Sometime late last year, a few extra airline miles traded for a magazine subscription made me stumble across Outside Magazine. I had, amazingly, not heard of the magazine before, but the description sounded very much up my alley: outdoor and adventure enthusiasm intermingled with environmental issues and jawdropping tales of woe. When the very first issue arrived in October of 2015, a footnote about the Mountain Collective Pass made me pause. The skiing pass cost $369 and included free entry for two full days to ten ski resorts in North America (and four more elsewhere) for the 2015/2016 season. Any additional days were 50% off the regular price. Man, doesn’t that sound like a pretty good deal?
All in all the roster included in North America:
- Alta/Snowird (UT)
- Aspen/Snowmass (CO)
- Jackson Hole (WY)
- Mammoth (CA) (new in 2015!)
- Ski Banff/Lake Louise/Sunshine (AB)
- Squaw Valley/ Alpine Meadows (CA)
- Stowe (VT)
- Sun Valley (ID)
- Taos (NM) (new in 2015!)
- and Whistler/Blackcomb (BC)
- Thredbo (Australia)
- Chamonix (France)
- Hakuba Valley (Japan)
- and Valle Nevado (Chile)
And so my boyfriend and I soon opened our eyes in wonder and anticipated excitement about the possibilities of an epic ski winter.
It so happened that we had already purchased tickets to fly to LA over Thanksgiving weekend with open plans to either hike or ski – #OptOutside was the main agenda. We also knew we wanted to go back to one of our favorite places in the US – Taos, NM – over the Christmas and New Year’s break. In short, it seemed as if two resorts had been added just for us that season. We could ski Mammoth in November and Taos in December and the pass was already more than worth its purchase price. No way we were going to let this one go by!
Planning the trip
True to our tried and tested analytic and rational mindsets, we started planning the trip – spreadsheets, google maps and flights and all. How could we do this as cheaply, time efficiently and fun as possible? It soon emerged that van camping was the only way to go: All season campgrounds could be found almost everywhere and were much cheaper than most accommodation especially in some of them fancy resorts like Aspen or Park City. Also, a van promised to be a tad more comfortable in snow than our tent (yes, we are sissies like that…).
All we needed to do was find a cheap old camper van to serve us for the season that could potentially be sold again afterwards. We ended up with Bruce, a 1991 Chevy G20 Sport Van bought on Craigslist from the friendliest old couple in Benton Harbor, MI. We soon grew to simultaneously adore and dislike his many quirks – his tranquil maximum speed of 60 mph, his instability in high winds, his friendly face getting us welcoming smiles and instant in-crowd cred in so many places, his doors that, no matter how hard you slam them shut, never close tight enough to keep out the mountain freeze, his various thoughtful little storage places, and all the nooks and holders that started falling off more or less the minute we left Benton Harbor. In short, a true character gem turned perfect travel companion and ideal cost efficient mode of transport and accommodation.
Our trip across the west
We started at Mammoth Mountain just after Thanksgiving 2015 for four days flying from Chicago to LA and driving to Mammoth Mountain, CA. For this trip we rented a Lost Camper van named Gracie because we wanted to give this winter camping thing a try before committing to it full on.
After the weekend on Monday and our way back to LA we stopped at Bristlecone Pine National Forest for a hike among the oldest living things on earth. Bonus: we had the place all to ourselves maiking it a very worthy round up to a true outdoor Thanksgiving weekend!
The day after Christmas we left a family party – not without aunts, uncles, grandma, and cousins all do the uh-and-ah about the newest addition to the family, Bruce – heading west into the night to start the first leg of our journey: From Chicago to Taos. We traveled the flat and unexciting mid-west through Illinois, Missouri and Kansas until we saw the first mountains in Colorado. And, finally, after sleeping at a rest stop and Walmart parking lot along the way we arrived in Taos two days later.
Btw, Allstays is a great app to find modes of camping all across the US, from Walmarts and rest stops, national forest primitive camping, to official RV and campgrounds complete with recommendations, ratings, and tips.
We skied our beloved laid-back Taos Ski Valley on Dec 29th and Dec 30th.
From there we headed to Aspen/Snowmass on the 31st. On New Year’s Eve we wandered its cold but very festive streets among the rich and famous. We even scored a table at one of the best little gastro pubs in town for dinner. Tired from the long trip and eager to be up at dawn for Aspen’s legendary runs on the new year’s first day, we decided to skip the fireworks for an early (and positively ridiculously freezing at -7 Fahrenheit in a bloody van… ) night.
