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May 26, 2022

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2021-22 ski season is in full swing but Seattle-area resorts struggle to cope

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SEATTLE — The new year has brought new headaches for Seattle-area ski resorts, with staffing shortages and surging visitors leading to new crowd management strategies at Crystal Mountain and growing public discontent over operational struggles at Stevens Pass.

On New Year’s Day, Crystal Mountain announced the return of the reservation system that it deployed during the 2020-2021 season. Effective Saturday, Jan. 8, all skiers and riders will need to make a reservation online to secure their spot for the day. The reservation window opens Tuesday at 9 a.m. through the Ikon Pass website. (Alterra Mountain Company, which manages the Ikon multiresort pass, owns Crystal Mountain.) In an effort to preserve space on the mountain for season pass holders, Crystal will no longer sell day tickets on weekends and holidays going forward. (Day tickets already purchased for weekends later this season will still be honored.)

Crystal made the preemptive move despite relatively light crowds over the holiday week. Cold temperatures and abundant snowfall translated to superb skiing, but road conditions also kept many away. Nevertheless, Dec. 31 saw the mountain’s third so-called “parkout,” or completely full parking lot, of the season, which forced Crystal’s hand.

“We haven’t seen the pass holder visitation yet, but we know they’re coming,” Crystal’s marketing director Tiana Anderson told The Seattle Times via phone on Saturday, noting that more Washington residents purchased season passes for this season than last winter. “This is a proactive measure to help prevent continued frustration trying to get to the mountain.”

Unlike last season, Crystal is operating at full capacity this winter, which Anderson said translates to around 6,000 reservation slots per day. Pass holders with a valid reservation can still purchase a “friends and family” same-day discounted lift ticket for others in their party who do not have a season pass.

Crystal is also prepared to expand its free round-trip bus service from Enumclaw, which has not yet filled to capacity, to as many as 20 buses per day. Anyone who makes a bus reservation is also guaranteed a mountain reservation that day, even if the mountain reservation system shows no slots available.

One reason that Crystal is feeling the squeeze? Problems farther north in the Cascades at Stevens Pass. Despite abundant snowfall, a staffing shortage at the Vail Resorts-owned ski area has kept significant parts of the mountain closed, including the entire backside and part of the night skiing operation, as well as shuttered two eateries.

General manager Tom Pettigrew issued a public apology Dec. 24 for the state of affairs. “The truth is, we’re dealing with a lot of difficult challenges right now, including the staffing shortages facing everyone in the travel + leisure industry,” he wrote via the ski area’s social media accounts. “For us, that has impacted our ability to open the mountain the way we know we can, and want to — and I want to apologize to our guests for how that has affected your recent experience.”

A Change.org petition called “Hold Vail Resorts Accountable” alleges mismanagement of the ski area and calls for Vail Resorts to return 60% of the season pass purchase price to customers if problems are not resolved by Jan. 15. The petition had attracted nearly 22,000 signatures as of Jan. 1.

Staffing shortages have also affected Summit at Snoqualmie, which did not run the Rampart and Hidden Valley chairs at Summit East on Jan. 1. “Compared to our neighbors to the north [Stevens Pass], we’re doing OK,” Summit’s Director of Marketing & Sales Karter Riach said.

He described Dec. 31 as an exceptionally busy day, with backcountry enthusiasts and snow play visitors creating scenes reminiscent of last season’s Snoqualmie Pass overcrowding. “We have no plans for reservations,” Riach told The Seattle Times. “Things could change but we don’t want to have reservations for season pass holders.” Like Crystal, Summit at Snoqualmie has limited daily lift ticket sales on peak days.

Crystal Mountain has been 100% open since before Christmas, Anderson said, and they are rooting for their rival to the north to get up to full speed.

“The struggles that Stevens is facing are putting more pressure on Crystal,” Anderson said. “We want them to get through their struggles. In Washington, there are more skiers than the mountains can handle. The whole industry needs balance.”

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