When Winter Park first slashed its season pass price from $600 to $198 in 1999, industry analysts dismissed the move as ill-advised. Well, looks like the low-ball strategy has staying power: Three years later, the cost of skiing at Colorado's Front Range slopes has dropped to levels not seen since the hot-dog era (Vail now offers its Colorado Pass for just $319), and the trend has kicked off a nationwide price war that shows no sign of letting up. Last year California resorts opened up a western front. In addition to Mammoth Mountain's $399 Value Pass, Heavenly Ski Resort launched its Ultimate Pass for $299, and Sugar Bowl and Kirkwood joined forces to provide the Sugar-Wood pass, granting skiers access to both resorts for just $399.
Plenty of skiers, particularly day-trippers living in San Francisco and Denver, are taking the bait. Mammoth's pass sold out in just 27 days. "It's the Home Shopping Network mentality, says Winter Park spokeswoman Joan Christensen. "Buy that emerald necklace now before it's too late. Critics, however, insist that the cheap passes result in crowded slopes and cause ski-road traffic to grind to a halt. The I-70 corridor, which connects Denver to Colorado's Summit County resorts, is already notorious for stop-and-go Sunday-afternoon congestion. Now Californians heading out on I-80 from the Bay Area to the Sierra could find themselves awash in gridlock.
"When you start to go down the Wal-Mart road, says Eric Brandt, marketing director for Squaw Valley, where the peak-season pass still costs a cool $1,599, "the backlash can be severe. Few resorts seem concerned. This winter the American Skiing Company, which for years has railed against discounted passes, is offering an unlimited pass for both Sunday River and Attitash Bear Peak for just $599. Don't expect a cease-fire any time soon.