Alta States 

Snowbird owner Dick Bass

A few weeks ago, I found myself walking the couple of kilometres of road that separate Alta from Snowbird. It was a clear cold night and the stars were so bright it felt like I could reach up and touch them. I hadn’t seen stars that bright in a resort for a long time. But what struck me most that evening was just how close the mountain peaks seemed to be. I was in alpine country — no question about it. Unlike in Whistler or Aspen or Vail — or most other North American “valley” resorts — I was truly immersed in a big-mountain setting. The fact that there was no massive urban shopping mall development around only served to reinforce my feeling of being in a very special environment.

Yet Salt Lake City — that booming, bustling, bursting-at-the-seams Utah metropolis — was barely 15 minutes down the road…

It’s fascinating to me to see how we in B.C. have completely swallowed the questionable (and oh-so environmentally unfriendly) tenet that no big-mountain ski area can survive without a big-ticket resort as its base. From Whistler to Red Mountain, from Revelstoke’s Mount Mackenzie to Golden’s Kicking Horse, the real estate gold rush in this province is swallowing up valley land at an alarming rate. Yet the demographic/psychographic experts argue that there won’t be much of a market for these newfangled urban/mountain monstrosities in the future.

Ski numbers haven’t changed in a generation. Sure, there’s been a teeny bit of an upward trend in recent years, but not enough to be significant. And those numbers aren’t about to improve anytime soon. While Baby Boomers are dropping out of the sport at an ever-increasing rate (as they push the 60+ barrier and realize that old bones and crowded ski slopes don’t make a great combo), Generation XYZ isn’t so keen to pick up the slack. Especially now that they virtually have to sell their first-born just to be able to afford to ski…

So what gives? When did condos become more important than skis? Whatever happened to the now-discredited idea of a big mountain with a modest base? That’s what Whistler used to be. And it wasn’t that bad. In fact, many old timers today look back fondly on those days. “Skiing at Whistler was never supposed to be about owning a million-dollar condo and driving a Hummer to the towncentre,” says a 30-year resident here. “It was about getting away from the city and enjoying a simpler, healthier lifestyle.”

But somewhere, somehow we were convinced that a ski resort devoted strictly to the uphill transportation business simply couldn’t survive. I still remember Hugh Smythe lecturing me on the subject nearly 20 years ago. To him, people like Franz Wilhelmsen were dinosaurs. They lacked vision. They lacked the foresight to understand that profit margins were just too tight if you restricted yourself to building lifts and offering food and beverage to your customers.


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