In Part 1 of this series, John Sherwood discussed his decision to purchase an Epic Pass and his experience using it at Heavenly Resort in early February. Part 2 focuses on his second trip to Stowe, Vermont in early March, and his thoughts on renewing the pass for the 2022-2023 season.
By John Sherwood, DCSki Columnist
The premise of the Epic Pass is the more you ski, the more you save. That imperative has led to excessive crowds at most Vail-owned resorts. My method for avoiding the hordes is to only ski at Vail resorts midweek — a strategy that worked well at Heavenly in early February.
It also meant that after using the pass just five days there, I would need to make another trip to break even on the cost of the Epic Pass. For a variety of reasons, I did not want to make a second ski trip. These included pressing deadlines at work and the West’s lackluster snow year. I made the second trip anyway. In the end, my love for skiing prevailed.
I chose Stowe in Vermont, a resort I have skied off and on since childhood. It offers one of the few big mountain experiences in New England with many trails covering over 2,000 feet of vertical. The variety of terrain is impressive even by western standards, and the area exudes a New England wintery gemülichkeit hard to find elsewhere in the country.
It’s also convenient. Burlington International Airport is just a one-hour commuter flight from Washington, D.C. and from there Stowe is an easy 40-minute drive over mostly flat roads. Unfortunately, many other Epic Pass holders had similar ideas. The Lodge at Spruce Peak in the base village was fully booked, and I could only get a direct flight returning from Burlington on March 5, 2022. I still went.
For the Delta flight to Vermont, I had to transfer planes at LaGuardia Airport in New York — a time-consuming hassle that required a bus transfer between terminals and a slog through the ongoing construction and ugliness of one of America’s worst-rated airports. That transfer transformed a one hour flight into a three hour experience. It still beat a ten-hour drive through snow squalls from Washington to Stowe, though.
Arriving in Burlington at 11:30 a.m. also gave us time to eat lunch at our favorite local restaurant, the Istanbul Kebab House. This wonderful Turkish venue serves meze plates and other Middle Eastern specialties. The food quality in northern Vermont is quite high due to the region’s many organic farms, its discerning foodie scene, and proximity to several culinary schools, including the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier. Burlington also has a fine lineup of grocery stores including Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, an excellent Hannaford supermarket, and several organic grocers.
We arrived at our rental an hour before check-in and decided to wait in the car and read. By the time we checked in, the car was covered by two inches of snow from a powerful squall that struck a few minutes after our arrival at the complex. It snowed off and on the entire night, coating the mountain with between 6 and 8 inches of new snow. We received five inches of snow the second and third nights of our stay as well. Maybe I did make the right decision.
For our bitterly cold first day of skiing (Monday, February 28th), my wife and I chose to make a beeline for the Sterling trail on Spruce Peak. It’s a narrow, natural snow blue square that winds its way down the far side of Spruce Peak — a pure New England classic with a few moderately steep sections and short run-outs.
We skied fresh snow for the first few runs before things started getting tracked out and grass began to appear on the thinner spots of the trail. We then took a few laps down the single black Main Street trail before heading to Spruce Village for lunch. Local race academies rope off most of Main Street for training. Consequently, few skiers venture over to Big Spruce despite the fact that its trails are serviced by a detachable, high-speed quad. When Sterling is closed, there are only two black trails down the mountain, making this part of the resort inaccessible to beginners and lower level intermediates.
Stowe is one of the more challenging places I regularly ski. It’s not so much the steepness of the trails (and there are some steep ones here), but the ice. Snow on the mountain gets quickly skied and blown off on many of its signature trails, leaving some of the nastiest ice I have ever encountered. The problem has gotten worse of late due to Stowe’s increasing popularity as an Epic Pass Vail-owned resort.
I skied Hayride on the Mount Mansfield side of the mountain a couple of times on the afternoon of the February 28th before retreating to less steep but equally icy Mansfield blues: Lord, Ridgeview, North Slope, T-line, Tyro, and Standard. They all ski the same and blur together. They also got crowded, even midweek. I have never seen such crowds at Stowe during a midweek period. Admittedly, new snow and cold weather were draws, but most locals blamed the crowds on the Epic Pass. For next season, Stowe intends to replace the Mountain Triple with a detachable 6-pack. That will reduce lift lines but pump more people on the already crowded Mount Mansfield blues.
