A Washington ski resort ended single-day tickets on weekends. Could Utah resorts be next?

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skiers and boarders enjoy Park City ski area Thursday Feb. 22, 2018.

You’re staring down a precious day off and, though it sounds tempting, you aren’t sure you want to go through the considerable effort of hauling yourself and your gear up the mountains to go skiing or snowboarding. You set your alarm just in case and wake up to thick, fluffy flakes floating through the air and piling up on the ground.

It’s go time!

But hold on one second. If you don’t have a pass and didn’t buy your ticket ahead of time, you may have to spend this powder day at home.

With resorts exploring ways to deal with increased skier numbers in lift lines, at the lunch table and in the parking lots, same-day walk-up passes may eventually go the way of wire wickets and sticky tickets.

Case in point: Crystal Mountain Resort in Washington last week became the first North American resort to halt walk-up sales at its ticket booths on all weekends and holidays. The drastic action, which COO Frank DeBerry called in an open letter to the public “a tough but necessary decision,” was prompted by several days of maxed-out parking and snarled traffic as patrons were turned away from the resort

“We are skiers at heart and turning away those who love the mountain is not in our nature,” DeBerry wrote. “But something needs to change for the community good.”

The scenario that spurred Crystal Mountain’s policy — which will be reevaluated in February — may sound familiar to skiers and boarders around Utah. Nigh every snowsport enthusiast can spin a tale of being caught in one of the canyons for hours while waiting for accidents or avalanches to clear. Those who take the bus can avoid the headache of finding parking but may be trapped, standing in their ski gear, for hours, especially on the weekends.

Those hassles were enough for University of Utah doctoral student Kat Pagano to mostly stop going, even though she is eligible for a heavily discounted student season pass.

“I didn’t buy a pass because of time and traffic,” said Pagano, 31, who bought ski passes the past two seasons. “The canyons are one way in and one way out. I’ve been caught in traffic going up and down for three to four hours. I’m like, I have a life.”

So might Utah’s ski areas consider closing down their ticket booths, especially on their busiest days? Ski Utah spokeswoman Anelise Bergin said she doesn’t think it’s in the near future.

Bergin pointed out that part of Crystal Mountain’s recent backlog was caused by road closures to the two other major resorts situated within two hours of Seattle: Snoqualamie and Stevens Pass.

“We’re in a little better situation than those mountains, especially with so many options nearby,” she said. “[Limiting same-day sales is] one way to mitigate the crowd, but I don’t know if we’ll see that in Utah. We have so many that are so close by that it spreads people out really nicely.”

It doesn’t necessarily feel like that to skiers when they’re caught in a line of red tail lights on the way up to or back from a resort. But the state’s resorts have taken different tacks to curb that kind of frustration. Solitude, which like Crystal Mountain is owned by the Alterra Mountain Company, began charging for parking this season while offering discounts for patrons who carpool.

Alta Ski Area has also been considering taking action to reduce the number of vehicles in Little Cottonwood Canyon and in its parking lot.

“That is definitely something we’re addressing. We’re looking into and trying to come up with a solution for that,” Alta spokeswoman Andria Huskinson said. “I would say that’s our No. 1 concern right now is just traffic.”

Huskinson added that cutting off ticket sales at the resort has not been discussed as a solution, particularly because she said the mountain can hold more skiers, even if the roads can’t. Solitude spokeswoman Sara Huey said that Big Cottonwood Canyon resort is in a similar predicament, hence its focus on parking and its decision to pay the ski bus fare for all Ikon Pass holders.

Multi-resort season passes like the Ikon Pass, which arrived on the ski scene two years ago and mostly includes Alterra-owned properties, and Vail Resorts’ 10-year-old Epic Pass have widely received both the credit and blame for the increased traffic. Skier visits have increased 54% in the Rocky Mountain region, which includes Utah, since 1978, according to the National Ski Areas Association. Last year they were up 15.6% in the region over the previous year. Huskinson pointed out that’s an increase in skier days, but not necessarily skiers, and that the past two seasons differed wildly in terms of snowfall.

Limiting single-day sales would have no effect on crowds caused by pass holders it but could reduce crowds overall. And last year, according to David Belin, director of consulting services for the Colorado-based consumer travel research RRCA Associates, people were turned away for at least part of the day at 36 resorts in the United States.

Among them were at least two Utah resorts, Deer Valley and Powder Mountain. Both have committed to limiting their single-day ticket sales, which at times can mean no tickets can be purchased at the resort. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Deer Valley has been in the practice of limiting tickets almost since it opened in 1981. It now cuts off day-pass sales at 8,500, which spokeswoman Emily Summers said happens about eight to 10 times a season despite ticket prices that are among the priciest in the country, soaring up to $209. She said because ticket limits have been part of the ski-only resort’s policy for so long, people know it could happen — and some may even choose to ski there because of them.

“It’s just like they think ‘ski only.’ They know we limit lift ticket sales,” Summers said. “It makes us attractive because people know what the busiest days look like.

“We run the risk of upsetting someone,” she added, “but there are so many ways people can purchase in advance and remotely that it’s not as big of a problem as it used to be.”

Indeed, most resorts offer steep discounts to those who plan ahead and purchase online or at a ski rental or retail shop. The idea is to get people to commit before they can be swayed by bad weather, bad roads or a sleepless night. Most online retailers cut off their sales at midnight before the day of use, however. That could be why, according to Belin, 50% of one-day and multi-day tickets are still purchased at the resort nationwide. That number drops to 46% for the Rocky Mountain region but soars to 71% in the Pacific Northwest.

Bergin at Ski Utah said she nonetheless expects to see a great migration of skiers and boarders to resort sites and discount lift ticket sites like Liftopia and getskitickets.com in the coming seasons.

“I think skiers are evolving in that way in their purchase behaviors,” she said. “Even 10 years ago, everybody was walking up to the window. But I think purchasing behavior has evolved even in the last five years where we’re seeing resorts offering much better pricing online. ...

“I think you have to give the consumer a little credit. Even if they’re new, they’re naturally going to look online first and going to purchase online even if it’s a single-day ticket because most every resort in the country is offering that incentive to buy online.”

One resort that bucks that trend is Powder Mountain. The Ogden-area resort’s price of $95 doesn’t change no matter if someone buys it online or at the ticket booth, on a holiday or on a weekday in March. Powder is a white heron in other ways as well. For one, its base is located at the top of the mountain and it relies on buses and snowcats, as well as a handful of lifts, to get skiers and boarders back up. And despite being one of the most remote and sprawling resorts in the Wasatch, it began limiting its single-day passes three years ago to a mere 1,500 per day. That averages out to about three acres per skier.

The resort has sold out seven to eight days already this year and averages 15-20 sellouts a season, according to J.P. Goulet, the resort’s marketing coordinator. The fear of missing out alone has prompted more customers to buy online, Goulet said, though he, like most of the resorts, wouldn’t disclose exact numbers.

Might Powder Mountain, one day in the not so distant future, decide it’s not worth it to keep manning its ticket booths? Goulet didn’t say no.

“It’s one of those things that people have been accustomed to doing for years and years,” he said of people buying at the resort kiosk. “For us, as we do cap day passes, I could see us going that route maybe before other resorts.”