Ask the average skier what he or she loves about the state of modern resorts, and the likely answer will be "amenities." High-speed quads, tasty microbrews, and monster snowmaking systems are practically the norm these days-and when you crunch the numbers, they're usually worth the price of a lift ticket. But, over the last decade, a small but growing bunch of Lilliputian ski hills has been updating lifts and gaining cult status by keeping overhead low-and the purity of experience high.
Call them co-ops, community ski hills, or alternatively operated areas. No matter. They're each baked from a few common ingredients: palpable desperation (in 1975 there were 745 ski areas, today there are only 568), a dose of socialism, and a love for hard-boiled skiing. At Mad River Glen, Vermont, for example, 1,700 shareholders vote on everything from snowmaking (no), to snowboarders (nope), to updating the original 1947 single chair that limits skier capacity to 450 per hour (not on your life). The theory holds that money can buy creature comforts, but it tends to attract unwanted crowds. "We don't want snowmaking or expansion," says Deri Meier, a UVM business professor and MRG co-op member. "We're not for everyone, and we don't want to be."
Elsewhere, volunteers and members run the show and ski for rock-bottom prices in exchange for a rough-hewn experience. At tiny Turner Mountain in Libby, Montana, a "community barn raising" in 2000 finally resulted in the replacement of a mile-long T-bar with a new double chair. Near Anchorage, Alaska, locals can become owner-operators of Alpenglow at Arctic Valley by ponying up $1,500. (The upshot? You're essentially skiing with a handful of fellow owners. The downsides? Weekend and holiday skiing only, three aging double chairs, and hand-me-down T-bar equipment from Vail.) And at Mt. Eyak, a community-run hill that's subsidized by the town of Cordova, Alaska, the general manager will fire up the single chair (a donation from Sun Valley) any time his volunteers want midweek access to the glacier-riddled Chugach mountains.
If the business model sounds like a utopian pipe dream, you're not alone. Many experts posit that to achieve "resort maturity," you need condos and high-end snowmaking facilities. "Less-mature resorts may do great business on weekends," says Stephen Forgacs of Intrawest, one of the resort business's three publicly traded giants (the other two are Vail Resorts and the American Skiing Company). "But if they can't attract midweek destination skiers, how can they pay infrastructure costs?"
The short answer is to scale way back on infrastructure. MRG has managed to clear $135,000 six of the last eight years by way of old-fashioned tight-fistedness. Which isn't to say you have to ski hand-to-mouth forever. Bridger Bowl-the birthplace of the extreme-skiing movement and a state-subsidized operation in western Montana-is currently debt-free and has plans for a new 40,000-square-foot base lodge, complete with employee housing and day care. The price to members? Twenty-five dollars a year, and thirty bucks per lift ticket (compare that to $59 at nearby Big Sky). "If you're a hardcore skier, you're not looking for a fancy scene," says Bridger local Bill Buchbauer. "What you want is an attitude-free, down-to-earth culture, where everyone's just there to ski."