The Slippery Slope: Jacobin and Downhill Skiing

Image by Stanley Cheung.

Jacobin is a publication that is described by those responsible for it as “a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.”

Would you expect those responsible for what Jacobin publishes to include an article with the title Nationalize the Ski Slopes (which is referring to downhill ski resorts) calling for “powder to the people” by a writer who sees himself as “exploring and explaining socialism with simple words and real examples” as being anything other than a joke?

Unless I am missing something, this is a serious article. Its author, Joe Mayall, champions what turns out to be a proposed state capitalist reform to supposedly make downhill ski resorts more accessible to those lacking resources so they can enjoy an activity that he writes “has become a luxury exclusive to the elite.”

The Problem–Capitalism

Mayall’s analysis of ski areas includes common and justifiable criticisms of capitalism. He finds that the biggest problems with them are “driven by the interests of massive for-profit ski resort corporations” that “are quickly snapping up resorts and securing partnerships in billion-dollar deals.” He criticizes these companies for existing “solely to make a profit” and not for facilitating “the enjoyment of outdoor sports or appreciation of nature.” This results in the likely increase in ski-lift prices, rapidly rising “cost of living in… towns” close to ski areas, and the presence of “more wealthy tourists.”

Mayall also cites many other problems with U.S. ski resorts—the lack of diversity among their patrons; the high prices making the activity inaccessible to “ordinary” people “with a free weekend and a little dough;” and overcrowding (resulting in long lift lines as if they are a recent problem).

He notes that since there are “over 73,301 mountains in the United States,” they “are not a scarce commodity” and could, with “public money and initiative,” be utilized to “create new resorts” as a means to make them more accessible to more people. Additionally, “the public enjoyment of them will offer a quick return on investment.” A quick return on an investment in a commodity—doesn’t that mean that the new resorts will be profitable? Wouldn’t that be achieved by paying workers poorly and by ripping down a bunch of trees to create ski runs, to install ski lifts, and to build lodges? How is this a socialist vision?

Diversity at Resorts

Mayall notes that 87.5% of the customers at U.S. ski resorts are white. What he doesn’t cite is that in the good old days, it was an even more white dominant sport—perhaps reminding one of “inclusive” sports like polo and racing yachts.

I recently spent three days at Palisades Tahoe (formerly Squaw Valley, home of the 1960 Olympics) located in racially diverse California and saw only one person on the slopes who I assume would identify herself as Black. Over many years, I have been seeing a more diverse population at resorts, but many of the people of color present are low-paid workers providing food and housekeeping services. Presumably, most do not ski.

People in the working class who engage in downhill skiing or snowboarding tend to be “ski bums,” or those who grew up in the communities that are located close to resorts and who still have access to housing.

Mayall bemoans the increasing expense of the sport as if its lack of affordability is a recent phenomenon. He cites the cost of a single day lift ticket at Vail, one of the more economically exclusive resorts, as $275. He is right about the high costs of lift tickets. However, he does not adequately discuss how many skiers do not buy single day lift tickets. They own passes that pay for themselves after being used just a few days.[2]

Author’s Alternative

Mayall states that the “problem caused by the profit motive of resort owners can be resolved by its removal.” As indicated in the beginning of his article, “Ski resorts should be public facilities available to all, not expensive luxuries for the wealthy few.”

He discusses the resort Cannon, “own and operated by the state of New Hampshire for close to a century,” as “a model.”[3] He indicates that lift tickets at Cannon “start at $99” as compared to nearby Stowe’s $160. For a single person, the costs for a day of skiing would be the $99 plus the cost to rent equipment and a helmet, if not owned, which at Cannon is $57. Then there are the costs of transportation to get to the area, perhaps more money to pay for a place to stay and what could be the need to pay for ski lessons. For a family of four, one is looking at spending hundreds of dollars for one day of skiing in a country in which, in 2019 before the pandemic, according to the Federal Reserve Board, 40% of American adults, as summarized in a news report, “wouldn’t be able to cover a $400 emergency with cash, savings or a credit-card charge that they could quickly pay off.”

To see a resort with lift tickets of $99 as a model of affordability that enables “Americans of all classes and races to enjoy snow sports” might require one to engage in what a former “intellectually gifted” president, daddy Bush’s little boy, called “fuzzy math.”

Another issue of concern for Mayall is overcrowding at existing resorts. “Ski mountains are so crowded that they border on unusable” to a point where “it is not uncommon for skiers to spend the majority of their $275 day waiting in a lift line.” If action is taken to nationalize ski resorts so that their utilization is more affordable, won’t the over-crowded conditions get even worse? The solution he appears to offer is to tear up more mountains for the purpose of building more resorts which is not exactly great for the environment, and/or to limit the number of lift tickets sold, something done at Cannon. Limiting ticket sales could result in resorts being less accessible and, perhaps, lift tickets being scalped.

What is troubling about Mayall’s socialist perspective is he does not write one word about empowering workers at resorts nor on the negative impact ski resorts and their operation have on the environment. The supposedly “socialist perspective” expressed in Mayall’s article, if acted upon, would likely be more harmful than beneficial.

1. Confession: I have been a passionate downhill skier since I was a youngster.

2. Not necessarily important: Mayall inadequately covers the current costs of season ticket passes and equipment. I have a basic IKON pass that allows me to ski in many areas throughout the world. It cost a bit over $700. Were I to use my pass to ski four days at the full price at Palisades Tahoe, I will have saved money.

Given the increases in the cost of living, for the time being, ski passes are cheap. I ski bummed at Heavenly Valley in the winter of 1973-74. A day pass then was around $7. My season pass cost $250—a lot of money given that the minimum wage in California was a $1.65 rising to $2/hour starting in March 1974–and the pass could only be used at this one ski area. Like the IKON pass, I could not use it to ski on holidays. However, unlike the Heavenly pass, the IKON pass allows one to ski on weekends.

Equipment is also relatively much cheaper. Back in the early 1970s, top of the line boots and skis were about $200 each. Today, you can get decent equipment, presumably of better quality, for around $1,200. Hence, increases in the cost of passes and equipment have recently lagged far behind the rate of inflation.

3. The names of two runs at Cannon are Go Green Glade and Global Warming Glade. That might, but shouldn’t, make one feel warm and fuzzy about the impact a ski area has on the environment. See trail map

I was expecting Mayall’s article to be a call for people who ski downhill to switch to more environmentally friendly activities such as cross-country skiing, a much more affordable sport that many people can do without having to travel.

Rick Baum teaches Political Science at City College of San Francisco. He is a member of AFT 2121.