A skier rips down the face of the Telluride Ski Resort. Longer lift lines, Telski officials said, are due to more locals skiing more often in what has been an abundant snow year. (Courtesy photo)

With 26 feet of snow on the Telluride Ski Resort so far this season, local anxiety about lift lines is palpable. When skiers crest the cliff on Chair 8 and catch a glimpse of Chair 9’s lift line snaking past the gates, the gasps, groans and muttering about “those damn Epic Pass-holders,” is audible.

But is the Epic Pass really to blame for long lift lines or is it the epic snow season?

Matt Windt, Telski’s vice president of sales and marketing, told the Daily Planet that because of the volume and timing of snow throughout this season, the majority of resort visitors are local passholders.

“That is truly what’s driving this sense of more people in the area and on the mountain,” he said. “Locals are on the mountain more often.”

He confirmed that season passholders have skied 50,000 more days this season than last year.  

Bill Jensen, co-owner and CEO of Telski since 2015, said season passholders are on the mountain in numbers Telski has never seen before. And because of avalanche and safety work on snow event days — particularly on lifts 12, 14 and 15 — higher terrain sometimes isn’t opening until noon.

“What happens is locals come up and ski Chair 9 and Chair 6, and then all of a sudden chairs 12 and 14 open and that whole group — several thousand people — move in that direction in the same 15 minutes,” Jensen said. “Our lift capacity isn’t capable of moving that many people in a short timeframe.”

While he realizes that the Epic Pass is taking criticism for longer lift lines, Jensen added that the numbers don’t back that claim.

“Last Saturday we had 3,200 season pass skiers on the mountain, representing 50 percent of our skier visits that day,” Jensen said. “And 500 Epic Pass skiers, representing only eight percent of skier visits that day.”

Of the 10 or 12 busiest days this season, Jensen said, Epic users were not a factor in skier counts.

“The factor is and will continue to be our season passholders skiing in an incredibly good snow year,” Jensen said. “And I couldn’t be happier for them.”

When compared to the 2015-16 ski season — a strong snow season without the Epic or Mountain Collective (MC) passes, but still with the highest number of passholders — current skier numbers are up less than one percent.

Jensen explained that Telski joined the MC Pass program from 2016-18 as a trial to attract people to the resort in hopes that they would return. He said the average skier use under the MC Pass was 2.2 days.

“I didn’t feel that there was any economic benefit to the community,” Jensen said. “What we’re seeing now with Epic is a higher household income demographic and a stronger financial benefit to Telski and the community because guests are flying in and staying four, five, six nights and they’re spending more dollars in the community.”

“We’re a town that, in the winter, struggles to maintain a 50 percent occupancy number,” he added. “And as these people fly in from out of state, Telluride Express benefits, the air program benefits and the lodging community benefits.”

Michael Martelon, president and CEO of the Telluride Tourism Board, believes “Mother Nature’s generosity” has made more of an impact on winter tourism than the Epic Pass. The average length of stay, he said, affects average spend, and both are up as are mid-week occupancies. 

“Are there Epic Pass-holders on the mountain? Certainly,” Martelon said. “But with the embarrassment of riches blanketing the San Juans, we’re enjoying a ski season that looks to be a benchmark for us. The Epic did what the resort claimed it would: Had a positive impact reversing shorter stays, introduced Telluride to a new marketing footprint, increased average spend and in turn, produced more employment opportunities and pushed sales tax up for both towns.”

Matt Skinner, COO of Telluride’s Colorado Flights Alliance, said that the number of passengers flying into Montrose and Telluride airports is up 10 percent over last winter, which he anticipates will make for the largest year yet for air traffic.  

“With the additional length of stay on these passholders and potential incremental visits, it does appear that the Epic Pass is contributing to destination visitation this winter,” Skinner said.

As for the locals’ benefit from the Epic Pass, Jensen pointed out that season passholders enjoy 50 percent off tickets at Vail Resorts and Telski employees get $50 lift tickets at the same resorts.

In order to avoid crowding, Jensen said that Telski deliberately “fenced” passholders who could come to Telluride.

“We were very cautious in our agreement on Epic to only accept the full Epic product,” Jensen said. “Jackson Hole, for example, did not fence their Ikon Pass product. You can buy the cheapest Ikon Pass and be able to ski a limited number of days at Jackson Hole and Big Sky. With the Epic Pass, you have to buy the most expensive pass to get seven days.”

Earlier this month Vail Resorts announced that it will offer an Epic for Everyone option that spans one to seven days. Jensen said that Telski, along with the other partner resorts, have declined the option and will allow only Epic Pass, Epic seven-day and Epic four-day passholders in their Epic agreements.  

Jensen said that Telski signed with Vail Resorts to offer seven visits for full Epic Pass-holders in a multi-year agreement.

“And we’re committed to that,” he said.