Sunlight Resort – Upskiing Solution

Post by blogger | April 13, 2010      

Some of you Wildsnowers might recall the mega thread that developed here when Whitefish Mountain Resort implemented some heavy restrictions on uphill travel.

Our belief is that uphilling can be a viable part of any ski resort’s recreational offering. We’re not sure where that approach will lead in terms of areas perhaps charging us to use their slopes for uphilling. But experimenting with different ideas such as passes and perhaps even fees is most certainly more intelligent than simply closing access.

Sunlight hiker pass

For now, this might be one of the only totally free ski passes available in North America (Crested Butte has an uphill pass as well).

A short time ago I headed over to our little Sunlight Mountain Resort for a cardio session, and noticed they’d started a “hiking pass” program. You pick up the free pass at the ticket window or from the ski patrol. I got mine at the patrol shack, and the ‘troller explained the idea is the pass makes sure all uphillers know the rules and have the disclaimer. I like it, though it seems to me the next step will be to sell the pass instead of giving it away. If the price is super reasonable I’m ok with that — let’s just hope they don’t gouge.

Sunlight hiker pass poster

Sunlight hiker pass poster


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29 Responses to “Sunlight Resort – Upskiing Solution”

  1. Jonathan Shefftz April 13th, 2010 8:55 am

    So glad to see this! Even a small season pass fee of something like $15 would be completely reasonable, and help to ensure sensible behavior of skinners!

  2. Njord April 13th, 2010 9:00 am

    I doubt that Sunlight would ever charge for the uphill priveledge… matter-of-fact, the whole reason that the “Uphill Pass” came into being is due to the “less-than-smart” practices we were seeing at Sunlight.

    Things like:
    Uphilling in the middle of the slope, both during the day (lots of downhill skiers) and night (when the groomers are out).
    Leaving dog poop on the run (who wants to ski through dog poo??).
    People expecting the Ski Patrol to scoop them up after the area has closed and they got hurt.

    Sunlight used to be very hands-off to the folks skinning up (several of us patrollers due before the lifts open), but enough dumb stuff has occured in the past year where the management of the mountain/ski patrol needed to act. I think this is another case where the popularity of bc is getting dragged into the “masses” that have not taken the time to figure out what the propper etiquette is… too bad. Now everyone needs a “free” uphill pass!

    (occasional Sunlight Patroller)

  3. Ken April 13th, 2010 9:30 am

    In general, passes are for the lifts….as in “lift passes” not “ski passes”. The cost of the pass covers your lift up the mountain, not your use of National Forest lands that are being used by the ski resort. I think the resort itself has no business charging for hiking as they are not really enhancing your experience much. However, free passes are a good idea in that they help people be aware and inform them of some basic safety items that make everyone safer.

    Incidentally, if the forest service were to charge people for using the land (under one of the fee programs), I would be fine with that…just not with the resort charging for it.

  4. Lou April 13th, 2010 9:51 am

    As soon as they start charging for an upskiing pass on USFS land, they’ll have to pay a per-user fee to the USFS. Add processing expenses to that, and you have the minimum they could charge. Anyone actually know what a resort pays the USFS per user day? I can’t find the info anywhere.

  5. Jacob Slosberg April 13th, 2010 9:53 am

    I think this is a good idea, and I wouldn’t mind paying a few bucks for the pass a year. I would be nice if Aspen Mtn used this system instead of just banning uphilling after the lifts open.
    Ski resorts provide a lot more services than just the lifts. Even though the pass says that there is no ski patrol after hours, the pass implies that if you were skinning up during operational hours and you got hurt, the ski patrol would come get you down. That is pretty sweet, and definitely something that doesn’t come with my favorite local backcountry spot. Also, how about grooming and avalanche safety. When I skin up at resorts I get to skin up all sorts of avi terrain that I would have to bob and weave around if it weren’t being made save by the resort. Uphilling at resorts is a great way to get some mindless cardio in when I don’t have a partner or a whole day to go into the backcountry. It would be a shame if we saw uphilling go away.
    This idea of alternative ticketing isn’t exactly new either. This isn’t exactly the same but, Whistler (and I presume other resorts as well) have a backcountry ski pass. You buy a backcountry pass and get one lift ride to the top of Blackcomb and then you can skin out of bounds and ski the slackcountry. However at the end of the day you get to ski back down to the base in-bounds. So yes this is definitely a money making tool, but it also covers you for the lift ride, and the ski patrol and safety work they do for you when you are in-bounds.

