On Thursday, Alterra Mountain Company, the new Denver, Colorado-based company that owns more than a dozen ski resorts around the country, announced it’d be bringing yet another ski area onto its roster: Washington’s Crystal Mountain Resort. Crystal is now part of the new-for-this-winter Ikon Pass, a collective pass with full access to all Alterra-owned resorts and limited access to even more world-class resorts.
The $999 Ikon Pass works at ski resorts like Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, Mammoth, Winter Park, Steamboat, Snowbird, Aspen and Deer Valley. In June, Alterra announced it was acquiring Utah’s Solitude Mountain, and in late August, the company established partnerships and pass access to Utah’s Brighton Resort, New Mexico’s Taos Ski Valley, Washington’s The Summit at Snoqualmie, British Columbia’s Cypress Mountain, Maine’s Sunday River and Sugarloaf, New Hampshire’s Loon Mountain and Michigan’s Boyne Mountain. The total count, as of now? The Ikon Pass gets you lift access at 35 resorts in North America, Australia and Japan, including 13 Alterra Mountain Company destinations and 22 partner resorts.
But what’s perhaps most interesting about this latest deal is that Crystal Mountain had just sold a little over a year ago to its current owner, John Kircher, who bought the mountain in 2017 from Boyne Resorts, the Michigan-based company owned by his family. John, 60, has worked in the ski industry his entire life: He got his start at Boyne Mountain in Michigan and became general manager of Boyne-owned Big Sky Resort in Montana in 1980. He handled Boyne’s acquisition of Crystal Mountain in 1997, becoming the resort’s president and CEO.
On a phone call with the Co-op Journal this week, Kircher said that prior to 2017 he’d been trying to buy Crystal from his family’s business for about 10 years. “I always thought it would be better to own 100 percent of something smaller than 35 percent of a larger company and be in control of your own decisions,” he said.
In April 2017, on the heels of major consolidation in the ski industry, including the first mergers that would later form Alterra Mountain Company, Kircher bought Crystal and said in a press release, “The fact that Crystal Mountain is now a locally owned and owner-managed ski operation runs totally counter to the corporatizing trends in the ski business. The number of large resorts that are locally owned and managed can be counted on maybe one hand.”
So what changed? Why a year later did Kircher suddenly decide to sell and become part of that trend? One major thing happened: In June, Vail Resorts bought Stevens Pass, Washington, a direct competitor to Crystal Mountain, making Stevens Pass part of Vail’s collective Epic Pass. “My plan was to own this mountain long-term, to the end of my career and keep it as a family business,” he said this week. “But that changed with Vail getting involved in Stevens Pass. The Epic and Ikon passes have become much more of a factor in the business than I ever imagined. The companies that offer these multi-resort offerings are at a major advantage.”
Kircher said when he imagined Seattle-area locals or destination travelers choosing between Crystal and Stevens, Crystal now wouldn’t be able to compete, since it wasn’t on a collective pass. Whereas, Stevens now shares access with all 14 Vail-owned resorts. “If you own a large-to-midsize ski area that’s not on a collective pass, that’s a problem,” he said.
So in mid-June of this year, he started talking to Alterra Mountain Company about selling. And he began long, tough discussions with his family—his wife, Kim Kircher, has been a Crystal Mountain ski patroller for 30 years and has served as the mountain’s patrol director for the past two years, and his 26-year-old son, Andrew Kircher, has been Crystal’s assistant general manager for the past year. “Our family was not on the same page,” John Kircher admitted. “We added a lot of pros and cons together.”
“I definitely had to warm up to the idea,” said Kim Kircher. “We had many, many family talks, and I was the hardest one to convince. At first I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything or being anywhere else. But I’ve had the blessing of travel to remind me that it’s a great big world out there. I also know that Crystal will remain my home resort.”
Ultimately, they knew Crystal would be in good hands with Alterra. “I’m genuinely excited about this for Crystal. Alterra has the capital to keep Crystal growing. They’ll be able to build out the master plan quite a bit faster than we can,” John Kircher said.
The sale of Crystal Mountain, which sold at an undisclosed price, will close September 30. The Kirchers will walk away from mountain operations at that point—a move they both said brings very mixed emotions—but they’re hardly leaving the mountain for good. “We’re going to show up and ski a lot,” John Kircher said. “I’m going to ski Crystal without a phone pressed to one ear and I couldn’t be happier about that.”
Added Kim Kircher, “I’m excited to enjoy this place for what it is. Hopefully I won’t be reflexively searching for a stick of bamboo every time I see a rock poking out of the snow. Instead I’ll be the one waiting at the bottom of Chair 6 on a powder day wondering when Southback is going to open.”