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Vail Mountain sets the standard for new on-mountain summer activities

Ski resorts looking to summer initiatives for lucrative year-round business


It was hats off for me last week on the Forest Flyer, the trademarked name for the alpine coaster that Vail Resorts has installed atop its flagship ski area, Vail Mountain. About halfway down the two-minute ride, confident that the brakes worked, I let loose — and off my hat flew.

I grinned. I'd do this again, even if it's not as thrilling as carving turns down a ski slope.

Just the same, Vail Resorts is betting big on summer. The company in recent weeks debuted a menu of on-mountain activities with the brand of Epic Discovery at Vail Mountain in Colorado and Heavenly on the California-Nevada border. Other ski areas across the West have been paying close attention. Many of them plan to similarly offer more summer activities.

Ski areas operating on private land have been diversifying their summer activities for years. They include Park City in Utah, which is entirely located on former mining lands, and many ski areas in the East. Some have water parks. Most have rope courses. A great many have been stringing up ziplines. If designed primarily for summer, some of these activities get used in winter. Such non-skiing amusements made Christmas much more cheerful at some resorts in the East when temperatures remained too warm for snowmaking until January.

Vail Resorts, though, had been thinking about an alpine coaster for about a decade but lacked the clear authority to construct one. Like most ski areas in the West, Vail and other ski areas operate primarily on federal land. The 1986 federal law that authorizes special-use permits made no mention of non-snow sports. A 2011 law passed by Congress extended authority for some summer activities, but not all. Water parks, tennis courts, or golf courses? Nope. An amusement park? Wash your mouth with soap!

Alpine coasters, if a bit like a kiddie roller-coaster ride, are expressly allowed. Ziplines are cool, too. The law left the U.S. Forest Service to decide what's acceptable. The agency worked carefully with Vail to set the standard for ski areas.

Does anything here have the same draw as winter skiing? Probably not. Three summers ago, when I interviewed Blaise Carrig, then a senior executive at Vail Resorts, he said Vail hoped to perhaps break even, maybe even make a little money during summer as a result of its new authority and activities. In the process, he said, maybe the company could also retain more staff on a year-round basis.

More recently, the company told investors it expects Epic Discovery to drive a US$7 million increase in its mountain earnings this summer. Vail executives plan to spend $100 million in developing summer attractions at other resorts in Colorado, California and Utah. It has eight ski areas altogether in those states.

Vail Mountain's new amusements are reached from the top of the gondola. Some activities have been offered there on private land since the 1990s. The new activities add bulk and muscle. The gondola ride and the basic activities, including the alpine coaster, cost $89 a day. This is mostly family fare. Less timid souls than I can reach speeds of 40 km/h on the Forest Flyer. Two sets of rope courses allow participants to navigate what amounts to obstacle courses and agility tests. There's a bungee trampoline, a climbing wall and other activities, too. A more limited menu of activities is available for children with a $49 pass.

The seven-course canopy zip tour costs another $100 and takes about four hours. Riders can move along at speeds of 90 km/h at 91 metres above the ground. This compares with 436 metres for the Peak 2 Peak gondola at Whistler Blackcomb. How Vail's zipline course compares with others, I'm not qualified to say.

As the Forest Service likes to think of itself as an agent of outdoor education, brief lessons about the flora, fauna and other aspects of the mountain environment are also part of Epic Discovery. The "story stakes" created in consultation with The Nature Conservancy and the local Walking Mountains Science Center are exceptionally well done. These are full of facts, entertaining and fun.

For example, one exhibit tells you that a red-tailed hawk can see a hare from half a kilometre away, for example, and then you can look through binoculars set within the shape of a giant hawk head to study the forests. Other stations allow you to hear like a mule deer, burrow like a marmot and trot like a moose. This might be the best-done thing in Vail's mountain-top amusing park. I'd give it an A.

Aspen Skiing Co. also plans to invest in similar amusements.

"The difference will be in the execution: where they are installed and how they will be installed. That is the differentiator," said the company's Peter Santini.

In my book, nothing here rivals skiing for sheer pleasure. But this is an important step toward greater diversification by ski-area operators. Hats off to Vail for this new standard.