourist” promoting organizations…Do you want to write a story about one of these dude ranches/senior ski resorts? That was the proposition…entirely up to you, old boy…stiff upper lip, what?

A smart person once said one ought to write about things with which one is familiar..as if “one” ain’t the same guy as “me”… any-who… recognizing the social importance of being earnest/ine, I sally forth..

Etymology: “Ski Resort” – A Proto-Norse phrase for “Costs Many Furs”

If you prefer its more modern root, “Ski Resort” means, “If you want to Ski, you must Resort to paying a lot of money.”

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Way, way….waaaaay back in the day, in a time when snowflakes outnumbered resort employees and there was a difference, it became popular for sick city folks from..let’s say..Moscow.. to travel to Switzerland, or elsewhere equally upscale, to “take the waters”.

This implies, of course, that if you live in the city and you don’t feel well, try drinking water from someplace far removed from the place where folks empty their chamber pots. Everyone knows that the more you pay for water, the better it is for you.

Then it became about the air. Don’t feel well? Go someplace where the air isn’t laden with the drifting, sulfurous detritus of coal-powered living. Still today, living in cities makes people ill in one way or another. The evidence to support such a conclusion might be present in either stool or ballot box. Keep faith. There is a cure. Step into my office. Dr. Mike is in..

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Eventually, man’s never-ending search for places healthier than cities led to a social movement (as opposed to the aforementioned movements) we know as “camping”, a craze where humans celebrated their dwindling dependence on outdoor skills by going off in the outdoors and starting fires.

Some were successfully extinguished, many, sadly, were not. The “camping” fad reached it’s zenith in 1945 when nearly 12 million Americans were out camping in all kinds of countries.

Then came the infatuation with the healthy and romantic life of the “American Cowboy”, an occupation whose romance is embraced by sleeping in mud, eating beans, breathing dust, and separating boy-cows from their boy-parts.

Then, decades later, a movie, ”City Slickers” marks that point in American economics when ranchers realized that selling cattle was for chumps. You can make ten times more money letting city folk come play with your cows for a few days...the modern “dude” ranch was born.

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Now, keep in mind, “dude” isn’t the sort of “dude”, as in, “Doooood” that was a gnarly Cork, STOMP!”. No, today’s “Dude Ranch” has a split personality. In the summer, these are Dude Ranches where you get to play with cows.

In the winter they become ”Dooood Ranches” where you get to play the be-dreaded, tie-dyed, senior skiing snow-hippie you know you were or wanted to be. They are that filmy, haze-ridden, Vaseline-thumb-on-the-lense, reality-enhanced world of Ski-Jacoooz-Booze-Snooze where all that mattered is that you may recount the days but cannot recall the nights…at least in the presence of your mate.

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The bottom line is that the more closely you remain allied to your youth, the fewer furs you will have to trap in Central Park to go skiing. Sometimes going “down-market” can be “Up Lifting” ..spirit-wise AND chair-wise and if, when you get home, you still want to buy a mink or a diamond or a $200 sirloin dinner..you will have the cash.

So, saddle up Buckaroos and ride with me as I explore the best-cheap ways for senior skiers to roll out your bedroll, grab ya some grub, and ride some Montana Coldsmoke next winter. We’ll meet some snow-freak characters who are livin’ it for real and for-cheap.

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Try not to forget who STARTED all this skiing hippie business in the first place..hmmm?