We did not regret it. The first on the slopes at 9am on New Years Day 2016, we had the mountain all to ourselves for 2 hours before the first hung-over partygoers slowly started to trickle in. We skied Aspen Mountain that day and headed to Snowmass on Jan 2nd in brilliant chilling sunshine enjoying every minute of the two resorts’ awesome groomers and varied terrain. A favorite was definitely the Long Shot Backcountry run at Snowmass.
That evening we left Snowmass heading to Rifle, CO for the night. The little town is known for its exceedingly liberal gun culture. In the spirit of things, we had dinner at Shooter’s Grill where all waitresses proudly open-carry while serving (pretty good!) all day breakfast. An interesting experience to say the least, especially for a greenhorn like me…
On Jan 3rd, we drove to Salt Lake City. Stopping at Dinosaur National Monument to look at its amazing collection of ancient bones that we pretty much (again) had to ourselves.
We also decided to make this new year one full of national parks and purchased our very first Interagency Annual Pass right there (and boy, have we used it…but that’s another post, yet to be written). Putting Bruce into storage near the airport in Salt Lake City, we flew out on a red eye back to Chicago to end this second leg of our trip.
We had to wait until February to continue the journey. This time it was full on vacation time and a week to spend in the mountains. So we met up with Bruce in Salt Lake City on Feb 13th. The next day we skied Alta and then Snowbird for a half-day. Overall, we weren’t overly impressed with either resort this time even though we had skied there before and liked it. The snow was hard and the slopes fairly crowded. So we weren’t too upset about having to press on early that second day. We had our mind set on Jackson Hole and did not want to miss any of that!
There are no year-round campgrounds in Jackson, WY (surprise?), so we stayed in an overheated but clean Motel 6. We skied Jackson Hole on 02/16 and 02/17 in oddly mild temperatures, but had a blast on the challenging terrain. Particularly so at Rendezvous Mountain where you can pick your poison of black, black diamond or double black diamond to get back down. For us, and as the cherry on top, in white-out conditions. We lived to tell the tale…
We only skied half of our second day because we were headed to Sun Valley, ID next. It was a gorgeous drive past the Craters of the Moon National Monument. In Ketchum we stayed in a fantastic Tree House found on Airbnb and run by a lovely couple because, why the heck wouldn’t you stay in a Treehouse if given the chance?!
We also fell in love with this great gastro pub and its cauliflower bites!
We had planned on skiing Feb 18th and 19th in Sun Valley, but when we woke up that first morning to the loud splashing of rain, we decided to instead explore what other options Ketchum and Sun Valley had to offer. We spent the day in an array of lovely coffee shops and ended up starting to plan our future. When the rain finally turned into snow in the afternoon we even took a nice walk around the outskirts of town.
The next day we very much enjoyed skiing the immensely relaxed, empty and friendly Sun Valley resort. Afterwards we drove to Mountain Home, ID to get a head start for our long (but beautiful!) trek to Seattle the next day.
And this is where we ended up. Parking Bruce again in storage, we headed back to Chicago and did not return until April. Our initial plan was to hit Whistler on one of the last weekends of the season then, but life happened and we started to make those grand plans first forged on a rainy day in Idaho a realty. But that is another tale to tell…
And the verdict?
All in all we drove 3,175 miles in Bruce, passing through ten states (plus CA by plane), and took three round trip flights to LA, Salt Lake City and Seattle, taking a total of twenty days to ski seven of the ten North American resorts included in the pass during the 2015/2016 season. Every road and airline mile was oh so worth it!
So the verdict is: The Mountain Collective pass is simply awesome! I would recommend it to everyone with a little bit of flexible winter time and lots of imagination to make the most of what the pass has to offer. It leads you to and past a lot of (sometimes hidden) gems of the west and you never have to worry about paying premiums for skiing. It’s great value for money, especially if you are planning on skiing the luxury resorts of Aspen or Jackson Hole where day passes cost up to $159.
New in 2016/2017 for the pass in North America are Revelstoke (BC), Telluride (CO), and Stowe (VT) for the (still) pretty awesome price of $419.
So we’re doing it again this season! Bruce continues to live in Seattle and we are excited to take him out again to breathe in the mountain air. Our mind is set on starting in Whistler, BC…