Alpenglow Ski Mountaineering History Project Home
Hal Clifford - Downhill Slide
This book describes the "Big Three" ski companies - Vail Resorts Incorporated, Intrawest Corporation, and American Skiing Company - publicly traded corporations that control many of the largest, best-known ski resorts in North America, and the effect that they have had on skiing, ski towns and the environment.
Chapter 1 - From Rope Tows to Real Estate
p. 14: The 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley gave skiing a boost just as the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics had. The number of skiers nationwide jumped from 1.6 million in 1960 to 2.4 million in 1964.
p. 15: Bill Janss, a real estate developer, built Thousand Oaks, California near Los Angeles, purchased Sun Valley in 1964, and developed Snowmass Ski Area in 1967. Janss saw ski slopes as a magnet that would sell second homes. This idea changed the ski industry. The author writes (p. 8): "Skiing has been transformed into a come-hither amenity to sell real estate. This is a fundamental shift away from the roots of the sport..."
Chapter 2 - Skiing's Self-Defeating Arms Race
p. 18: The ski industry is dying. The number of skier days in the United States has remained flat from 1979 through 1999 because of the aging of the Baby Boom generation, the decline in leisure time due to economic growth, and the increase in leisure choices. Without snowboarding, which came of age in the 1980s and accounted for 26% of lift tickets sold in 1999, skier days would have declined by double digits since the 1970s. Skiing is poised for a long decline.
p. 22: "All sports that are difficult [to learn] are suffering from a decline in core participation" due to the decline in leisure time.
p. 23: The ski industry has been consolidating, with the big ski areas growing at the expense of smaller ones. The standard of the products and services offered to skiers has gone up as resorts have tried to take customers from one another.
p. 28: The ski industry is locked in an "arms race" that includes snowmaking, trail grooming, and high speed lifts. Ski resorts feel compelled to make these improvements to compete in a stagnant market. This has driven up prices, reducing the likelihood that the market will grow again. The rate of capital investment has helped "box the ski industry into a high-cost corner" (p. 31).
p. 35: Unable to grow the number of skier visits enough to pay for improvements, the Big Three ski corporations identified two potential profit centers: selling real estate and attracting nonskiers to ski resorts.
Chapter 3 - Wall Street Comes to the Mountain
p. 36: Skiing experienced a "golden moment" from 1945 until about 1980. Ski towns during those years were places to escape from the mainstream of American life. The golden moment ended as development in ski towns became an end in itself.
p. 39: The Big Three ski conglomerates, as well as Booth Creek, a privately held firm that mimics them, were assembled during the 1990s. The author writes: "They are the result of the mass-market commercialization of ski towns, a result predicated on the dubious premise that to prosper in the modern ski industry, one must get big or get out."
p. 43: When ski areas were small and low-tech, the business risk associated with fickle weather and snow was acceptable. Now, with hundreds of millions of dollars invested and a continuous demand from Wall Street for increasing rates of return, resort managers have had to look beyond skiing to minimize their risks. This has led them to move into real estate development and conversion of ski areas into high-volume, four-season resorts.
p. 45: "We don't consider ourselves in the ski business," admitted Intrawest CEO Joe Houssian.
p. 55: "Although ski resorts resemble theme parks and cruise lines more than ever before, they are different in one key component: they develop public land in their search for profit."
Chapter 4 - What is Land For? A Theological SchismThis chapter contains quasi-religious observations about how different people view the land, best summarized on p. 81: "The conflict is one of belief systems."
Chapter 5 - Selling the New Resort
p. 91: "Today, people who operate small ski areas for the love of the sport are considered to be anachronisms, likely to be the subject of loving, sepia-toned profiles in newspapers and magazines. The Big Three corporations setting the pace in the industry are all about number crunching."
p. 92: The author describes the tendency of major ski resorts to urbanize mountain valleys and gentrify mountain towns by introducing commercial air access and non-local businesses.
Chapter 6 - Potemkin Villages and Emerald CitiesThis chapter describes how the "New Ski Villages" are designed to provide seemingly spontaneous experiences that maximize the amount of money guests will spend, and how the ski corporations control the tenant businesses that operate in these villages.
Chapter 7 - Smokey the Bear, the Ski Industry's Best Friend
p. 137: "The [Forest Service] has become badly compromised in its ability to regulate the ski industry because it is formally in partnership with that industry--a textbook example of conflict of interest that leaves the public holding the bag."
p. 140: Recreation fees and public-private partnerships are new Forest Service management paradigms that have emerged as Congress and the Administration have defunded federal agencies to compell them to function more like private businesses.
Chapter 8 - Resort Roadkill: The Environmental Price TagThis chapter describes the impact of ski areas on wildlife, watersheds and air quality.
p. 180: No major ski areas have opened in the United States since 1980.
Chapter 9 - Commuters or Communities?This chapter describes "the modern and largely invisible face of the corporate ski industry: hardworking foreign-born, often semiliterate laborers, many of them illegal, who commute long distances to work the menial jobs that keep four-season ski resorts functioning."
Chapter 10 - Back to the Future
p. 220: The author's thesis in a nutshell: "The cost of the ski industry's fling during the 1990s with the publicly traded corporate resort model has been high. Although some individuals have benefited, Vail, Intrawest, American Skiing Company, and their imitators have brought enormous disruption to ski towns across North America. They have contributed significantly to the urbanization and gentrification of some of America's most magnificent places. They have displaced human communities and damaged natural ones. They have accelerated the on-mountain arms race and jacked up the cost of skiing, helping to force other ski areas out of business. They have made the sport increasingly unaffordable, drying up the pool of new skiers. They have done all this in the search for greater wealth and profits--yet their shareholders have fared poorly at best, and at worst have lost their shirts."
p. 223: The author argues for returning ski areas to local, community control. "Only when control of skiing is wrested from publicly traded corporations, which value profit to the near exclusion of all other values, and vested with people committed to the long-term success of the sport and of mountain towns will skiing--and ski towns--have a fighting chance."
p. 229: Bogus Basin, Idaho; Bridger Bowl, Montana; and Mad River Glen, Vermont are examples of ski areas that have abandoned the path being forged by the Big Three.
p. 240: The future of skiing and ski towns depends on mountain communities taking their fate into their own hands and working to sustain both the sport of skiing and the places where they live for the long haul.
Return to the Alpenglow Ski Mountaineering History Project home page