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The O. Zone: Seeking skiing independence, freedom from Epic crowds in Utah

March 9, 2024, 7:40 am

Nick and Rennick Williams hike up Mt. Baldy at Powder Mountain on Feb. 28, 2024 (David O. Williams photo).

If you want to see — or, more precisely, ski – the difference between multi-resort season-pass ski areas and those that are still choosing to do their own thing, try a trip I did with my family the last week of February in Utah: independent Powder Mountain at the far northern end of the Wasatch Mountains, independent Sundance on the far southern end, and Vail Resorts’ Park City in-between.

You’ll be amazed by the difference.

There’s no better way to contrast the crowds, the traffic, the parking, the powder, the mountain infrastructure, and, most importantly, the vibe – an especially useful exercise with the release on Tuesday of next season’s pricing for the grandaddy of them all: Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass.

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

As a resident of EagleVail, at the base of VR’s Beaver Creek and just 10 miles west of Vail, it’s hard for me to imagine not buying an Epic Pass for unlimited access to my two home mountains. But as the price that started at $579 back in 2008 creeps ever closer to $1,000 ($982 next season), it gets a little easier to envision one day eschewing an Epic Pass altogether.

That’s especially true as the sheer volume of Epic Pass holders grows every season and the skiable terrain does not (with the exception of a few small expansions). I’m also creeping up there in years so quality over quantity starts to matter more and more, and it’s not as important to bag 20,000 feet of vert in a day on high-seed lifts as it is to enjoy untracked snow and a lot less people. For that reason, I Nordic and AT ski way more these days than I alpine ski inbounds.

Kristin Williams skiing Soldier Hollow.

And on the topic of Nordic (some call it cross-country), we packed our classic skis for an hour or so at the 2002 Olympic venue of Soldier Hollow, just outside of Heber, Utah, to kick off our trip. They’re already working on new facilities for an expected 2034 Winter Games, but Soldier Hollow has been running continuously for 22 years, including a tubing hill and mountain bike course in the summer, and it’s a very fun track for some aggressive skinny skiing in the winter.

And then we hit Sundance, Robert Redford’s former retreat right outside of Provo. Vail resident Bill Jensen, the former head honcho at Vail Resorts, is now part of the ownership group that bought Sundance from Redford, and the new owners have put quite a bit of capital into upgraded lifts and a coming-soon collection of hot-tub, spa-type pools dubbed “The Springs”.

But despite those badly needed upgrades, Sundance remains a throwback that in some ways may become a throw-forward as crowding increasingly becomes an issue at both VR’s Epic and Alterra’s Ikon resorts. The two days we were at Sundance last week, Feb. 26-27, were uncrowded, quiet, relaxing, and loaded with quality ski turns after a storm deposited six inches of fresh overnight our first day (I’m sure it’s a tad more hectic on weekends). Our boys, Nick and Renn, night skied on Monday until nearly 9 p.m., jumping in and out of the terrain park.

The second day we found freshies late into the afternoon, wind loaded into the trees on high, steep ridgelines requiring jump turns on 40-degree pitches you just can’t find at Vail. Here’s a video of my oldest son Nick on The Sting trail at Sundance (yes, one of my favorite Redford movies).

The lodging is fun and funky (like living in a modern tree house), clustered around a village of serene meeting spaces, a working art studio, a rambling creek and ponds with Native American statuary (this is where Redford launched the namesake film festival before it outgrew Sundance and moved on to Park City). A beer at mountain-top Bearclaw Cabin is a must, with stunning views of nearby Mt. Timpanogos.

A serene pond at Sundance.

And all of this Sundance splendor could have been yours on a regular basis, just 15 miles from Provo and Orem, for the adult, season-pass price of $849 ($695 early season) for 2023/24. There’s also a $1,000 VIP pass that takes you straight to the front of the line, and Sundance sells it passes throughout the entire ski season.

That $849 price this season is very close to the $909 unlimited price for an Epic Pass that gets you Park City in Utah and some 40 unlimited ski areas globally (plus another 23 limited-access partners). The Ikon this season boasted 14 unlimited resorts and 39 limited-access ski areas that offer up to seven ski days a season for $1,159.

The Ikon, however, gets you onto the slopes at six Utah ski areas, including unlimited turns at Solitude, seven days a season at Brighton, Snowbasin and the soon-to-expand Deer Valley, and seven combined days at Alta and Snowbird. Check out the excellent Storm Skiing Journal for a breakdown of Epic and Ikon Pass benefits (and thanks to them for the borrowed chart at right showing Epic price increases over the past 16 seasons). It’s worth noting that the fledgling (just six-seasons-old) Ikon Pass is also jacking up its prices significantly for next season.

But with all that access you also get a lot more people at the multi-resort-ski-pass places, along with faster lifts and far fewer free parking places (more on all of that later).

Nick and Renn bobsledding to glory.

So, after a crazily uncrowded and super-fun and relaxing Monday and Tuesday at Sundance, we packed up the Ford Explorer and drove the 36 miles north to Park City for the night, hitting the Utah Olympic Park so the boys could do the bobsled course the Olympians rode to glory back in ’02, followed by a killer Italian dinner at Bartolo’s in Kimball Junction.

