Which is the best ski resort in the western United States? I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately because my girlfriend Emilie and I are about to go on a ski and snowboard tour to try and answer it.
On the surface that may seem easy, but it’s not. The question is actually quite complex.
First, we have to figure out what makes a hill great. There are so many things to consider. It’s not just a question of vertical feet and inches of snow. What about the food? How about the bar that you hang out in at the end of the day and the band that’s playing? How friendly are the other people there? How close is it to the airport? How fun is the town?
Off-hill activities are just as important to a good ski trip as the ski resort itself.
Author and statistics-fetishist Christopher Steiner has tried to make the be-all end-all toplist of US ski resorts. He’s created a scale called the Pure Awesomeness Factor, which he calls “the most honed algorithms ever unleashed on the ski world.” He released his top ten list earlier this week.
Skiing and snowboarding are intensely personal experiences. So many intangible factors come together to create the experience. How do you quantify the awesomeness of the natural hot springs that you discovered just down the road from the hill, the local guy who took you to his secret powder stash, or the band in the lounge that played your favourite songs one after the next?
I don’t think it’s possible.
In fact, it’s well documented that statistical studies are a poor tool for measuring emotional experiences. I know this because I have an honours degree in Sociology and took honours classes in both statistics and qualitative research methods. Although statistics are good for measuring certain attributes of a subject, they do so in a very shallow way.
Take, for example, the ranking of ski resort convenience. Driving from the Vancouver Airport to Whistler/Blackcomb takes about 2 – 2.5 hours. Driving from Kamloops Airport to Revelstoke takes just slightly longer. So, I would assume that, as far as travel convenience is concerned, the PAF scale would rank these two hills more or less equally. However, the road to Whistler/Blackcomb is a busy highway that goes through the city of Vancouver. In contrast, the drive to Revelstoke follows a small secondary highway through pristine BC Rockies. When considering the distance from the nearest airport to the ski resort, PAF can only consider the length of the drive. It can’t, however, take into account its beauty.
Statistics are good for comparing quantities not qualities. Gauging the awesomeness of a ski resort, however, is all about measuring quality.
Also, statistical methods can only compare apples to apples. What about comparing the unique qualities of each resort that none others have? Just down the road from Powder Mountain in Utah is a free natural hot spring fifty feet off the side of the highway. Whitewater in British Columbia is laid out in such a way that no matter how far back in the parking lot you parked, you can ski right to your car. Snowboarders in Fernie, British Columbia are known to occasionally engage in naked picnic table beersliding — which is just as much fun to watch as it sounds. How does one quantify and compare these characteristics that are unique to only one hill, yet greatly affect visitors experiences?
It can’t be done.
Statistics are scientific. The things that people like are not. They’re emotional. Using statistics to measure an emotional experience is using a measuring cup to determine the amount of steam in a sauna.
The tool is simply not made to encompass the subject.
So, Emilie and I are taking the opposite approach. We’re using a social research methodology based on the grounded theory method. We’re touring to the best ski resorts in the western US. We’re going to talk to locals and visitors at each resort to find out what makes that resort special to them. We’re not starting our research with a list of categories of things that make a ski hill good. We’re going to ask the people that know each hill best what makes that resort awesome, and build our list from the ground up.
Survery-takers, statisticians, and ‘experts’ want to tell you what’s important about a resort. We think that’s bullshit. Thea toplist is supposed to represent what people like, so those people should be involved in its creation.
We want you to tell us what’s important.
Then, we’re going to share what you and other locals tell us about your hometown resort and show off the resort and town in photos, articles, and videos. Using that information, we want you to help us decide which hill deserves to be called the Best in the West.
This is not going to be a top list created by magazine editors or number crunchers. This is going to be a list of the best resorts in the West created by the people and for the people.
When I say people, I’m mean you.
We need you to help us.
Within the week we’ll be posting a survey. Come back and take it this winter.
We also need to meet and talk to you. Over the next two months we’ll be in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and California (we’ll have a full itinerary posted this week as well). If you’re in one of those states, get in touch with us on Twitter or Facebook, so we can meet you on the slopes, or in town for a coffee or beer.
As an added incentive, we have lots of sweet ski swag to give away to people we meet, and will enter you in a contest to win $2500 worth of Eddie Bauer First Ascent gear.
Maybe you can show us your hidden powder stash, take us to that hidden hotspring off the side of the highway, or, if we get few drinks in us, go naked picnic table beersliding.
We can’t wait! Send us a message now!