Passes let skiers skip to head of lift line

December 10, 2006|By Michelle Higgins | Michelle Higgins,New York Times News Service

For vacation this year, Peter Heumann is taking his family to Copper Mountain in Colorado during the jam-packed holiday period between Christmas and New Year's, when skiers can easily end up waiting in line for 20 minutes or more just to get on the lift. But Heumann, his wife and 15-year-old-daughter won't be among them. Instead, the family will swish past the masses to a separate lift line designated for Beeline Advantage pass holders - a privilege that costs $20 a day in addition to regular lift tickets.

"I hate the idea of standing in line when you're on vacation," said Heumann, a mortgage account executive from Calabasas, Calif. "You stand in line to get through the airport. You stand in line to get on the plane. You stand in line to get to your rental car. You don't want to stand in line when you're actually skiing."

Getting the passes, which Heumann bought through a vacation package at ski.com, was critical in the family's decision of where to ski this year. Without them, "we would have probably looked at several resorts," Heumann said. He is paying $2,240 for four nights of lodging and a car rental. "The Beeline is what made it the best possible deal."

Forget about racing down the mountain. This season the real competition is in getting to the top. A record 58.9 million skiers and snowboarders hit the slopes last winter, up 3.5 percent from the 2004-05 season, according to the National Ski Areas Association. This year could prove even busier; vacation bookings are already ahead of last year's at many resorts, and a heavy October snowstorm in Colorado gave the season an early start. Skiers and snowboarders know that a busy ski season can translate into crowded slopes and long waits to board lifts.

In an effort to get skiers and snowboarders on the slopes and out of line, an increasing number of ski resorts are selling opportunities to bypass lift lines and head straight up the mountain. Charges for these deals - early-bird passes, access to separate lift lines or private tours of the mountain - are in addition to lift-ticket costs that average about $60 a day. Meanwhile, the lower-paying masses may be left wondering what sort of VIPs those are who are speeding up the mountain.

Some deals are inexpensive and buy relatively small privileges. At Stratton Mountain in Vermont this year, skiers can pay an extra $15 for a relatively uncrowded 45 minutes, in the form of access to the lifts at 7:45 a.m., ahead of the normal 8:30 a.m. opening; in the past this perk was extended only to holders of $1,299 "premier" season passes. Winter Park Resort in Colorado is offering a similar early-bird program, called Fresh Tracks, to just 30 people each morning for $30, breakfast included.

At Aspen-Snowmass in Colorado, skiers are paying extra to avoid a hassle leading up to the lifts. Radio-frequency chips speed them through automated gates at each of the resort's four mountains, eliminating the need to fumble with tickets and have them scanned by lift operators. Season-pass holders have the chips, but in the winter of 2004-05, the resort started selling them for $5 to other customers. The program was so successful, with 6,234 sold last season, that the tags are being offered again, this time for $10. Kristin Rust, a spokeswoman, couldn't say just how much time the option saves, but pointed out that lines where the chips are used "are typically shorter, particularly during peak days," than other lines.

Of course, there have always been people willing and able to pay their way around the mountain. Paying for a lesson has long been a way to skip to the front of lift lines, and many skiers, whether they care to learn a new trick or not, will sign up for one just to avoid the lines.

Lately, and for higher fees, resorts have also been selling private guided tours of their mountains. Last season the Canyons in Park City, Utah, began offering private tours with line-cutting privileges from $338 for a half-day in regular season to $674 for a full day during the holidays. "Less time waiting in line means more time hitting the steeps, deeps, chutes and cruisers," says a notice about the program on the resort's Web site, thecanyons.com.

A number of mountain resorts, including Beaver Creek, Colo., and Snowbird, Utah, have created members-only clubhouses, aimed at wealthy skiers and boarders who are regular customers. For initiation fees upward of $10,000, in addition to annual dues, the clubs deliver amenities not found in the typical base lodge, from white-tablecloth restaurants to slopeside lounges and, yes, to circumventing the lift lines.

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