Our intro to Pow Mow

Turns out we needed all that carbo-loading for the following day at Powder Mountain, an hour and a half north near Ogden. That same six inches that dropped a couple of days earlier was still stacked all over Pow Mow, as the locals call it, which is made up of a sprawling 8,464 skiable acres – much of it accessed by $39-a-pop snowcat rides with some sick hike-to terrain.

We took a cat up Lightning Ridge and then hiked about 20 minutes to the top of 9,400-foot Mt. Baldy, where we skirted the ridge over to something called the Y Chute. Even the top is not that steep, and the ensuing, extremely long run is a perfect pitch and exposure (see video of me and my youngest son Rennick starting just below the top ridge):

The run just kept going down into lower glades that finally funneled to the lowest lift, Paradise. Very worth the hike and the very reasonably priced cat ride. Supposedly, Lightning Ridge will be getting a new lift as part of a planned upgrade, which is kind of too bad, but with that much private land to expand onto, I’m sure they’ll find other equally worthy cat-skiing areas.

While we were there last week, the controversial news broke that Pow Mow will be lifting its season pass limit (capped at 3,000 up through this season), and increasing some of its pricing based on all the upgrades coming online next season. Relatively new owner and Netflix cofounder Reed Hastings has been pumping money into the place while trying to maintain its vibe and stay away from the pitfalls of the multi-resort season passes, something I wrote about for the Park Record in Park City back in December. It’s a tough balance to strike, and time will tell if he succeeds, but for now the mountain is a true gem worth exploring at most prices.

If I lived in Ogden or anywhere near the northern end of the Wasatch Front, I would seriously consider buying a $1,499 2024/25 season pass (up from $1,259 this season) because of turns like these in the trees on lower Y Chute (again, me and my youngest son Renn):

Pow Mow also limits its daily ticket sales, and if that continues, it’s hard to imagine it will ever get to the level of crowding you see at Epic and Ikon mountains. We headed back to Park City that night fully satiated on low-level powder turns from a two-day-old storm, imagining what it would be like on a truly deep day. Over beers at the excellent Hearth and Hill in Kimball Junction, we bragged about our lines, and planned a future return trip to Powder Mountain.

The next day, a Thursday, we used our Epic Passes to hit Park City, accessing via the Canyons side, where there are some great steeps off the 9990 lift and chutes off of Super Condor. But it was a shock to the system, even on a weekday, dodging insane skier traffic on a scraped run like Chicane, which ironically gets you to the Tombstone Express lift if you survive the human gates.

Moose beneath a chairlift at Park City on Leap Day 2024 (Rennick Williams photo).

We climbed a little above 9990 with a massive crowd of selfie-posers with limited results in terms of soft turns. But it was still fun, we saw a couple moose under one lift, and there’s way more to do in Park City than, say, Eden near Pow Mow. Sushi Blue for dinner that night, again in Kimball Junction, rocked.

Rennick Williams hiking above 9990.

On Monday of this week, after returning home over the weekend, Vail was hammered by a two-foot storm cycle, with the Beav’ closer to three. I got out there early on Monday and found great snow in Vail’s Back Bowls, but it never ceases to amaze me how quickly the hordes of locusts on mid-fat skis chew through the untracked expanses these days, forcing me into the trees for freshies. I know I sound like Hotdog Hans when I say it ain’t like it used to be in the old days.

But you’ll never put the multi-resort pass genie back in the bottle, with the big factory resorts addicted to early-season income that they – to their credit – plow back into high-speed six-packs and amenities galore. I admit it’s jarring to ride fixed-grip doubles with no safety bars in a windstorm after so many years of high-speed detachables. Will I ever skip the Epic Pass some season and buy, say, a Ski Cooper season pass for $579 (the price of my first Epic Pass in ’08)?

I’ve actually skied the nearby former 10th Mountain Division alpine ski trooper training hill three times this season – twice skinning up and AT skiing down before Ski Cooper opened in December and once as a paid customer during Rennick’s high school ski race there in January. And it’s a very fun place with stunning views of the highest peaks in Colorado. Their new Tennessee Creek tree-skiing area, served by a T-bar, was an untrammeled albeit low-angle blast.

For that price at Cooper we would have had an added three free days at Sundance in Utah and a bunch of other small mountains in Colorado, including Monarch, Loveland, Powderhorn and Sunlight — all small areas with a little bit of big terrain. Ski Cooper and Monarch also both have cat skiing. I know at least one former Vail mayor and current Vail resident who’s already pulled the Epic plug in favor of a Ski Cooper season pass.

Utah and Colorado, of course, are two totally different ski animals, with resorts there so close to the cities. It would be like having Vail right where Idaho Springs is. Ski Cooper is about the closest thing Vail-area residents have to a Sundance option, and it’s not nearly the mountain Vail is, obviously, but it also doesn’t have the population of a small midwestern city (19,900) skiing it on any given powder day.

Giving up an Epic Pass would be a very hard call when you live at the base of two Epic ski areas, but I think the choices between Epic and Ikon would be much tougher living in either the Denver/Front Range area or Salt Lake City/Wasatch Front. Increasingly, access, drive time, lack of parking and overall on-slope crowding are going to start driving more snow riders to smaller independent areas. I know I’ll be exploring more options as I start to value different things in my overall ski experience.

Editor’s note 1: The O. Zone is a recurring opinion column by RealVail.com publisher David O. Williams. 

Editor’s note 2: This post has been updated to clarify the early-season pass pricing for Sundance:

Nick Williams at Sundance (Rennick Williams photo).
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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.

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