Late on the first afternoon, we skied the blue gondola trails: Perry Merrill and Gondolier. Perhaps because they receive more attention from the groomers, these trails were in great shape for our entire visit. We ended up lapping gondolier until the lifts closed. After 3:30 p.m., we had the mountain to ourselves.
Typically, we avoid the Stowe “gondi” due to the lines, but on this trip, we frequently skied this area first thing in the morning or late in day. We never experienced any serious wait times or slope crowding. Stowe is known for its narrow, tree-lined terrain but also has a few wide, European-style trails. Perry Merrill falls into this latter category. Having this broad boulevard to myself on many runs was a rare treat.
I had read on SkiTalk that parking and traffic at Stowe has been worse this year than in any previous season. On the weekend we arrived, some people claimed that it took over an hour to drive 13 miles on the Mountain Road from Stowe to the resort. Stowe’s Twitter feed often declares parking areas to be full by 9 a.m. on weekend days. To avoid this mess and go green, we chose to ride the free Mountain Road shuttle every day.
It worked like a charm, dropping us off just a few steps from the Spruce Camp Lodge. Since we rented demo skis at the Spruce Rental shop and stored them there overnight, we never had to schlep skis. We booted up every day at the new Spruce Camp Lodge and stored our sneakers in free day lockers. The whole process of getting from the condo to the slopes could not have been easier. Our one bedroom condo, though slightly dated, was half the price of studios at the Lodge at Spruce Peak and twice the size. It was a great place to catch up on work after skiing.
In my article on Heavenly, I highlighted that resort’s poor food quality and choices. I am happy to report that the food at Stowe was decent to excellent. I ate a tasty, freshly cooked grilled cheese sandwich at the Octagon Café and a decent burger at the Spruce Camp lodge. For our other meals, we chose to eat at independently owned restaurants at the Spruce Peak base village.
Alpine Hall in the Lodge at Spruce Peak is a rebranded version of its excellent former restaurant, Solstice. Its lunch menu featured nouvelle Vermont cuisine. I particularly enjoyed the fried chicken sandwich. The Skinny Pancake, a popular Vermont fast casual chain, serves savory and sweet crepes. Both places offered a welcomed respite from standard ski grub and a place to relax and escape Mount Mansfield’s notoriously cold weather. Temperatures never got above the mid-twenties during our visit and on some mornings, we experienced single digits.
Weather and snow quality are the main reasons I generally favor the West over the East for destination skiing. The weather this week at Stowe was certainly cold but manageable with the right clothing. We never needed to dip into a lodge to warm-up. My new Hotronic boot warmers certainly helped as did our tendency to ride the gondola during the coldest periods of the day.
Ice spots aside, the new snow kept certain trails in decent shape. All in all, it was a great trip. I hope to return to Stowe in a few years to check out how the new Mount Mansfield 6-pack will change the skier flow on the mountain. Even with its existing lift infrastructure, Stowe makes it easy to “farm” a lot of terrain on each run. According to Liftblog, Fourrunner covers 2,046 feet of vertical; the Gondola, 2,020; and Sensation at Spruce Peak, 1,454.
Looking at my Epic Mix statistics, I skied 265,365 feet of vertical in ten days of skiing at Vail-owned resorts this past season. That averages out to 26,536 feet of vertical per ski day — approximately what I ski at Timberline on a good day. My daily cost for the $841 pass was $84. Since I took 191 lift rides at Heavenly and Stowe, the average cost per ride was $4.40.
I saved approximately $250 on Epic food and rental discounts for myself and my wife. In the final analysis, I did OK financially with the pass and also got a lot of quality skiing for my money. Since I skied midweek, crowds were never a problem. Parking did not present any issues because I either stayed at the resort or took free shuttles. My only real quibble was with the food quality at Heavenly. On the other hand, the spectacular Tahoe weather and decent snow at Heavenly more than made up for the unappetizing cuisine.
