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O. Zone: The (Blue) Sky is falling

January 7, 2022, 1:18 pm
nick sends it
Nick Williams drops a rock on Heavy Metal in Vail’s Blue Sky Basin in a previous season.

Trying out a new format here (for me): A quicker bullet-point blog to weigh in on a lot of topics in a more readable format. I’m starting with the issue everyone is talking about on the chairlifts and in the local bars these days, which is actually a lot of topics all rolled into one: the ski terrain (or lack thereof), labor (or lack thereof) and lift lines (no lack thereof) crisis:

The O Zone by David O. Williams
The O. Zone

  Actually, there was a lack of lift lines Thursday (Jan. 6) on a 10-inch powder day at Vail. I did not snap an uncrowded Chair 5 maze shot to contrast with the shots over the holidays, when monster Chair 5 photos went viral, but suffice to say, it’s all about when you ski and where you ski at Vail these days, and after 30 years here, I know better than to ski down to Chair 5 during a holiday weekend.

  McCoy Park, a new intermediate, beginner area at Beaver Creek, opens on Monday, Jan. 10. And while it’s good to have some news about Vail Resorts actually opening some ski terrain, the headlines and extremely negative social media buzz of late has been a lot more focused on what isn’t open — like at Vail on Thursday when Blue Sky Basin was still closed despite plenty of snow, and I was shocked to also see Chair 10 not running on the front side.

  A quick note on Blue Sky: When it was still called Category III and was being vetted by the U.S. Forest Service as an expansion project in the 1990s, the ski company actually said it needed the north-facing bowl terrain so that when the snow was too thin on the existing, south-facing and therefore more sun-soaked Back Bowls, snow riders could download the Tea Cup lift for early and late-season bowl skiing in what would become Blue Sky. That has never happened once in the 20 years since, and there is plenty of snow to open it now. What there isn’t plenty of is lifties, cat drivers, snowmakers, mechanics and patrollers.

  It would be nice if the ski company would just fully admit that’s the problem and put out a call to all “locals” to come help out for a day or two a week to get a discount on our pass next season. I guarantee this community would rally to get the entire mountain open.

  Let’s face it, there are too damn many of us “locals” these days. Just look at the cars lining up to head westbound on I-70 after a powder day. COVID has changed ski towns across the West, with city folks flooding to these great places to live and work remotely, therefore jacking up real estate prices and drastically reducing the housing stock for local workers. Not to mention Verbo, or whatever the hell it’s calling itself, turning every local ski-bum crash pad into a mini-hotel for the season, and local government officials unwilling to rein them in.

  With resort industry wages as stuck in the 90s as my musical tastes, it’s impossible for your average liftie to find a place to live anymore, let alone the teachers, health care workers, emergency responders and food service workers needed to service all these newcomers … er, I mean “locals”.

  What’s to blame for this big mess we find ourselves in? Sure, it’s easy to point fingers at a global conglomerate ski company addicted to “cheap” ski passes (really, 50% more sold than last season?) and unwilling or unable to invest in workers and the housing they need to stay in town (how much of that $30 million promised back in 2015 has actually been spent?), but we all need to look a little deeper than that.

  This really all started at the inception of Vail (and every other ski town) when we decided to become real estate economies more so than outdoor recreation economies. We have done a horrible job ever since then of making sure the ski bums have decent places to live, fighting projects like Vail Resorts’ Booth Heights tooth and nail in the name of wildlife, which we’ve been chasing off for decades anyway, instead of just admitting it’s to keep workforce housing out of our neighborhoods and to therefore prop up our property values. NIMBYism is as much to blame as any single factor in all of this. And local publications supported largely by real estate ads don’t seem to want to dig too deep on the topic.

  COVID and our state’s endlessly booming population has changed everything and forever altered the nature of ski towns. There’s no longer an off-season. The mid-week powder day to yourself and your buddies is a thing of the past. And massive, East Coast-style lift lines seem like a permanent fixture. The ski company needs to recognize and facilitate that reality, because they’re damn sure not getting rid of the Epic Pass anytime soon (nor should they).

  For instance, figuring out how to open and maintain maximum terrain should be a top priority. It spreads huge crowds around faster and makes the mountain safer and more relaxing for everyone.

  COVID also showed us there should be chairlifts options at every portal (remember the old Chair 1?) because not everyone wants to crowd into a gondola car with unvaccinated and unmasked Texans and snowboarders cranking techno music and reeking of weed (I kind of enjoy it).

  Dorm-style housing (sorry, Booth Heights, even though you would be right by the frontage road bus stop) maybe isn’t the answer. They seem to be super-spreader venues during a global pandemic. Maybe a fully funded and countywide Vail In Deed-style housing program is the ticket. Deed restrict condos, duplexes, multi-families, even single-family homes all over the valley and mandate they be owner- or at least renter-occupied for local workers. And majorly pump up our countywide bus system.

  Regulate the hell out of STRs (short term rentals) or at least slap some massive fees on them to fund Eagle County In Deed.

  And let’s get back to honestly and openly negotiating with our largest local employers on how to solve all these issues. What’s going on with that Booth Heights projects? What’s happening with Ever Vail all these years later? Open meetings. Not executive sessions.

  Credit where credit is due. VR’s huge contributions to the push for better behavioral health services locally has been vital. But many people are suffering because of all the aforementioned factors: lack of housing, low wages and a very high cost of living. These two things go hand in hand and must be dealt with in a wholistic way.

  Speaking of, two of our high-profile local celebs — Edwards’ resident Mikaela Shiffrin and former Vail resident Lindsey Vonn — have some very interesting takes on mental health in The New York Times and People Magazine.

  Finally, we still live in an incredibly awesome place. I just enjoyed a seriously sick powder day at Vail yesterday with one of my sons who was supposed to go back to CU on Monday but will be learning remotely due to all the staff displaced by the recent Boulder fires. So everything is a matter of perspective. And these are all very first world problems. Happy New Year.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is the editor and co-founder of RealVail.com and has had his awarding-winning work (see About Us) published in more than 75 newspapers and magazines around the world, including 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), the Anchorage Daily Press (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Boulder Daily Camera, the Casper Star Tribune (Wyoming), the Chicago Tribune, Colorado Central Magazine, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), Colorado Newsline, Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Colorado Times Recorder, the Cortez Journal, the Craig Daily Press, the Curry Coastal Pilot (Oregon), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Del Norte Triplicate (California), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Gazette, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, Explore Big Sky (Mont.), the Fort Morgan Times (Colorado), the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), the Kingman Daily Miner (Arizona), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the Las Vegas Sun, the Leadville Herald-Democrat, the London Daily Mirror, the Moab Times Independent (Utah), the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), the Montrose Daily Press, The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, the Rio Blanco Herald Times (Colorado), Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), the Salt Lake Tribune, SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Sky-Hi News, the Steamboat Pilot & Today, the Sterling Journal Advocate (Colorado), the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Health Magazine, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail, Westword (Denver), Writers on the Range and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

2 Responses to O. Zone: The (Blue) Sky is falling

  1. Woody Reply

    January 7, 2022 at 4:37 pm

    Right on, Dave O!
    I agree with you in every case.
    Thanks for posting. This place needs some help,

  2. Matt Miller Reply

    January 8, 2022 at 8:50 am

    Don’t blame me I tried to stop this overdevelopment when they built Walmart. Most of these proposals will only exacerbate the problem of overdevelopment and overcrowding. I’m ready to get out of this concrete jungle and move to Alaska. As for the time being I completely avoid Vail and Beaver Creek and stick to the backcountry.

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