  6. Frank K April 13th, 2010 10:10 am

    Guess you missed my post on this same subject in the Whitefish thread- Crested Butte has had a free uphill pass for a couple of years at least, so I don’t think sunlight gets to be named the only “totally free pass in North America.”

  7. Lou April 13th, 2010 10:44 am

    I’m so wrong… glad to be corrected. Thanks Frank.

  8. Larry April 13th, 2010 10:46 am

    Lou – I think the user fee that resorts pay to the forest service is specified in the Special Use Permit for each ski area. Copies of the permits should be on file in the Forest Supervisors Office (Glenwood Springs for White River area). This document is a public record and should be available for your viewing.

  9. Eric April 13th, 2010 11:15 am

    They’ll never charge even a menial fee either, as they would lose their legal immunity under the Recreation Use Stature, or at least they would in Washington

  10. Howard April 13th, 2010 11:41 am

    Ken — If the resort weren’t enhancing the uphill experience, there would be no reason to uphill there vs. undeveloped USFS land, especially given the annoyances of interacting with downhill skiers.

    People uphill at downhill resorts because of all the amenities that have been built to cater to the downhill guest: access roads, parking, grooming, avalanche control, shelter, food, beer, emergency response, cell phone coverage, etc.

    On top of that, a ski resort operating on USFS land does not just get to use it for free. It’s paying the USFS per-user and sometimes blanket fees for the privilege. Just because you own something doesn’t mean you get unlimited access to it. If you rent a house to someone else, they get control. If we (the public) rent a mountain to someone (a ski area), they get control. If we don’t like it, we shouldn’t rent it to them.

    To Lou and others — just to be clear, Whitefish did not “simply close access”. They limited the hours during which uphill traffic is allowed, and they limited routes. In the article, you make it sound like they just shut it down without thinking about it or attempting to find a middle ground. In fact, their policy is a middle ground. We may not be satisfied with it, but it is unfair to paint them as unbending and unintelligent.

  11. Howard April 13th, 2010 12:14 pm

    Johnathan, Lour — To figure out what a fair price for an uphill season pass would really be, you’d have to consider a place devoted only to uphill access. At this place, several routes are groomed daily, so at least one grooming machine has to be purchased and probably at least two operators put on the payroll. Two or three patrollers are probably required to cover the liability of the people operating the groomers and maintaining the routes. Someone will have to plow the access road. Someone will have to be in charge of the whole thing. Liability insurance will have to be purchased, as well as all the usual craziness that goes along with employing people. Probably, you’ll need a few good session with a ski industry lawyer in your state to come up with the right language for your signs and collateral.

    Now, add up all those things, and you have the actual cost of providing the kind of uphill access that downhill resorts provide, without all the stuff that we presumably don’t care about (lifts, lodges, dining, etc.). Now, decide what your season will be, divide your yearly cost by the number of days, figure out how many people will use the service, add in per-user fees if you’re on USFS land, and you’ll have your uphill access season pass price (assuming you don’t want to make a profit). I guarantee you, with the number of people who participate, that price will be a lot higher than $15/year.

    My point is not that we should try to build areas like this. But when we’re talking about uphilling at downhill areas, it is easy to forget how much cost is absorbed by the downhill skier. It’s easy to think of those perfectly groomed slopes as something that’s there anyway, whether I use them or not. But when you uphill at a downhill resort, you’re taking advantage of a lot of infrastructure and effort that costs a lot of money, so if we’re being completely fair about it, we should probably be paying enough to cover our share of that cost.

    Another way to go about it would be to figure out what portion of the expenses of a particular ski are are directly lift-related (lifties, maintenance, electricity, etc.), and then discount a downhill season pass by that percentage to arrive at the uphill pass price.

