As Pepi took his fabled powder run down the interminable slope that now reflects his apocryphal exclamation, he could not have imagined the Valley in its current incarnation. Visionaries and pioneers and free spirits and charlatans combined their forces to create one of the most iconic destinations in the ski world, a cosmopolitan resort drawing visitors from across the globe. It is a history filled with adventure and intrigue, idealized by the passage of time, and coopted by the corporate behemoth that trades both on the legend of Vail and on the stock market.
Money and skiing have had a long and tortured relationship, one that is reaching its apotheosis in the first decades of this millennium. Clashes between the bums and the developers, between the authorities and the rebels have characterized the ski ecosystem since its postwar modern conception. Those themes have been as common in ski magazines, in ‘80s ski movies, in local discourse as hilarious outfits and casual misogyny. Yet, being mindful of recency bias, the grip on the soul of skiing has nonetheless never felt more fraught.
Ski areas have always attracted peacocks, posers, strivers, and rubes. Skiing by nature has a performative element. But there used to be an inherent egalitarianism that also allowed families and skids to make their way or their home in these communities. There was opportunity to chase the inimitable freedom of powder turns, to achieve a personal nirvana, or at least a series of small epiphanies. Those chances are seriously diminished by the fiscal impulses of an overlord bent on pleasing not the stoked little kid, but the faceless shareholders who control its destiny.
By focusing on profit, our keepers have specifically targeted a visitor population whose whims are often anathema to the values held dear by those that live and love here. Paraphrasing the Synoptic Gospels, it is easier for a moose to load Gondola One than it is for a person of means to treat a barista with respect. Manners are not directly correlated to wealth, to be sure. However, the Valley’s eight-million-pound gorilla has created an aura of entitlement that pervades most interactions. People forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars to come here believe it their commensurate right to issue outlandish demands and harbor unrealistic expectations.
Vertically integrated and psychotically ambitious, the unfortunate backbone of our community influences our guests at every turn. In a spiral of doom, the poor example created thereby pervades into the other industries that have sprung up to cater to the increasingly outlandish whims of these bêtes noire. Those employed in the hospitality, real estate, professional services, construction, and other industries must now make a conscious choice between making a living and preserving their dignity.
The pandemic has exacerbated and accelerated the reckoning. While clinging to the hope that our shared struggle will yield compassion, that may be an overly rosy view of humanity. The monetary pressures on our real estate market and business environment cannot be ignored. Locals are being pushed out in favor of those who view the mountain lifestyle as a cute idea. Dingbats wander the streets, various executioner-style ski-carries threatening lives and populating Instagram feeds. The mental health of workers is tested daily, leaving many bereft, broken, or much worse.
Implementation of parking fees at the Bear Lot, closures of popular skinning routes, and the other small ignominies visited upon us incrementally have coalesced into a psychic and monetary burden. It is plain that the Valley’s full-time residents have become second-class citizens in the minds of those at headquarters. Validation of these frustrations is the first step. Thereafter, we must shift our complacent resignation into actions to reclaim the balance that should characterize this Valley and its future.
The ski town is dead. Long live the ski town.