715,100 ski days set mark at resort

April 11, 2019

What everyone probably guessed is official: Jackson Hole Mountain Resort had its busiest season ever.

Though closing day was quiet on the slopes, much of the winter was bustling, with 715,100 skier days recorded. A skier day is counted when people scan a ticket or season pass on their first run of the day, and this year’s total was a difference of 80,600 skier days over last year’s, which set the previous record.

“Between the well-timed snow early season to the epically deep February, to the phenomenal skiing at the end of season, it was a great year,” resort spokeswoman Anna Cole said.

This year’s snowfall is bound to leave its indelible mark on the memories of Jacksonites and the people who visited from around the world, particularly because of February, which deposited 193 of the 505 inches of snow the resort received, nearly 40 percent of the season’s snowfall occurring in a four-week period. That left valley residents with their fill of powder skiing and snow removal.

But the 13 percent jump over the previous skier-day record, on the heels of an equal-size jump last season, brought with it growing pains that reverberated throughout the community and were felt not only on the ski slopes but on the roads and buses skiers take. The last two years combined represent a roughly 150,000 skier-day (or 27 percent) jump over the 2013-14 season, which held the record until last year.

Several major factors might have played into the spike: another good snow year, added beginner and intermediate terrain, as well as the Solitude Station lodge to accommodate those skiers, and the often-vilified Ikon Pass.

“This was kind of the perfect storm of factors this winter,” County Commissioner Greg Epstein said.

The snow speaks for itself: People want to ski where the best snow is, as was seen last year when other parts of the West lacked snow and skiers flocked to Jackson Hole in droves. Though other resorts had improved snow this winter, it’s still hard to argue with record snowfall in Jackson Hole.

The added beginner terrain, especially the building of Solitude Station, was a way to “soften up a bit and have a more accessible experience,” Vice President Jess Milligan said when the new lodge opened. Highlighting its beginner terrain and giving newbies a place of their own served two purposes: It opened space at the base area, decreasing congestion around the main lifts, and it improved the experience for beginners.

Skating around on one ski while advanced skiers scrum past you to reach the lift can be unnerving for a beginner, and making that subset of skiers more comfortable and, hence, more likely to visit Jackson, may have contributed to the increase.

“It’s pretty clever,” said Sean McGinness, ski area administrator for the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee national forests. “If you’re shooting for the highest possible customer experience, it has worked in other places.”

The Ikon Pass has been a source of consternation for locals all season. The multiresort pass gave skiers from all over the country five or seven days at what many view as their local hill, and though the resort didn’t provide numbers on how much the Ikon Pass contributed to the increase, it seemed to be a big driver.

Though the resort, in a somewhat ironic twist, will offer Grand Pass holders for the 2019-20 winter a free Ikon Pass, some longtime skiers hope for fixes to what they see as the worst problems, namely long lines, parking and traffic.

“I’m sick of hearing the word Ikon,” 100 Club member Nick Londy said. No matter the source of congestion, “I just think this season was a total disaster in terms of execution. I want to see solutions.”

Officials from several agencies and the resort said they have heard the gripes and plan to meet over the summer to devise fixes.

“Looking ahead to next winter, JHMR will partner with Teton County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) and Teton Village Association,” the resort wrote in its end-of-season press release, “to invest in both short and long-term solutions to improve our transit, parking and mountain operations.”

On several days this season the Ranch lot, the designated zone for carpools that costs $10, except for cars carrying three or more skiers, filled to capacity. That forced the resort to park people on the roads spiderwebbing out from Teton Village toward Highway 390.

A full Ranch lot could be an indication that carpooling measures are working. Teton Village Association Executive Director Melissa Turley said that on some days the number of carpools that received free parking in the lot neared 70 percent. But all those cars still take up space on the roads, and though Turley said land does exist in Teton Village that could be converted to more parking, the goal is to increase space at Stilson for people taking public transit.

“We’re hoping to add a couple hundred” spots, she said. “We’ll be able to expand to the east and north.”

Besides increased space at Stilson, other ideas that have been floated to alleviate the congestion on the road and in Village parking lots include raising the Ranch lot fee to $15, increasing START service to Teton Village and bumping the carpool number for free parking to four people.

Epstein sees another place the county could increase START ridership. In-town hotels saw a jump in occupancy this winter, meaning more skiers are staying in town and need transportation to Teton Village. Even though START saw a 5.5 percent increase in ridership on its Teton Village lines this year, Epstein wants more tourists taking public transit.

“Some of those people were staying in camper vans, some with friends, a lot at the in-town hotels,” he said. “We should be having more of a unified message for them about using START.”

Whatever solutions are devised, future increases in skier days could be on the horizon. On the heels of Solitude Station’s construction, the resort plans to construct the Eagle’s Rest fixed-grip quad to service the new lodge’s learning area. Increasing access to beginner terrain may bring more families and new skiers, and the sky’s the limit for how many skiers the resort can draw.

“For operation there’s not a clause that limits the number of skier days they are allowed,” McGinness said.

He cautioned that the lack of a limit doesn’t mean the resort will push for 1 million skier days or another aggressive number. Market forces, including tourism and the loud complaints of locals, will dictate when the growth has reached an unacceptable threshold for consumers, but the crowds of visitors seem to indicate that has not been reached.

It’s too early to say what next winter will be like. Weather patterns might not bestow the same deep snow the last two seasons have enjoyed; other high-level resorts may curry favor with the traveling public. But in spite of the downsides, when people talk about the deepest February ever, they’ll probably talk about the skiing.

“This is one of those seasons that people will remember for years,” Cole said.