  12. Njord April 13th, 2010 12:17 pm

    Here’s a little known fact about Sunlight: It’s actually a mix of public and private lands, as opposed to most resorts which tend to be ALL public lands…

  13. Howard April 13th, 2010 12:19 pm

    @Njord – Same with Whitefish.

  14. Jonathan Shefftz April 13th, 2010 12:28 pm

    “To figure out what a fair price for an uphill season pass would really be, you’d have to consider a place devoted only to uphill access. [,…] But when you uphill at a downhill resort, you’re taking advantage of a lot of infrastructure and effort that costs a lot of money, so if we’re being completely fair about it, we should probably be paying enough to cover our share of that cost.”
    — That is not at all how any sensible financial approach to joint cost allocation would work in this context.

  15. Howard April 13th, 2010 12:31 pm

    Johnathan — Okay, why not? How would one work?

  16. Jonathan Shefftz April 13th, 2010 12:37 pm

    Joint cost allocation is a pretty wide-open subject, and I have to write up something now for work that deals with that very issue (albeit in a much different context, i.e., illegal pesticide sales).
    However, the starting point here would to determine the incremental costs (both direct and indirect, as well as both out-of-pocket costs and opportunity costs) that a ski area incurs from uphill traffic.
    Fixed costs that are invariant to the existence of uphillers (e.g., plowing the access road) are irrelevant.

  17. Jonathan Shefftz April 13th, 2010 12:52 pm

    All this reminds me … last week while blatantly parking illegally in the ski patrol lot after skinning up a closed ski area, we encountered the owner, who was as always quite friendly . . . the surprise was that although I know he’s totally okay w/ nonoperational hours skinning, his groomers hate it, but he basically just tells them to deal with it since he wants as many people to enjoy the mountain as possible . . . the other surprises were that he’s even okay with people skinning up when they’re open (although he’s thinking of charging them something like $5) . . . and he’s even intrigued by the idea of a rando race.

  18. Howard April 13th, 2010 1:12 pm

    Jonathan (sorry for misspelling your name previously) —

    It’s true that some portion (maybe the majority?) of costs for a ski resort are fixed, and therefore not affected by adding uphillers to the mix. However, it’s also true that those costs are not affected by the number of downhillers. So, clearly, you can’t base access prices on marginal costs alone, or downhill tickets would be just a few dollars to cover labor.

    The owner you’re talking about: what mountain?

  19. Jonathan Shefftz April 13th, 2010 1:35 pm

    “However, it’s also true that those costs are not affected by the number of downhillers.”
    — Those costs were incurred to serve downhillers. If the downhillers didn’t exist, neither would that infrastructure. So downhillers as a class have to support those costs. In other contexts, like postal rate hearings, each user class tries to claim that various costs are incurred primarily to serve some other user class. But here, it’s just so very obvious.

    The owner is at Wachusett — great hill for rando race training.

  20. Lee B April 13th, 2010 4:23 pm

    I just want to point out that it is either Sully or Wick on the pass. I was wondering who would hike with Goode skis on their back and figured it must be from a COSMIC race.

  21. Howard April 13th, 2010 4:38 pm

    I understand the user class argument. I’m not sure the logic applies completely here, since we’re just talking about a company setting prices, not assigning blame for anything.

    Really, though, I think we’ve derailed a bit. We’re talking about two different perspectives. You’re talking about the actual cost to the resort to provide uphill access, which I would agree is negligible (unless, of course, there is an accident that results in a lawsuit). I’m talking about the value the uphiller receives when hiking uphill at a downhill resort.

    Again, I’m not really arguing that resorts should charge for uphill access. I do think, though, that uphillers should acknowledge that they are taking advantage of infrastructure built, at considerable expense and for another purpose, when they hike inbounds.

    I’m not aiming this at you at all, but I find that a lot of uphillers exhibit a conflict of logic that really annoys me. On the one hand, they assert that the resort should not have the power to control what goes on on public lands, especially for monetary gain, but on the other hand they actively choose to recreate there because of the benefits of that control, and of infrastructure motivated by monetary gain.