So, will I renew the Epic Pass for next season? The answer is no, nor will I purchase an Ikon Pass. For next season, I plan to take only one destination trip, making the financial value of a multi-resort pass questionable. Two of my favorite Epic Pass resorts, Snowbasin and Sun Valley, switched their pass affiliation to Ikon but a full Ikon Pass costs $1,079 and the Base Plus Pass (which includes Sun Valley and Snowbasin) is $969 — too much for a midweek, one destination trip visitor.
By not purchasing either pass, I will have complete flexibility to go anywhere in the United States, Canada, or Europe. I will not be boxed into skiing certain venues or having to make multiple trips to justify the purchase. I am convinced that by purchasing midweek or late season tickets, I will rarely spend more than $100 per ticket and may spend significantly less depending on when and where I go. That translates to $500 for a five-day trip (as compared to $841 for an Epic Pass).
Even with discounts on rentals and food, I would not break even on a 5-day trip. I still think the Epic Pass is a great value for the Whitetail/Liberty/Roundtop skier who makes at least one trip to a pricey Vail property such as Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, or Park City. Another great value is the Epic Local Pass. For $626 next season, it offers unlimited skiing at most Vail-owned resorts with some holiday blackout dates at some of the major Vail flagships, including Vail, Park City, Heavenly, Stowe, and Whistler Blackcomb.
For me, however, the Epic Local Pass does not make sense for next season because my top choice destination resorts are Snowbasin, Telluride, and Schweitzer — none of which are covered by that pass. It might have made sense for 2021-22 had I known I would not ski Snowbasin or Telluride — my first choice destinations — but alas, hindsight is 20/20. In the final analysis, neither the Epic nor Ikon Passes will work for me next season. I am not opting out to “stick it to Vail” as many disgruntled pass holders are doing, but to gain absolute freedom of choice. Any savings I might derive from a pass would come at the expense of resort options, and at best would be paltry when compared to all the other costs inherent in a ski trip. To quote Warren Miller, skiing for me is more about “finding freedom” than choosing a ski pass plan.
John Sherwood is a columnist for DCSki. When he's not hiking, biking, or skiing, he works as an author of books on military history.
BTW, Stowe just announced that all lots except Toll Road will be paid parking lots Friday-Sunday:
There will be exceptions for carpools with 4 or more passengers and cars that arrive after 2 pm.
The proceeds from the new paid parking system will go to its partnership with Green Mountain Transit, the company that runs most of the shuttles, including the Mountain Road shuttle we took. Paid parking and more reliance on shuttle bus networks is definitely the future for many US resorts.
I am curious about the economics of flying to VT versus flying out West. From the standpoint of cost, if you get on a plane at all, you might as well go out West - true or false? I spent about $260 on gas to get to Killington and back, and of course that meant I didn't have to rent skis or rent a car when I got there. Plane tickets for three plus ski and car rental would be a much bigger hit. And as for time, 8-10 hours drive to VT is comparable to the total amount of time to fly out West, including get to the airport, check in, fly four or five hours, get luggage and rent a car, then maybe drive two or three hours to a resort. Fly out West or drive to VT it's a day of travel on each end.
That talk about nasty ice was very off-putting - another reason to go out West, as you say.
As for economics, in Spring 2021, I bought the "full" Ikon for myself and two kids. We went to Snowshoe three times and Killington once, and overall, tickets came to $35 per person per day - a good deal even if we only went to one destination resort. Snowshoe remains a decisive reason for us to get Ikon as it is a do-able weekend trip. Of course now the question is, will the kids think Snowshoe is weak and lame now that they've been to a real mountain...
Crush> as said here - skiing in the north-east is blech. <
Absolutely, do not go there under any circumstances. I tell California skiers this all the time. And never go to Stowe, Mad River, Smugglers or Jay to catch a powder dump. There is always ice lurking just an inch or two below. You will die.
harsh Denis (I'm the one that does this)! But - 100% ... nicely stated! My wife calls it "mean snow" and I agree! You go "oh that looks nice" and then your skis punch through it and it is drrr-RRRRR-krrr-krrr-woop-wtf. I'm lucky I occasionally like ice and crap snow just to stay sharp but I am stupid so ...
I love all skiing. And, I’m a friend of all skiers. But just to take the thought a bit further here is an old post.
Be sure to open the link to the 50” day at Jay Peak.