Who needs a lift ticket? Poaching a day at a ski resort

Although lift tickets at Vail are now back down to a so-affordable $94, this season was the year of the $100 lift ticket in Colorado — Vail and Beaver Creek both had $102 single-day ticket prices just before Christmas. I was grumbling about lift ticket prices a couple years ago, and decided to do a little experiment for a story in the Mountain Gazette: I would see how many vertical feet I could ski in one day at Vail without using any lifts, and return a week later and see how many vertical feet I could ski using one of those $92 lift tickets.

The comparison was not completely futile. But as you might imagine, I was able to ski a few more feet using Vail’s ski lifts. Is it legal to hike up terrain at a ski resort on Forest Service land? Kind of.

How much is that $92 lift ticket worth? Weighing the poach or pay question

Poaching Vail
Any thrifty Denver skier or snowboarder will tell you buying a single-day lift ticket at Vail is about the dumbest thing you can do. It’s the most expensive ticket in Colorado at $92, and you can expect to pay about $20 for parking, and at least $25 in gas. There are many cheaper options — the $479 Colorado Pass gets you 10 days at Vail, or there are multiday deals, or tickets (and even season passes) on Craigslist or eBay.

But what’s even dumber is taking pair of snowshoes and hiking the mountain. I was doing exactly that this January when a mountain host named Chip stopped to say, “you’re wasting a lot of energy, you know.”

We were about a third of the way up, on Riva Ridge. My associate, Sara, was stopping to pee in the middle of the traffic-free slop, tele skis still buckled on. In full sweat, with water, backpacks and gear to ascend, we were well aware of the effort thing.

Chip added, “I’ll be impressed if you’re down by close.”

Thanks, Chip. Time for you to go.

It did have to seem stupid, but the whole idea was to see how much Vail we could get without paying for any. To us, that $92 lift ticket costs an entire day of slaving away in some cubicle — a one-for-one exchange for freedom where the cubicle-to-freedom ratio is almost always 5 to 2. We wanted to “stick it to The Man” — any man — and get at least one day for free.

But could Vail kick us off the mountain for going “the wrong way”? Probably. Vail spokeswoman Jen Brown said hiking up Vail Mountain is technically legal since the resort is on National Forest land, but definitely not encouraged because of safety concerns. Colorado Ski Country USA spokesman Nick Bohnenkamp said ski resorts “provide access to National Forest land, but access with restrictions.”

Not many people would be dumb enough to try it anyway. Starting at 8,200 feet, we had to stop at Mid-Vail after 2,000 feet of climbing to rest and refuel. We made it to the 11,250-foot summit (3,050 feet in all) at 2:20 p.m., a little over an hour before the lifts closed. Somebody on the Mountaintop Express lift greeted our accomplishment with, “You idiot, buy a lift ticket.”

We also got a couple of celebratory whoops and a guy in his mid-50s nodded and gave us the thumbs-up as Sara and I high-fived.

How was the free ride? We took catwalks all the way down to appease our screaming thighs.

Paying at Vail
I returned two days later to establish a value for this $92 lift ticket. $92 gets you unlimited skiing between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. at Vail. To many folks, that includes getting a chair at 9:30 or 10, taking a couple of runs, stopping for lunch, maybe a beer, a couple more runs, another beer, then one last run down.

This is not the statistic I was looking for. I wanted to know how much value the working man, the proletariat, can squeeze out of $92. I found out by getting on the Vista Bahn Express at 8:28 a.m., then the Mountaintop Express Lift— 1,000 feet of rise in 4 minutes — to begin nearly seven straight hours of totally focused assembly-line snowboarding.

I chose greens and blues to conserve my energy for the long haul. After ten runs covering 10,000 vertical feet in two hours, I stopped for food and water. I was toast. Still, I made 13 more runs, with one 5-minute bathroom break, before close.

Going solo helped my effort tremendously. From the much-shorter singles line I rode the lift with people from Virginia, L.A., Boston, New Jersey, Dallas, England, Denver, Colorado Springs, Tennessee, three guys from Winona, Minn., where my brother used to tend the VFW bar in college, and some who didn’t want to talk at all. I rode a blue run called Christmas maybe 15 times.
Then, at 3:15 p.m., instead of going down Christmas one more time, I dropped down Riva Ridge, a black, knowing full well if I took blues or greens I’d get lazy and end up making a mistake that would land me in a tree and on the 9 o’clock news.

I rode Riva Ridge hard, breaking a sweat, all the way. At the top of the Gopher Hill Lift with a couple hundred feet to go, I sat in the middle of the slop and watched the masses taking their last green run home.


Start: 8:42 a.m.
Finish: 3:42 p.m.
Vertical feet skied: 3,050
Ski lift trips: 0
Cost: $0
Cost/vertical foot: $0
Cost/1,000 vertical feet of skiing: $0
Cost per ski lift ride: $0
Time to ascend from base: 5 hours, 38 minutes

Start: 8:28 a.m.
Finish: 3:36 p.m.
Vertical feet skied: 25,050
Ski lift trips: 24
Cost: $92
Cost/vertical foot: $.00367
Cost/1,000 vertical feet of skiing: $3.67
Cost per ski lift ride:
Time to ascend from base: 21 minutes?


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    • I’ve only been to vail once but last year when i went over spring break they only scanned at the base lifts on the front side (and never in the back bowls).

  • If you count $20 for parking and $25 for gas … That brings your “free day” to just under 68 vertical feet per dollar. and your lift day to just under 183 vertical feet per dollar. Needless to say you’re getting more than twice the value by paying for a lift ticket if you’re going to pay for the gas and parking… 😉

    Alternatively, hike to MidVail and ski upper mountain and back bowl lifts all day for free…

    • how long would the hike take to mid-vail, do you think? Which lift would one hike towards, Avanti Express?

  • I found this post years after the fact, and thought: “25k seems low. What’s really possible in a regular ski day at Vail?” Like you, I went solo to get through the lines and started doing laps on the new Vail One gondola, with trips up either Avanti (Lift 2) or the Mountaintop Express. I reached 40,000 vertical by 2 p.m., and then slowed it down, skiing a bowl or two and runs on Golden Peak. Total was 46k and change. I’m sure a stronger (and more disciplined) skier could do 55k or more.

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