  22. Jonathan Shefftz April 13th, 2010 4:49 pm

    In that case, we’re definitely in agreement on both points: a big difference between the cost of uphillers to the ski area vs the benefit to uphillers from the ski area, which is exactly why it’s a great match, i.e., big net benefit. And making access more formal (as opposed to a poach-it-if-you-can-get-away-with-it approach), with an acknowledgement of controls by the ski area, and with a recognization by uphillers of limits meant to make the situation safer for everyone, is a great idea.

  23. Walt April 13th, 2010 6:45 pm

    Hikers still have Snow King Mountain in Jackson. Anyone can go anytime. You can even bring your dog. I was surprised. Of course, Jackson Hole mountain resort is the complete opposite.

  24. Francisco April 14th, 2010 4:52 am

    By the way, for those that dont know, Eldora is working on their master plan right now, and are considering uphill access. Please send them an e-mail stating your opinion.
    Also, it’s a good idea to sponsor areas that already provide the access. Grab a beer and a burger on your way out.

  25. Lou April 14th, 2010 6:03 am

    I tried to eat some food last time I was up at Sunlight. Cold over-salted fries. Like I said, I tried. The thought of a burger scared me.

  26. Francisco April 14th, 2010 7:14 am


    Ok, then just give them a pat in the back. No need to sacrifice your circulation for a few morning laps!

    Is their coffee good? That could be an alternative.

  27. XXX_er April 14th, 2010 1:01 pm

    we have gone thru this localy ,its not about unsafe skinning practises or people ducking winchcat lines and its not a lot of people who want to ski uphill

    the hill is saying its about insurance ,the insurance people say they don’t care … really the hill wants you to pay to play

    mind you they didnt mind when the Rotary club materminded ,fund raised and built a ski run to link up the town with the hill and they know they have no say on the ski run to town but will hassle uphill traffic for people who don’t have a pass

    the one guy who skins up and has a seasons pass …they just can’t understand

    Keeping in mind this is sparsely populated northern BC not colorado ,IMO in a sport where there are less and less people willing to come up and spend money at the ski resort they should be more accomadating to anybody who wants to be on the hill for any reason at all

  28. Njord April 14th, 2010 7:48 pm

    they won’t let me be in charge of making the fries… not enough salt! We do have good beer, though…


  29. K April 19th, 2010 9:22 pm

    Allowing for uphill access is definitely a good idea. It pains me to see that certain resorts are trying to profit from the public using public lands, but in the case of skinning at a resort, even though you don’t use the lifts, you are still benefiting from the ability to skin up groomed runs and, at least in CO, be helped out by ski patrol. I grew up skiing and, later on, skinning at Big Mountain, MT (now “WMR”) and was extremely surprised and a bit disappointed on my move to CO when I learned about laws applicable to skiers here. In many states, like MT, if you are skinning, hiking, sledding, doing cartwheels for just for fun, whether the activity be during or after hours, the resort (as well as the forest service) is protected from liability for injury you sustain as a result of your own choices. This means that if you are sledding after hours at a resort and hit a fence post that ends up killing you, your family has no ability to recover from the land owner (or renter of public lands). The reason given by the courts and the legislatures is to encourage the opening of private land to public recreation.

    So, CO, a HUGE outdoor recreation wonderland, seems to be one of the most backwards states out there when it comes to recreational rights. It is possibly the only state where it is legal for a private landowner to string barbwire across a river in order to stop/catch rafters or kayakers, it has laws in place that stop the public from fully utilizing public land at their own risk, and it is definitly geared towards helping ski resorts keep the land they are on exclusive to those who can pay.

    Just a side note, but as far as I can tell, it is illegal to skin up a mountain during the full moon to enjoy a nice full moon ski–unless of course the runs are “open” at the moment, which I’ve been told is never the case at night unless you are paying for a moonlight dinner and ski event. Such a bummer!

    Okay–so mildly untimely complaining–I apologize!

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